What is Jazz?

What is Jazz?
The Case for Specificity

There is a question that will inevitably be presented to any serious jazz musician. Although it masquerades as simple, it is in fact one of the most elusive and controversial ripostes that can be explained. That question: What is Jazz?
! From every jazz musician, from every jazz era, from every corner of the world that jazz is played, the resulting definition will invariably differ. The definition of what Jazz is to me is not objective because the definition has become synonymous with an amalgamation of musical influences. Now that I have made this disclaimer, I have a specific, objective definition of what Jazz is if anyone were to ask me, because Jazz needs a definition. It needs a definition of stalwart rhetoric that cannot be adjusted on a whim for situational purposes and be recognizable and marketable, should it be required. The recurring issue I see with the adjustable definitions of Jazz is that it is being used as an “all-encompassing music” as opposed to a specific style of music. To solve this issue, I have conceived a specific definition of what this music is. Jazz is an African-American music of the 20th century that has 4 basic elements; a blues influence, improvisation, a democratic approach to its artistic execution both individually and in ensemble settings, and a swung 8th note triple feel to its phrasing with an emphasis on the weak beats of a measure.

My definition of Jazz comes off as overly exclusive and not by accident. This historical art music is in need of specificity with a growing number of artists experimenting with the genre. Today anyone can come across a music venue hosting a night of “jazz music” but will have to ask themselves, “What kind of jazz music is going to be played tonight?” Therein lies the problem. The term “Jazz” has lost its meaning. It is overused and been rendered meaningless. Going to a club to listen to Jazz music can mean hearing Joe Henderson backed by a trio of piano, bass, and drums playing his arrangements and originals of jazz standards from 1920-1965. It can also mean going to see Miguel Zenon and the Rhythm Collective that still boasts a famed tenor saxophonist but the rhythm section differs considerably being made of bass, fusion drum set, and hand percussion. Miguel Zenon will likely play original music and/or arranged versions of jazz standards that has bi-tonalities or absence of tonal structure altogether. The product the audience is receiving is completely different. Not only is the swing phrasing interpreted from two distinct sources, one being swung, upbeat accented 8th notes and the other being clave based, downbeat accented 8th notes, the tonal and metric concepts are opposites as well. The Joe Henderson example is rooted in the American songbook tradition where as the Miguel Zenon example is based more on the Puerto Rican folkloric tradition of bomba and plena music. These obvious variables and stylistic counterparts are present and yet the title of the music that it is advertised as, “Jazz”, has not changed.

In a masterclass with Antonio Sanchez during my undergraduate study, he took a moment to address the importance of the music tradition in the Afro-Cuban and Jazz diaspora. He mentioned that a growing number of drummers play clave with their feet with no reference to a songs form or style and makes the technique comes off as a gimmick more than an actual timbre effect for the rhythmic integrity of the music as was originally intended. He also made a point in knowing the particular style of music you are interpreting and not altering it; in the case that you do for artistic reasons, you have a performers’ responsibility to call it something else because it is not what it originally was. A telling comment he made of note during the class was: “I once asked Buddy Rich in a lesson how he played odd time meter jazz and he said, ‘I only play American music!”.

The Chicago Jazz Festival 2013 headlined Robert Glasper and his Robert Glasper Experiment band. The title of this festival reads with Jazz exclusively as the adjective of what style of music will be played. The Robert Glasper Experiment – a band that won a Grammy earlier this year for best R&B album (for "Black Radio") had a cameo appearance from Chicago based rapper Lupe Fiasco1. This was the main event of a major metropolitan area for Jazz music. To quote the well known Chicago jazz critic Howard Reich,

“Did any of this have anything to do with jazz? Not much....That said, Glasper's

band–though rousing much of the audience and delivered at an unassailably

high musical level–sounded as if it had wandered into the wrong festival when

it appeared at the Pritzker Pavilion. You could be enchanted by vocalist Casey

Benjamin's high-pitched cries and intrigued by Glasper's fluid right-hand lines

on keyboards without being convinced that this performance fit this event....

Certainly many hard-core jazz listeners would have considered the !trance-like

nature of Glasper's performance a bit tepid, the backbeats relentless, the reverb

overdone. And some "Black Radio" fans posting on Facebook during the concert

found Glasper restrained by the Jazz Fest setting”2.  

  • Reich, Howard. "Review Chicago Jazz Festival Goes Eclectic for Grand Finale." Review Chicago Jazz Festival Goes Eclectic for Grand Finale. Chicago Tribune, 02 Sept. 2013. Web. 05 June 2014.

