SA8: The What Is Jazz? Issue

Darcy James Argue

Sound American: 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”?


Darcy James Argue: First off, these semantic discussions always seem kind of… I guess I would say "unproductive" in many ways. There’s so much energy focused on defining exactly what jazz is and isn't. Your question is kind of a leading question because it assumes that there is in fact a single definition, a precise set of criteria that we could use to include or exclude music from the category "jazz." But there are actually very few things in our lives that fit neatly into those precise definitions. Even something as simple as the word "grandmother"… this is something that Steven Pinker talks about in his books on linguistics. You'd think that the word grandmother would have a very simple, unambiguous definition: a grandmother is the mom of a mom. But, then you get into concepts like adoption, and blended families, and surrogates, and, like, who's a better fit for our mental concept "grandmother": a kindly, grey-haired, cookie-baking sixty-five year old lady who’s never had children, or, say, Neneh Cherry? So jazz, like most categories, has fuzzy borders. I mean, people might have an idea in their head of what the most characteristic sound of jazz is. No one has any trouble identifying classic, swinging, mid-50s jazz as "jazz." So that's like the least controversial example, the common practice stuff that most schools focus on, the stuff that made it into the Ken Burns documentary. But, once you get even a tiny bit beyond that, it’s more of a question of family resemblance than any kind of strict definition. I’m really not interested in policing the term. I think, generally speaking, that if someone wants to self-define as a jazz musician for whatever reason — I mean, it’s not like that’s really going to help you out commercially! — then that’s okay with me. Then maybe we can move on from trying to police what is or isn’t jazz into a discussion of the music itself: what's in it, whether it's any good, whether it speaks to people. I just feel like, whatever answers people have been giving you about which elements absolutely need to be present for you to call something "jazz," you can usually find examples of recordings by universally acknowledged jazz greats that don't fit inside those boxes. You know, like the Ellington works that don't include improvisation, that kind of thing. I understand that this is an issue that is really fraught for a lot of people. A lot of jazz musicians from earlier generations didn’t like the word because of its supposed negative connotations: it was the music of brothels and bordellos, and it obviously didn’t have the same kind of cultural cachet as classical music. Musicians that were trying to obtain a degree of serious recognition for what they were doing, like Ellington for instance — he bristled at being called a "jazz composer." He wanted to be considered a composer, period. Then, lately, there has been a movement of people who have been questioning or avoiding the label for almost the opposite reason. It seems like the music that’s being made under the rubric of "jazz" has, in a lot of circles, gotten so academic — so self-consciously intellectual, and, at times, so distant from the idea of groove — that the values represented by that part of the jazz spectrum don't always resonate with people who have devoted their lives to swinging. Or, there’s the racial element, which is that jazz is black music, but the majority of its practitioners aren't black anymore. And that’s, understandably, very troubling for a lot of African-American artists who aren’t sure if "jazz" is an identity they want to claim anymore. This is obviously a really fraught topic, and you can see those kinds of questions playing out in all kinds of music, not just jazz. Like, Macklemore wins the Grammy for best rap album and that stirs up a huge controversy about what is and isn't "real" hip-hop. Often the wars about what to call this music, or how to define it are the tip of the iceberg. They’re ways of alluding to much larger issues without actually talking about them directly. There’s a subtext to the question “what is jazz?” that goes beyond just defining a musical genre. It’s a question about politics and identity and racism and the shape of America in the 21st century and all that big stuff.

Ab Baars

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


Ab Baars: an open ear, open mind


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


AB: that's up to the musician involved and decided on the spot


SA: Do you think spontaneity is one of the elements that jazz holds as essential? If so, can you think of an example where that spontaneity might have a limit, past which the music isn't jazz?


AB: All I can say is that the practicing, studying, rehearsing I do is to be able to respond spontaneously


Is it one of the elements that jazz holds as essential?


Essential, but not only to jazz.


Same with improvisation or rhythm or swing: essential, but not only to jazz; Bach, Beethoven, organ music, African music, etc., etc.


Many (jazz) musicians play(ed) totally scored solos with great spontaneity; members of the Ellington Orchestra, Bechet among many others.


Spontaneity has many levels.


