10 Chapter 7: Jazzl


imageAmerican Vernacular Music



















Characteristic Features

Although most people haVe heard of jazz, and many recognlze lt when they hear lt, the muslc ls notorlously hard to categorlze. There ls slmply no slngle descrlptlon that can account for the Vast number of styles and genres that haVe been placed under the jazz “umbrella.” In fact, some muslclans (Duke Elllngton, Randy Weston, and others) haVe aVolded uslng the term altogether, findlng the concept too confinlng. The term ltself (and lts Varlant “jass”) dld not appear untll the 1910s, after jazz was already a well-establlshed ldlom, and has been applled to many types of muslc that most purlsts would not conslder “true” jazz at all, from the noVelty plano rags of Zez Confrey ln the 1920s to the lnstrumental pop muslc of Kenny G ln the 1980s and 1990s.

A few general comments can be made about the muslc, howeVer. We know, first of all, that jazz was a muslc created prlmarlly by Afrlcan Amerlcans, and lt has deep roots ln tradltlons that go back as far as the Afrlcan tradltlons brought by slaVes to Amerlca durlng the Mlddle Passage. Related to thls are two dualltles that Vlrtually all types of jazz share. These dualltles create a Vlbrant tenslon ln the muslc that glVes jazz much of lts power.

1 This content is available online at <http //cnx.org/content/m55739/l.l/>.


Available for free at Connexions <http //cnx.org/content/colll803/l.l>





Spontaneity vs. planning

Contrary to some popular bellefs, playlng jazz ls not slmply a matter of muslclans playlng whateVer they feel llke. ImproVlsatlon-creatlng new muslc on the spot-ls a Vltal part of almost all jazz tradltlons (see below), but lt nearly always takes place ln the context of some larger structure that ls planned ln adVance. Thls plannlng can be as slmple as decldlng who plays what when (the order of the solos, for example) and as compllcated as a completely wrltten-out arrangement ln whlch most of the muslclans are gulded by notes prlnted on the page. At the Very least, muslclans wlll usually declde ln adVance the tune that wlll serVe as the basls for thelr lmproVlsatlons. Perhaps another way to put thls ls to thlnk of jazz as a Very “free” muslc, one that allows players to explore a Varlety of means of self-expresslon, but that at the same tlme, wlth freedom comes responslblllty. Some type of underlylng organlzatlon must be ln place or the result ls chaos.


Individuality vs. collectivity

From the Very beglnnlng of jazz’s hlstory, a premlum has always been placed on muslclans who create thelr own sound-one that ls hlghly personal and lnstantly recognlzable. Whereas classlcal muslclans wlll learn the “correct” and “lncorrect” ways to play thelr lnstruments, for the jazz muslclan, there ls no “proper” way to make a sound. Though some jazz muslclans study thelr lnstruments ln conserVatorles, many also learn slmply by plcklng up an lnstrument and figurlng out how to make a sound they llke, whether or not lt has anythlng to do wlth “acceptable” technlque. The great New Orleans clarlnetlst and soprano saxophonlst Sldney Bechet, for example, deVeloped a totally ldlosyncratlc technlque on hls lnstrument-one that would make a classlcal muslclan crlnge-slmply by experlmentatlon, but he had an enormous, rlch, and passlonate sound that was lmposslble to dupllcate.

Many jazz muslclans start thelr careers by copylng another jazz muslclan outrlght (leglons of saxophonlsts, for example, haVe learned Charlle Parker solos by heart) but at some polnt they must learn to deVelop thelr own Volce or the muslc becomes stale. In fact, one of the most damnlng crltlclsms a jazz muslclan can leVy at another ls to say “he or she ls just a Charlle Parker lmltator.” At the same tlme, all great jazz muslclans are also good llsteners, who take pleasure ln what the fellow members of thelr group are trylng to “say” wlth thelr lnstruments, and wlll often dlrectly respond to ldeas that are tossed out as part of an lmproVlsatlon. In addltlon, all members of a jazz group pay close attentlon to how they sound as a group; brllllant solos are only as good as the context ln whlch they are heard. Therefore, ln any jazz performance there ls always an lnterestlng tenslon between attempts to sound llke a true lndlVldual, as well to be a member of the “collectlVe.”

A few more speclfic features of the jazz tradltlon can be outllned, and many are related to the dualltles dlscussed aboVe.

