Jazz Is A Dirty Word

What is jazz?

Just let that question settle in for a moment. What definition could encompass the musics of Art Tatum, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Oscar Peterson, Ella Fitzgerald, Wes Montgomery, Benny Goodman, Miles Davis, Bill Evans, Ornette Coleman, Jaco Pastorius, Charlie Parker, Lester Young, Sarah Vaughan, Elvin Jones, Keith Jarrett, Lester Bowie, Arturo Sandoval, John Scofield, Vijay Iyer… you get the idea. Talk about a disparate group of musicians! As we add musicians to the list of “jazz greats” our definition of “jazz” would have to keep expanding, because the music itself refuses to be limited by a word.

So those of us who think that “real jazz” is whatever style we favor (or happen to play) are repudiating the tradition of progress and inclusion that spawned jazz to begin with. Listen up, jazz “purists” – you’re going against the nature of aural tradition and improvisation, two of the central elements of jazz since the form came into existence.

Maybe we should stop arguing about what is or isn’t jazz and focus on tolerance and inclusion. Music flourishes when divergent styles bump up against each other. Jazz itself is a result of cross-pollination between several traditions: field hollers, blues, brass and marching bands, European music and who-knows-what else.

Maybe “contemporary improvised music” is a more inclusive term. Many folks dislike that epithet; it sounds so snooty and clinical. Perhaps it evokes a more Euro-centric sensibility than some of us might like. Nicholas Payton insists that we call what he plays Black American Music. But it seems that every time we try to pin it down, jazz heedlessly moves past current definitions. It does like to do its own thing, after all. That’s one of the things that makes it so attractive.

Is it “real jazz” if it contains blues elements? Does it have to swing in 4/4 time? Do you have to be a certain ethnicity to play it? Is it only bebop or latin or fusion or free form? Can electric or synthetic instruments play “real jazz”? Most crucially, has jazz ever stood still long enough to be defined and confined?

Musicians, listeners and critics: how about we give up this impossible task of limiting what “jazz” supposedly is or is not. Let’s see if we can agree on a few basic musical (not stylistic) elements that distinguish jazz from other forms of music.

What if musicians started defining “jazz” by how it feels to play certain kinds of music in contrast to other forms? What if “jazz” is more of a verb than a noun, as others have suggested?

We’ll tackle those questions in a future post.

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