What does ‘jazz’ mean to you? Even the word is controversial. Where does it begin, what is it? There seems to be no clear definition. Some attempts have been made at defining jazz as a truly American art form, but this belies the influence of virtuoso performers like Django Rheinhardt and Stephane Grapelli.
Others believe that jazz is a performer’s art – a musical genre where improvisation is the norm, and a piece should never be played the same way twice, but this is a view through modern eyes. Every generation believes they have discovered something new, so is jazz truly a new musical form?
For most of musical history, professional musicians have been required to be skilled in the art of improvisation. Many of the most famous composers were also well-known performers and highly skilled at improvisation. Bach and Handel were known for their abilities as was Mozart. Beethoven often played pieces by Bach, adding improvisations of his own when performing in the salons of the nobility, while Liszt was also known as a virtuoso with an amazing ability to improvise.
It was only in the late 19th and 20th centuries that musicians were expected to be skilled in reading music and reproduce exactly what was written, without further ornamentation. So if improvisation is an age-old skill, what, if anything is different about Jazz?
It may be a question of degree. While earlier composers/performers would create wholly improvised variations on a theme, it was not normal to abandon the theme altogether, as sometimes happens in jazz. Much has been made of the fact that early jazz musicians were often unable to read music, but this is hardly an argument since throughout history, many ‘professional’ musicians have been similarly ignorant of musical notation.
So what makes Jazz different? According to many, the time signature or ‘swing’ of jazz is what sets it apart, but the truth may lie in the apparent tension between popular jazz and ‘art jazz’. The academic analysis of jazz has created boundaries for the genre which may be entirely artificial. Most dangerous of all, it is possible that the academic influence will make jazz respectable.
For much of the appeal of jazz is in it’s ‘bad boy’ past, a past where no distinct point of origin is obvious. Although there seems to be a connection with African music, the only clear point of similarity is the incorporation of ‘blue’ notes, notes which can only be produced on instruments with continuous variations in pitch (like the guitar).
Blues music was heavily influenced by ragtime and the music played on banjo and in vaudeville. The instruments of marching bands became the staple instruments of jazz and in 1915, the first jazz arrangement in print was ‘jelly roll blues’.
From 1920-1933 the sale of alcohol in public places was banned in the USA. In this era of ‘prohibition’ jazz music was heard in all the underground bars and ‘speakeasies’ giving the music a decidedly sinful association. One Princeton professor described jazz as ‘an irritation of the nerves of hearing.’
In 1930, European jazz surfaced notably with the Quintette du Hot Club de France. European jazz had a gypsy influence and concentrated on the string, rather than wind instruments, the violin, the guitar and the double bass. From there bebop, modal jazz and cool jazz all developed.
In the late 1950s a movement called ‘free jazz’ began, breaking all the boundaries of beat, creating a style which some describe as ‘orgiastic’. Sometimes criticized as too avant-garde, free jazz is viewed by some as a return to the true roots of the genre, or in some way mystical. Musicians attempt to extract new and different sounds from their instruments, increasing their improvisation technique, but abandoning the traditional 4/4 tempo of most jazz pieces for an irregular beat.
Creative jazz, jazz-funk, jazz fusion, modern jazz, and try to put a boundary around a style which essentially has none. Is jazz as wild and original as it’s proponents seem to believe? Probably not. Is Jazz an intellectual movement in music, deeply subversive but eminently academic?
Once again, probably not. You can be pretentious about anything, music is not immune. What jazz is, is a wonderful, liberating musical form, which, with today’s emphasis on music as a composers art, gives vent to the soul of the musician and provides a framework for improvisation. Duke Ellington famously said ‘It’s all music’, but if you find the dangerous world of sensational jazz calls to you, why wait? Perhaps you need Jazz Guitar lessons?