SA8: The What Is Jazz? Issue

Matthew Shipp

Sound American: What one thing HAS to be present (musically, socially, historically, whatever), in your mind, to constitute “jazz”?


Matthew Shipp: To me jazz is a word—not sure the etymology of it but doesn’t it come from the same word as ass? I have no idea what has to be there; language is all a social construct, and if you look at what people call jazz, Louis Armstrong…Lee Konitz…Cecil Taylor…Kenny G…George Duke…Sonny Rollins. They are all different and distinct phenomena. So the nexus of all of it is its music-it is people trying to make profound patterns on the instrument they play that is connected to there emotional life and therefore to the emotional minefield of there audience. But you could say that about all music. Lets not try to say anything about swing for whatever type of ‘’jazz’’ evolves or comes about from an older style the people that play the older style will say that the new style does not swing. And some people will say its blues based—but who owns the blues and who defines that? BB King? Wynton? Come on…no one knows what any of this shit is. And that is the way it’s supposed to be. So I have no idea what jazz is…and I don’t care. Anyone who wants a rigid definition is some type of fascist trying to gain some type of imagined power by trying to control language. The Hindus say all reality is Maya-an illusion. Well, jazz is an illusion, but a useful one for we need terms to mark out aspects of existence even though ultimately its disparate activities of different people


SA: Thinking in the same broad terms, what one thing CANNOT be present in “jazz”?


MS: I don’t know—really think [Duke] Ellington had it right there are two types of music…good and bad.

Josh Sinton

Sound American: What one thing HAS to be present (musically, socially, historically, whatever), in your mind, to constitute “jazz”?


Josh Sinton: The intention/desire on the part of EITHER the artist OR the listener to hear jazz.


SA: Thinking in the same broad terms, what one thing CANNOT be present in “jazz”?


The intention/desire on the part of the artist AND the listener to not hear jazz.


n.b. these hypothetical intentions/desires do not at all need be conscious. In fact, I believe that most of the time these dynamics are unconscious and when discussed initially take the form of assumptions and after those aesthetic criteria.


SA: To really oversimplify your answer, it seems like you're saying the term "jazz" is a kind of specter that is dependent on faith. In other words, if someone believes what he or she are hearing or making is jazz, then jazz it is. If no one believes that what is being made or heard is jazz, then it is not. So, if this is the case, it seems ridiculous that there would ever be arguments about what jazz is or isn't, which is the crux of this whole broad exercise, right? Why does it still happen then? Is it a psychological need to impose our opinions on each other?


JS: "Faith" is a tricky word because of the implication of belief and more importantly, the implication that these are conscious processes. I do not think they are most (say 85%) of the time. I firmly believe that if somebody (seasoned music critic or not) is listening to their favorite black metal band and all-of-a-sudden, in the middle of a track, there's a tender breakdown where one can hear saxophone and possibly even upright bass, it does not matter what the instruments are actually playing, the person listening to it will immediately think, "huh, these guys are getting a little jazzy." Now the instruments in questions might be playing a compositional mash-up of the previous vocal exhortations combined with a straight-up lift from the guitarist's favorite Machaud motet, it does not matter. Simply hearing (and recognizing) those timbres will cause this listener to make an irrational association and it is very, very hard to dislodge these associations and perceive them for what they are.


To your bigger point, that "it seems ridiculous" to engage in this: yes. I firmly believe it is. Years ago I decided that maintaining genre boundaries truly only made sense in a bricks-and-mortar record store. Since no store has ever been willing to use a purely alphabetical scheme for organizing their stock (the most sensible approach I think), it only makes sense to keep Billy Holiday in the Jazz section and Cecilia Bartoli in the Classical section so the consumer can more easily find what they're looking for. With the disappearance of physical stores, why do these online retailers continue to maintain these ever more ethereal boundaries? Good question. Habit is one answer. And habit prevents us (the culture) from imagining a truly relevant organizational schema for our artifacts.