SA: Do you think there is a level of spontaneity that is specifically related to jazz...that would be different than Bach, Beethoven, African music, etc.? I'm thinking there's something in the way that jazz musicians, especially the ones you mentioned, are able to bring spontaneity to something not strictly improvised. Somehow I think there's something in that ability to be spontaneous, even within something strictly notated, (say the way one plays time or articulates) that seems like one of the unexplainable parts of what jazz is? Maybe that's part of the ambiguity of the term?


AB: One very specific element in so-called jazz is 'finding your own voice'.


Beginners & masters, young & old they all heard 'the call'.


It's a never ending search: you get inspired by a musician/music you like, or don't like, and you start looking for that specific 'voice', or try to avoid it; but you're on the way, you're hooked.


Perhaps this never ending search for something you can only vaguely describe, or not at all, is a very specific part of the excitement, or spontaneity, of jazz?

Tim Berne

Tim Berne: It’s a good question.* I don’t know if I can answer it. In some ways I don’t consider myself a jazz musician. When someone says, “I’m a jazz musician,” I think of somebody that knows eight million tunes, and can get up and play with any jazz group and get through it somewhat convincingly. They sort of have that knowledge of standard jazz practice. That’s a given if you’re going to be called a jazz musician, which isn’t me. I may be wrong, in the sense that I’m an improviser, and I write music and play music with and for improvisers. But, for me, 80% of what jazz is applies to a certain tradition as we all know it.


And, I think when you say avant-garde jazz, that’s stretching it. When most people say “I’m a jazz musician” that’s not what comes to mind. I guess I don’t really care, but I feel like it’s something you have to deserve. Other than the fact that it’s a stupid name (laughs) If you’re going to use the name and accept it, you have to be at a certain level with traditional jazz; to be called a jazz musician. And, it doesn’t just mean to play changes and understand it, but knowing a million tunes and being comfortable going into those situations.


Whether I wanted to do that or not, it didn’t really matter. I started playing late and got into another scene. I started composing and playing and copying the people that influenced me the most. I just thought everybody wrote music, so I thought if I was going to play I’d better start writing. So, it didn’t occur to me that there was all this other stuff going on. So, I started in a funny place and it’s almost been like going backwards to become a jazz musician in a way. I played in bands where people used harmony quite a bit and so that’s where I got my training; people like [Michael] Formanek and Drew [Gress] and [Mark] Helias in the 80s. I thought “holy shit, I’d better get this together”.


When I started playing, and I don’t know if this is appropriate, but I’m just explaining why I said what I said, I started going to these workshops, sort of pay to play, and I’d play jazz tunes in these workshops. And, I would take jazz lessons from these guys that would kind of pattern their lessons after these Jamey Aebersold things, and I would do it, and I understood it. I didn’t dislike it, but there was something in me, I think, that kept veering off. It wasn’t like I didn’t like jazz. I think, intuitively, that I just thought I should keep going in this other direction and the rest of it will catch up to me or somehow I’ll catch up to it later.


I think I could say that there are things that, if they’re present, means it’s not jazz, but the way people define jazz, it’s almost like anybody that improvises, that they like, it’s jazz. And if it’s some free thing that they don’t like, then it’s not jazz, even though they could be really similar.


Sound American: It’s totally subjective


TB: Yeah. There are so many different types of so-called free-jazz and jazz that I think it’s just ludicrous to call it all jazz. When someone tells me they’re going to a jazz concert I don’t think, “Oh, you’re going to see Peter Brötzmann.” It doesn’t really occur to me that that could be possible. That’s kind of how I define it, so if someone tells me they’re going to see some jazz, I immediately think they’re going out to see something pretty traditional.


So, I think you have to come up with either better labels, more labels, or no labels; just say that you’re going out to hear music that these guys are improvising, you know? If you want to simplify and reduce everything to a title, then most of them are going to be wrong.


I know what all the labels are. I know what they really mean to people. Like if someone says free jazz, I know what they really mean. And so, of course, I don’t consider myself free jazz. And that’s why I don’t like it when someone advertises a concert as free jazz from New York. It bothers me because I know what that really means to people, and we’re not doing that. We’re playing composed music that is relatively elaborate and definitely not free. I wish it was free (laughs). And, it’s the same thing with jazz. If a concert of mine is described as jazz and they don’t know who I am, they’re going to be misled.


So, that’s how I react to those titles, and why I don’t necessarily call myself a jazz musician, or care if I’m a jazz musician.


SA: So if you had a choice, would you just be called a musician?


TB: Yeah, I think I would.


