What Is Jazz? Revisited: A Millennial Look inside Pandora’s Box

Always one to open new areas of inquiry, searching out pristine topics glistening with intellectual dew, I recently posted this question on Facebook: "What is jazz?" Actually, one or two others before me may have given the subject some glancing bit of thought. I seem to recall blogging about it myself in the past. Wars may even have been fought over the matter. So maybe the question isn’t so novel after all. In fact, I'm quite certain it's not. Back in the nineteen seventies and early eighties, when I was studying music in college, the subject kept resurfacing with boring predictability in the letters section of Downbeat magazine. There’d be an article on some fusion band that had strayed from the sanctioned strictures of swing, bop, and tradition, and next month, you’d read one or two samples of the indignation felt by jazz purists. “THAT CRAP AIN’T JAZZ!” they'd opine helpfully. But their views would be countered by other letters from the Bold And Free who welcomed new trends and defended fresh approaches. At first such exchanges were interesting. But after a while, as the same thoughts kept recycling from both ends of the jazz/not-jazz spectrum, the argument got old and then irrelevant. After all, what did I care? I still loved rock music, something many jazz musicians of the time detested. And much as I wanted to excel as a jazz saxophonist, I sucked. So from a practical standpoint, I couldn’t relate to the vitriol behind the statement “That ain’t jazz!” In Light of Today Thirty-five years later, much has changed in music, to say nothing of the world at large. Between jazz and other musical genres, the lines have blurred to the extent that the term jazz has become almost meaningless. Perhaps the jazz police had a point after all, then, in trying to preserve a sense of definition for a word which, in coming to mean so many things to so many people, now means almost nothing at all. Though, is that really the case? I can still listen to Louis Armstrong or Charlie Parker and say, with confidence, “That’s jazz.” And I can get an earful on YouTube of my favorite classic rock bands, such as Jethro Tull and Pink Floyd, and say with equal conviction, “That ain’t jazz.” Great music, absolutely; improvisational, without question; but jazz, no. It doesn’t have to be jazz to be good. There’s a powerful lot of fantastic music in this world today, with superb musicians of many stripes bringing their influences and contributions to the table. And it is a table, an art table. It's not a melting pot. For all the kinds of music available to my ears today, I don’t hear homogeneity arising as a result of allowing different genres to interbreed. Instead I hear creative combinations; and for the many different forms, both pure and hybrid, and for their practitioners, I see an appreciation and respect that didn’t exist back in my college days. You can spend your emotional and intellectual energy defining the color blue, speaking out on its behalf and defending its sacredness. Ditto the color green, if you’re a lover of green; or red, if you’re of the red camp; or yellow, or purple, or what have you. Or you can take some of this color and some of that and some of those and make a painting. Why not? The days of jazz/not-jazz haven’t entirely disappeared, nor are they likely to. And that's not a bad thing. Conceptually, jazz does need a perimeter, fuzzy though it may be, if the word is to have meaning. But I think fewer people care to make it into a heated issue. So maybe now "What is jazz?" can simply be an honest question that merits interesting, insightful, and enjoyable discussion. In part 2 of this article, look for some of the different responses I received to my Facebook inquiry "What is jazz?" as well as some of my own thoughts on the matter. (To be continued.)

Tonalism: Some Things Don’t Change

If Western tonalistic music was inaugurated with the publication of Jean-Philippe Rameau's Treatise on Harmony in 1722--a commonly accepted date--then it has now been with us for nearly 300 years. It has been expressed in many different genres, from Baroque, to Classical, to jazz, Tin Pan Alley, and the blues. Yet no matter what garments it wears, no matter how it has been modified and expanded within various musical styles, the eight-tone major/minor scale system with its primarily dominant-tonic harmony has been the underpinning of virtually all popular music. I don't see that changing anytime soon. Not that it needs to; I just can't fathom how it could do so in any meaningful way. Note the word meaningful. Modern composers have long experimented with alternatives to traditional harmony. It's just that you don't find most Americans or Europeans whistling Schoenberg or Indian ragas as they stroll down the sidewalk. And while the rise of "world music" (whatever exactly that is) has awakened at least some Western ears to other possibilities, it can't match the extent to which Western tonalism has influenced other cultures. I mean, you tell me the difference between Mexican banda music and polka, other than the language. And more contemporarily, popular artists in Asian and Eastern cultures have been founding their careers on the major/minor scale system while preserving distinctive musical elements of their own cultures and languages. (Don't ask me to name any of these artists; I just know what I've listened to on NPR!) I found myself thinking about the persistence and ubiquity of Western tonalism as I stood in church last Sunday listening to our worship team play. It struck me how the same tonal relationships not only have been repackaged a seemingly infinite number of times over the centuries, but also how, unless our culture somehow undergoes a complete musical sea change, those same relationships and harmonic formulae will continue to come at us in literally millions of new songs over the coming decades. That's not a bad thing. Rather, it's a necessary thing. We are steeped in tonalism, not just intellectually but also emotionally. Other approaches may intrigue us, particularly those of us who are jazz musicians and like to reach for different colors and fresh possibilities. But tonalism provides a gut-level sense of center that all of us innately desire, and a vocabulary by which we all can relate to the stories that melody tells. Tonalism is in some respects similar to a spoken language. Languages evolve, but they do so slowly and they do so around the edges. The core remains, must remain as a context for any changes to be understood. That's true of music. While we're free to experiment, yet the more abstract our experimentation gets, the more that it obscures the core, then the less likely it will be to speak meaningfully to the world at large. I'm all for creative exploration; I'm just pointing out that the average American who cut his or her teeth on Billy Ray Cyrus or Stevie Ray Vaughan isn't likely to stray far afield when it comes to listening habits. Most folks prefer stuff that's accessible, visceral, and familiar. While technology is racing along in seven league boots, other aspects of our world remain the same. Western tonalism may undergo cosmetic changes, but it still is what it is. It may get stretched, it may try on different clothes, but a flatted fifth will remain a flatted fifth by virtue of how it relates to the 12 tones of the chromatic scale. Why did I write about this topic? Because I'm struck not only by the enduring nature of tonalism, but also by our amazing penchant for personalizing it. You'd think we'd have exhausted the possibilities long ago, but uniqueness continues to drift like snowflakes out of the tonal ether. As I stand singing in church, the tune may be the beloved old hymn "Holy, Holy, Holy," written nearly 200 years ago, or it may be the recent creation of some contemporary Christian artist. Either way, the tonal foundation is the same. Two hundred years from now, if our Lord tarries and we humans haven't outright wiped ourselves out, the music we sing will probably still be tonal in its foundations. As with the wheel, zippers, and apple pie, there's just no need for some things to change.