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Friday, March 27, 2009

What is Jazz?


This is actually an older essay - I did it several years ago, but I think it's still a relevant question - at least for me!



What is Jazz?

This question has not only been asked ever since the J word was associated with an emerging musical form, but is also almost certainly guaranteed to raise a groan from the reader of any essay which uses 'What is Jazz?' as a title ‚ myself included. However, in these days of the post modern/eclecticism/all inclusive philosophy on the one hand, and die hard conservatism/neo classical/preservation of the 'pure' tradition, on the other, - the question of what is jazz, is a valid one for everyone who loves this music, plays it, or teaches it.

Why? Well identity for a start ‚ if we're to develop and sustain a life in creative music, in the music we call 'jazz', I believe it becomes ever more important to identify what exactly are the musical and philosophical values that make us what we are ‚ jazz musicians. And more than ever, we need to understand our motivation, because jazz is quite marginalised in society today. Unlike the mainstream American jazz of the early to mid-20th Century, which grew directly from the community and society that surrounded it, jazz today is not the music of the society that surrounds it ‚ in some ways. In many ways I believe jazz today does not directly reflect the society in which it finds itself.

This itself was a problematic conclusion for me to come to. In the conservative‚ v -innovative debate, I'm firmly on the side of the innovative argument. I believe that to try and recreate the music of the past is a false aesthetic for a creative musician to follow, since a truly improvising musician must reflect their direct influences, most of which must come from the society that surrounds them and the music of that society.

So, if I believe that, how can I also hold the seemingly opposed view that jazz is not a direct outgrowth of the society it finds itself in? Well I extricate myself from that particular contradiction by the following reasoning ‚ jazz today is in some ways a product of the society it find itself in, and in other ways far outside it. Let me explain.

First of all ‚ how is jazz today reflective of society?

Jazz today, or what is called jazz, shows a bewildering array of influences ‚ rock music, contemporary classical, world music, electronic dance music, hip-hop etc. etc. ‚ and, of course, the American swing idiom, which is the original rhythmic source of the music. Different groups and musicians reflect different influences, sometimes mixing more than one element in their musical outlook. This eclectic myriad of styles and influences is very much a reflection of our society. We live in the information age ‚ never has so much information been available to everybody, via mass-media and the internet. Music is no different - go into any decent mainstream music store and one is met by a baffling array of artists and styles, and literally anything, even the most obscure music forms, are available through the internet.

We are bombarded with musical information, and it is hardly surprising that jazz musicians, as they have always done, use this information to inform their own music, taking inspiration where they find it. In this way the music is absolutely reflective of the society in which it lives. Globalism is bulldozing local traditions in all sorts of ways, and in jazz the same could be argued. 50 years ago a young musician living in a small Spanish or Irish, or Indian town would probably be exposed, for the most part, to Spanish, Irish, or Indian music respectively. His or her counterpart today would have been exposed to a much wider range of musics ‚ and this is reflected in the music we hear from jazz musicians now. In this way, jazz is very reflective of its environment.

So how is jazz today not reflective of society?

One of the things that I find most attractive about jazz is the democratic and social nature of the music. The music is about process rather than result ‚ jazz being best experienced live, where one can experience the creation of a piece of music, brought about by the efforts of a group of people working together, and communicating with each other. Yet within the tradition of this sociable music, the idea of individualism is not only encouraged, but highly prized. So, here we have a music which is completely dependent on co-operation between the participants, yet which at the same time encourages each to make as personal and individual a statement as possible. What a wonderful ethos!

And what an alien ethos in today's society! We live in an era of conformity ‚ despite what we are told by advertisers, trying to convince us that buying their products will somehow make us different or special. The name of the game today is sell, sell, sell. And never has it been easier for advertisers to reach its customers. Through the same mass media and technology which allows us access to so much music, comes a relentless barrage of advertising, product placement, corporate identity information, and a general haranguing of the population to buy this or that.

In order to maximise the sales of their products, huge global corporations have been formed which can send their message to every corner of the earth. One of the results of this is the gradual bulldozing of national identity ‚ people in Japan, the US, China, France, Brazil etc. often wear the same terrible clothes, eat the same terrible food, listen to the same terrible music. People are happy to be walking advertising boards for global clothing companies, proudly sporting their logos on their shirts or footwear. Never has the world undergone such a tidal wave of sameness under the name of choice. The result is a conformity that threatens to engulf every aspect of our lives.

In this milieu, jazz is very much out of step with the society. It stands out as a beacon of individuality in a sea of sameness, commercialism and mediocrity ‚ and thank goodness for that! Its prizing of individuality is a wonderful thing, allowing a rare opportunity for people to express themselves in a way that is not governed by an advertising executive or an accountant. This is not to say that jazz hasn't been touched by the same market forces as all other musics, but I think it's fair to say that it is less prevalent in jazz.

This is where I think the question of 'what is jazz' becomes important and interesting. If we agree that jazz is an oasis of creativity in a commercial desert, then surely it becomes important for us to be able to not only identify the aesthetic values of jazz, but also the musical values ‚ the musical aesthetic that separates it from other forms of music and allows us to identify with a tradition, and a list of great musical antecedents. In this way we can clearly identify what is important to us, both musically and aesthetically, and clearly make a musical statement every time we play.