SA: I feel like most of the people I’ve talked to tend to think of themselves that way, with some exceptions. It’s been interesting to see how people choose to deal with the model. When you were answering the first part of the question, it seemed like there was a sense of logic in jazz to you; that you followed a certain set of rules in a certain way and based on a certain tradition.


TB: Yeah, you’ve studied that tradition. It’s not just a surface thing. Yeah, I can do it. If someone says we’re going to play certain tunes, I can get it together and do it. And, I know that I’m playing an alto and I don’t sound like a classical saxophonist and that’s coming from jazz and a lot of listening to jazz and rock and funk, and I do aspire to that somehow. That’s one of the reasons I like Julius Hemphill so much. It combined the soul and funk that I liked so much with the avant-garde. His sound was like this super soulful guy going berserk, you know? And, I tend to be more melodic, even in the most “out” situations.


I was in a situation where someone asked me about how I would like to have my music presented and I said I wouldn’t want it to be called jazz because that would be misleading and someone else…it was on some panel discussion…attacked me for that. I just said, “I respect the word.” I respect jazz musicians. My music doesn’t have obvious swing rhythms. We rarely are playing in a jazz way. It may be jazz to some, but some others definitely wouldn’t think it was. Miles Davis said his music wasn’t jazz, so it’s all up in the air, what difference does it make?


SA: That’s kind of the whole point of the project. When you see, year in and year out, people saying one thing is jazz and another is not. Everyone that has studied it or is a fan of it has their own opinion of what it is or isn’t, to the point where it’s a nightmare to really define the word.


TB: But don’t you think the listening audience…like if you say, “I’m going to listen to some jazz” that 90% of them think its some form of mainstream jazz? I think that, if that word’s going to exist, that’s what we’re stuck with. But I think any label…it’s just a convenient way to describe a lot of stuff with a few words.

Tim Berne

John Butcher: I've been thinking ...and come to the conclusion it's about 30 years too late for me to contribute on this issue. Sorry. - And good luck with it.


Sound American: Absolutely no problem. No pressure to do it. I understand. I would be interested, though, in hearing why you think you are 30 years too late to make a the record...just interested. If you don't want to say, that's totally fine too. Just curious.


JB: Well, late 70s I was interested in what I think was the tail end of inspiring jazz in the UK. In the 80s so-called "Thatcher Jazz" (Loose Tubes etc.) became the vogue. I'm talking about it in terms of what younger musicians were deciding to do. (of course, someone like Stan Tracy carried on playing great Jazz into the 21st century).


Anyway - my own decisions (analytical and intuitive) evolved against this background - and, at the time, were pretty much to do with taking the "jazz" out of how I played. Remember, most instruments in improvisation were acoustic and had a jazz history at that time. With things like Butcher/Durrant/Russell - we were fighting for a different space - (although, ironically, it was some of the more adventurous "jazz" places/people that supported us - like Nickelsdorf/Falb, Vancouver/Pickering. 30 years later it seems I can play with Matthew Shipp or Toshimaru Nakamura or Andy Moor - and "what" it is doesn't need a name. It's an interaction with their music.


Radu heard the "new" Polwechsel in 97 and said "I never thought I'd hear Polwechsel play free jazz" - we had one piece that was a little more animated than his taste (Tatoo - tiny clicking sounds that weave in and out) Next year we played ulrichsberg  and someone came up to me and said "I usually like your playing, but that was shit"   - so maybe jazz is just whatever people can relate to stuff that's already been called jazz - and maybe any sort of possible consensus had vanished by the 70s/60s/50s/40s/30s/20s (delete as applicable).


I'd imagine in America the whole thing is much more loaded - what with the bland straight jazz industry, with its real money attached, and the small comparatively ignored groups that have a genuine cultural investment in jazz and its history.


I feel completely unqualified to comment on what jazz is or isn't, not having real cultural roots in it. But Lester Young's still my favourite saxophonist of all time.


SA: Thanks for this explanation. I was vaguely aware of some of the history regarding the direction of British jazz and improvised music, but this filled in a lot of gaps for me, just in perceiving attitudes (most of my information comes from Evan and Lytton, both of whom are of a different generation and have a different connection to jazz tradition I think). Anyway, I completely understand your reticence to talk about it. For what it's worth, there are a number of musicians here in the states (and I do agree that it has a different connotation here, although there are certainly the same trouble with the term and consensus about what it means and cross-pollination between improvisors) that have expressed similar thoughts. Somehow, it maybe seems that this desire to define is a process of growing and refining. At least that's one of my initial conclusions from this project.


