On Defining Jazz

by David Braid for Canadian Musician Magazine

There are disagreements among artists, critics, educators and aficionados on the definition of jazz. A central problem defining jazz is possibly the lack of agreement about its essential components since its forms, musicians, vocabulary, inspirations among other things continually change over time. The goal of this debate, I believe, is to reach an objective definition of jazz by identifying its essential musical traits.

Consider these responses to the question "What is Jazz?" by some of the original creators: "If you have to ask what jazz is, you'll never know," said Louis Armstrong. This statement, and a similar one attributed to Fats Waller, suggest that jazz is only intuitively known. Thelonious Monk also echoes this idea: "I don't have a definition of jazz...you're just supposed to know it when you hear it." From another perspective, Bill Evans tries to distinguish what jazz is not: "...it bugs me when people try to analyse jazz as an intellectual theorem... it's not. It's feeling." Despite the aesthetic differences among these highly influential jazz musicians, one consistently finds an absence of definitive musical traits in their statements. Instead, their responses address feeling and intuitive awareness, two inward events which do not pin jazz to a static definition, but reveal an active, subjective experience.

Writing about what I think that subjective experience could be is almost as awkward as reading about it and both are much less real than the actual occurrence. However, from my practical experience as a performer and listener, the closest approximation, if I can render it in words, is that jazz is transformative on two planes: on an objective plane with its outward musical aspects, jazz musicians draw on the performance tradition of improvisation to develop the melodic, harmonic and rhythmic components of a basic song into a more complex composition. Structural transformation on this level is empirically obvious to anyone aware that jazz music relies heavily on improvisation. On the subjective plane, transformation, according to our jazz pioneers, emphasizes an inward experience, a personal change of state. Precisely how it occurs is elusive within the mystery of creative art; but as a classic example of it, 'swing' intensifies the energy of a song by exciting both the improvisers and the listeners, compelling them to move with the pulse of the music. The audience and musicians are together transformed by being lifted out of the "every day", emotionally, sensuously, and intuitively, into a temporary heightening of their relatedness to each other by the influence of a special musical property "swing" that is unique to jazz.  The intuitive, non-verbal component may be partly the reason why jazz musicians previously mentioned were unwilling or unable to put the meaning of jazz, as a subjective phenomenon, into words.

Beyond swing, jazz involves elaboration on an ever increasing array of complex technique. I think a true artist is remarkably inventive with complex vocabulary (objective transformation) while easily communicating expressively on a basic emotional level, hence permitting subjective transformation; that is (despite the musical technique) the music still communicates the same intuitive "jazz feeling" that Armstrong, Monk and Evans alluded to.

A final thought, as such influential jazz pioneers emphasize the subjective experience of jazz, perhaps the question "What is jazz?", is more appropriately rephrased as "What does jazz do?" This is a significant shift from a static meaning of the word jazz, to a meaning that refers to something current, active, and alive - in essence, a shift from noun to verb, perhaps reconnecting the word jazz to its original connotation as an action, and not a thing.

"Don't want it fast, don't want it slow;
Take your time, Professor, play it sweet and low!
I got those doggone, low-down jazz-me, jazz-me blues"

- The Jazz Me Blues, 1921