Why Jazz Isnt Defined By Your Personal Taste

In recent years I’ve noticed what I feel is a troubling trend among some – but, to be fair, not all – jazz musicians and enthusiasts. Sometimes, when someone hears a style, sub-genre, or offshoot (or whatever you want to call it) of jazz that they don’t particularly like, they’ll write it off and say “that’s not jazz” or “that’s not real jazz” (or “that’s not true/pure/authentic” jazz).

I understand where these types of statements are coming from, and I’ve made them (or similar ones) myself in the past. If you’re reading this, it’s probably because, like me, you’re passionate about jazz, and if so it’s a big part of how we define ourselves (more on that below). As jazz fans, we feel a strong and understandable instinct to patrol and enforce the boundaries around our favorite style and to express our likes and dislikes in firm language.

And yet I think statements which excessively restrict jazz as a style – and the attitudes behind them – are problematic for a few reasons, and I want to address this topic briefly in this post.

This is a potentially huge topic with a lot of different viewpoints, various terms to define, and potential tangents to get lost on, so bear with me and I’ll try to make my arguments clear and concise. But I won’t skimp on key areas of discussion because I think this topic is important.

And I feel that in general, we can improve as a jazz community in how we talk about genre boundaries and how we handle our conversations about our musical likes, dislikes, and value judgments, especially when interacting with “outsiders” who aren’t necessarily jazz fans (yet!).

In order to make my case, I’m going to do three things here:

  1. Explain why I think the “that’s not real jazz” attitude is bad for jazz culture and musicians.
  2. Explain how and why I define jazz, and why defining it even matters.
  3. Offer a potential solution so that the spirit behind the “that’s not (real) jazz” attitude can be expressed in a more constructive way.

Ok, here we go:

Why is the “that’s not (real) jazz” attitude a problem?

The problem here is a confusion of two or maybe three realms:

(1) the definitions and boundaries of musical styles/genres vs. (2) expressions of musical preference based on personal taste vs. (3) value judgments about the quality of music and/or its historical or cultural significance/influence.

In my experience, oftentimes when people say this or that music isn’t “jazz” (or “real jazz”), they’re not trying to make a judgment about genre delimitations as much as they’re actually just trying to express their dislike or lack of interest in certain types of music. Perhaps sometimes people also say “that’s not real jazz” when they mean that something isn’t good or valuable music in their view.

I’ve noticed this trend becomes a problem because it leads to confused and sometimes hostile conversations about music. When we use terms that refer to quality or genre to actually express our likes and dislikes, people can potentially get confused.

And of course, whatever terms we use, discussing musical preferences can be a very personal thing for some people, so people can become understandably defensive if they feel they need to justify their musical tastes.

Additionally, in my experience, overly forceful claims that this or that music is or isn’t “real” jazz have a tendency to split the jazz community into little warring factions, which in turn can discourage new potential fans and performers from more fully embracing and exploring jazz music.

The fact is that, whether we like it or not, the word “jazz” is used in academia and in everyday conversations around the world as an umbrella term which includes a vast array of widely contrasting styles of music from different time periods spanning more than 100 years.

I believe it’ll create a healthier environment and future for jazz music if we maintain open minds and a more relaxed attitude toward how we police the borders of our favorite genre.

Let me try to illustrate my point with a hypothetical scenario to further my argument here:

Let’s say someone doesn’t know much about jazz, but they’ve heard and enjoyed the music of Kenny G. They’ve heard Kenny G’s music called “smooth jazz,” so from their perspective it’s jazz.

One day, they decide they want to find some new music, and so they go shopping online or in stores to buy a new album. They know they like Kenny G, and Kenny G’s music is a type of jazz, so which genre is their first stop as they start browsing new artists to check out? The jazz section.

Through internet searches and browsing in stores, they stumble upon David Sanborn, who influenced Kenny G and whose music shares some common characteristics with Kenny G’s.

Then they discover Michael Brecker, who worked with Sanborn. Next, they stumble upon John Coltrane’s music (Coltrane who was one of Brecker’s idols). Tracing jazz’s lineage back from Coltrane, they then encounter Charlie Parker’s music, and so on and so forth. Suddenly we have an avid new jazz fan who will support the music in a variety of ways and have their life enriched by this great art form.