JB: I’ll be interested to see what you end up with.


If it's any use to you, you can use this exchange

Roy Campbell, Jr.

Editors Note: Trumpeter Roy Campbell, Jr. passed away while I was preparing this issue of Sound American. His death was a shock and surprise to all who knew him and his music, and left one of those holes in a community that can and will never be filled. Roy and I knew each other tangentially but not well, unfortunately for me. He was one person that I wanted to talk to about this subject. A few days before the issue went live, Matthew Shipp pointed me toward this piece, originally published in William Parker’s magazine The Bill Collector, that trumpeter Matt Lavelle had posted on his site from 1982. It was as if Roy was getting some last words in on the topic. I thank Matt and William for being so open to letting us reprint it here.


What Is Jazz?


According to the dictionary Jazz has the following definitions:


To copulate




Make nonsense




Music that is highly rhythmic with solo and ensemble Improvisations


Jazz is also associated with...




















Critics Polls


Down Beat, also known as BEAT Down


Talent Deserving Wider Recognition TDWR after 15 to 25 years of display


Being referred to as an up and comer at the age of 40 or 50


Instruments in need of repair


No Gigs


No money


Moving fast and getting nowhere




Getting paid off the door


Wondering if you'll get paid after the gig


Being appreciated in foreign countries but ignored in America where the music developed


Clubs, Funky Joints, and Smoke filled rooms


Small stages


Dressing rooms the size of closets filled with trash or no dressing rooms at all


No guests on the guest list or only 2 per week


Wondering if your going to cop tonight


Being fucked up on coke,heroin,or smoke




Cheap thrills


One night stands


Pimps, gigolos, and whores




Poor Sound equipment


Inhuman circumstances and conditions leading to sickness, and most of all early or premature death.


Yes...early death is an important feature because the best Jazz musician..


Is a dead musician..


After your dead you will be recognized.


People will be saying "Oh wasn't he or she so great?"


Record pirates will release unknown tapes and legendary recordings


All who can will capitalize on the death of the next late great Jazz musician


Roy Campbell Jr.


July 1982

Gerald Cleaver

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


Gerald Cleaver: Improvisation. Thinking of that as elaboration on a written theme or real-time creation. I think it's not possible to reverse-engineer jazz down to its component parts, because the human spark, Ex nihilo, something out of nothing, is based in the full experiences (musical, societal, economic, spiritual, political, etc.) of the creators. I love the question, "Do you just make that up as you go along?" Yes.


So, I think I've thought myself into the answer that one has to be alive, not dead. Sounds a little facetious. Not meant that way. Definitely puts a smile on my face, though.  Experiencing and interacting with this environment, organizing personal perceptions, negotiating survival, finding a "better way", all require that heart to continue to beat.


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


GC: I like that you said we're not creating a law. It's the spirit of the law not the letter that's important to me in this following opinion. I think the one thing that cannot be present is plagiarism. We are alive and functioning & negotiating with our environment: each one of us unique to ourselves. Breakthroughs happen (fire, the wheel, drive-thru fast food (sorry)), that we all use but, in my opinion, should lead us to our unique destination. That's why I said it's the spirit and not the letter. I think it's ok to sound like Louis Armstrong or Philly Joe or late-Coltrane if you use that sound and all you can discern of their experience of their time, in order to move forward in your own time. It's a heart thing (again): they're the only one who really knows if they're plagiarizing, or using the materials/experience in order to get to their own "thing". Not being true to yourself won't kill jazz. But it sure would be nice to have more people thinking for themselves

Chris Corsano

Chris Corsano: Damn, I'm stumped. I don't think I can come up with a definition of jazz that would stand up to much (any) scrutiny. There've been so many stylistic leaps throughout its history that to say that something HAS to or CANNOT be present seems like a set up to being proven wrong (if not in the present, then definitely in the future). Just from a rhythmic standpoint, maybe at one point you could've said that jazz had to have a syncopated "swing" feel. But then Sunny Murray comes along and changes everything. And then fusion comes along and while it keeps the syncopation, a lot of the rhythmic material has more in common with funk grooves than with what traditionally was thought of swing. And it's not even as cut and dry as I'm making it, but you get the point. Also...and this is true of every genre of music.... not all jazz is good (not that anybody was saying that it was, but some of it's actually beyond the god-damned pale). Let's take Kenny G as the guy everybody loves to hate. Reviled as he is, he still gets called jazz all the time. Smooth jazz, but jazz nonetheless... What he has in common with Louis Armstrong (besides their, god help us, posthumous-for-Armstrong "duet") or Kid Ory, Sun Ra, [Charles] Mingus, who knows? Just goes to show how wide a net the term casts.


