What is Jazz?

by Paul Hofmann

I’ve long been intrigued by the question: What is jazz? Perhaps like many of you, I’ve gone back and forth as to whether there even is a ‘correct’ definition. I’ve also wondered: Which jazz artists most accurately represent the genre? And I’d bet that the diversity of answers might approach the number of people who ponder this question. Perhaps it’s a generational thing; my grandparents would surely answer: Erroll Garner and Count Basie. My mother and father would probably think: Dave Brubeck and Stan Kenton. And my sister might come up with: Spyro Gyra and Kenny G. A wide range of responses, to be sure...

The reason I remain fascinated by this topic is because it touches on so many interesting general issues, including (but not limited to) history, society and marketing. Thinking about jazz historically brings to mind its many musical permutations: its evolving stylistic changes. And we can clearly observe important changes in America’s twentieth-century society mirrored in jazz. Benny Goodman’s hiring of Teddy Wilson, for instance, was an early example of racial unity in the workplace, an occurrence which predated even Truman’s integrating the Armed Forces (a decade later).

What’s more, how this music has been marketed, especially in recent years, reflects the all too common penchant to ‘sell the product,’ even if dishonestly. Whether this be seen at festivals, concerts and shows ... in radio formats and TV specials ... or even read in commentaries and reviews, jazz – like politics – is usually promoted with little consideration for ‘truth in advertising;’ for accuracy in labeling.

My formative years coincided with the second decade of the pop-rock era. Like most teenagers some thirty years ago (how time flies!), I idolized the rock artists of my generation. The popular songs I heard on AM radio included everything from bands like the Beatles and Creedence Clearwater Revival to singer-songwriters James Taylor and Stevie Wonder (Taylor’s If I Keep My Heart Out Of Sight is featured on “By Candlelight”). I loved listening to this stuff then, and I still enjoy much of it.

This was a time (the early- to mid-1970s) when jazz music had long since departed the cultural mainstream; when the few references to jazz one heard in pop tunes included the occasional horn solo from such groups as Blood, Sweat and Tears (listen to Lew Soloff’s great trumpet playing on 1968’s “BS&T” and 1970’s “BS&T 3”) and Chicago (check out James Pankow’s stunning trombone solo on Hanky Panky from “Chicago VII,” recorded in 1973). As with most young listeners from that era, it was these artists – and not jazz performers themselves – who introduced me to the musical vocabulary of jazz.

But it was after listening to an old Erroll Garner album at my grandparents’ house that I became forever hooked on jazz’s infectious swing. I found myself seduced by both the rhythms of ‘my grandparents’ music’ and by its complex improvisations. I distinctly remember my first impression of Oscar Peterson’s piano playing: WOW. Being a teenager, I naturally wanted to know who was creating the most current jazz. Wasn’t Erroll Garner, as much as I enjoyed his great piano playing (I still recall his energetic appearance on Flip Wilson’s TV variety show), a bit ‘dated?’

So I proceeded to buy a few new LPs that the local record stores had filed in their jazz sections. Generally, these recordings turned out to be instrumental hybrids of jazzy solos and rock rhythms. A bit later, I discovered that even those groups whose musicians had deep jazz roots – the early editions of Weather Report, for example; or Chick Corea’s first version of Return to Forever – were in fact creating music whose orchestrations and arrangements (and volume levels!) were influenced a good deal more by R&B, pop and rock bands than by any ‘swing music’ (to say nothing of ‘modern jazz’).

Some thirty years ago this new mixture, with its emphasis often more on rock rhythms than on jazz improvisations, seemed to be the newly accepted definition of jazz; so much so that by the late ‘70s, as Chuck Mangione and Spyro Gyra were hitting it big, the trend had solidified. I loved much of this ‘fusion’ music (still do), and yet I recall thinking it strange finding these records in the jazz bins.

For I was being taught to appreciate the differences between musical styles. My parents, both professional musicians, had encouraged me to compose little classical minuets from age nine. From books and recordings, from my parents and from other teachers, I was learning that Baroque music (figured bass and all) meant Bach and Handel. Classical music signified Haydn and Mozart. Romantic music? Chopin and Liszt. ‘Impressionism’ was created by Debussy and Ravel. And so on.

While I appreciated the fluidity – the overlaps – between these various styles (Haydn and Beethoven probably the prime examples), I was also drawn to the fact that the story of Western music seemed to fall quite neatly into definable periods. And I continued to wonder: What is jazz? Is jazz a historically definable term, is this music a still-evolving thing, or is jazz whatever its journalists said it was? I’ll never forget a Downbeat cover featuring Country and Western star Merle Haggard: the caption read “Country Jazz Messiah.” Just what did that mean? I still haven’t figured this out.

The more I listened to older records, the more I thought I knew what jazz was: Louis Armstrong!! And surely Ella Fitzgerald. Certainly Bird (Charlie Parker), Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk and Count Basie (who I was privileged to see in concert during this time). These musicians all improvised melodies over swinging rhythms the great majority of the time (even Ella ad-libbed some wonderful things); certainly no one could doubt the jazz credentials of these artists.

But I was thrown for a loop as several highly-acclaimed jazz virtuosos began simultaneously recording music that adopted elements from several different styles. Again, these new records I was buying seemed to draw as much musical content from rock, or even from various ‘classical’ styles (in some cases borrowing harmonies and melodies from Eastern music), than from jazz. What was going on here?

In trumpeter Miles Davis’s case, I found myself completely confused by his change in direction. Not only did the ‘jazz’ label now appear inaccurately applied to him, with deep disappointment I deemed his new albums to be of markedly poorer quality than the celebrated music he had earlier recorded – and I wasn’t alone in this assessment. I later grew to appreciate much of this music for what it basically was: Miles’s brave attempt to be different; to ‘push the artistic envelope,’ critics and listeners alike be damned!