If you suspect this hypothetical story is unlikely or far-fetched, I can tell you from personal experience, you’re wrong. This scenario I’ve just described is more or less exactly my journey as a jazz fan. I grew up primarily listening to smooth jazz and fusion with my parents and followed a similar path that brought me to where I am now. Today I am a proud scholar of jazz who listens to, studies and enjoys everything from Jelly Roll Morton to Bill Evans to Kirk Whalum.

But I was lucky that I never got turned off from checking out other jazz music by people who write off smooth jazz as “not jazz” or “not real jazz.” It could’ve all turned out another way. Imagine if, right at the beginning of the scenario I sketched out above, someone had told the potential jazz lover (in person or via an online forum, or wherever) that Kenny G isn’t really jazz.

Even further, imagine that the person who likes Kenny G feels embarrassed or talked down to because there is a strong undercurrent of an attitude or vibe I call the “snooty jazz purity posture” that sometimes comes across in discussions with “real” jazz fans (often unintentionally). The Kenny G fan might now never be motivated to explore other musicians labeled as “jazz” artists. And why would they? Apparently, the music they enjoy isn’t really jazz after all. And jazz fans/musicians sometimes (again, often unintentionally) come across as condescending to uninitiated music fans and make it seem like you have to be “in the know” to really “get” jazz and a be a “true” jazz fan.

My argument here is that if we truly care about jazz and the music’s future, we want to encourage more people to enjoy the music and support it financially and culturally. We don’t want to turn potential fans away. And in my experience, the “that’s not real jazz” declaration and the attitude behind it does more harm than good in this regard.

How and why I define jazz, and why it even matters.

So how does the concept of musical genres fit into this issue then? The topic of musical genres is large and difficult, but it’s an issue I want to address because I feel we could improve as jazz musicians in how we understand and talk about genres.

There are varying ideas about genre boundaries, but it is clear that boundaries between different styles of music are fluid, complex, and highly contested among musicians, music scholars, and music fans.

Just consider an artist such as Ray Charles. His music arguably blends elements of jazz, country, soul, Motown, pop, rhythm and blues, and rock and roll. So under which category do we file his CDs in a record store or on iTunes? Or even within the umbrella of jazz, consider Miles Davis. He played bebop with Charlie Parker, and explored modal jazz, hard bop, avant-garde jazz, and jazz fusion as a bandleader. If you have a Miles Davis compilation with songs from throughout the various phases of his career, how do we classify that album in relation to jazz’s sub-styles?

In an ideal world, there’s just music – no boundaries, no genres, no specialized terminology. Just “good music and the other kind” as Duke Ellington famously said. But the reality of our world today is that it’s impossible and impractical to go without genre labels.

We need genre and style designations because they serve a few very important purposes. They function practically to help us organize and sort the vast amounts of music that are available now in music stores, libraries, and on the internet. And more abstractly, genres designations are useful for how we define and construct our identities.

How and why we come to like the particular types of music we enjoy is a complex and somewhat mysterious question with many variables involved. But it definitely means something to be a jazz fan as opposed to a country music fan, for example. And there are definitely social and cultural forces at play that ultimately have to do with our sense of our personal and group identities.

The styles of music you like carry, in a way, inherent social and cultural implications, at least to a certain degree. In other words, the music you say you like generally says something about who you think you are, where you come from, your education level, your socio-cultural orientation, etc.

Our favorite musical styles – like types of cuisine, clothing styles, and where we choose to live – are important parts of our identities and reflect our attitudes, values, and beliefs to a certain degree. In this way, since musical genre preferences are linked to social and cultural identities, music can serve to bring people together or to push them apart and sharpen dividing lines between people with different personalities, values, and backgrounds.

Therefore, genre or style designations and how we define them are important, because they are practically useful and they help us express our sense of identity.

And all of this explains why it’s so easy to slip into the way of speaking where we use the policing of genre boundaries to really just express our likes and dislikes or to express what we feel is good or bad music. But, as I mentioned above, I’m arguing here that we should stop doing that because it’s bad for the music and it leads to unproductive conversations.

Ok, so if genres are important, and defining them is important, how do I define jazz?

I defer to the experts in the field – especially jazz historians – and I combine many of their views to come up with the broadest definition of jazz that, in my view, is the most inclusive while still remaining functional and practical. With a more inclusive definition, we can more easily see and acknowledge jazz music’s actual breadth and impact. And a more inclusive definition can improve our ability to invite non-jazz fans or people who like fringe jazz styles into the greater jazz community.

