What is jazz?

I was confused at my first jazz festival. I thought jazz was the music I listened to on the streets of New Orleans but not all the performers and their music were like that at the Christchurch Jazz Festival  (New Zealand). I loved the music but I wasn’t sure it was jazz!

I also heard music that was labelled jazz at WOMAD New Plymouth (NZ) – I thought it was big band or ska so knew I was missing something.

Now that I’m off the annual Borneo Jazz Festival (Miri, Sarawak, Malaysia) it’s time to do some research (via Google) but find even the people writing about it there have different opinions – but there are many similarities.

Part of the audience in 2013.
Part of the audience in 2013.

Wiki tells me: ‘Jazz is a type of African-American music that originated in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century in the Southern United States as a combination of European harmony and forms with African musical elements such as blue notes, improvisation, polyrhythms, syncopation and the swung note.[1] Jazz has also incorporated elements of American popular music.[2]

It goes on  ‘As it spread around the world, jazz drew on different national, regional, and local musical cultures, giving rise to many distinctive styles’    and it was in this list I started to recognise styles I knew;  New Orleans jazz, big band swing,  1940s bebop, and  ska jazz.

Think the quote attributed to Louis Armstrong, sums it up for me!  He was one of the most famous musicians in jazz when he said to Bing Crosby on the latter’s radio show, “Ah, swing, well, we used to call it syncopation, then they called it ragtime, then blues, then jazz. Now, it’s swing. White folks – yo’all sho is a mess!”[3][4]

So seems I was not alone in being confused, a ’mess’ I carried on reading then and thought a blog about ‘What is Jazz?’ seemed a way to clarify it for me and anyone else who is all a mess too.

Here are some bullet points about what I learnt: ( thanks to the people and pages quotes)

In a 1988 interview, trombonist J. J. Johnson said, “Jazz is restless. It won’t stay put and it never will”.

In a CNN OPINION ( @CNNOpinion) piece  Jonathan Batiste (Stay Human Band and is the associate artistic director of the National Jazz Museum in Harlem.(@jonbatiste)  said ‘This is an impossible question, and one with many answers.’

. . . contemporary jazz seems too circuitous for most listeners to enjoy casually. The challenge for the contemporary jazz musician, as I see it, is making this subtle and complex art palatable to the greater public. Jazz is complex.

. . . to play jazz is to contribute to world history. To be a part of this tradition means that you are challenged to transform other people with the sound of your instrument. You are challenged to swing. You are challenged to contribute to the body of work established by some of the greatest artistic minds of all time, work that includes these treasures:

• A performance of “Fine and Mellow” by Billie Holiday, Lester Young and others from a CBS television broadcast in New York on December 8, 1957.

• “It Don’t Mean A Thing” by Duke Ellington features catchy vocals, hard swing, jazz violin and awesome horn section parts that epitomize what the jazz tradition is all about.

• “I’m Just a Lucky So and So” from the album by Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. It is a supreme example of the blues with utmost sophistication and feeling. The way Duke accompanies Satchmo is masterful, and the personality of the two of them signifies what jazz is all about.

 Jazz is an experience; it’s all about the moment –  it’s the language that we use to state our deepest, truest feelings; It is the American art form that is globally owned. (Jonathan Batiste).

In part All About Jazz tells me . . .

“The most pressing, in my opinion is “What Is Jazz?” Or, more to the point, “What Is Jazz Right At This Moment?” The old definitions, which themselves were inadequate and vague, composed of personal biases and half-truths, are now completely antiquated. Just think about the difference between what defined the simple telephone thirty years ago, compared to today’s reality of what a telephone is. And compare today’s smartphones to what a telephone was just five years ago. The more you think about it, the more you realize not only how far things have come, and how quickly they are changing, but how much your own initial definitions are rooted in long-held ideas that no longer apply. “

“While these definitions still apply to some of Our Music, it is no longer descriptive of the entire purview of Jazz. Electric and electronic instruments now share the stage with the classic horns, strings and keyboards that have been standard instrumentation almost since the very beginning. It is incorporating more world music from Middle Eastern to Asian.

None of that really answers the question of what Jazz is right now, possibly because that is virtually impossible to define. Jazz is a living thing, Jazz breathes, it grows, it changes, it adapts.

To summarise Jazz in America

  • It is partly planned and partly spontaneous;
  • “in the moment” this is called improvisation and is the defining /key element of jazz
  • There is no better example of democracy than a jazz ensemble: individual freedom but with responsibility to the group. In other words, individual musicians have the freedom to express themselves on their instrument as long as they maintain their responsibility to the other musicians by adhering to the overall framework and structure of the tune
  • it’s kind of like musical conversation.
  • is like a language.
  • the spontaneity heard (or “felt”) in jazz requires the listener to be alert at all times to the ever-changing aspects of a given interpretation of a tune.
  • the same jazz tune (song) is never performed the same way twice; while it might start and end the same, the middle part is played differently every time.
  • In jazz, it’s more about the way a song is played, rather than what song is played.
  • In order to be able to hear the difference, you’ve got to listen a lot; the more you listen to a particular jazz musician, the more you’re able to recognize that player by his/her sound alone.
  • Jazz is hard to play but good players make it look easy.

I’ve decided I’m just going to listen and enjoy the international and local performers at the festival. See you there!

 

Author: Heather - the kiwi travel writer

Nomadic travel-writer, photographer, author & blogger. See more on http://kiwitravelwriter.com and Amazon for my books (heather hapeta)

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