On the other hand, I was deeply inspired by keyboardist Chick Corea’s apparently endless creativity. I loved his playing; I loved his compositions; and because I esteemed the quality of his work so highly (everything from tremendous acoustic duets to ear-splitting rock rhythms to flamenco music to Bartok-inspired chamber music), it didn’t seem to matter that it wasn’t all ‘jazz.’ At this point, I began speculating if we had perhaps entered a ‘post-label’ world with respect to this music. I wondered: Should the question “What is jazz?” be rephrased “What was jazz?”

Upon reflection, I’ve concluded that as jazz moves into its second century, our current broad use of the term is often wildly inaccurate – and genuinely confusing. Given the times, I suppose the marketing of Kenny G.’s pop saxophone music as a legitimate jazz style should hardly come as a surprise; the misapplication of language is an unfortunate reality in modern American culture. Of the many common words and phrases used these days with little regard for accuracy, two examples will suffice.

Exhibit A: the word ‘constitutional.’ For decades now, ‘constitutional rights’ have been expanded to include an exponentially wider variety of things than ever before; this in spite of the fact that our Constitution itself is a rather short document, mentioning far fewer specifics than is generally supposed. It is only a recent phenomenon that so many ‘rights’ are upheld by lawyers as ‘constitutional,’ apparently due to the simple desire that this be so. Whether these are fortuitous developments or not is beside the point; politics aside, in everyday use the word ‘constitutional’ has undoubtedly assumed a brand new meaning, one quite distinct from its traditional definition.

Exhibit B: the phrase ‘low fat.’ If words have any significance, shouldn’t ‘low fat’ servings of food refer to portions that, by definition, are truly that? Yet we all know what this has come to mean: servings that are merely somewhat lower in fat than the highest fat-content portions. How I wish ‘low fat’ really meant low fat! As there are many other examples that could just as effectively illustrate how the modern misuse of language has helped create confusion in our culture, is it any wonder that so many other expressions, ‘jazz’ included, have taken on different meanings?

This is truly the crux of the problem. For words and phrases to be interpreted coherently, they must rely on good, sound, accurate definitions. From my previous essay: “It’s surely true that jazz music ... contains at least one unique element: its rhythm. The ‘swing beat’ is something fundamental to jazz and is not (to my knowledge) prominently found in any other musical genre. By contrast, the art of improvisation has a long history; no doubt dating from when the earliest music was made. Thus, the other defining characteristic of jazz – improvisation – is certainly not limited to it ... [J]azz can be defined by [these] two fundamental elements (the swing beat and the prevalence of improvisation)...”

Examining my record collection recently, I reaffirm these sentiments. From its inception some ninety-plus years ago, jazz has featured an innovative swinging beat (itself derived from ragtime’s syncopations) as its predominant rhythm. Simultaneously, jazz has both applied and augmented the existing vocabulary of European music in its improvisations and structures. In the final analysis, the development of jazz occupies an important late chapter in the history of Western music, even while coming to incorporate non-Western influences in the process (such as Eastern scales, modes, chords, and even forms).

In similar fashion, American English has borrowed words from other languages, such as ‘cafe’ (French), ‘gesundheit’ (German) and ‘mish-mash’ (Yiddish). As a ‘living language,’ new words continue to evolve (‘wow;’ ‘cool;’ ‘byte;’ ‘e-mail’). But English it remains. Similarly, a chef can add new spices to a pot of soup without changing its basic recipe! The integrity and the proper uses of common dialects and idioms are foundational for healthy civilizations. It is important that societies treat their languages with care.

Let’s reconsider a factor quite apart from linguistic concerns which has influenced the ‘jazz dilemma’: In 1973, Herbie Hancock released a rock-oriented album entitled “Headhunters.” In short order, the record became very popular. The general musical marketplace, aware only of ‘Herbie Hancock the jazz pianist,’ logically assumed his new music to be bona-fide jazz. Indeed, why not?

This perception was reinforced when Columbia Records proudly announced “Headhunters” to be the first million-selling jazz album (Dave Brubeck’s earlier “Time Out” notwithstanding). Thus, the fact that a good deal of non-jazz music is considered jazz may be a natural by-product of certain established jazz artists’ change of musical direction (and a considerable source of frustration to those of us who value linguistic accuracy).

Is it appropriate, then, to call Headhunters – or Weather Report – jazz groups? Yes, this music featured a great deal of improvisation; more than most groups, a generation ago or even now. But because jazz’s identifying swing beat appears so rarely on these recordings, for clarity’s sake I believe this multi-faceted music should be called something else (I think ‘fusion’ is fine, although the by now archaic term ‘jazz-rock’ may be as descriptively accurate). The same holds true for the music of both the Mahavishnu Orchestra and Return to Forever.

Admittedly, such fidelity to linguistic integrity becomes problematic in a merchandising sense. If Miles Davis’s music through the late 1960s qualifies as jazz, and his 1970s-80s music as perhaps something else, how then to market the man? And what about the many non-improvised (‘classical’?) recordings by Duke Ellington, Chick Corea and Keith Jarrett? Although these men are known primarily as jazz artists, perhaps more specific categorizations of each of their creations should take precedence over our locating the entirety of their outputs in singular CD racks. But perhaps this is unworkable?

In any event, the point remains: it’s important to be consistent in our definitions when discussing jazz music, or anything else for that matter. Clarity in communication! Now there’s a concept worth revisiting.