If you’re reading this, it’s probably because you love jazz. Many of us know why we love jazz, even if we can’t always put it into words. Though we might be jazz fans for different reasons, most of us can relate to first discovering and falling in love with jazz music.
We won’t agree on the best jazz record or best jazz musician (and sometimes, we can’t even agree on what jazz is and isn’t). However, we are still a community with many shared values, and we agree that jazz is an important musical art form with as rich a tradition as classical music (or any music).
Since jazz is important to us, we should try to recognize what it is about jazz that makes it so infectious and enticing. In this article, we’ll discuss jazz music and try to answer the question, “What is jazz music?” The answer isn’t as straightforward as you might think.
This question raises more questions about jazz’s relevance, value, and meaning. It doesn’t matter if you’re a seasoned pro, a young musician just starting, or a passionate hobbyist – we all owe it to ourselves, to the music, and to others to ask some important questions:
- Why do we play jazz music?
- What makes jazz music special?
- What does jazz music represent?
- What do we want to take away from this music (emotionally, intellectually, spiritually, etc.)?
- How do we want our audiences to be changed, moved, inspired, or affected by our music?
In other words, what does jazz mean for us and society?
I can’t stress enough how important these concerns truly are.
If we don’t think about and at least attempt some meaningful answers to these questions, then why are we making this music in the first place?
Though I don’t claim to have the first or last word on the topic (and I certainly don’t have all of the answers), I want to try to tackle some of these issues in this post. I hope, at the very least, you’ll be inspired to think more deeply about the broader context, meaning, value, significance, and purpose of your music-making.
If you love thinking about big questions like these and want to join like-minded jazz musicians working toward being the best jazz players they can be, then you should check out the Learn Jazz Standards Inner Circle.
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Table of Contents
Finding a Definition: What is Jazz Music?
Jazz music can’t be separated from the evolution of the concept of modernity and all the social and cultural elements that comprise modernity. To define jazz, we’ll first have to look at its history.
Jazz History (The Very Short Version)
At its roots, jazz music is an African-American art form combining elements of blues music (folk music of multiple origins), ragtime, and European classical music. It first emerged in New Orleans in the early 20th century and became music with global influence.
Having emerged from the underground of American cities in the 1910s, by the 1920s, jazz music became the music of Black resistance against institutionalized racism and generational rejection of the traditional values that dictated American life before World War I.
Jazz music was synonymous with modernity (having lent its namesake to the Jazz Age). During the Jazz Age, there were increasing social and political freedoms for women, and an emerging artistically channeled Black resistance to White supremacy best represented by the Harlem Renaissance.
Big Bands and Swing Music
By the 1930s, jazz music was pop music. This was the era of big-band jazz, dance bands, and swing music. Jazz music had gone from folk music to new and infectious metropolitan music that was all the rage with kids and made parents angry.
There are many social parallels between the reception of jazz music in the 1920s and the reception of rap music in the 1990s. Rap music was on the front lines of generational change in the 1990s, like jazz music back in the 1920s.
Jazz as Art Music: Bebop, Hard Bop, Post Bop, and Beyond
After the big band swing era, which jumpstarted the careers of jazz musicians like Duke Ellington, the meaning of jazz began to change again. The emphasis was less on creating dance music and moved more toward artistic expression.
Early jazz always had big personalities—think Louis Armstrong and Jelly-Roll Morton. However, jazz musicians began to make music as a means of personal expression and not as a means of popular entertainment (though any popular attention was appreciated).
This was the birth of the bebop style, which not only featured complex harmonies and lightning-fast improvisation but also an emphasis on the artistic identities of the jazz performer. It was a rebellion against the jazz of earlier eras, which was seen as artistically restrictive.
Saxophonist Charlie Parker and Trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie are iconic Bebop jazz musicians who would redirect the course of jazz history by turning jazz tunes into vehicles of artistic expression rather than bandstand numbers for the youth to dance to.
After the bebop era, various movements within jazz sought to push jazz in one direction or another. However, jazz music would forever be about personal artistic expression and identity.
Whether you listen to free jazz, modern jazz, Latin jazz, or any jazz, the purpose of the music is to express the artistic vision of the artists. This is what has unified jazz music since the bebop era.
Musical Elements of Jazz That Give It A Distinct Sound
- Improvisation: Jazz is about personal identity. That’s why a key feature of jazz is improvisation, where musicians spontaneously create melodic solos over the underlying chord progressions. You wouldn’t have the rock guitar solo without Louis Armstrong first taking a trumpet solo.
- Swing Feel: The first jazz recordings reveal that swing rhythm was always a part of the genre. Swing is a distinctive groove or shuffle from playing eighth notes in a long-short pattern. This creates a feeling of syncopation and forward motion. Though early jazz always swung, modern jazz doesn’t necessarily have to swing.