When defining jazz, firstly I’d like to say that the most logical attitude from my perspective is to view the definition of genres as an elastic spectrum as opposed to a black or white thing. In other words, music can be more or less “jazzy” based on a set of criteria that outline the most essential characteristics of jazz music. A binary construction that sets up a hard and fast “jazz vs. not jazz” paradigm creates a false dichotomy in my opinion, and it doesn’t capture the true nature of the music with all its complexities, diversity, and gray areas.

Additionally, I believe it’s most useful to define jazz by referring to both abstract criteria and specific musical examples (artists and/or musical pieces) that can be viewed as models or archetypes. We can then compare new music to our jazz archetypes to help us judge the music in question as more or less jazzy.

From my perspective, a style of music can generally qualify as jazz if it includes roughly at least two or three the following features as important or defining characteristics of the music (note that not possessing one or more of these qualities does not automatically disqualify a music from justifiably being labeled “jazz”):

  • Improvisation, including:
    • Free improvisation or improvisation based on parameters or a specific musical form
    • Collective and/or individualistic improvisation
  • A swing feel rhythmically (especially with literal or implied polyrhythms derived from African-American musical traditions)
  • Syncopation (especially if derived from African-American musical traditions)
  • Tonal/timbral alterations (such as blue notes/bent pitches)
  • Call and response
  • Repetition, including:
    • Small scale repetition of rhythmic patterns, such as ride cymbal patterns
    • Large scale repetitions such as repeated musical themes/motifs and cyclical forms
  • Specific types of instrumentation, including:
    • Rhythm section instruments strongly associated with jazz – especially in this particular combination: acoustic or electric piano, drum set, acoustic upright or electric bass, and guitar or banjo
    • Other instruments such as the human voice, saxophones, trumpet, cornet, trombone, and, slightly less common: vibraphones, flutes, clarinets, French horns, tubas, and violins/other stringed instruments
  • Certain characteristic harmonic qualities, including:
    • The prevalence of II-V-Is
    • The prevalence of dominant 7th chords, and especially dominant 7th chords that don’t resolve V-I
    • The presence and admixture of tonal harmonic vocabulary with modal harmonic vocabulary
  • Certain general melodic characteristics, including:
    • The use and admixture of diatonic modes, symmetric scales (such as the diminished and whole-tone scales), and non-diatonic scales (such as the blues scale)
    • Freely varying melodies while interpreting standard songs and improvising
    • Highly expressive melodies with personal touches added in terms of phrasing
    • Melodic phrasing which often utilizes inflections such as scoops, grace notes, bent notes, slides, glissandos, growls, specialty articulations, etc.
  • Reliance on a set of established and shared common repertoire when selecting performance material
    • Such as jazz standards written by jazz musicians and “Great American Songbook” songs, including music from Broadway musicals, Tin Pan Alley, and movies and television shows
  • Highly individualistic expression of personal musical style
  • More or less collective negotiation of ensemble sound/aesthetic, especially through the incorporation of improvisation

Archetypal jazz performers from different style periods in jazz history

I’ve tried to pick artists who played different instruments for each category (if it’s a saxophone-heavy list, it’s probably because I’m a saxophonist!), and the fact that some names are listed twice hints at how difficult this project is (also please note: this is absolutely not meant to be a comprehensive list of artists or sub-styles/genres by any means – it’s merely meant to offer an example of a conversational starting point which can enable and stimulate a healthy debate about jazz’s boundaries):