            2 Reichpage3image15608

This is evidence that Jazz needs to be used as a noun and not a compound or modified noun and much less as an adjective. To me Jazz is a style of music and not anything else. When I see the word Jazz I instinctively think of music from 1925-1970. This 55 year span speaks the most to me in terms of what Jazz has offered in a historical context. My piano professor in my graduate studies, Jeremy Kahn, once mentioned he would like to see a class dedicated to Jazz music in the years between 1955-1965 because in his opinion it was the era that produced the highest amount of language by which many Jazz musicians after and even today still get most of their information from. I partially agree with this because I feel there is considerable language for study in the early Jazz and Bebop era but the timeline remains intact of music referenced before 1970. The reason the years after 1970 are not as important in my opinion is because the majority of Jazz artists went into an eclectic style of interpretation as opposed to the swing model of decades before and Fusion era was born with the mixing of Jazz and Rock.

My definition of Jazz is finite and specific but that does not mean I exclude other styles within or related to the genre to not be Jazz influenced. I believe one of the problems is people that have studied Jazz say they play Jazz no matter what is actually being performed. Their individual projects may have an element or two of the Jazz tradition or some specific Jazz harmonic vocabulary that is inserted strategically in and around an arrangement but if it is not swinging and/or meet the criteria I mentioned before, it is not Jazz. What these artists should be saying in fact, is that their music is Jazz influenced and/or place the other style of music that is being mixed with Jazz as an adjective such as “Gospel Jazz” or “Fusion Jazz or “Funk Jazz” to be historically and stylistically correct. As I mentioned before, the term Jazz has to have an identifier once again. Why are there certain styles that have the adjective + Jazz in the concert programs i.e. Afro-Cuban Jazz, Avante-Garde Jazz, Smooth Jazz, and even Vocal Jazz but not for all? Are these styles that are Jazz influenced too different and not regarded as marketable under the Jazz umbrella term? Perhaps because they pull too much from other country’s musical traditions? Isn’t Vocal Jazz considered of the American tradition as long as the lyrics are in English? I bring this to debate because I agree with the way these particular sub-genres in Jazz have been labeled. I am for a system that labels the style of music being presented that is influenced or associated with Jazz and announced as such i.e. Afro-Cuban Jazz or Afro-Puerto Rican Jazz, in the case I made of Miguel Zenon, rather than all of it being programmed as just simply Jazz. Just Jazz is Joe Henderson. Just Jazz is Oscar Peterson. Just Jazz is Duke Ellington. Even in that regard most likely you would see Duke Ellington under a Big Band Jazz, if he was performing with his orchestra, title for clarity. For that matter I would like to see billing titles such as Fusion Jazz, Modern Jazz, Acid Jazz, Free Jazz, Early Jazz, Brazilian Jazz, etc.

In the world of art music, commercial vitality is difficult but essential. Jazz, along with its sub-genres, need to connect the music with the intended audiences seeking it. In other words, Jazz musicians and promoters need to find there audience. That connection between audience and artist first comes with the proper labeling of music being performed. The proper labeling first comes with a universal definition of the musical style or styles being presented in conjunction and promoted as such.

A musical style I know well is Cuban music. This is often referred as ‘Latin Jazz” or “Latin music” when it is in a more strictly dance setting. The term Latin has become meaningless in my opinion because it is now an umbrella term. Latin music could mean the musical style of any number of the countries of the Latin American diaspora. Do people mean to say Mambo? Son? Cha cha cha? Bolero? Samba? Cumbia? Nengon? Milonga? Changui? TImba? Notice I did not say “Salsa” because it is not a musical style but a colloquialization that is supposed to be a reference to music of the “Changui” and “Rumba” traditions. If a potential music listener would notice a sign that read “Live Latin music tonight or Live Latin Jazz tonight” they should ask themselves that very same question; what kind of Latin Jazz? The Miguel Zenon Rhythm Collective is a very different approach and style than Chuco Valdes and the Afro-Cuban Jazz Messengers. If a style of music has a clave pattern that does not mean it is from Cuba because in fact the majority of music from Latin America is not clave based. These various music traditions have patterns they follow but no distinct clave rhythm(s) the musicians of these regions recognize musically or even conceptually. Just as the absence of the clave pattern changes any traditional Cuban music such as Son to Cumbia, music of Colombia, the extraction of the blues and swung 8th notes has the same effect on the music of Jazz. The tradition of Jazz is rooted in America and in the African-American bloodlines. I could not agree more with what highly respected and world renowned Jazz pianist Eric Reed had to say on the topic of What is Jazz?,

“Jazz is Black music. The vibration of the swing feeling comes from Black people.

Any attempt to remove it from the music and still claim it to be Jazz is sacrilege

(and somewhat racist) because Jazz inherently swings. The systematic eradicating

of swing (the Negro's dance) and blues (the Negro's call) from Jazz is

tantamount to an artistic holocaust. No one can deny an artist's freedom to

combine whatever elements he chooses to create whatever he wants. However,

Jazz does not move forward by substituting a less complex rhythm or some

crude element into the mix. The idea that art "moves forward" is misleading

anyway; art doesn't move, art is. Is there a living soul in Jazz more advanced

than John Coltrane? Who is beyond Duke Ellington? Modernity is merely an

extension of tradition; it's not better or greater because it exists in a more

contemporary time and people have gotten dumber and truthfully, less

sophisticated. Just because we live in a time tainted with telltale tats and tits,

doesn't mean a music as soulful, noble and distinctive as Jazz should deify a

depraved and decadent departure from decency. Jazz does not need hip-hop,

  • pop, rock of any other styles of that ilk to enhance, improve or "develop" it. The

  • music was already soaring on a high plane piloted by the likes of Jelly Roll

  • Morton, Louis Armstrong, James P. Johnson et al.; these men set standards by

  • which real men of Jazz still measure their worth. Unfortunately, these standards

  • are being largely ignored by lazy, arrogant and dumb performers and wannabe

  • stars who simply refuse to put in the time and effort to study, learn and excel.

