Jazz Don’t Hurt: What Is Jazz, Anyway?

Written by Jazz Don't Hurt, Music

jazz[1]What is “jazz,” exactly? I sure as hell don’t know. And neither, I would suggest, does anyone else.

Sure, everybody knows what they think jazz is, and which particular elements music has to contain to qualify as jazz — swing, the blues, improvisation, etc. But put to the test, it turns out the word is extremely subjective.

From the list of three elements above (swing, the blues, improvisation), I would certainly eliminate swing and the blues as required parts of what I call jazz. First of all, defining a word like jazz with another word no one understands, such as “swing,” just makes the issue murkier rather than clearer. Many people would say “swing” refers to ding-ding-a-ding on the ride cymbal, or the same rhythm represented on some other instrument in the band. That would immediately eliminate much of the free jazz cannon, and just about all of the latin jazz world, to name just two “micro-genres.” (I think that’s a term I stole from Vijay Iyer.) Plus, much of the music being made today (and nearly everything I recommended in my Five Recent Jazz CDs for New Listeners piece, would also get the axe if swing — strictly defined — is a requirement.

Some people define “swing” as a feeling. But that’s just as ephemeral as the word “jazz,” and only serves to mystify folks. Saying something “swings” doesn’t seem very useful if it’s nothing more than a synonym for “kills” or “shreds” or “burns” or “cooks” or “rocks” or “grooves” in the sentence, “Wow, that music really _________.”

And what about the blues? Here we get into sticky territory. In my opinion, it’s important to differentiate the origins of the music from the requirements for its current practice. In other words, even if it’s true that jazz came from the blues in its earliest days, it’s also true that the music has been embraced by people all over the world for whom the blues is not a foundational music. Much of what has come from Europe, for example, is completely unrelated to the blues. But it’s certainly jazz, as far as I’m concerned. It might have been more challenging to separate jazz from the blues in 1950, but it’s extremely easy to point to examples these days.

What about improvisation? Of the elements I listed, this comes closest to a requirement in my book, but it still falls short. There are dozens — make that hundreds or thousands — of ballad performances on record that feature nothing more than a performance of the melody with no solos. Sure, some of these performances involve ornamentation or other flourishes that are improvised, but they don’t involve the kind of spontaneous composition that is the hallmark of what most jazz people would call improvisation. On the flip side, there’s music that features tons of improvisation, such as the Grateful Dead or Phish, that almost no one would classify as jazz. (Not least because they wouldn’t want to give the music the kiss of sales death that the word “jazz” usually carries with it.)

So where does that leave us? And why did I name my interview show The Jazz Session if I don’t even know what the word “jazz” means?

Taking the second question first: I named the show The Jazz Session because (a) it’s catchy, and (b) it helps a certain niche group of listeners find the show more easily. I didn’t mean it to be exclusionary, but I can certainly see how the name might have that effect.

As for where we’re at, having removed any useful means of recognizing what’s jazz and what’s not, I think that’s the entire point of this essay, and of my “Jazz Don’t Hurt” column. My contention is that we toss the definitions and requirements, and just find music that we each dig. My jazz doesn’t have to be your jazz, and vice versa. We don’t need to agree on the terms of the debate, or on the definition of the words. In fact, the more we worry about the definitions, the more we risk missing good music that gets hidden deep in the pigeonhole. I don’t think you should listen to Darius Jones or the records I recommended in the five CDs piece because they’re jazz records. In my opinion, you should check them out because each one is full of great music by musicians who have something to say.

I know that people — including me — will still use the term jazz. It’s sometimes a useful shorthand, and it’s going to be a long time before record stores are alphabetized from A to Z with no catergories. But I don’t think the word should be a gate to which you must hold a special key.

What is jazz? I don’t really know. And I don’t really care. And if you’re comfortable with not caring, too, I think we can have a lot of fun together discovering music here at Popdose.

Jason Crane is the host of the online jazz interview show The Jazz Session.