What is really jazz?

Some traditionalists have appointed themselves guardians of jazz purity. Like plantation owners fearful of an assault on the virgin chastity of their daughters, they draw a narrow perimeter around the term jazz and lock the door. Few are allowed to pass the threshold. But such an exclusionary attitude is the antithesis of the African heritage out of which jazz was born, a heritage in which music-making was a communal experience, without a great degree of distinction between performer and audience.

So if it’s misguided to restrict what qualifies as jazz to music with a triplet swing rhythm (as some would have it), what, then, is really jazz?

Jazz arose in New Orleans at the end of the nineteenth century. The African-influenced, syncopated rhythms of American ragtime and cakewalk music were already popular around the world (Debussy was so intrigued that he composed two piano pieces in a cakewalk style). Syncopation would become one of the hallmarks of jazz as well. In racially mixed New Orleans, freed blacks — known as Creoles of Color — had access to education, often in France. Jazz was born out of the marriage of African musical traditions (complex, syncopated rhythms; improvisation; and certain techniques of playing instruments) and European musical traditions (chords and harmony derived from western music). Despite these dual influences, jazz remained fundamentally African-American. Even as jazz swept the world in the 1920s and 30s and was taken up by white musicians, innovations in jazz music were invariably initiated by black musicians.

The chromaticism in late Romantic European music is very different from the chromaticism in jazz. The first time I really understood this difference was during a performance by Lizz Wright at Yoshi’s in Oakland. The chromatic elisions of jazz, that slipping in and out of a particular key signature, seem linked to the African American experience of oppression and slavery, a musical representation of pressing against boundaries and restraint, a struggling to fly, to be free. Not much different than flatted “blue” notes that arose in the blues to express the experience of woe, of troubles and hardship, of being “beaten down.”

Although the mass popularity of jazz was superceded by rock ‘n roll in the 1950s, it continued to maintain a strong presence in the culture throughout the decade. Miles Davis was commissioned to compose a film score, and the Dave Brubeck Quartet enjoyed widespread appeal on college campuses. By the 1960s, however, jazz became increasingly pushed to the margins and, like classical music, risked being turned into museum music. Perhaps in response, many jazz musicians began expanding the boundaries of their art.

The history of jazz writing is marked by a century-long effort to increase the respectability of jazz, to make it more akin to classical music. Like the Brit-com character Mrs. Bucket (“That’s pronounced Bouquet, dearie”), ashamed of her origins, jazz writers were embarrassed by its background: embarrassed by the origins of the term jazz with its sexual connotation, embarrassed by the ragtime syncopations that originated in bordellos, embarrassed perhaps by blackness itself as manifested in the early racist antagonism against jazz. As jazz waned in popularity and became increasingly the provenance of aficionados, this played right into those efforts to achieve respectability. The “unpopularity” of jazz became a sign of its artistic superiority. If any music calling itself jazz became popular, that threatened the claim of jazz as art.

Herbie Hancock’s landmark album Head Hunters exemplified the problem with labels. Hancock deliberately set out not to make a “jazz” album but a funk album. The music industry initially didn’t know what to do with the CD or how to promote it. Many jazz critics snubbed their noses at it. Nonetheless, it went on to be immensely successful. Even today, no one can agree on how to describe the music. Is it fusion jazz? Jazz fusion? Jazz funk? Not jazz at all?

The same issue arose when Miles Davis brought in electric instruments and started playing a style that others dubbed free jazz. He refused to call it jazz, referring instead to the music as “pop” — a deliberately provocative and obtuse statement considering that the music had as much in common with popular music as Li’l Kim has with Celine Dion. His concerts became popular with audiences despite the lack of a discernible verse and chorus. Predictably, many critics don’t accept this later Miles Davis into the jazz canon, and if you play free jazz today, good luck trying to get booked at a jazz festival.

Smooth jazz is another genre that challenges the notion of what jazz is. It’s frequently derided as jazz lite, blandly drained of spirit in order to make the music commercially palatable. While this criticism is sometimes valid, it doesn’t address what we should think about gifted musicians like Lee Ritenour and Marcus Miller, whose recorded CDs come nowhere near to capturing the amazing jazz-filled spirit of their live performances.

So if it’s not jazz, what is it? We get hung up on labels. Our cultural institutions don’t know what to do with anything that can’t be pigeon-holed into categories. Even the musicians themselves are sometimes ambivalent about what to call it. Perhaps “jazz” as a term is less useful than talking in terms of the spirit of jazz, which is: improvisation as a cornerstone of what the performance is about; an African-based rhythmic sensibility reflected by elements such as syncopation, complex rhythms and a percussive playing technique; a blending of African and European harmonic and melodic elements reflected by “blue” notes, the expressive use of dissonance, and harmonic flights out of the tonality of the passage.

Ultimately, the question should be: is it good music? If so, you can call it whatever you like.

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