The Subject of Jazz
The next couple of posts will deal with the subject of jazz, in preparation for our May 12th album release featuring Dorothy Donegan. As you read through the post listen to the clips provided as examples of jazz styles. Both albums are available on our website at www.wonderofsound.com or from iTunes.
The fact that jazz, as an art form, spans over 100 years and incorporates so many different traditions makes it very difficult to define. It is a form of expression. It is about hearing, feeling, seeing, and experiencing. Jazz is mood altering. It can also serve as an escape or a relaxant. It can be romantic, motivational, or distressing. To put it simply, jazz can be anything the listener wants it to be.
One of the nation’s leading introduction-to-jazz college textbooks describes the problems of defining jazz (2). Jazz greats including Benny Goodman, Louis Armstrong, and Duke Ellington all agree. Attempts have been made to use perspectives of the European and/or African music but neither of these has worked (3).
Unlike European music, jazz has a special relationship to swing, a heavy reliance on improvisation and phrasing (1). While the performing of classical music demands adherence to the arrangement, the jazz performer will interpret a song in a very individual way, never playing the same composition exactly the same way twice. Conversely, European classical music is considered a composers medium. Jazz places equal value on contributions of composers and performers.
The first step in becoming comfortable listening to jazz is to understand how the relationships among swing, improvisation and phrasing unfold in a performance. The following may be helpful in knowing what to listen for and how to listen.
What is a Jazz Band?
Jazz bands come in all sizes and usually don’t need a conductor. Small jazz bands or combos, are common in nightclubs and jazz clubs. Larger bands are found in larger venues and dance halls. Combo groups are usually made up of three to four musicians. An acoustic bass player is almost always part of the group. Other members can be almost any combination. The size of this group enables each musician to improvise on the spot. A traditional big band is made up of brass and woodwinds and a rhythm section including a drum set player, pianist, acoustic or electric bass player and guitar player.
The bass player provides the foundation for chords the piano is playing and the soloist is improvising over. The “walking bass” is commonly used to provide a solid foundation for the rest of the group. Hi-hat cymbals, generally played on the second and fourth beat, provide stability to the drum set and its interaction with the rest of the group. What defines a jazz band will depend on where and what the group is playing (4).
How to Listen to Jazz
It goes without saying that knowing what to listen for and how to listen makes it easier to get the most enjoyment from any music. Jazz is an intricate form of art. This being the case, it is important to understand the general format of a jazz performance.
As noted above, most jazz performances don’t need a conductor. In addition, the tempo of a piece will be constant. Whether the group is small or large, this group of players are primarily responsible for keeping the tempo steady (5).
The Jazz Performance
To begin a performance the jazz group may or may not play an introduction. After the introduction the melody will be played by horns, piano, or guitar. While the melody is being played an instrument that can play chords will play them to the song underneath the melody. Although the band is no longer playing the melody these other players are creating their own melodies on the chords. The bass player provides the “bottom-end”.
As a rule, the drummer will play rhythms that complement what the soloist and chord player are creating. As an example, for a blues piece the melody will be played twice. The melody is referred to as the “head” (5). Once this is done, each designated player will improvise a new melody over the chords played in the head. One complete cycle of melody or improvisation is referred to as a chorus. The drummer’s solo ends the improvisation. To conclude the performance the group returns to the melody and plays it twice (5).The Jazz Musician’s Skill Set
Unlike the performing of classical music that demands adherence to the arrangement, the jazz performer will interpret a song in a very individual way, never playing the same composition exactly the same way twice. It has been suggested that jazz artists create as they play, developing their own style. This creativity can vary from a 95% improvisation of the head or a simple solo within a written arrangement (3).
To truly understand jazz the listener also needs to relate to the performer’s need to be “in the moment”. The experience of being “in the moment” losing track of time and space, going with the flow is the place all jazz musicians aspire to reach. (6).
In addition, understanding jazz takes time and practice. The best way to do this is to develop a familiarity with jazz standards. Select songs that are known and performed all over the world. For a helpful guide to developing this library see http://www.thedanbodanisband.com/jazz_beginers_guide.html (6).
As was noted, anyone who wants to become familiar with jazz needs to recognize the path to learning is endless. Type the word “jazz” on your browser to begin the adventure. For a more in-depth resource in what to listen for in jazz is What to Listen for in Jazz by Barry Kernfeld (7). It also provides an appendix containing biographical sketches of key musicians.
2. Gridley, Clevelander Mark. Jazz Styles, History and Analysis. Prentice-Hall, 1978, 1985, 1988, 1991, 1994, 1997, 445 pages; 1999, 458 pages; 2003, 442 pages, 2005, 464 pages.
7. Kernfeld, Barry. What to Listen for in Jazz. Yale University Press. New Haven and London. 1995.