What is Jazz?

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The discussion below is taken from a thread launched by "Grubba99" on the Synth Zone General Arranger forum.  Click here to go to the original thread.

Grubba99
01-05-2004 06:58 PM

I've been hearing a lot on this forum about jazz playing. When listening, I can recognize if a piece is a jazz piece. But I wanted to know, essentially, what is jazz? What is done to make something considered jazz? Like, from a musicians point of view, what separates jazz from all other music?

-- Grub

keybplayer
01-05-2004 07:20 PM

Jazz: "A style of music of Afro-American roots characterized by a strong rhythmic understructure, blue notes, and improvisation on melody and chord structure".

Interpretation: Just play anything you want and try to blend it in to what the other Musicians are playing or the Singer is singing. LOL

Don't get me wrong though. I love Jazz! Something that is so unstructured that it tends to take away from the rigid structure of daily life and give a person a refreshing pause from it when listening to Jazz and can brighten ones day. And I think that is what separates Jazz from all other forms of music, i.e., its "unstructuredness."

Best regards,
-- Mike

Scottyee
01-05-2004 08:33 PM

Hi Grub: Jazz has become a popular catch all music genre label these days for music, which doesn't fit solidly into any other category, i.e.: new age jazz, lite jazz, classic jazz, jazz-funk, traditional jazz, acid jazz, hip-hop jazz, etc. Everyone from Miles Davis to Kenny G and Michael Bolton have been labeled jazz musicians, the later to the consternation of many (including myself).

Grubba99: What is done to make something considered jazz? Like, from a musicians point of view, what separates jazz from all other music?

From an historic standpoint, the roots of jazz began in New Orleans (Dixieland) marked by it's syncopated rhythm (swung 8th note versus straight 8th note feel) and instrumental and vocal improvisation over the chord (changes) of a song, which include altered chord tones (b9, #9, etc.), and incorporation of the blues. The Swing Era was followed by the Bebop Era of Charlie Parker, and later continued to evolve to free jazz etc. I personally enjoy and play most the tunes of the classic "swing" jazz era. Here's a link to a site that I just stumbled upon which covers the subject of jazz in a lot more detail. I also recommend checking out the film documentary available on DVD entitled: Jazz, a film by Ken Burns. This may even be available for rental at your local video/DVD store.

-- Scott

captain Russ
01-06-2004 08:08 AM

Jazz is an ever-evolving art form, typified by using a structured progression and variations on lead lines. In it's most pleasant form (for me), it is delightful nonverbal communication between players, as they assimilate ideas from other players in a group (in real time) and, together, create a one-time, not-to-be-duplicated performance.

That being said, in terms of performance, playing jazz can be a slippery slope. I know many jazz players who are excellent at their craft, and are starving to death. The appreciation of many forms of jazz is an acquired taste. Well-paying venues are few and far between. Players of other forms of music must know the material and be competent. To make a living, jazz players must be superior.

Jazz tunes can be played in many applications (like supper clubs), but the player must use common sense. In dining rooms, music must be played at reduced volumes and playing cannot be too busy. Once, at a supper club, I had a request for The Tennessee Waltz. Being the cocky smartass I was at the time, I began playing the tune as a jazz waltz. A kid about 20 years old came up to me and said, "Don't mess with the tune." I thought, "I'll show him," and asked if he played. He told me he was a trumpet player. I laughingly asked him to sit in. He went to his car and brought back a ratty old canvas bag. Out of that, he pull out a horn case with a top of the line Benge trumpet in it. I wasn't so confident then. When I asked him what he wanted to play, he said, "Anything you want." I called the tune "Four." When I asked him what key, he said "stock," hit the first note, and I spent the next 45 minutes frantically scrambling to keep up. The kid was 22 years old, and part of the Stan Kenton band. He was on vacation, visiting relatives in Kentucky.

At breakfast that evening, he told me he wasn't trying to be disrespectful, but the venue wasn't a jazz one, and satisfying the customer was the challenge. That interpretation on an old "nut" song was massaging my ego, he said. The customer would think the song sounded "funny."

I learned a lot from that kid that night. I love jazz and playing jazz, but there's a time and a place for it. And, playing for people is what music is all about.

