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What is This Thing Called Jazz?

“Man! If you gotta ask, you’ll never know!” Louis Armstrong once opined in response to the age old question, “What is Jazz?” This is as apt an answer as you are likely to get if you should ask this question. It’s a little bit like the answer given by an American Supreme Court judge passing […]


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“Man! If you gotta ask, you’ll never know!” Louis Armstrong once opined in response to the age old question, “What is Jazz?” This is as apt an answer as you are likely to get if you should ask this question. It’s a little bit like the answer given by an American Supreme Court judge passing judgement on a particularly vexing pornography case. Not able to clearly define obscenity, the honorable jurist said, “I can’t define obscenity but I know it when I see it!” Jazz may well have a similar description! Many long winded and amusing attempts have been made to corral the music called Jazz, usually without much success. It was once suggested by a wag that if Dizzy Gillespie played nursery rhymes it will be jazz, but if Lawrence Welk played ‘A Night In Tunisia’ it would still sound just like Lawrence Welk! Perhaps a little cruel on Welk but it makes quite a point.

It is arguably the most creative and exciting live art form there is. It is subtle and seductive. Jazz is young and contemporary, being just about 100 years old. Jazz keeps evolving, redefining and recreating itself. Yet, defining jazz is not so easy.

What is Jazz? A great deal of confusion is centered around the definition of jazz. There is no simple, single categorisation of jazz. Many experts have attempted to define jazz but to me they have generally fallen short by putting too many restrictions on what is and isn’t jazz. In essence, jazz is a music that puts an emphasis on improvisation and has a feel of the blues. Other potential qualities such as virtuosity, swing or even whether the musicians are playing in tune, are optional. This music offers a constant opportunity and challenge to the artist to be creative and come up with new ideas. This is in major contrast to pop music where the players often try and duplicate a recording for a live audience. Also the blues feeling separates jazz from other improvised music such as bluegrass music in America, or our own Indian classical music, where there is a great emphasis on individual improvisation.

In simple terms, jazz is dependant entirely on the musicians’ ability to improvise extempore. Imagine assembling an array of brilliant speakers on one stage. Give them a theme to speak on and chances are they will enthrall an audience. A jazz performance closely resembles such an improvised performance.

Jazz is a very serious art form. It is often painful to hear many types of music being bundled under its mantle. Ensembles boasting of keyboards, guitar, bass and drums are sometimes erroneously labeled a jazz group. Jazz has a specific tradition and history which serve as parameters of the music

In recent years, a number of sub genres have been created in jazz. We have such variants as Smooth Jazz, Jazz Rock, Acid Jazz among others. Some of these have been relegated to sub categories such as ‘elevator music,’ piped music and muzak. These categories, one suspects are born of marketing necessity rather than from a realization of any subtle differences in the music. It may have worked wonders for record sales! An offshoot of this trend is what I think of as ‘manufactured music’; music made to a formula.

Good jazz comes from the heart, from inner feeling and inspiration. It takes a discriminating, cultivated listenership to truly appreciate this most wonderful art form.

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