If you’re reading this, it’s probably because you love jazz. Deep down, 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 have similar stories we tell about how we first discovered and became enamored of this special music. Even if we can’t all always agree on the “best” records, styles, and musicians (and sometimes we can’t even agree on what jazz is and isn’t), we are still a community with a lot of shared values – and we all agree that jazz is important to us. Since jazz is important to us, we want to share it with others and ensure its continuation in the future.
People have a lot of choice about how to spend their free time today. And if people do choose to listen to music they have a lot of music to choose from. So why did we choose jazz, and why should others choose jazz?
Because of the reality of our world today, it’s important to take some time to ask and try to answer some important questions about jazz’s relevance, value, and meaning. It doesn’t matter if you’re a seasoned pro, a young musician just starting out, 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 this music? Why do we love it? What makes it special? What do these specific musical sounds 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 for 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.
So what is it about jazz that makes it such a powerful and important art form?
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 in the past 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 definitely 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 – in jazz’s survival. 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’re just exposed to it!
So often people say or believe they don’t like jazz, but it’s only because they’ve never actually heard much jazz (or maybe they’ve simply never heard truly top-quality jazz). Sometimes all you need to do is just take the time to sit down with someone, show them some great jazz records, and explain what’s going on using very basic nontechnical terms. Once people understand jazz’s format and values – players play the head, improvise solos, trade with the drummer, and jazz emphasizes the importance of communication, individuality, expression, and style, etc. – it can open up a whole new musical universe for people – and they might become bona fide jazz lovers (and jazz supporters)!
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 why you love it – especially if you’re ever trying to convince someone that jazz is worth listening to, preserving, studying, and celebrating.
So what are some of ways we can (more or less) concretely talk about how special and important jazz is?
Well, first let’s talk about music in general for a minute. The first step in justifying jazz is to validate and understand the role of music as a whole.
Music is a unique, powerful, and special human phenomenon. It’s universal in the sense that, as far as we now know, all human cultures everywhere ever have 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 type of 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?
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 to each other and to the cosmos?
Again, this is a huge topic, and I’m not claiming to have the only list, the “definitive” list, 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 what jazz is or what it means.
And yes, I hear the protests now – “how can you possibly talk about jazz’s ‘meaning’ when it’s obvious that the same music can mean many different things to different people”!
Yes, our experience of music (and jazz) is always very personalized. Jazz does mean vastly different things for different people in different 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, there are some common features and relationships in jazz music that we can interpret as representing or reflecting (and influencing) ideas, feelings, and ways of being that we all commonly understand, even if our own personal experience of these relationships is often highly individualized. Music doesn’t exist in a cultural vacuum (neither do we), and people don’t make musical sounds for no reason.
Like a spoken language, musical styles develop a set of “rules” and vocabulary. Though the precise definitions of words constantly shift and change, and words can fall in and out of fashion, there are some generally agreed upon linguistic meanings. And the generally accepted denotations don’t negate personal experience or interpretation. If I say “cat,” everyone who speaks English knows the type of animal I’m referring to. But when I say “cat,” the details of how you picture a cat (is it grey or orange, bug or small, young or old, etc.), what that cat looks like in your mind’s eye, and how you feel about cats are all different from how someone else conceptualizes and experiences their ideas about what a cat is (and what “cat” means). 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 even if everyone’s individual experiences of shared phenomena are different.
Again what I’m saying is that jazz doesn’t live in a cultural, social, political, or historical vacuum, and if we listen to and look at what’s going on in the music close enough, we can learn a lot about ourselves.
So what do we learn about humanity, life, and the cosmos from jazz? Why is jazz important and special?
Here’s my brief take on some of the reasons why jazz is important, special, and valuable:
Jazz is a fundamentally democratic style of music.
By calling jazz democratic, I mean that the relationships between jazz musicians when they are playing well reflect the relationships in an ideal democratic society. Likewise, the relationships between the elements of music in jazz (melody, harmony, form, dynamics, improvisation vs. composition, contrast vs. repetition, etc.) also reflect democratic ideals.
In jazz, everyone makes individual contributions to the collective 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 – and 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 a democracy and for a jazz performance to function properly and effectively, all of the participants must have high levels of emotional and intellectual maturity. Attitude is key. Everyone has to listen to and respect each other. Jazz is the ultimate team effort, especially when there’s a lot of improvisation happening. You have to go with the flow, support your collaborators, 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 is about balancing 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, 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 – jazz is diverse on multiple levels. Anyone can play jazz, jazz is stylistically diverse, and jazz is played and appreciated by all kinds of people from all over the world.
Jazz first came into existence because of the diversity in the United States of America. Around the turn of the 20th century, the African Americans who first played the music later termed “jazz” were combining traditional African musical/cultural influences and preferences with musical ideas they’d picked up in the “New World” in creative, expressive, and powerful ways. 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, other cultures picked up on and helped to expand jazz as well.
Stylistically, jazz is a highly varied and open-minded music. It embraces all its sub-genres and sub-styles (even if the practitioners don’t always agree with each other…). Traditional New Orleans jazz, swing, bebop, hard-bop, modal jazz, Latin jazz, avant-garde jazz, free jazz, fusion, and smooth jazz are all very different, and yet all share some key characteristics with each other that justify them being called jazz (to at least some degree).
Some jazz is cool, some is hot. Some is simple, some is complex. Some is serious, some is playful. Some is fast, some slow. Some swings, some is straight. Some is chaotic, some highly ordered and structured. Some grooves hard, some suspends your sense of time. Jazz can sound like just about anything.
Jazz embraces influences from every and any style of music, and jazz is open to influencing any and all 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, and 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 abilities 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 more mellow, dark, sad, 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, that’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, as opposed to 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 possibilities for 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 over the course of your entire life.
Hopefully, you now feel inspired, encouraged, and empowered to think deeply about the potential meaning and socio-cultural relevance of the music we love, and hopefully, you feel armed with a few ideas to help you as you go out into the world as an ardent ambassador for jazz!