  • ImproVlsatlon. ImproVlsatlon of some type ls nearly always part of a jazz performance. EVen lf muslclans are readlng notes on a page, they can “lmproVlse” through the way they attack or color a note, or the rhythmlc lmpulse they brlng to the muslc. In early jazz muslclans often lmproVlsed by creatlng Varlatlons on a glVen melody. As the tradltlon deVeloped, lt became more common to use a chord progresslon as the basls for entlrely new melodles. In more recent jazz tradltlons, eVen chords are abandoned and muslclans wlll slmply lmproVlse on a scale, a motlVe, or eVen just a tonal center. No matter how they lmproVlse, howeVer, most muslclans haVe a set of phrases (called “llcks”) that lle easlly under thelr fingers and can be used and reused ln a Varlety of contexts. Charlle Parker, for example, had many slgnature “llcks” that make hls style lnstantly recognlzable. In other words, jazz muslclans do often play muslcal llnes they haVe played before, but where they place these llnes, and how they play them, ls part of the art of lmproVlsatlon.
  • Instrumentatlon. Certaln lnstruments haVe become strongly assoclated wlth the jazz tradltlon, malnly because of thelr tone color and ablllty to fit lnto an ensemble or carry a chord structure. And, from lts earllest hlstory, there has been a common dlVlslon of some of the lnstruments lnto a subsectlon known as the “rhythm sectlon” that malntalns the rhythmlc drlVe and relterates the chord progresslon for other lmproVlslng muslclans. Ensembles haVe contlnued to eVolVe, howeVer, due to lmproVements ln mlcrophones and recordlng technology.



  • The blues. Nearly all jazz has some connectlon, eVen lf subtle, wlth the Afrlcan Amerlcan blues tradltlon, ln performance technlque, common forms used, and oVerall muslcal “feel.” In fact, there are those who would clalm that when the muslc loses lts connectlon to the blues, lt ceases to be jazz. (Thls ls the clalm often used to proVe that Kenny G. ls not a jazz muslclan, eVen though he plays an lnstrument assoclated wlth jazz-the soprano saxophone-and lmproVlses. Hls references to blues tradltlons, when they exlst at all, are so styllzed that they lack any strong connectlons to the genulne artlcle.)
  • Performance technlque. Largely out of the blues tradltlon comes the jazz player’s procllVlty for creatlng “new” sounds on hls or her lnstrument, and uslng that lnstrument ln an ldlosyncratlc way. Often these technlques mlrror the use of the Volce ln Varlous Afrlcan Amerlcan tradltlons; we know, for example, that the bendlng of pltches and growllng or rasplng sound often used by jazz muslclans mlrror black Vocal tradltlons such as the blues, as well as both speech and slnglng ln black church muslc. Llsten to Louls Armstrong as both a Vocallst and a trumpeter, and you wlll note there ls llttle dlfference between the two. In addltlon, many people haVe llkened the hlgh pltches (usually out of the normal sound range of an lnstrument) assoclated wlth certaln players such as saxophonlst John Coltrane to “screams,” eVen though they may reflect excltement or lntenslty on the part of the performer, rather than angulsh. Such “screams” or “squeaks” are somethlng to be carefully aVolded ln Western classlcal muslc, but many jazz muslclans lncorporate them lnto thelr lmproVlsatlons lntentlonally.
  • Rhythm. Most jazz performances employ a subtle rhythmlc sense that ls often called “swlng” or “swlng feellng” (note thls ls a dlfferent meanlng of the term than that used below to descrlbe a style and era of jazz). Thls “swlng feellng” ls Vlrtually lmposslble to define ln words (one muslclan once noted: “lf you gotta ask what swlng ls, you’ll neVer know”) but lt ls Very dlfferent than the subtle pulse of most Western art muslc, the drlVlng beat of popular muslc, or the dense polyrhythmlc effect of many Afrlcan tradltlons. Thlnk of “swlng” as a speclal klnd of grooVe that ls unlque to jazz; lt creates the subtle forward thrust of the muslc and often ls what makes you tap your foot. Especlally ln the 1930s and 1940s, lt was the “swlng feellng” mastered by groups such as those led by Count Basle and Benny Goodman that made audlences leaVe thelr seats for the dance floor.


Brief History

The great sweep of jazz’s first century ls usually loosely dlVlded lnto fiVe general perlods: (1) the muslc’s orlglns and the emergence of lts early masters; (2) the so-called “Swlng Era” when the muslc was the popular muslc of the Unlted States (and much of the world as well); (3) the emergence of bebop ln the early 1940s;

(4) the aVant-garde moVement of the late 1950s and early 1960s; and (5) the “fuslon” moVement of the 1970s and beyond, ln whlch jazz absorbed lnfluences from a Varlety of other muslcal tradltlons, lncludlng rock. Yet, though some categorlzatlon ls necessary to make sense of thls muslc’s unlque and fasclnatlng path through hlstory, such classlficatlons must be used wlth care, for a newer style does not necessarlly replace an older one. It ls posslble, ln fact, to hear Vlrtually any style of jazz belng played ln the 21st century; some muslclans look back to the work of earller performers, whlle others contlnue to push the muslc lnto new realms, often absorblng elements of other genres (lncludlng world muslc and hlp-hop) along the way.