I think there's also our addiction to narrative, rational structure and order. Compartmentalizing the things in our life provides solace in a world and universe that science daily proves is much larger than our apprehension will ever stretch. So no, I do not think these arguments over aesthetic criteria (because that's all it really is, truly. If I want to believe that Nels Cline is a great jazz guitarist and a great rock guitarist, then nothing you can say or do will dissuade me from that. And if that means we can no longer talk about "jazz", then so be it. Much worse, much more important things have happened) are part of a "need to impose our opinions on each other." I do think they are part of our need to impose order on the world and our life. Where we get fouled up is when we stop recognizing the activity we are engaged in when we ask who gets to be "jazz": it's a discussion of aesthetic opinions. Now these opinions can have important implications in the grant-giving and festival-application processes, but for the most part, they're just that, opinions. And once one is seduced by the verbal dexterity of a well-worded opinion, one has been removed already from the fundamental act under discussion: listening.


I also think folks have these discussions because I think they believe that the things they like say something about who they are as a person. They're invested in a notion that if band x is disallowed from genre y then that says something about who they are and their place in the world. These are issues that speak almost exclusively to the psychology of the people involved (their feelings of alienation or of community) rather than to the music itself.


Ultimately I don't actually think these discussions are ridiculous. I think they can be important and helpful and sometimes when we're lucky, inspiring. The discussions become ridiculous when someone decides the purpose of them is to win and dominate and convince everyone else that they have the most correct opinion.

Susana Santos Silva

So, I want to say that I made this exercise of trying to answer these 2 questions as they could actually have one straight and single answer. But in fact i don't really think it is possible to answer them just like that, and I also think that there's no need or practical use for it.  I don't really even know if I'm a jazz musician or not. Sometimes I get close to it, many times I'm greatly far away from what's considered jazz. I'm a musician. If there's any need for a more detailed description, then I'm an improviser.


Labels are terrible by the way... as far as I perceive it. For me it's always a to heavy of a burden to carry, that will not allow me to be myself... completely free, spontaneous and fearless (of making mistakes or not being able to be as good as one expects). But also for the listener, I believe, because also he carries expectations and pre conceptions of what he thinks he will listen to, and that can take away the magic and the beauty of the experience. So everyone is put in a prison, caught in his own mind not being able to enjoy and to be in that moment.


In these last years, more and more, I'm going in the direction of approaching music, as well as life itself, as openly and free of preconceptions as possible... listening deeply, being compassionate, connecting strongly with the musicians I'm making music with, being open to receive from them and from everything around me and giving everything I can to make creative and meaningful music, and that means embracing all possibilities, taking risks, never stop searching and being completely honest and true to myself.


Sound American: What one thing HAS to be present (musically, socially, historically, whatever), in your mind, to constitute “jazz”?


Susana Santos Silva: Acknowledgment of tradition/history (to know what came before)


SA: Thinking in the same broad terms, what one thing CANNOT be present in “jazz”?


SSS: nothing.


SA: Obviously tradition and history has a big part to play in jazz. And, a lot of the arguments about what jazz is or isn't rely on the tradition. What makes up that tradition in your mind? Is it something you can put your finger on?


SSS: What I mean with tradition/history is that one has to have listened to it to know what it is about; to think about the one thing, the only thing that makes one able to play it or not is to know about it, to have the acknowledgment of its existence and how it sounds. If one never listened to jazz, its masters, the ones that made this music happen then it's impossible to play that music. All the rest you can have it or not, play it or not, everything can work, you can make your music a way of living or not and still sound like jazz. You can play patterns or not but still sound like jazz (bad or good), you can swing, groove or not and still can be called jazz. You can play chord changes or not and still be called jazz and so on and so forth... does it make any sense what I'm saying? or my English...


SA: so, just to simplify to make sure I'm understanding correctly, what you're saying is that all the practice of mechanical elements of jazz (scales, groove, harmony, etc.) doesn't make jazz, but having the sound in your ear from listening to records is what makes the music jazz....kind of like having an accent. I can learn Portuguese from a book, but unless I've immersed myself in the sound of it by listening to it, I'll never truly be speaking it. Is that correct?