  • Instead, they want to claim music that they can't play to be "old" and "out-of-step

  • with the times.3

    Reed, Eric. "News and Updates." Eric Reed. Eric Reed, 12 Sept. 2012. Web. 05 June 2014.

  • I do not have a problem with artists amalgamating Jazz with other styles as long as they do not try to pass them off under the Jazz umbrella term. The issue therein lies not only with the performer/promoter but with the audience as well. When the artist talks about his/her perspective on their music and are ignored, then we, as an audience, need to listen better. In an interview with Eric Reed he mentioned this very problem in relation to innovation in Jazz and deviations from the style in young artists. He said, ”I can hear musical ability, creativity, but no innovation by Jazz standards and I contend that they will tell you that they’re not trying to be innovative in Jazz; just ask them. Ask Robert Glasper himself about Black Radio. How many interviews does he have to do telling us it’s not a Jazz record before anybody actually believes him when he says it?...After 1970-whatever, how many times did Miles Davis have to actually tell people that he was no longer playing Jazz before we believed him? Oh wait, you didn’t believe him and the man said it himself!”4

    4 Reed, Eric. "News and Updates." Eric Reed. Eric Reed, 12 Sept. 2012. Web. 05 June 2014.


The snowball effect is in motion. People have been conditioned long enough now to accept Jazz as any style of music that has improvisation and dense harmonic motion without asking if that is really the identity of the genre. The culture in the audience of this music is not embracing the inherent elements of its’ concepts, therefore they are embracing something else. Listeners must be properly educated to not accept any musical labeling that comes their way just because some person or marketing company proclaimed it as such. In any music, particularly art music, the audience and performer must be in sync with one another not just musically but conceptually and methodically as well. This is making the music of Jazz evermore elitist and for the musically converted because the growing majority of new Jazz listeners are thinking anything that has improvisation and complex, interlocking rhythms is Jazz.

I have heard from other musicians on their interpretations of the Jazz definition. I asked a dozen Jazz musicians and I received a dozen different answers. The only common variables among the answers were that the music is improvisation based and it swings. When asked of their definition of swing they unanimously sang to me the swung, triple 8th note cymbal ride pattern that drummer will play. According to Wynton Marsalis Jazz is music that swings5. Many do not label the music of Kenny G Jazz but specifically Smooth Jazz. An article in the All About Jazz website makes a reference to my personal favorite old man’s joke that “Jazz is better than sex, but lasts longer6. According to the online Oxford Dictionary, it defines Jazz as “A type of music of black American origin characterized by improvisation, syncopation, and usually a regular or forceful rhythm, emerging at the beginning of the 20th century. Brass and woodwind instruments and piano are particularly associated with jazz, although guitar and occasionally violin are also used; styles include Dixieland, swing, bebop, and free jazz7”. By and large I agree with this definition but the problem I see is that it never mentions swing or the other part of the definition I want to elaborate on: artistic democracy. The basic fourth element to Jazz, besides blues influence, swing feel, and improvisation: is the conception. In the Jazz style, there is a shared improvisation, either simultaneous or in sequence. In this respect, every musician on the bandstand gets an equal say with their artistic voice in their interpretation of a song either accompanied or solo. The magic of this phenomena in the contexts of a band setting is that everyone is listening to each another and complementing ideas of the soloist and vice versa to the accompanying instrumentalists/vocalists during any particular point in a song. This democratic approach to the shared music experience of any particular ensemble is not exclusive to Jazz and has been around for centuries before it in other music styles such as in the Yoruba music traditions of Dundun and Bata. In the Jazz style the rhythmic and harmonic sophistication reached a new level of development and in that to have the continued and more intricate level of artistic overlap is one of the elements that makes Jazz unique.

West, Jason. "What Is Jazz? Good Question..." All About Jazz. All About Jazz, 12 Jan. 2012. Web. 06 June 2014.


"Definition of Jazz in English:." Jazz: Definition of Jazz in Oxford Dictionary (American English) (US). Oxford University Press, n.d. Web. 06 June 2014.


The term “Jazz” will continue to evolve in its definition as the influences that have formed it to this point caused its evolution. As in music, there is no right or wrong answers, just opinions and interpretations. Maybe the better question is not to ask what Jazz is but what kind of Jazz do you like? 

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