-- Russ

Grubba99
01-06-2004 07:33 PM

Does jazz have to do with 7ths?

trtjazz
01-07-2004 04:04 AM

Being a new age / smooth jazz sort of guy, I may as well get my 2 cents in on this one. Much of our jazz roots in the USA also came from Klezmer music as well, which, to a large part, incorporates quite a bit of improvisation. To say jazz is unstructured, do-what-you-want, is incorrect, though. If anything, it incorporates a lot more freedom within a very structured environment. It does not follow middle-of-the-road traditional commercial structure, though to varying degrees depending on who's brand of jazz we're talking about.

Count Basie and Chick Corea are both jazz, but two totally different types of jazz. If anything can be said about jazz, it is that jazz has many more avenues to explore than any other genre that I know of and does not follow the strict guidelines of other forms of music. As such, it causes a problem for most who have a problem thinking out of the box.

I believe there are equally great technicians across all the genres, however, what I think separates jazz players, is they think about music differently. At least the ones over the years that I have hung out with, played with, and have been influenced by, do.

In jazz there is a constant pushing of the envelope, experimenting, going out on a limb, based more on sound then tradition. How much, again, depends on the type of jazz.

A lot of Maj7ths, 9ths and 13ths, diminished and augmented chords, different order of progressions than pop music.
-- Terry

btweengigs
01-07-2004 06:56 AM

Captain Russ, I have read and reread your post regarding jazzing up the Tennessee Waltz and your interaction with the young trumpet player from Stan Kenton's band. Wow! Great story with a moral many of us have had to learn the hard way.

Living in an area of the country that has a large retirement population (Florida), I am torn between playing the generic versions of the same old songs that are expected and trying to present something fresh such as 1) Jazzing up a song they know, or 2) slipping in a more contemporary, less familiar song once in awhile. I will try either of the two occasionally and watch the reaction. 90% of the time, it doesn't get the desired reaction and I move back into the Safe Zone. But, every once in awhile, I get a "Wow" reaction and they will request it at my next visit.

I guess all of us want to stand out, in some way, from our counterparts in the biz, if nothing more than to create our own identity and avoid the boredom of repetition. The only time I do any Jazz is during a cocktail or dinner hour, where the volume is light and the song is light and breezy. Once the dancing starts, it's the old familiar that sells and gets me rebooked.

I think that is also true of the Jazz guys. Once Take Five was a hit, Dave Brubeck could not do a concert without the fans screaming for it. Anything less met with great audience disappointment.

-- Eddie

Starkeeper
01-07-2004 07:39 AM

When Scott Yee plays a song, regardless of the genre, it always sounds like a jazz musician is playing the arranger. It always sounds "jazzy" due to the chord types he uses. This was meant as a compliment.

captain Russ
01-07-2004 07:56 AM

Terry and Eddie, Well-put guys! Great analysis of a fabulous form of musical expression! Best regards,

-- Russ

brickboo
01-07-2004 09:55 AM

Chord structure is not exactly what makes jazz. Many pop tunes of different decades incorporate all of the chords of jazz also. However, what Terry says is correct; there are superimposed chords over the main chord. Which would be like the 9th, 11th, 13th, which really is like playing a Cm over a Bb chord. This way of thinking is the way it fits my brain and simplifies it for me.

Jazz also makes use of the IIm7 chord before the V7 chord in many, but not all, cases. In Jazz, many songs, and most of the blues progressions, use the dominant m7th and then the tonic 7 before resolving to the IV chord. For example: in Bb before going to the Eb chord, you would play a Fm7, then a Bb7, then make the change to the Eb chord instead of just hanging on to the Bb chord and adding the 7th to the Bb before going to the Eb chord.

There are also many flated 5th (Cm7-5) etc. used in jazz. Many of these chord changes are also used in pop tunes. Any tune can be Jazz. The chord changes to "I'm Walking the Floor Over You" could really swing in a Jazz environment.

I know most of you here know all of this. But, I hope it helps the ones who have problems with trying to decipher what is the difference in jazz and other types of music.