SSS: Well... kind of. Your comparison with learning language made me rethink the whole thing for a minute here...  I think, in the case of jazz language, it would be much more essential to have listened to it (than learning Portuguese let's say) because the language of jazz has much more underneath the surface than the spoken word.... (or not)


If we stick with your question, we need one thing and only one thing to make it jazz. Only scales or harmony won't do it. But, in fact, only listening maybe won't do it either, or then maybe it will. Because, if you listen and it gets inside you it will come out somehow. The music will be filtered by your interpretation of what you listened to. And, probably it will sound pretty different anyway, but it's there; in your background, in your mind, in your heart, in your soul. or maybe not.

Ches Smith

I have a small hesitation: I am not sure I am qualified for this. But, I am willing to proceed anyway.*


My answers are below. First, I had a couple of questions, which you can answer or not; either way it might be a backdrop to my answers:


What do you think the significance is of major figures in the jazz world--Duke Ellington, members of the AACM, Max Roach, Charles Tolliver, Yusef Lateef etc.--not wanting to call their music jazz?


Do you consider the music you play to be jazz? Specifically, the concert I saw at winter jazzfest. [Ches refers to a performance of my Seven Storey Mountain IV he saw at Winter Jazzfest in New York not long before our discussion]


Sound American: What one thing HAS to be present (musically, socially, historically, whatever), in your mind, to constitute “jazz”?


Ches Smith: I think what needs to be present is improvisation within some sort of time feel. And I mean 'time feel' in the broadest sense possible: what it feels like as time passes.


I am not necessarily talking about the subdivision of regular metric beats, or irregular pulses; or the opposite.


SA: Thinking in the same broad terms, what one thing CANNOT be present in “jazz”?


CS: A script being followed of what is supposed to happen.


SA: Thanks for writing back and being a part of this. Much of what I say below will probably also be put in my opening essay to the issue. It's only fair that if I'm asking people to open themselves up on such a delicate subject that I make myself as or more vulnerable somewhere. I just don't want to make this about me arguing my point with each and every interviewee. I think we have enough of that kind of discussion.


I am well aware of AACM, Ellington, Lateef not wanting to use the word jazz and, to me, that's a major part of the discussion. I tried to talk to certain composers and improvisers from that era, because I think it's absolutely vital that that avenue is explored and documented beyond what they said 30 years ago. They declined, and I certainly can’t blame them for wanting to move on. Maybe it makes sense to be candid about why I'm doing this, I want to pull the word apart...all the good things, all the bad...with none of it being weighted in one way or another. That includes why a musician would be very against having their music termed as jazz. It's a naive proposal, but it comes out of this weird desire to hold this nebulous thing up to the light and take it apart and view every ugly ass angle until people aren't afraid of it any more. Then we can throw it away...or we can decide to do something else with it. I don't really care which. I think there's beauty in the tradition of jazz and I think there's a lot of ugliness too. I'm just tired of the word having as much power as it does without any accountability for it's definition. This is a small attempt to at least get some people thinking about that.


I do wish I could get more perspective from those who have chosen to get away from using the word jazz publicly, but as was pointed out to me..those people have been answering that question for so long...they just are tired of it. And, I can't blame them. Perhaps it's a generational thing. We're at an age where it has some value and power, this idea of naming of things. I don't know.


Finally, I do think SSM (the performance you saw) was more jazz than not jazz. I can't be clearer than that, but I'm not expecting anyone else to be either. I'm glad you made me think of it, honestly. Especially that piece. It made me undertake the exercise I'm asking all of you to do, and earlier than I expected, which is good. To me, jazz has an indescribable element of propulsion and an ecstatic quality (not one that is tied to volume or speed or density, but some strange feeling of movement). All of that is tied to memory. I remember being moved a certain way at points in my life by things that the majority of people would agree is jazz and so when I feel that again I can't help but use that word by association. So, when, in SSM the drums kick in or the brass play at the end, I feel that feeling that comes from big bands as a kid and if I had to use a word, it would probably be jazz. Strange.

