The Intellectual Definitions of JazzEdit

Attempts have been made to define jazz from the perspective of other musical traditions, using the point of view of European music history or African music for example, but jazz critic Joachim Berendt argues that all such attempts are unsatisfactory.[1]
He argues that jazz differs from European music in that jazz has a "special relationship to time, defined as 'swing'", "a spontaneity and vitality of musical production in which improvisation plays a role"; and "sonority and manner of phrasing which mirror the individuality of the performing jazz musician".[1]

Travis Jackson has also proposed a broader definition of jazz which is able to encompass all of the radically different eras: He states that it is music that includes qualities such as "swinging", improvising, group interaction, developing an 'individual voice', and being 'open' to different musical possibilities".[2]

Krin Gabbard claims that “jazz is a construct” or category that, while artificial, still is useful to designate “a number of musics with enough commonality to be understood as part of a coherent tradition”.[3]
Improvisation is clearly one of the key elements of jazz. Early blues, a form of folk music which rose in part from work songs and field hollers of rural Blacks in the South, was also structured around a repetitive call-and-response pattern, and then improvised around. Such is also a common element in the African American oral tradition.

European Music versus JazzEdit

In European classical music elements of interpretation, ornamentation and accompaniment are sometimes left to the performer's discretion, the performer's primary goal is to play a composition as it was written, including the parts reserved for soloists.

In jazz, however, the skilled performer will interpret a tune in very individual ways. They may never play the same composition exactly the same way twice.

Depending upon the performer's mood and personal experience, interactions with fellow musicians, or even members of the audience, a jazz musician/performer may alter melodies, harmonies or time signature at will.

The jazz soloist is supported by a rhythm section who "comp", by playing chords and rhythms that outline the song structure and complement the soloist.[4]

European classical music has been said to be a composer's medium. Jazz, however, is often characterized as the product of egalitarian creativity, interaction and collaboration, placing equal value on the contributions of composer and performer, 'adroitly weigh[ing] the respective claims of the composer and the improviser'.[5]

In New Orleans and Dixieland jazz, performers take turns playing the melody, while others improvise melodies and countermelodies.

Exceptions to the RuleEdit

By the swing era, the mix of white dance bands and black dance bands competing for the same business led to big bands instead of smaller combos. Groups that large can't all take off on their own, so most jazz bands of that size relied more on arranged music.

Arrangements were either written or learned by ear and memorized. Many early jazz performers could not read or write musical notation.

Individual soloists would improvise within these arrangements. In some cases, like that of a Louis Armstrong, the entirety of a song might be arranged to allow a star performer the maximum amount of solo time.

BeBop swung that pendulum back towards small groups and minimal arrangements. The melody, known as the "head," would be stated briefly at the start and end of a piece but the core of the performance would be the series of improvisations in the middle.

Later styles of jazz such as modal jazz abandoned the strict notion of a chord progression, allowing the individual musicians to improvise even more freely within the context of a given scale or mode.[6] The avant-garde and free jazz idioms permit, even call for, abandoning chords, scales, and rhythmic meters.


There have long been debates in the jazz community over the definition and the boundaries of “jazz”. Although alteration or transformation of jazz by new influences has often been initially criticized as a “debasement,” Andrew Gilbert argues that jazz has the “ability to absorb and transform influences” from diverse musical styles.[7] While some enthusiasts of certain types of jazz have argued for narrower definitions which exclude many other types of music also commonly known as "jazz", jazz musicians themselves are often reluctant to define the music they play. Duke Ellington summed it up by saying, "It's all music."[8] Some critics have even stated that Ellington's music was not jazz because it was arranged and orchestrated.[9] On the other hand Ellington's friend Earl Hines's twenty solo "transformative versions" of Ellington compositions (on Earl Hines Plays Duke Ellington recorded in the 1970s) were described by Ben Ratliff, the New York Times jazz critic, as "as good an example of the jazz process as anything out there."[10]

Commercially oriented or popular music-influenced forms of jazz have both long been criticized, at least since the emergence of Bop. Traditional jazz enthusiasts have dismissed Bop, the 1970s jazz fusion era [and much else] as a period of commercial debasement of the music. According to Bruce Johnson, jazz music has always had a "tension between jazz as a commercial music and an art form".[2] Gilbert notes that as the notion of a canon of jazz is developing, the “achievements of the past” may become "...privileged over the idiosyncratic creativity...” and innovation of current artists. Village Voice jazz critic Gary Giddins argues that as the creation and dissemination of jazz is becoming increasingly institutionalized and dominated by major entertainment firms, jazz is facing a "...perilous future of respectability and disinterested acceptance." David Ake warns that the creation of “norms” in jazz and the establishment of a “jazz tradition” may exclude or sideline other newer, avant-garde forms of jazz.[2]

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