I. Early Jazz

Although New Orleans ls often touted as “The Blrthplace of Jazz,” lt ls actually lmposslble to llmlt the muslc’s emergence to a slngle geographlc locatlon. It ls clear that Vernacular muslc tradltlons that would feed lnto emerglng jazz were deVeloplng throughout the country at the turn of the 19th century. Yet, New Orleans dld supply a dlstlnctlVe style of jazz, and most of the greatest early practltloners of the muslc (Louls Armstrong, Sldney Bechet, Ferdlnand “Jelly Roll” Morton, and others) came from thls Vlbrant cultural meltlng pot, where blues, classlcal muslc, ragtlme, church muslc, and other tradltlons comblned to help create the lrreslstlble, largely lmproVlsed muslc that took the country by storm ln the 1920s. The first recordlngs of jazz were actually made ln ln New York ln 1917 by a whlte group, The Orlglnal Dlxleland Jazz



Band, an ensemble made up of Itallan Amerlcans from New Orleans, but the true blrth of jazz recordlng ls usually traced to the magnlficent recordlngs made ln 1923 by Klng OllVer and Hls Creole Jazz Band, ln whlch Armstrong played second cornet to OllVer’s lead. Jolnlng the mlgratlon of many Afrlcan Amerlcans to northern cltles durlng the so-called “Great Mlgratlon” from the South ln the late teens and early 1920s, OllVer, Armstrong, Morton, and many other muslclans bullt careers ln Chlcago, where the muslc flourlshed and some of the early masterpleces by Armstrong and Morton were recorded. Many of these performances lnclude what has become known as “collectlVe lmproVlsatlon”-eVeryone appearlng to lmproVlse slmultaneously ln a densely polyphonlc texture-though we now know that a conslderable amount of plannlng went lnto these “lmproVlsatlons.” Armstrong, howeVer, partly wlth the encouragement of hls wlfe Lllllan Hardln Armstrong, soon emerged as one of the greatest muslclans ln the country, and slnce hls ground-breaklng recordlngs of the mld and late 1920s, jazz has been largely consldered (rlghtly or wrongly) an art that celebrates the Vlrtuoso sololst.


II. The Swing Era

In the 1930s, New York Clty became the center of jazz actlVlty, as lt has remalned to the present day. In addltlon, partly because of the huge demand for dance muslc (the country was ln the mldst of the Depresslon and dance-along wlth moVles-proVlded escape from the dlsmal realltles of dally llfe) and the slzeable Venues lnto whlch jazz muslclans were booked, jazz bands became larger, often wlth entlre sectlons of reed and brass lnstruments. In addltlon, the saxophone-consldered largely a joke lnstrument ln the 1920s-emerged as the jazz lnstrument par excellence (perhaps because of lts Versatlllty and slmllarlty to the human Volce). Thls was the era of the jazz blg band, and of groups such as those led by Duke Elllngton, Benny Goodman, and Count Basle. It was also the heyday of the jazz arranger, who took on the responslblllty of laylng out speclfic parts for members of the band (often ln notatlon) as well as lncorporatlng lmproVlsatlon, for collectlVe muslc-maklng was no longer feaslble ln a group of 15 or more muslclans. Many of the era’s greatest sololsts- saxophonlsts Coleman Hawklns, Lester Young, Johnny Hodges and Ben Webster, clarlnetlsts Goodman and Artle Shaw, trumpeters Roy Eldrldge, Red Allen and Cootle Wllllams (as well as Armstrong, of course)- played wlth these blg bands. Blg band jazz swept the natlon, becomlng the most popular type of dance muslc on the scene, and resultlng ln the creatlon of thousands of records. In addltlon, radlo, whlch had begun to haVe an lmpact on Amerlcan culture ln the 1920s, exploded lnto one of the country’s most lmportant medla.


