As a classically trained musician, I have to say I admire unabashedly the work that goes into jazz performances. What’s more, I’m completely fascinated by the process of jazz. How does it work? What exactly goes on in the minds of the musicians as they’re improvising? How do they know what they’re doing won’t interfere with another musician’s line of melody or improv?
The best answer I have, at least to date, is that no one really knows, or if they do they’re not telling. How’s that for a satisfying response?
In all seriousness, there’s a lot of mystery to both worlds and yet a lot of similarity between them. Classical musicians are trained to know a canon of work, as are jazz artists, and early ear training is invaluable for both genres. But one of the big differences is that jazz musicians can and really are even encouraged to learn exclusively by ear, and will listen to pieces over and over until they can reproduce the exact sounds they hear. Classical artists set more store by the ability to read a piece of music, to see it and then make it come alive aurally. We’re also obsessed with examining every minute detail of original scores. Jazz, by contrast, can easily skip this step and head straight to pure sound.
Why is this? I think it’s because jazz acts more like improv comedy and classical music functions more like a Shakespearean play. Both are stage art forms, and both involve conversations. But while stand-up comedy is off-the-cuff and only partly scripted, Shakespeare is supposed be performed by–the-book. The interpretation of a “classical” art form is by definition more restricted than that of a younger upstart. Relatively speaking, jazz was invented recently and is more closely tied to the culture of our own time. Classical works are prone to becoming fossilized, esconced in a long and distinguished performance tradition. This is not to say, of course, that classical musicians can’t deviate from performance norms, and I have to admit that I in particular am fond of doing so. It just takes less effort to be apart from the norm in classical music than in jazz.
That said, there’s no perfect analogy, and the comedy/theatre one has a minor flaw: improvisation is present in both traditions. A jazz riff is the classical aficionado’s cadenza. The problem—or perhaps, quite simply, the difference—is that nowadays the vast majority of classical artists perform composed cadenzas, and it’s the rare musician who creates his or her own. Even in those cases, the work is prewritten. Jazz lives and breathes spontaneity even while it is contained by the same requirement of absolute technical mastery demanded of classical musicians.
So why am I a classical musician and not a jazz artist? This is a question I may be asking myself for a very, very long time. I don’t know if it’s a personality tic or if it’s simply the way I happen to be most comfortable expressing myself musically. I’ve never felt I could “do” jazz convincingly on the violin. Classical is my thing. But I LOVE jazz. Not that you didn’t know that already. But I just feel like saying it. And I’ve never had quite the same passion for classical music, even though I’ve poured a lot of time and energy and personality into that world. Jazz captures my imagination, and classical music is the expression of the jazz happening inside. How’s that for genre-bending?
And that’s what jazz is all about: defying boundaries.