SA8: The What Is Jazz? Issue
There are three reasons to walk into a minefield: ignorance that it exists, being naïve about the dangers therein, or curiosity about its true destructive potential. Ignorance and naiveté are essential parts of the third, curious reason. But, if you can find a way to limit their presence, that reckless curiosity can take you, and everyone around you, a long way toward a greater understanding. It is in this spirit that I’m introducing Sound American Issue 8: What Is Jazz?
If you’ve been involved in the sub-sub-sub-sub-sub-subculture that is Jazz music, you know already that the road taken within this issue is both well traveled and perilous. If there are politics in music, and we all know that there are, then the debate about what is or isn’t really Jazz, could easily be held up as a prime example of the divisive and damaging social dynamic that can come about by trying to put a name or label on something as ambiguous as a musical tradition.
The idea of this issue is to take the word, Jazz, and start to examine it, even if it’s on a rudimentary level. For example: what happens when we try to take the label out of the context of what we already know: the history, legend, tradition, romance, racism, sexism, lack of/recreated legitimacy? Writers and historians have an answer, and it’s valid and correct from that point of view. Listeners and fans have another answer; again, equally valid and correct. The musicians, those closest to this music and its namesake, should be easily able to talk about what Jazz means, but sometimes those deepest inside what the word represents have the hardest time expressing its true meaning. Knowing this, I put together a loosely-Cartesian experiment in hopes of alleviating some confusion and starting the conversation that may relieve the word Jazz of its ballistic power.
And so, with one foot in front of the other, we tread together…
I submit that, if enough musicians are presented with a short series of very limiting and pointed questions about how they define the word Jazz, two outcomes are likely:
The first is that a good percentage of the participants will give similar enough answers that it’s possible to construct a sort of ersatz definition made-up of technical chewing gum and ideological wire as a basis to some sort of understanding. This is a valuable tool because:
a) It gives a picture of how a large sample of musicians actually views Jazz.
b) By reading between the lines, we can begin to apprehend the care contemporary musicians take in approaching the problem, which illuminates the social aspect of being a public figure in a musical community.
The second is that there will always be a few people who will sidestep the very limiting and pointed questions, using them simply as mental exercises to dig deeper into the philosophical and social implications of the word. In conjunction with the structure built by those who take the questions at face value, these answers start to provide us with insights into the multi-layered value (positive and negative) of the Jazz label.
To test the thesis I sent out invitations to fifty musicians around the world to answer two questions for me, leaving the possibility open to expand our conversations with more questions. Out of this fifty, about forty agreed, and I ended up with thirty-plus completed interviews, which are arranged in alphabetical order in this issue.
For these interviews, conducted via email unless otherwise noted, each participant received the same two questions:
What one thing HAS to be present (musically, socially, historically, whatever), in your mind, to constitute “Jazz”?
Thinking in the same broad terms, what one thing CANNOT be present in “Jazz”?
These questions were intended to limit the conversation to the word Jazz as something that can be fundamentally constructed and deconstructed. This served the purpose of giving the interviewees a very specific problem to work through, allowing them to push beyond a cliché such as “America’s classical music,” and to think of the word Jazz as an object of study. The questions also had the added intention of serving as an indicator of how musicians would choose to handle the controversy of labels and names generally, and specifically the word Jazz.
These questions became the basis of our conversations, during which I played devil’s advocate to see if we could coax even more meaning out of the initial answers and how the musician related to the word. In some cases, the interview ended at the two questions due to time commitments or a feeling that what had been said was sufficient, others followed their own paths to a logical conclusion. Throughout, I did my best to remain neutral (outside of the above mentioned devil’s advocacy), so that the subject was talking about their experience with the word and not being affected by my opinions.
In a handful of cases, I set up two musicians to interview each other so that conversations could take different courses without even my subconscious input. Each pair was presented with the same information and questions as the thirty-plus personal interviews, then allowed to use that information in whatever way they saw fit, following their own logic, and making their own conclusions without limitations.
Not surprisingly, the answers did tend to follow certain patterns. The most frequent answer to what has to be present in Jazz was some sort of improvisation. The way people chose to define improvisation varied, but most agreed that it had to be present for the music to be labeled Jazz. Certain ideas around rhythm, whether “swing” or a more abstract concept, were mentioned by a number of interviewees as well, with fewer adding that a connection to the Jazz tradition was necessary.
The question about what must be excluded in a piece of music had a much more varied response. It is hard to find an answer that was used by a large enough portion of the participants to say there was a trend in any one direction. This does, however, give an insight to how most musicians approached the project of defining Jazz, and especially these somewhat “loaded” questions.
Although it may not be readily evident in the printed text as separate from my complete interaction with each person, the vast majority of participants (not to mention those who chose not to participate) seemed reticent to involve themselves in any form of exclusion in their answers. This is a natural response as so much of what has defined the historical and long-running debate over the word Jazz has been the open desire of some groups of people/industries/media to exclude certain individuals and groups from being able to shelter under the umbrella of the Jazz tradition.
This reticence, itself an indicator of the social aspect of answering the question, was combined with a pronounced hesitance among most of the participants to identify as Jazz musicians, or to use a label of any type in referring to music. This idea does have certain roots in Jazz; from Ellington’s idea of only two kinds of music (good and bad) to Miles Davis’s desire to play the music first and tell you what it is later, to certain musicians very vocally distancing themselves from the moniker in the 1970s and 80s. Beyond that, categorization for many years only had a place in record stores, radio stations, and music magazines; many of which are, for better or worse, becoming extinct at an increasing rate.