- Blue Notes: Jazz is also microtonal, meaning it often features pitches outside of the rigid twelve-tone system of pitches used in Western Music. These ‘blue notes’ are played at a slightly lower pitch than those of the standard major scale.
- Seventh Chords and Complex Harmonies: Jazz harmony is more complex than pop music or rock music. Where popular music tends to use triads to convey harmony, jazz often uses a variety of seventh chords with extensions and alterations to create a rich sonic environment.
- Polyrhythms and Syncopated Rhythms: Jazz usually features overlapping rhythms and beat accents that are typically weak in other genres. Jazz artists might utilize polyrhythms to produce a rich rhythmic environment.
- Interaction and Collaboration: Jazz involves a high level of interaction between musicians, where they listen, respond, and react to each other. The collective co-creation of music practiced by modern jazz ensembles makes each jazz performance unique.
What Makes Jazz Music a Powerful Genre?
There are many potential answers to this question, and you could easily fill up multiple books trying to tackle this issue. Obviously, I’m not writing a multi-volume masterwork here, but I do want to take some time to talk about the important issue of the meaning and relevance of jazz today.
In some ways, jazz is thriving – jazz education has exploded in colleges and universities in recent decades. But in other ways, jazz is struggling. As we’ve discussed here on LJS, online album sales of jazz recordings have declined in recent years, and all you need to do is turn on a radio and flip through the stations to quickly learn that jazz is not America’s most popular music today.
I’ve heard many people try to argue both sides—that jazz is flourishing or dying—that it’s as popular as ever and just evolving, or that it’s been “dead” since the end of the big band swing era—but whatever your take on these debates, we all have something invested in jazz as an art form.
If you love jazz, then by default, you have a stake in the future of jazz. This means that part of our duty as jazzers is to be ambassadors for this music. Supporting jazz by “spreading the gospel” of the music is useful and effective because, in my experience, people often really like jazz if they’ve just been exposed to it!
With all this in mind, I believe it’s helpful to have a few basic ideas you can put into words to explain to others what jazz is all about and why you love it—especially if you’re ever trying to convince someone that jazz is worth listening to, preserving, studying, and celebrating.
BEFORE YOU CONTINUE...
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The Value of Music
Music is a unique, powerful, and special human phenomenon. It’s universal in that, as far as we know, all human cultures everywhere have ever had some form of expression we would call music.
Music is deeply embedded in our everyday lives, and it features in every major social and personal event in our culture: parties, birthdays, weddings, sporting events, political rallies, religious ceremonies, social functions, graduations, funerals, etc.
All music is fundamentally social. We use musical sounds to express ideas and emotions and to communicate with others. We use music to explore our notions of group and individual identity. We use music to document and disseminate our shared cultural history and common human experiences.
We use music to make sense of the world and of being human, and we use it to communicate things that are impossible (or at least difficult) to say using verbal language.
In other words, music is all about who we are.
With any music, we can always ask: what does it mean for these people to make these sounds in this specific time and place? In other words, what’s music all about?
The Value of Jazz Music
So, what’s jazz all about? What can this music tell us about who we are, what we value, and how we view ourselves, life’s meaning, and our relationships with each other and the cosmos?
Again, this is a huge topic, and I’m not claiming to have the only “definitive” or an exhaustive list. Please feel free to challenge any (or all) of my ideas because I don’t believe anyone has a monopoly on jazz or its meaning.
Our experience of music (and jazz) is always very personalized. Jazz does mean vastly different things for different people in other times and places—the same music can even have different meanings for the same person at different times!
Our perceptions, interests, and experiences change over time as we and our environment change.
Even given the inherent subjectivity of music, we can interpret some common features and relationships in jazz music as representing or reflecting (and influencing) ideas, feelings, and ways of being that we all commonly understand.
Music doesn’t exist in a cultural vacuum (neither do we).
Like a spoken language, musical styles develop “rules” and vocabulary. Though the precise definitions of words constantly shift and change, and words can fall in and out of fashion, some generally agreed-upon linguistic meanings exist.
Within a given social/musical/cultural context, certain sounds—linguistic and musical—come to mean certain things, even if the precise meanings are debated, and everyone’s individual experiences of shared phenomena differ.
Again, I’m saying that jazz doesn’t live in a cultural, social, political, or historical vacuum. We can learn a lot about ourselves if we listen to and analyze the music closely enough.
So, what do we learn about humanity, life, and the cosmos from jazz? Why is jazz important and special?
Jazz is a fundamentally democratic style of music.
By calling jazz democratic, I mean that the relationships between jazz musicians, when playing well, reflect the relationships in an ideal democratic society. Likewise, the relationships between the jazz music elements (melody, harmony, form, dynamics, improvisation vs. composition, contrast vs. repetition, etc.) also reflect democratic ideals.
