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Why Jazz Matters

A lot of studies have been done on the benefits of music and music education in schools. Research has shown that learning music helps develop many other non-related skills and important brain functions. We know music matters, but that is not what I want to talk about today.

I want to talk about why jazz matters.

Too often I hear musicians and non-musicians alike speak of jazz in the past tense: “Jazz was…”, “Jazz used to be…”, “Back when jazz …”. Jazz is too often spoken of as a historical music.  Don’t get me wrong: jazz is historical and it has played an important role in American history and throughout the world.

But jazz is not dead. Quite the contrary! It is alive and breathing, and it’s just as important today as it was in the early-mid 1900’s.  Jazz is not just history; jazz is here right now.  However, I’m not going to argue whether jazz is alive, or dead, or dying…not today.  I just want to talk about why jazz matters. 

It doesn’t just matter to musicians. It matters to office workers, construction workers, CEO’s,  farmers, mothers, fathers, immigrants, the poor and the rich. It matters to everybody.  You see, jazz has so much more to offer than just music.

Before I go into my reasons for why jazz matters, please take just these brief 2 minutes to watch this video narration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s opening address at the 1964 Berlin Jazz Festival. This is the perfect prelude to my points:

Jazz teaches us to have courage.

The great saxophonist Wayne Shorter once said in an interview, that the meaning of the word jazz to him is:

“I dare you.”

Jazz is African American music. It was born out of the struggles and oppression that black men and women faced.  Jazz represents a great amount of freedom. The spirit of the music is expression and the desire to speak freely, without any filters.

When a jazz musician plays, he/she is allowing a voice to come out free of rules and regulations. The spirit of improvisation stimulates this freedom to express whatever is stirring in the soul, whether it be from the conscious or subconscious mind.

Jazz says: I will tell you how I feel. I will show you who I am. I will be vulnerable in front of you. I will speak loudly and clearly.

As a society we must do the same. We must express ourselves and we must share our thoughts with each other. We must start discussions with one another. This is how we move forward.

Jazz teaches us to improvise.

Every day, whether we like it or not, life forces us to improvise.  Sometimes the grocery store doesn’t have the key ingredient you need and suddenly you must come up with a new idea.  When you enter into daily conversations with others, you can’t fully anticipate what the other person will say to you, and you need to come up with a response quickly.  Sometimes a simple phone call can radically change your world in a way that you didn’t expect, and you need to think fast.

Jazz musicians are faced with improvisation every time they start to play.  They have to come up with music on the spot all while listening and responding to their fellow band mates. Jazz trains the brain to improvise.

Jazz teaches us to innovate.

It’s remarkable how our education system is set up to expect every individual to learn the same way.

Before a child starts going to school, they learn how to walk, they learn how to communicate, and they invent their own ways to play. They are constantly growing, inventing, improvising and creating. Suddenly they are sent to school where there are very particular parameters set in place. In a lot of ways, improvisation takes a back seat and conformity becomes the way to produce order.

Don’t misunderstand me. It’s not all bad, nor do I have any concrete solutions myself. But in a modern world where we are constantly expected to innovate and create new things, this kind of environment can be suffocating.  In a world where we are constantly trying to improve technology, come up with solutions, and make medical and scientific breakthroughs, we need to be accustomed to innovation.

Jazz music forces one to innovate. When a jazz musician takes a solo, they must come up with new ideas on the spot without hesitation. They can’t be afraid of what happens if they go down one road versus another. They must boldly and unashamedly create! Sometimes this means that the rules must be broken.

As a professional jazz musician, I improvise a lot.  I’ve logged many hours improvising in numerous different settings. At least 95% of the time, I am quite unimpressed with what I play, but then every once in a while something brilliant comes out. When it happens, I can’t believe it. I don’t know where it came from, it just happened! It’s in these moments that I understand the importance of struggling to innovate over and over again.

Jazz teaches us that everyone’s voice is equal.

In a jazz setting, everyone gets a chance to take a solo. Everyone gets the opportunity to play something regardless of their experience or role in the band.  Often there is a band leader, but usually the leader is only facilitating and guiding the musical process. A jazz band is like a miniature democratic society of sorts. It’s a collection of individuals coming together to create something as a unit.

A jazz experience can teach us that everyone’s voice is equal. Everyone deserves a chance to share their opinion and it has equal value to that of someone else’s. Social class, race, religion or gender should not dictate the worth of ones voice, and no one should be suppressed. This is the social essence of jazz music.

Jazz teaches us to listen.

In the same way that everyone gets a chance to take a solo, everyone must listen to their fellow musicians take a solo.  The rhythm section, who is accompanying, must listen in order to compliment the soloist adequately, and non-accompany instruments must stand by and wait their turn.

In a jazz scenario, everyone not only has to consider what another soloist plays, they want to.  This will help them add to the conversation and play their part.

A jazz musician listens intently to what is being played because they need to keep track of where they are at in the song, listen for harmonic alterations, and harness the musical energy to create.

Playing and even listening to jazz can help one develop deep listening skills. Jazz music begs its audience to listen.  To fully appreciate jazz music the listeners need to pay attention. If the audience doesn’t pay attention they will miss out on a unique experience.

Listening is a crucial part of our everyday lives.  It helps us catch important details and it helps us learn effectively. It may even get us a job promotion or help save a relationship from going sour. Listening to jazz can train the mind to hear things more clearly and hold focus better.

Jazz matters. Jazz is not just a style of music. Jazz is a music that can shape our character by giving us courage, prepare us to improvise, innovate, give others an equal voice, and listen. Jazz education is important for young and old minds alike.

Let us never underestimate the power and fulfillment that jazz music can have.



Brent Vaartstra
Brent Vaartstra is a professional jazz guitarist and educator living in New York City. He is the head blogger and podcast host for which he owns and operates. He actively performs around the New York metropolitan area and is the author of the Hal Leonard publication "Visual Improvisation for Jazz Guitar." He's also the host of the music entrepreneurship podcast "Passive Income Musician."


  1. I found it interesting that jazz requires the audience to listen and pay attention to enjoy a unique experience. There is a new jazz bar that opened up in my city and my friends have talked about going to expand our music knowledge. I'll be sure to remember these helpful tips as I continue to research why jazz is important.


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