  • Early jazz/New Orleans style/traditional jazz/early Chicago jazz/early jazz-blues:
    • Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, Bix Beiderbecke, Kid Ory, Sidney Bechet, King Oliver, Paul “Stump” Evans, Original Dixieland Jazz Band, Bessie Smith, W.C. Handy
  • Swing/big band era:
    • Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, Frank Sinatra, Billie Holliday, Ella Fitzgerald, Gene Krupa, Buddy Rich, Oscar Peterson, Art Tatum, Benny Carter, John Kirby
  • Bebop:
    • Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Christian, Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk, Max Roach, Oscar Pettiford, Dexter Gordon
  • Hard bop/post bop/modal jazz:
    • Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Wayne Shorter, Joe Henderson, Freddie Hubbard, Herbie Hancock, Art Blakey, Charles Mingus, Bill Evans, Horace Silver, Sonny Rollins, Cannonball Adderley, Sonny Stitt, Paul Chambers, Wes Montgomery, McCoy Tyner, Ahmad Jamal
  • Cool jazz/west coast jazz:
    • Lennie Tristano, Miles Davis, Chet Baker, Lee Konitz, Paul Desmond, Dave Brubeck, Gerry Mulligan, Gil Evans, Shelly Manne, Warne Marsh, Stan Getz, Bill Evans
  • “Latin” jazz (including Brazilian jazz):
    • Antonio Carlos Jobm, Joao Gilberto, Flora Purim, Eliane Elias, Chano Pozo, Tito Puente, Cal Tjader, Eddie Palmieri, Poncho Sanchez, Mongo Santamaria, Chucho Valdes
  • Avant-garde/free jazz/improvised music/experimental jazz:
    • Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler, Charles Mingus, Sun Ra, John Coltrane, Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), Cecil Taylor, Eric Dolphy, Tim Berne, John Zorn, Pharoah Sanders
  • Fusion/jazz-rock/soul-jazz/funky jazz/funk with jazz elements:
    • Miles Davis, Joe Zawinul/Wayne Shorter and Weather Report, Herbie Hancock (and the Headhunters), Chick Corea (and Return to Forever), Mahavishnu Orchestra, the Adderley Brothers, George Clinton and Parliament/Funkadelic, Tower of Power, The Crusaders, James Brown, Kool and the Gang, Michael Brecker and the Brecker Brothers, David Sanborn, Victor Wooten, Bob James, Yellowjackets
  • Smooth jazz:
    • Grover Washington Jr., Kenny G, David Sanborn, Kirk Whalum, Dave Koz, Eric Marienthal, Gerald Albright, Rick Braun, George Benson, Eric Darius, The Rippingtons, Spyro Gyra
  • Other jazz artists active today who blend and/or work in many styles:
    • Wynton Marsalis, Keith Jarrett, Pat Metheny, Christian McBride, Brad Mehldau, Chris Potter, Roy Hargrove, Bill Frisell, John Scofield, Brian Blade, Joe Lovano, Wayne Krantz, Jan Garbarek, Tony Malaby, Craig Taborn, Miguel Zenon, Rudresh Mahanthappa, Maria Schneider, Dave Douglas, Dave Liebman, Kneebody, Snarky Puppy, The Bad Plus, The Claudia Quintet

If you disagree with this definition of jazz, or if you don’t agree that some of the musical styles that would fit these criteria are truly jazzy enough, then that’s fine. As a jazz community we can debate these criteria and choices of jazz archetypes.

For example, someone might have a really good case for separating out all the sub-styles that fit under this umbrella definition of jazz into two large categories: e.g. “mainstream jazz” and “jazz offshoots” or “jazz” and “closely related jazz relatives” or something like that, and I and most scholars would be open to considering alternative models for defining jazz.

But the point I’m claiming here is that we’ll have better and more productive conversations if we separate out, to the best of our ability, our personal biases, preferences, and value judgments from a more detached analysis of musical characteristics when discussing genre boundaries.

In other words, feel free to disagree with this definition and these archetypes, but be prepared to offer alternative definitions and archetypes that you can back up with historical and musical evidence and reasoned argument that is as free from a mere expression of personal preference and aesthetic judgment as possible.

So what’s the solution?

I believe the solution is to be more clear and careful with how we express our ideas as jazz musicians and fans. I think we can do a better job of not mixing up words that express personal preference with terms that express a judgment about genre boundaries or musical quality.

In other words, what you like, what “is jazz,” and what makes worthwhile jazz are three completely separate topics for discussion and debate, and they require different criteria and different vocabularies if we’re to have unmuddied and productive conversations.

You don’t really need to use evidence and reasoned arguments to justify what you simply like. For example, I like chocolate ice cream. Why? Because I like it, because it tastes good to me. I don’t even think I can articulate why I like it, but I do. And that’s fine.

But if I then say “chocolate ice cream is the only ice cream” or it’s the only “real” ice cream, or “it’s generally the highest quality type of ice cream,” or “it’s the most historically valuable and influential type of ice cream,” now I’ve switched from the realm of expressing personal taste to the realm of quality judgments, historical value judgments, and judgments which attempt to define the boundaries of what is and isn’t ice cream.

Statements other than expressions of personal taste are not necessary if I’m merely trying to share my likes and dislikes. And by slipping into other kinds of statements, I’ve now put myself in the position where I’d better be prepared with evidence and reasoned arguments to defend claims about quality, history, and genre boundaries.