Of course now we come to the thorny issue of what exactly 'jazz' is in musical terms. Can it even be explained? Can it be reduced to a few principles, or is that impossible? Is every effort to explain it either too all-inclusive ‚ where almost everything could be called jazz of some sort or another ‚ or too exclusive ‚ where a very narrow definition excludes almost everything? These are hard questions to answer, and all I can do is offer the solution that I've come up with myself, and with which I form my own opinions about music I play, and music I hear.

Wynton Marsalis, when asked what jazz was, baldly stated, "Blues and Swing". To him this is the simple answer ‚ the music evolved within a certain tradition ‚ blues and swing ‚ and once other influences became apparent in the music ‚ i.e. rock music ‚ it ceased to be jazz anymore. While I have a certain sympathy with where that argument is coming from ‚ the desire to preserve what he sees as a tradition under threat ‚ at the same time I think this is far too simplistic an idea and is insupportable from both a creative and historic point of view.

If you hold onto an idea of a 'pure' form of jazz you are entering very dangerous waters. Since jazz is a music that originated from an accretion of musical information coming from several different musical cultures, at what point does one cut off the inclusion of any new pieces of information? Who decides that this piece of harmonic information was acceptable, but that is not? Who decides that the influence of Latin rhythms are acceptable in jazz, but that funk rhythms are not? Jazz has evolved and taken in influences constantly. This happened from jazz's earliest days right into the 1960s ‚ which seems to be the cut-off point for Marsalis as far as his notion of the legitimate development of the tradition is concerned. But why were the influences that entered jazz up to this point ‚ Latin rhythms, chord substitution, and modal harmony for example ‚ acceptable, and the later ones ‚ funk rhythms, free playing and classical compositional practices for example ‚ not?

These decisions seem far too arbitrary to me and are far too subjective, being based on the likes and dislikes of the arbiter ‚ in this case Marsalis. It also neglects to take account of that other great jazz tradition ‚ innovation and change, which is the engine that has driven the evolution of the music. And it excludes far too much music that is clearly based on a jazz music ethos, and that uses jazz techniques almost exclusively.

I guess it has come to the point where I have to state my own opinion on what is and isn't jazz ‚ I can't sit on the fence any longer! I believe that jazz has become an incredibly broad music, and that it is a global music now ‚ one which is played and developed by musicians all over the world, not just America. A music where innovators come from many countries and cultures and who bring their unique perspective into the music to enrich it and help keep it vibrant. So in this vast musical landscape, how can we identify any more what is or isn't jazz? Well, for me, this is what I see as being jazz:

Jazz is a largely improvised music, in which all members of the group improvise, and which is informed by the Afro-American rhythmic tradition.

I think this definition is broad enough to include all of the innovations which are taking place in the music today, and the influences that are coming from so many sources, while at the same time setting limits as to what can be called jazz ‚ preserving some sort of ethos with which we can identify with, and be a part of, rather than being part of a church that is so broad it encompasses everybody from Megadeth to Ligeti.

So maybe I could give a few examples of this explanation of jazz in action ‚ or how I would apply my definition to different artists. Indian music, though fulfilling the criteria of being largely improvised throughout the ensemble, has no influence from the Afro-American tradition, so isn't jazz. Steve Coleman's music, though rarely, if ever engaging with swing, involves many aspects of the Afro-American rhythmic tradition, and the group improvises both collectively and individually and therefore, by my definition is jazz.

My definition is broad enough to allow currently active musicians as disparate as Wynton Marsalis, Jan Garbarek, John Zorn, and John McLaughlin to be seen as part, albeit very different parts, of the same great tradition. At the same time it allows me to exclude Kenny G! In Kenny G's group he improvises after a fashion for sure, but his group is constrained to play the same backing time after time, therefore breaching the stipulation that the music must be improvised by the group ‚ not just the individual. For the same reason, I have grave reservations about the current vogue in Europe of mixing jazz gestures with electronic dance music. This has the same problems for me, in a jazz sense, as what Kenny G does, in that the soloist is improvising over a set background that cannot, and will not change. In this way the music skirts the social element that true group improvising - that I mentioned as being such a wonderful part of the jazz ethos ‚ entails.

So, with this simple formula, I find it relatively easy to negotiate the plethora of differing styles that can currently be heard in what I would consider to be contemporary jazz. At the same time it allows me to also clearly identify core values that can be clearly understood, and acted upon.

Jazz is a great gift to humanity, and now, maybe more than ever before, I believe it has much to offer the world. I think it's important for us to be proud of being jazz musicians, and to believe in the importance of what we do. And in order to believe in that importance it's necessary to understand exactly what it is we do. Hence the necessity for all aspiring jazz musicians, teachers and lovers to ask themselves ‚ 'what is jazz'? If you can answer that satisfactorily for yourself, everything within the music takes on more meaning - and this has to be a good thing.

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