What Is Jazz?
Because the genre is so variable and hard to define, the question of what is jazz is tough to pin down. Though it’s only been around for a little over a century, jazz has gone through an amazing amount of branching and evolution. From the swing jazz bands that dominated ball rooms in the 1930s and 1940s to the free form musicians who daringly explored new sounds in night clubs today, jazz has a ton of unique characteristics that can seem almost contradictory. A few common threads do string together some of the hallmark qualities of jazz; below are a few of the most significant.
Jazz draws heavily on blues, big band and classical music. At the turn of the 20th century, the melding of cultures—from the wealthy French Creoles to the children of former slaves—came together to form the beginnings of jazz music. It had the soul of African-American spirituals and the musicianship of classical music, with an added mischievous that’s hard to define. These guys, like Louis Armstrong, King Oliver and Jelly Roll Morton, were true showmen. They were all about great parties, good liquor and great music.
As jazz evolved, it focused more heavily on improvisation. In the decades after the big band era of jazz, the definition of what jazz is changed a bit. More cerebral musicians such as Charlie Parker, Charles Mingus and John Coltrane burst on the scene from the late 1940s to the early 1960s. They ushered in a new kind of jazz. Its definition became more synonymous with musicianship and free-form playing, but on-the-spot improvisation and musical prowess had always been a part of the genre, even from the days of Duke Ellington and Count Basie. The only real difference was that the central focus shifted from dancing music to thinking music.
In almost all forms of jazz, there is characteristic syncopation. One of Duke Ellington’s most popular compositions is called “It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing.” This has since become jazz’s all-encompassing catch phrase. Aside from the off-the-wall free jazz played by mad geniuses like Ornette Coleman, jazz pieces almost always “swing.” Theoretically, it is just an emphasis on the downbeat in the rhythmic count of the song. But to the ears, that emphasis is a beckoning call to snap, tap and move to the beat of the music. If there is one easy way to tell whether you’re listening to true jazz, it’s to listen for that unmistakable “swing” in the rhythm.