We shouldn’t make these same mistakes when talking about jazz.

Put another way, I think it’s okay to acknowledge that some music legitimately qualifies as jazz music but is not your favorite type or style sub-genre of jazz. It’s even okay to admit that something is jazz but it’s not particularly good or historically/culturally valuable jazz in your opinion – and just be prepared to offer a reasonable argument explaining why you feel that way.

And that takes us to a third type of statement which is different from both stating personal preferences and defining genre boundaries: the idea of making a musical value judgment.

Just like with personal preference vs. genre boundaries, what you like and what qualifies as “good” jazz are two different issues. Likewise, what you deem to be musically or historically valuable is a different issue from the definition of musical genres.

Debating about what is “good jazz” in the sense of what’s the most historically significant, technically accomplished or impressive, worthy of more study, etc. represents a slightly more objective conversation with different terms, criteria, and rules than merely talking about what we like or dislike.

And I’d like to note here that, just like with genre boundaries, “objective” and “subjective” are terms that refer to a spectrum, not a black and white distinction, in my view. Hence discussing “good” jazz in the sense of jazz that has historical/cultural value in some ways represents a more objective conversation than aesthetic preferences – though of course not a completely objective conversation – because you can claim that an artist is historically significant, for example, and then support it with historical evidence.

And the conversation about what is justifiably viewed as valuable or important jazz is, of course, distinct from a discussion of what is or is not jazz in the first place.

All of this may seem painfully obvious to some readers, but I still hear these sorts of unproductive missteps being made in conversations about jazz.

So let’s go forth and support the music we love with passion while striving to be more mindful of whether we’re expressing a genre definition, a value judgment as to quality or historical/cultural significance, or a personal preference. And let’s not conflate any of these projects – because they’re all different and require different terms and different standards of evidence to support.

30 Stepsto Better Jazz Playing

8 COMMENTS

  1. Funnily enough while George Benson is labelled a "smooth jazz" exponent above he is one of the greatest hardcore jazz guitarists (Bebop, Mainstream, you name it) ever. He is a jazz guitar genious who can blow through the changes at the speed of light but he can be as melodic and lyrical at the same time as it's only possible. Yes, he prefers to sing and accompany himself most of the time and you what? – Lucky are other jazz guitarists because when he occasionally decides to play it hard they realize they better send him singing to save their gigs…

  2. Funny story – that was my way to jazz too. When I spent a year in the US as a host student (being German) in 1992/93, my host family picked me up at the St. Louis airport and all the way to their (and my new temporal) home we listened to Kenny G.

    I had no idea at the age of 16 that this music existed!

    My host family knew I played the tenorsax (and had brought it with me).

    Through Kenny G I discovered Mike Brecker (starting with the Return of the Brecker Brothers) and later on Coltrane and Parker.

    I had heard Parker earlier in my Dad's collection here in Germany, but could never relate to it.

    I had to evolve to jazz.

    And apparently more than once, Kenny G was the first step.

  3. Hi josiah you did put a lot of thought in that article and i agree with its content. You are perfectly right to evoke the jazz history because at each step of its development you will find some people refusing the jazz attribution to the new form which appears..bebop was not jazz for some new orleans fans, free jazz also for the afficionados of hard bop and so on.
    Myself being immersed in bebop music i do not have a lot of sympathy for some new roads which i feel rely on pure intellectual theory and lacking swing. However since many people around me tend to appreciale this music i will never say its not jazz but this form of jazz does not appeal to me.

  4. Interesting article, but as a jazz accordion player, you have left out so e great musicians. Of course the gentleman that started the whole jazz accordion thing, Art Van Damne and the now, young. Heir apparent, Cory Pesatuto.

    • If you imagine the impact and influence of Art Van Damne, and then magnify that by about 1,000 times, you have another jazz tributary (that sometimes involves the accordion!), gypsy jazz. Django Reinhardt was one of the very few jazz musicians who single-handedly inspired a sub-genre, one that initially seemed to fade away (in the post-war era), but then, 40 years after its birth, blossomed again, continued to gain momentum, and remains a flourishing musical community in the 21st century.

  5. Nice article. One guy you did leave out in the "Other Artist Working Today" is Scott Hamilton. He's a really swingin' tenor player w/a really nice sound. If you have not heard him then check him out!!

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