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Introduction - WHAT IS JAZZ?, THE PROBLEMS WITH TRACING PRE-1917 JAZZ

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Jazz is one of the most exciting genres of music ever created. It is a music that emphasizes self-expression without overlooking teamwork, creativity and chance taking, and breaking the rules once the rules have been mastered. Unlike classical music which is written out, or pop music whose goal is often to recreate recordings at concerts, jazz is about spontaneity and improvisation; making up ideas on the spot.

Jazz has been in its golden age since 1920, and it shows no sign of decline. Many jazz books make the mistake of glorifying the music’s past while overlooking jazz of the present. It is true that jazz evolved very quickly during the period from 1920 to 1975, and its evolution has become more complex since then, going in many different directions simultaneously, rather than following one dominant path. It is always moving forward, however, with fresh, new ideas and colorful voices.

This book differs from other jazz history books in its emphasis on the regional aspects that were so important in the evolution of jazz. Before mass communication made events in one part of the world known immediately to listeners everywhere, a musical style was often created in a specific geographical area that then became its home base and main breeding ground before spreading elsewhere. The West Coast cool jazz versus East Coast hard bop debates of the 1950s are a very good example of regionalism, not to mention the styles that developed in New Orleans and Kansas City.

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WHAT IS JAZZ?

In the early days of jazz history, because there were only one or two styles, it was easier to define and make general statements about rhythm, harmony, melody, the type of instruments used, and the music’s feel. Now jazz has been in existence for over a hundred years and has evolved steadily in many different directions, so it is much more difficult to specify the qualities of music that make up jazz. As soon as someone comes up with a list of restrictions and rules, innovative players will find a way to reinvent the music, making the definition obsolete.

Perhaps the best way to answer the question, What is jazz? is by asking a different question: What do the many styles of jazz, from New Orleans jazz and swing to bebop, free improvisations, fusion, and today’s many idioms, have in common? In other words, what makes these types of music jazz?

There are only two qualities common to all styles of jazz that make jazz stand apart from other types of music. It is not rhythm, for rock, county, and pop all use rhythms; and some styles of jazz (particularly free improvisations) are occasionally played without rhythms at all. It is not superb musicianship or even being in tune, nor is it the repertoire or instrumentation. For music to be jazz, it should emphasize improvisation and always have the feeling of the blues. Improvisation can be thought of as making things up as the music goes along. Jazz continually changes, and many times a group’s live performance of a particular song will differ drastically from its recording. Even musicians who utilize tight arrangements will make subtle changes in their phrasing and solos, for the goal is to be constantly creative. In the early days of jazz, the improvising was generally done by a full group, shifting during the 1920s toward soloists. Improvisation, one of the most exciting aspects of any jazz style, allows listeners to hear artists create in public, and even the musicians do not always know what the results will be.

Improvisation alone is not enough to make music jazz, for early classical music, Indian ragas, bluegrass, and rock all use improvisation. The second quality that appears in jazz performances is the feeling of the blues, even when it is very subtle or abstract. “The feeling of the blues” does not refer to the technical blues structure, but the idea of communicating by bending notes (never done in classical music) and developing an individual speechlike style. When someone speaks through his or her instrument or voice in a creative and spontaneous fashion, chances are it is jazz.

There have always been many performances that straddle the boundaries between jazz and other styles of music, and it’s possible to get a bit carried away debating whether something is jazz or not. Jazz is always borrowing from other idioms, transforming the music and expanding it in unpredictable ways, while some pop music groups use a little bit of jazz as a flavor. When trying to decide whether a certain recording or performance is jazz, it is best to look at the overall picture.

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Ultimately what matters much less than whether or not something is jazz is whether it is enjoyable, well played, and memorable. That evaluation is up to each listener.


THE PROBLEMS WITH TRACING PRE-1917 JAZZ


One of the most basic questions about jazz is, How and when did it start? The first jazz recordings were made in 1917, but the music existed at least twenty years earlier. Virtually nothing was written about jazz during that shadowy period, and the influence of jazz was nearly nonexistent on early popular recordings. Significant interviews were not conducted with the surviving pioneers of jazz until the 1930s at the earliest, and by then their memories of events from the previous thirty to forty years were understandably foggy, contradictory, and incomplete.


Because jazz in its earliest days was primarily played by blacks in New Orleans and a few rural areas in the southern part of the United States, it received virtually no publicity in the white press and was thought of as a small part of the entertainment world, when it was thought of at all. In fact, the name “jazz” was not even used prior to 1916.


A few things are clear about jazz during the period prior to its documentation. Like the United States (a country founded and constantly invigorated by immigrants), jazz was a melting pot, combining aspects from very different musical forms, which means that it probably could not have been formed anywhere but in the United States. In its earliest days the unnamed jazz music was part of everyday life in selected areas of the South (particularly New Orleans) rather than being thought of as concert music or an art form. From its start, jazz was less about following rules and maintaining the status quo than it was about finding a unique voice and adding new ideas to its legacy.


Cornetist Buddy Bolden’s first band in 1895 is the symbolic start of jazz, but the lack of recordings means that there really is no way to know how his group sounded or if there were earlier jazz groups. Nevertheless, this book begins with a discussion of some of the many different areas of music that contributed to the beginnings of jazz.

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