What is Jazz?

Jazz almost defies definition. There are many types and styles of jazz and as we get further and further away from the beginnings of jazz, many elements fuse together to add to the confusion. Jazz was more of a separate entity years ago, but now we have jazz-rock, latin jazz, acid jazz, fusion and several others.

How jazz is defined depends on whom you talk to. Jazz has been called "Americaís Classical Music" and America's only true art form. The dictionary itself has several definitions ranging from those with very strict confines, to those that are more inclusive and general in nature. However, most agree on several points:

  1. It developed around the turn of the century.
  2. It was created mainly by Afro-Americans.
  3. It had elements of European and Afro-American culture.

The origin of the actual word is also in doubt. One popular story involves a somewhat inebriated customer in Chicago who, in a moment of excitement, leapt to his feet and shouted to the band, "Jass it up boys, jass it up." The story then goes that through a printerís error jass became jazz and the name stuck. Perhaps the best response to the question "What is Jazz" was provided by "Pops" himself, Louis Armstrong, who when asked that question said "If you donít know, donít mess with it."

Hopefully by the end of these lessons you will, at the very least have enough information to come to your own conclusion. However, I guarantee you that there are enough different styles, players and types to satisfy every musical taste.

Elements Of Jazz

Remember that jazz is basically a style of music and has a lot of the same characteristics as other music but also treats the basic elements of music in a unique way. The first element weíll talk about is jazz interpretation.

This is, simply put, the way a jazz player plays or treats a melody. Any melody can be played in a jazz fashion by putting a feeling of triplets behind the basic beat. In fact, one of the common practices of jazz players is to quote melodies from various sources in their solos, including classical pieces. By putting the triplet feeling in their playing, they are said to be "swinging" the melody. The triplet feeling is in direct contrast with the more common straight eighth note feel that is found in a large percentage of music. (At this point, to demonstrate the difference, have class establish a beat by tapping their feet and then have them clap two times per foot tap for the eighth note feel, and then three times per foot tap for the triplet feel. You can also do this with songs, scales, etc.) The class should notice that the triplet feel is much "looser" and has a "swinging feeling" when compared with the eighth note feeling. The ability to play in a swing style is of utmost importance to the jazz player. It is not the ONLY style that he needs to master , but it is a basic building block for the jazz musician.

Perhaps the most important and most difficult element to master (many, many players, in fact the great majority, spend their lives working and developing this aspect of their playing) is improvisation. Again, simply put, this is the jazz players ability to instantaneously compose, edit, revise and perform. It is the single, most important element by which jazz players are judged and by which they establish their claim to immortality. It is an incredibly complex procedure that encompasses every element of not only jazz but of music itself. It is what makes jazz, jazz. Again, jazz is not the only music to use improvisation, but it uses it to an extent far greater than any other style of music. Through improvisation, the individual player expresses himself/herself at that very moment. We will learn MUCH more about improvisation in future lessons.

As I stated, jazz uses the same musical elements as other types of music but in a manner that sets it apart from other musical styles. The next musical element to discuss is rhythm. In this area jazz distinguishes itself with a tremendous reliance on syncopation. Simply put, this is an accent or emphasis where you least expect it. It can happen on a part of a beat or a part of a measure. It gives the music life and provides a tremendous variety in the rhythm of a given piece. I might add that syncopation also occurs when nothing happens and you expect it to happen. ( Have the class establish a steady eighth note rhythm by clapping and accenting the first part of every beat, ONE,two, THREE ,four, etc. then just pick a number, in this case an even one, and accent it instead of the one before it i.e., ONE, two, three, FOUR, ETC.ETC. You can re-arrange the accents any way you want. When they get profecient at it, speed up the tempo for a true feeling of syncopation.)

One other aspect in this area is tempo. Of course we all know that tempo is another name for the speed of a piece of music. In jazz, more often than not, the tempo remains steady from the beginning of the piece to the end. No, this is not the only music where this occurs, but the tempo variations (ritards and accelerandos) that are part and parcel of many other types of music are not found in the majority of jazz performances.

Although any melody or piece can be played in a "jazz" style, there are two forms of music that improvisors return to time and time again. Those forms are the blues and the AABA tune. These two forms are favorites of both the beginning improvisor and the seasoned professional. The blues especially,. holds a special place in every jazz performers heart. It is a very stylized form that consists of 12 measures of music. There are blues that are 8 measures long and some that are 16 measures long, but the vast majority (I like to say 99 and 44 one hundreth percent ) are of the 12 measure variety. The blues is by far the easiest vehicle to improvise on. The most basic blues consists of only 3 chords and the improvisor needs to play only one scale,(the blues scale,more on this later) to sound good when he or she solos over the changes (chords). The blues is a separate entity in the history of jazz and some scholars keep it very separate when talking about jazz. We will be talking about the blues in depth in a future lesson.

The AABA tune is a form that many, many popular songs are based on. This form is quite a bit more complicated than the blues and takes a greater knowledge of theory, and a greater command of the instrument or voice to improvise satisfactorily. It consists of 4 phrases that are each 8 measures long. All the "A" phrases are the same with slight variations, usually at the end of the phrase, while the "B" phrase is different and serves as a bridge between the "A" phrases. A good example, and there are hundreds, is "The Christmas Song" , (Chestnuts Roasting On An Open Fire) by Mel Torme. Another one that I like to use because the students can relate to it is the theme from "The Flintstones". This form has many more chord changes than the blues which can be, in themselves, quite complicated.

Jazz vs Classical

There really is no contest between these two types of music, but in comparing them it allows us to see the different approaches to the music that define their individuality.

TONE: This is an element where perhaps the greatest difference lies. A classical instrumentalist or vocalist, in preparing a piece of music is guide by the composerís vision, or what he had in mind for the piece, but they are also held to a standard of tone(performance) that has been established by those who have gone before. In other words, if you listen to 12 recordings of the Haydn "Trumpet Concerto" they will basically all sound the same. The same holds true for a bass singing "The Trumpet Shall Sound" from Handelís "Messiah". Jazz performers are encouraged to find their "own sound". Yes they adhere to the basics of intoniation, tempo, etc. but to try and sound like someone else is a "no-no."

Along these same lines, jazz is more a playerís art and classical is more a composer's art. What I mean is that in classical music, for the most part, the performers are trying to re-create what the composer had in mind. Again, if you listened to 12 recordings of Beethovenís "Ninth Symphony" they would pretty much sound the same. Listen to 12 recordings of Duke Ellingtonís "In A Sentimental Mood" and even the melody would not be treated the same way by the individual players. This of course does not even take into account the improvisation that follows the playing of the melody. Individuality is encouraged, sought after, rewarded and absolutely necessary for the art of jazz to survive.

Another comparison that will be obvious to those who see a jazz concert is the lack of a standard "conductor". This fact has much to do with the tempo considerations I talked about and the role of the rhythm section that weíll discuss later.