What Is Jazz?

The foremost defining characteristic of jazz is arguably its distinctive rhythm, known as swing, not to be confused with the genre of Swing, which emerged in the 1930’s.  The technical definition of swing rhythm is the practice of emphasizing what are traditionally the off-beats, so that a group of four notes is felt as “One TWO three FOUR.”  Inside of this pattern, triplets dance constantly, and the second beat of the triplet is given emphasis: One-two-three One-TWO-three One-two-three One-TWO-three.

But swing is so much more than that.  In addition to the alteration of the rhythm, there is an element of swing that is nearly impossible to define.  In my opinion, it is essentially the musicians’ absorption of the jazz tradition and willingness to play fast and loose, or slow and tight, or any manner of tricks with rhythm that gives swing its groove.  You know it when you feel it, and learning when and how to feel it can take time.  Jazz didn’t create swing, just gave it a name and glory.

Personally I rather like this as an example of swing:

and this:

When asked to define jazz during a workshop at the 2012 Montreux Jazz Festival, Fourplay leader and landmark pianist Bob James cited swing as the first hallmark of jazz.  He quickly added a second element: improvisation.  This allows the musicians a great deal of artistic freedom while allowing them to work together, as they always have a certain key, time signature, and piece which form their framework, but within that frame they create their music on the spot.  This is responsible for the immediacy that is so special to the genre, as well as the feeling that a conversation is happening between the musicians.  Jazz artists learn their craft by listening to the greats, and will often quote famous lines or phrases while improvising.  This also helps to anchor performances and enhances the richness of the conversation.  A conversational element exists in other kinds of music, especially in opera and classical music, but in those arenas the words and notes are entirely scripted and artists have much less license for exploration.

Both the freedom and the musical dialogue that characterize jazz are the legacy of the blues, whose call-and-response form imbues the art form with its soul.  Jazz as such could not exist without the blues.  Artists of both genres place stress on certain “blue” notes, allowing them to dramatize melodies at will.  Jazz musicians’ instrumental imitation of blues vocalists grounds jazz into the earth, drawing from the richness of the African-American tradition and the emotionality of the human voice.


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