To me, Jazz is a well-structured chord chart. Everyone knowing exactly where each chord change is and agreeing on what passing chord should be use to resolve to the next major chord change. Also, all of the chord substitutions should be agreed upon.

With all of this said, to me what really sets Jazz apart from other types of music is improvisation. It's really a thrill to know where the melody is with someone like Dexter Gordon, McCoy Tyner, Sonny Rollins and such playing everything but the melody on any given tune. Of course, you must be familiar with the tune and listen closely to the chord changes to know where the melody is at any particular time of the tune in progress.

Most Jazz artist will play the melody for one chorus and then each member will then improvise for one or several choruses and then return to the melody for one chorus and then end the tune. That's why some tunes are very long. Each member is usually listening intently to the other artist to see if he can learn something -- the way the rhythm section adds kicks and licks here and there, and particularly the way the soloist changes the rhythm of the licks he plays on his solo. Many excel in playing the solo with a counter rhythm to what the rhythm section plays.

It's a never-ending school from which I know of no one ever graduating.

I personally wish I could play this way. I do standards and improvise but in no way can do it anywhere near as fast and clean as I'd like to. I enjoy what I do on bouncy tempos. I really enjoy seeing if I can copy the greats on some of their easier licks. And that can be fun also.

I'm a weird jazz fan. I'm not too far gone so that I cannot enjoy Beer for My Horses and Drinking Champagne. Hope I spelled Champagne right. I just enjoy good music.

If you want to be enlightened about how to improvise in jazz, order from Jamie Abersold the publication by Bunky Greene. It is explained in the simplest way possible, in my opinion, about the art of improvisation.

trtjazz
01-07-2004 10:08 AM

Here's a great jazz site for any interested.
-- Terry

captain Russ
01-07-2004 12:17 PM

Brickboo, you have really showed an admirable understanding of the fascinating music loosely called "jazz." The fact that you, and other members, know of Jamie (I met him in the early 60's in New Albany, Indiana) and have referenced the work of the "jazz gods" in your post tells me that pulling off jazz improvisational performances would be a "piece of cake," given the right situation and the chance to develop. I'm lucky to be a part of a group that does just that. Unfortunately, there's not a lot of work, and several of the other players are like great jazz musicians of the past -- drugs, alcohol problems, poverty, etc.

The big question is, Is it worth it? In the early 60's, Ray Brown introduced me to many of the guys playing in jazz clubs in L.A. like the ones you referenced. Except for Ray, who was a lifelong hero to me, most were bitter, broken men. Ray said, "If you dedicate your life to playing jazz, you will probably play yourself out of a job!" Jazz players get so far into their craft that they blame the public for not understanding and appreciating their work. The average listener hasn't spent 10 hours a day for 15 years learning the fine points of the art form. Appreciating jazz is an acquired taste.

A lot of what makes a great jazz musician is appreciation of the form and "attitude." It may not be the right decision for any of us to play jazz to the exclusion of all other (better paying) types of music. But when it comes to attitude and understanding, you, Terry and Eddie have nailed it!

Best regards,

-- Russ

brickboo
01-07-2004 07:34 PM

Russ, if you're wanting to make a living playing, Jazz forget it. But, even when playing for peanuts, it's a gas to see a reputable musician standing in the corner with a big smile on his face. Especially if he comes up and tells you he digs your sound, playing or whatever.

A couple of locals here play that smooth jazz and fusion stuff. It's 99% rhythm. No melody no head, just two or three minor chords back and forth. You can listen to a tune or so, and you'll notice that the second one is almost identical to the first tune. You can leave and come back two hours later and it sounds like they are still playing the same two tunes.

Jazz is played for the enjoyment mostly. Pop is played for fun and the money. That's why I bought this keyboard to sing and play for a few bucks and also get to play my jazz standards. I still can't play the fast guitar lick on the keyboard for "Beer for My Horses." Ha! Ha! Go figure. It's a tricky lick to play correctly.

Captain Russ
01-08-2004 12:39 PM

Brickboo, we're on the same page. The jazz community is a close-knit one. Appreciation from a like-minded player is the highest form of a compliment. Playing soft jazz using an arranger as a single "ain't" quite as satisfying, but it sure beats not playing at all.

-- Russ


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