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 Jazz: What In The Heck Is It? 
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Post Jazz: What In The Heck Is It?
Jazz: What In The Heck Is It?
By Duane Shinn

All of us know what jazz is when we hear it, but trying to define it is a different matter. With so many variant styles, coming up with an accurate definition of jazz is difficult if not impossible.

But I suppose that an article on jazz really ought to attempt to define the term “jazz.” My Thorndike-Barnhart Dictionary defines jazz like this:

*jazz (jaz), noun. 1. American music with the accents falling at unusual places; syncopated music. 2. Slang, liveliness – adj. of or like jazz: a jazz band.

Besides not telling us very much, it is also obviously false. I think immediately of ballads played by jazz musicians, such as Thelonious Monk’s ‘Round Midnight and Bill Evan’s Peace Piece, and countless other examples. They are based on neither syncopation nor liveliness; they are slow, extremely thoughtful, and the antithesis of “jazzy.” Yet they are considered by both jazz musicians and jazz critics alike to be well within the mainstream of jazz.

Let’s try A New Dictionary of Music and see if we can get closer to the essence of jazz:

*jazz, a term used at least from 1914 for a type of American popular music originating among blacks of New Orleans and taken over also by whites; also used generally for various types of dance music indebted to this (though purists reserve the term for such music as retains the original flavor and the original basis of improvisation.) The jazz idiom, characterized by certain syncopations over strongly reiterated rhythms, has influenced e.g. Lambert, Stravinsky, and Milhaud, as well as many American composers.

That’s better than the Thorndike-Barnhart definition, but it still leans heavily toward defining jazz in terms of rhythm alone: “characterized by certain syncopations over strongly reiterated rhythms.” I think again of ballads, but also of much contemporary jazz which is not characterized by “certain syncopations,: such as the work of pianists Keith Jarrett and Chick Corea.

What then is jazz? If the general dictionaries and musical dictionaries can’t satisfactorily answer the question, what hope is there for us?

Ask a hundred jazz musicians what jazz is, and you’ll get a hundred different answers (I know – I’ve asked at least a dozen and gotten as many different responses.)

I would like to suggest that the answer may lie, not in music, but in semantics.

I think it is entirely possible that we are lumping together widely disparate types of music, and labeling them all with the term “jazz,” then wondering why we can’t come up with a lexical definition of the term. Maybe we should abandon the word “jazz,” and use terms such as “improvised fast syncopated music,” or “improvised slow non-syncopated music.” Maybe we should, but we won’t. So we are stuck with the non-definable term “jazz.”

So let’s not define jazz.

We all know what it is, more or less. We would disagree mainly in the “grey” areas, such as ballads, some contemporary works, and so forth. But let’s agree not to disagree, and just enjoy it.

The following articles in this series will deal with the various styles we find in jazz, from ragtime to fusion.

So stay tuned.

Duane Shinn is the author of over 500 music books and music educational materials such as DVD's, CD's, musical games for kids, chord charts, musical software, and piano lesson instructional courses for adults. His course on blues and jazz improvisation titled "How To Make Up Music As You Go Along: Improvising On The Piano!" ( is being used by musicians and pianists around the world. He holds advanced degrees from Southern Oregon University and was the founder of Piano University in Southern Oregon. He is the author of the popular free 101-week online e-mail newsletter titled Amazing Secrets Of Exciting Piano Chords & Sizzling Chord Progressions! ( with over 57,400 current subscribers.

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Wed Jul 11, 2007 2:44 pm
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