In jazz, everyone contributes to the musical goal, and everyone has personal responsibility. It’s not an autocracy where one person has all the power and tells everyone what to do – or else!
The music is only truly effective when everyone has their fundamental skills together—everyone matters—yet everyone has different roles at different times. Sometimes you’re soloing; sometimes you’re silent; sometimes you’re accompanying someone else’s solo; sometimes you’re cheering everyone on.
For democracies and jazz performances to function properly and effectively, all participants must have high emotional and intellectual maturity levels. Attitude is key. Everyone has to listen to and respect each other.
Jazz is the ultimate team effort, especially when a lot of improvisation is happening. You must go with the flow, support your collaborators, and be flexible and open to feedback and new, unexpected ideas. You have to be adaptable and creative.
You can’t give up too easily, and you have to balance humbly supporting others (and the music) with allowing yourself to take the spotlight when it’s your turn to solo. Jazz improvisation requires individualism, confidence, and social intelligence.
Likewise, everyone has to know and respect jazz traditions, but everyone also has the opportunity to build on past ideas, innovate, get creative, stretch or break the rules (or invent new ones!), defy conventions, and be themselves. Like democracy, jazz balances tradition and innovation, individualism and collectivism, past and future, stability and change, conventionality and progress.
Also, like an ideal democracy, jazz doesn’t care who you are—all that matters is how you play. What matters is what you contribute and what you have to say—not what you look like or where you come from.
Age, experience level, size, shape, color, personal background, class, gender, sexual orientation, spoken language, clothing style, etc. don’t matter. Jazz is egalitarian that way, just like an ideal democracy. And since democracy is an important part of America’s identity and cultural heritage, jazz music reflects, expresses, and models America’s best values.
Jazz is a fundamentally diverse style of music.
Jazz is diverse in every sense of the word.
As mentioned above, jazz was born in the diverse cultural melting pot of New Orleans, where African, Caribbean, Latin, French, Spanish, and other cultures were colliding with and mutually influencing each other. As time went on and jazz grew and developed, different cultures picked up on and helped to expand jazz as well.
Stylistically, jazz is a highly varied and open-minded music.
There are so many sub-genres and sub-styles (even if the practitioners don’t always agree with each other). Traditional New Orleans jazz, cool jazz, swing, bebop, hard-bop, modal jazz, Latin jazz, avant-garde jazz, free jazz, fusion, and smooth jazz are all very different. Yet, all share some key characteristics that justify them being called jazz (to at least some degree).
Jazz embraces influences from every and any style of music, and jazz is open to influencing any other styles in return. Jazz’s diverse expressions and manifestations allow it to explore and celebrate every aspect of the human condition. Jazz is so diverse that it can express any emotion!
Jazz also enhances, reflects, and enriches social diversity because it allows people from different backgrounds to communicate with each other and find common ground through music. You don’t have to speak the same language as someone else to play a tune with them and start to form a bond of friendship and mutual understanding.
Again, America is (and always has been) diverse, so jazz reflects that diversity on many levels.
Jazz is a fundamentally creative style of music.
Jazz encourages, celebrates, and rewards newness, originality, personality, and meaningful expressiveness in music. Jazz never stopped evolving. Even if you play in more traditional styles, the music is most effective and truest to jazz’s values when you get creative within the context of the style you’re exploring.
To play jazz requires deeply and fundamentally creative skills: the ability to improvise expressively and uniquely interpret music written by other people. Creativity is one of the special traits that makes us human. What better way to reflect and celebrate creativity than through jazz improvisation?
Jazz is a fundamentally life-affirming style of music.
Jazz music is full of expressions of love, desire, vivacity, hope, transcendence, triumph in abject circumstances, energy, joy, confidence, excitement—the stuff of life.
Even the more mellow, dark, sad, or depressing expressions of jazz (especially bluesy styles of jazz) have a fascinating way of celebrating the darker side of life—it’s about relishing that being human is complex: sometimes we’re up, sometimes we’re down, and that’s OK.
More than that, it’s beautiful and worth exploring and celebrating. And sometimes, when jazz is sad, as is often the case with blues-influenced jazz, the expression of sorrow and nostalgia is really about letting it all out and overcoming your problems instead of merely complaining about them nihilistically.
Jazz is uniquely fun, challenging, and enriching.
You can spend your whole life studying, practicing, and performing jazz and never exhaust all of jazz’s offerings of self-exploration, insight, and expression.
Because jazz involves creative improvisation and deep self-expression, it is one of the most satisfying and fulfilling styles of music to be involved with.
Jazz is one of the most enjoyable and enriching styles of music to play because learning how to play jazz is a healthy challenge that helps you stay active, engaged, and busy in something meaningful and positive throughout your entire life.
Looking For a Community of Like-Minded Jazz Lovers? Join the Inner Circle!
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Ready to join our thriving jazz community and become the best jazz player you can be? Check out the Inner Circle today!