Wednesday, July 13, 2016

The Tuning Slide: Jazz 2- What Makes Jazz Jazz?

Jazz does not belong to one race or culture,
but is a gift that America has given the world.
-Ahmad Alaadeen

I remember a discussion I had with a teenager in my church youth group some 30+ years ago. We had been listening to some live rock song that had a great guitar solo. We started talking about different styles of music and came up with a question.

What makes jazz jazz? Why isn’t it rock or vice versa?

Neither of us had an answer, although we did, in general, agree that we knew it when we heard it. Here, then, decades later, I am going to attempt to answer that question from my experiences. As I said in the previous post, I have been enthralled by jazz in all its forms for over 50 years. I’m not out to give an in-depth analysis of jazz and what makes it what it is. There are countless books that do that. Some are history like Ted Gioia’s History of Jazz, a remarkable story of how jazz got to be what it is. Some are on video like Ken Burns’ mini-series documentary, Jazz, from PBS. Barry Kernfeld’s What to Listen For in Jazz has informed this particular post. All three of these are 16 - 20 years old, but capture the story that has become jazz.

Since one of my goals is to relate the music and the experience of jazz to my life and experience, musicology is not my goal. Living jazz is. So, I found in Kernfeld’s book seven things that are essential ingredients to understand about jazz. These, I think, give a little more to work with than just saying “I know it when I hear it.” While all of them can be found in most other musical genres, how they apply to this genre begins to answer the greater question of what makes this music what it is.

First comes rhythm. This should come as no surprise. Jazz started as music for movement. It was street music, dance music, walking and marching music. The power of the “beat” is unmistakable. It is almost impossible to call it “jazz” if it doesn’t have rhythm. It must constantly be supported and carried by the rhythm section- drums or bass, piano or guitar. I know that sometimes that rhythm is pretty hard to find, especially in more free-form jazz, but if you ask the musicians they will say there is something there. It will go nowhere without a living, breathing pulse.

All music breathes. The rise and fall of dynamics, crescendo and decrescendo, are the active elements that make it something more than a one-level sound. In jazz, that breath becomes a rhythm. Some of this is what is called articulation. When you emphasize what note, how you flow from one section to another. But it is always alive, always moving.

When jazz musicians say the music is “in the groove” this is part of what they mean. It is alive and moving. The two most common rhythms can be described as

• Swing and
• Duple.

Swing is a movement of triplets enhanced or bounded by accentuations. Duple is doubles, also enhanced and defined by accentuations. While recognizing that there are numerous variations and exceptions, we can take Dixieland and “big band” traditional jazz as the best examples of “swing.” Duple is more straightforward and can be seen in Latin jazz. I will talk more about rhythm, especially swing, in the next post.

The connection of rhythm and breathing with living is obvious. Drumming has been one of those human endeavors most likely since the first time an ancient relative hit a hollow log with a stick. In so doing they were mimicking the action at the center of our lives- the heartbeat. Rhythm is more than primitive in its origins. It is primal. It is basic, essential. A heart arrhythmia can be fatal- it is out of rhythm.

Second is form. With tens of thousands of possible songs to play, a jazz group and its musicians would be hard pressed to memorize everything out there. That would clearly limit their repertoire and challenge the skill of even the greatest among them. What has developed to make this job relatively easy is the form of jazz music. The most common of these was adapted from the basic “song” form- the music of the Great American Songbook. Very simply this form is the beginning theme, the “head”, the first description of which is usually done twice, the chorus in the middle and then closing with the theme. This often referred to as the AABA form.

There can be many variations on how long these individual sections can be. The song form would, in general, be 32 bars, 8 in each section. Other variations can have a repeating pattern of measures and chord changes such as the 12-bar blues which can be adapted to 8- or 16-bars. Chord changes are often sort of standardized with the 12-bar blues being the grandaddy of them and the progression of the chords of I’ve Got Rhythm (referred to as “rhythm changes”) being another.

One other form is the march and ragtime form. These are usually 16-bar phrases with two, three, or four themes as the song progresses.

Now, in general, a jazz musician can pick up a book of songs and all it might have are the head, chord changes, and the closing. When you understand the basic form of these songs, you have the greater possibility of playing more music and not being completely lost.

Third is arrangement. This is the first of three elements of jazz that are about “writing” the music. Arrangement is taking something that already exists and adapting it. Arrangers can do it note-for-note adding embellishments with their group playing as close to the original as possible. They can also take the original and add embellishments to it to change the patterns around the original. The third is to orchestrate the song differently. Having a saxophone-based combo play a song will give a very different experience from a piano-based one. For example taking a Lennon-McCartney song and arranging it for a big band would take all these into account. What instruments do you want to play when? How close to the original will it be? Will you divide it into sections that build on or riff on the theme?

Fourth is composition. Simply put this is basically writing new music. You are composing a new song. It can be based on the chord progressions from another song, such as the many on the changes of I’ve Got Rhythm or the 12-bar blues. It will be a new melody, a new song.

Fifth is improvisation. Improvisation is so essential to what call jazz in all its forms, I will take at least two posts to deal with that. Suffice it to say here, that being able to improvise is what can help all of us succeed in the ups and downs of life. It is not simply flying by the seat of ones pants. It is the ability to call on our knowledge, experiences, hard work, and creativity to solve problems and enhance our lives. Kernfeld called improvisation the “most fascinating and mysterious” element of jazz. It will be featured prominently in all that we do in jazz.

Sixth is sound. This is where orchestration comes in. Different instruments sound different. Different combinations sound different. How you put them together can make a huge difference in what you hear- or don’t hear. It is also the tuning of the notes and how they fit together. Miles Davis famously said that “there are no wrong notes in jazz: only notes in the wrong places.” Thelonius Monk added to that sentiment. "There are no wrong notes; some are just more right than others.”

The ultimate in the jazz sound is what has been called the “blue note.” Simply put the “blue note” is a note that is played or sung a half-step off from what would be expected. Blue notes add a sense of tension, surprise, or worry to the sound. It comes from its use in the blues progression. The “sound” of jazz is what has led many to say they may not know what jazz is, but they know when they hear it.

Finally, the seventh element of jazz is style. Jazz is not one style of music- it is a genre made up of these elements and then flowing into numerous styles. Kernfeld, in What to Listen for in Jazz, leaves the idea of style to an epilogue. That way he could look at the elements that can be found in one way or another in different styles. Here are some of the styles that have developed in jazz, and are still breathing life into the genre:
  • New Orleans Jazz
  • Big Band
  • Bebop
  • Hard Bop
  • Fusion
  • Free Jazz
  • Latin Jazz
  • Acid Jazz
  • Jazz Rock
  • Kansas City Jazz
  • Modal Jazz
  • West Coast Jazz
And Wikipedia goes on to list another 30 sub-genres.

Talk about diversity. Talk about having an abundance of opportunities. Talk about a perfect music to have developed in a little more than only 100 years in the United States.

That’s jazz. That’s all there is to it. In 2000 words or less.
The details, are in the hands of the musicians- and of you and me as listeners. That’s where we will go in the next six posts, seeing how these are good metaphors for life and how, when we learn jazz, we are also learning how to live.
Jazz is the type of music
that can absorb so many things
and still be jazz.
-Sonny Rollins

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