Ben Vida

Sound American: What one thing HAS to be present (musically, socially, historically, whatever), in your mind, to constitute “jazz”?


Ben Vida: I think of “jazz” as a title that denotes an intention – for me, it is this intention that needs to be present, that’s all. From a purely material point of view I am not sure “jazz” is anything specific any longer (maybe historically there have been moments where this isn’t true – where there were specific “jazz materials” - but from where we stand today I don’t think so). It is more of an agreement amongst a group of musicians to interact in a certain way, to perform the different “roles” that, as a group, they perceive as enacting the musical “intentions” of “jazz”. In this sense, playing “jazz” becomes a social/creative setting with a number of prescribed rules of interaction. By getting together to play “jazz” the performers are all accessing their own (or the groups) predetermined understanding of what they consider “jazz’ to be. And of course what these parameters are can very greatly. And so “jazz” gets sub-labeled (free jazz, spiritual jazz, hard bop, etc.) – all labels acting to illuminate a sorta specific set of parameters to work within but really maybe only actually functioning to inform an audience with a verbal shorthand what the music might sound like (so a piece of “jazz music” might, for instance “swing” but not contain improvisation, or not “swing” but have a familiar instrumentation where the instrumentalists roles are extrapolated from what would be considered a traditional “jazz” ensemble). So “jazz” becomes a framework that the music is both created and received within, though that framework is malleable. This framework is a “naming”, and in that sense, a performative act of declaring intention.


SA: Thinking in the same broad terms, what one thing CANNOT be present in “jazz”?


BV: Though I don’t feel the presence of any one element will magically change a music from jazz into some other musical style, I certainly have my own idea of what I want to experience when I listen to jazz. This is simply a subjective aesthetic preference and has nothing really to do with setting hard and fast rules for what might determine how one might go about labeling something as “jazz”. I don’t think this sorta personal interior labeling slips much; I have a pretty good sense of what “jazz” sounds like to me. But I wouldn’t foist this interior labeling out into the world since what “jazz” sound like to me isn’t going to be true for someone else.


SA: Obviously this will be different depending on the group of musicians, but where do the prescribed rules that a group of musicians follow to engage in the act of making jazz come from? Is it a tradition of recordings or a cultural/historical place? Somehow, I feel like the rules have changed and been codified by formalized jazz education. What rules are being followed that separate the act of playing jazz from the act of playing chamber music, for example?


BV: The prescribed rules come from our individual histories of listening.  They come from the scene and they come from impressions that we get from our peers, instructors and influences.  But these histories and influences also reveal the prescribed schisms that occur from generation to generation.  This is its own language of jazz too - the so-called "evolution out of" or "breaking from" what has come before.  At this point this act of "breaking" or creating a "schism" is as codified and formalized as any other closed system. We have been witness to it (though audio recordings and the written histories of "jazz") and have learned from what we have seen.  Even when a traditionalists approach resurfaces and vies for prominence it is an action that is at once both reactionary, learned and expected.  And this is interesting to me because it doesn't change what is intrinsically important about the music - that is, it doesn't change the group dynamic and the creative interplay between the groups of musicians who have come together to make "group art”.  It is a unique form of collaboration (much like rock and roll - there is no avant garde in rock music, only nostalgia. but the act of getting together in the practice room and creating collaboratively within the "rock and roll" modal is still an important form of social interaction).   And so "jazz" is what we name it.  It is a title that hangs over the practice room that directs the actions of those within, but what those actions are is less ossified than the title that they are made under.


Those who push their idea of "jazz" forward most effectively into society help to give form to what it is expected to sound like.  There is a gap between the private intentions of the individual (or group) and how the manifestations of that individual fits into the perceived frame that society is using to receive a music within.