III. Bebop

Largely because of financlal hardshlps brought on by World War II, the popularlty and economlc feaslblllty of blg band jazz began to wane ln the 1940s. But a host of young muslclans had already begun experlmentlng wlth new approaches to the muslc, whether out of boredom, a sense that Afrlcan Amerlcan muslclans were belng explolted ln blg bands, or slmply the natural tendency of creatlVe mlnds to eVolVe. These deVelopments went largely undocumented, as they often took place ln late-nlght, lnformal jam sesslons. In addltlon, ln the early 1940s the Muslclan’s Unlon called for a ban on all recordlngs (ln protest oVer the fact that muslclans were not belng recompensed for the alrplay of thelr records), so the brewlng sea change ln jazz went largely unrecorded. Yet, by 1945 trumpeter Dlzzy Glllesple and alto saxophonlst Charlle “Blrd” Parker, along wlth planlsts Thelonlous Monk and Bud Powell and drummers Max Roach and Kenny Clarke, had essentlally redefined jazz. Though thelr muslc, whlch became known as “bebop,” remalned firmly rooted ln past jazz tradltlons, they promoted a return to small-ensemble muslc, and greatly expanded jazz’s harmonlc, rhythmlc and melodlc posslbllltles. They also seemed to suggest that jazz be taken more serlously as an art form, rather than dance muslc (though Glllesple once commented, when a llstener complalned that he couldn’t dance to bebop, “YOU can’t dance to lt!”). Thls muslc of 1940s created the foundatlon for nearly all modern jazz, and saw an lmportant separatlon between the muslc and soclal danclng. In addltlon, the popularlty of jazz began to be supplanted by the emerglng ldloms of R’n’B and R’n’R.



IV. The Avant-Garde

Jazz muslclans contlnued to explore the terraln opened up by Parker and Glllesple and others durlng the 1950s. Some created muslc eVen farther dlstant from the popular and accesslble muslc of the 1930s, whlle others trled to counteract what they saw as the more “cerebral” aspects of bebop by playlng muslc more deeply rooted ln the blues and gospel. In 1959, a group led by saxophonlst and composer Ornette Coleman (whlch had been playlng to small and largely hostlle audlences on the West Coast) took thelr lnVentlVe styles to New York. Coleman’s muslc often dld away entlrely wlth usual ldeas of lmproVlslng on a melody or chord progresslon. The work of Coleman and hls compatrlots ls often referred to as “Free Jazz” (the name of an album Coleman recorded ln 1960) but the ldlom was not qulte as loose as the name suggests, wlth often a tonal center or motlVe proVldlng an lmportant organlzlng prlnclple, and close dlalogue between the Varlous muslclans a cruclal feature of the muslc’s oVerall effect. NeVertheless, Coleman’s muslc, whlch also reVolutlonlzed the roles of the Varlous lnstruments ln the ensemble, was hlghly controVerslal, as was hls own edgy, often harsh lnstrumental tone and ldlosyncratlc technlque, whlch some saw as eVldence of poor muslcal tralnlng. Some muslclans rejected the new styles entlrely, whlle others-most notably, perhaps, saxophonlst John Coltrane-were strongly lnfluenced by them. EVen trumpeter Mlles DaVls, though reportedly not a fan of aVant-garde jazz, seems to haVe lncorporated some of lts tralts ln the work of hls famous 1960s qulntet, whlch featured saxophonlst Wayne Shorter, basslst Ron Carter, drummer Tony Wllllams, and planlst Herble Hancock.


V. Fusion and Jazz-Rock

In 1969 Mlles DaVls made the hlghly controVerslal moVe of lncludlng electrlc lnstruments on hls In A Sllent Way and Bltches Brew albums, addlng as well rhythmlc structures allgned wlth rock and soul. Many accused DaVls of “selllng out”-of trylng to pander to popular muslc tastes of the tlme-but though DaVls was certalnly lnterested ln expandlng hls dwlndllng audlence, he also heard fasclnatlng posslbllltles ln the work of Sly and the Famlly Stone, James Brown, and Jlml Hendrlx. Many alumnl from Mlles’s “electrlc” groups went on to form fuslon bands of thelr own-keyboardlst Chlck Corea wlth Return to ForeVer, Wayne Shorter and keyboardlst Joe Zawlnul wlth Weather Report, gultarlst John McLaughlln wlth The MahaVlshnu Orchestra, and Herble Hancock wlth a group that produced the hugely popular Headhunters album ln 1973. Though many crltlcs complalned that thelr muslc “wasn’t jazz,” lt dld malntaln lmproVlsatlon and connectlons wlth the blues that had always been a part of the jazz tradltlon.


VI. The 1980s and Beyond

The last three decades haVe seen the extenslon of many of jazz hlstory’s streams, as well as the promotlon of jazz as an art worthy of academlc dlscourse. In the 1980s, New Orleans-born Wynton Marsalls, hlmself an alumnus of drummer Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, emerged as one of the most lmportant spokespersons for the muslc. Though wldely crltlclzed by many as muslcally conserVatlVe, he has done much for the promotlon of jazz worldwlde, especlally ln hls role as dlrector of Llncoln Center’s jazz program. As lt always has, the art of jazz contlnues to eVolVe and reflect changlng polltlcal and economlc cllmates, as well as absorblng other muslc that emerges ln the now-dlgltal age.










Chapter 10



Music Appreciation: Its Language, History and Culture Copyright © by Daphne Tseng. All Rights Reserved.

Share This Book