But oh hell, why don't I try to answer the questions anyway...


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


CC: Improvisation and either some notion of "swing" or when you get into free jazz, then I guess the swing is either implied, or the noticeable absence of swing is set up in relation to (aesthetically/historically) that element of swing. "If I never meet you in this life, let me feel the lack!"


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


CC: Whew. Tough one for the reasons described above. There's been so much hybridization in creating new genres of jazz (and thereby expanding the definition of what can be thought of as "jazz"), that if there's a strong enough connection to some jazz root present in the music, then whatever supposedly impossible-to-reconcile, abject element I would suggest here can be reconciled into a new jazz form. I mean, jazz is a music famous for melding things...maybe more than any other....?


SA: I think you're right about HAS TO and CANNOT. They are very restrictive terms, but without them, I think the tendency is to skirt the issue with a lot of the same tropes that can be so frustrating and feel so lacking in the right substance. The idea of using those terms is not to force a definition of jazz, per se, but to focus on elements to see if there's a new way of thinking that we haven't come up with. I don't expect to come up with anything so exact or unassailable through this exercise, but just to get a bunch of us (myself included) to push into new areas, even if it just means we just end up with more questions. To that end, what if we think less about the technical definition of jazz and more about the historical one.... it seems like there are broad abstract elements that you equate with jazz, like the explosion of pre-conceptions? Do you think that is a way to define it or is there something that is less stylistic or more specific to jazz?


CC: Good question.... I’d like the, as you say, "explosion of pre-conceptions" to be part of what jazz is, but there are plenty of people who are unquestionably "jazz" who do no such thing. In fact, a whole lot do the opposite (e.g. people who play Dixieland, Wynton [Marsalis], etc.) as far as taking it upon themselves to uphold certain pre-conceptions. The cultural/historical element of jazz as an African-American art form is central to how I understand it. But the current state of jazz is complicated by the fact that the audience and more and more of the players are not African-American. The who, what, where, why & how of jazz has shifted drastically over the years, which is maybe a big source of this questioning of what IS and what ISN'T.


Blurry as the borders might be, I don't think I'm the person to define 'em. I didn't come up paying my dues, learning changes (or getting yelled at by the old guard for NOT learning changes), getting my jazz chops together, etc...and all that seems kinda central to the music's narrative, no? And if somebody's going to get at what it really is (and isn't), then I'd think it'd be one of the "jazzy jazz guys", as I once heard a Cumberland Farms cashier refer to William Parker upon learning he had played a concert of his own that night and was not--as many of the other Cumby's shoppers were--coming from the Limp Bizkit show at UMass. Or maybe you should just ask that cashier. She seemed to have things pretty well sussed.

Sylvie Courvoisier

What has to be present in jazz? I think it’s a feeling of time. It doesn’t have to be swing, because in free jazz that’s not there, but there has to be a feeling of a beat and a time. And, it has to involve improvisation.*


Sound American: So improvisation and a feeling of time, but not necessarily of swing?


Sylvie Courvoisier: No, because for me free jazz doesn’t swing, but it is free jazz. It depends; I mean jazz is so vague. Some people think I play jazz and some people don’t. I don’t really care, but for me it involves time and improvisation, but if you ask my neighbor, maybe for him it means swing. I think like for my friend, Ikue [Mori], it really means swing. For me, not really.


SA: It’s funny because I just got an answer from the drummer Chris Corsano today and he had a whole page where he was trying to figure that out. Because he’s coming from a drummer’s perspective. He wants to say that swing has to be present, but he can’t because then how do you explain someone like Sunny Murray? Or some people call Kenny G jazz, but there’s no swing in that either.


SC: I think that notion of time is even more important than improvisation, because some “jazzmen” are not improvisers. They have their solo written out or they play the same type of solo. I think that [time] is more important.


SA: So even if it’s something that you think is reproducible…


SC: Maybe there is a feeling of improvisation, but I feel like some of the jazz isn’t really improvisation because it comes from patterns or lines that are learned and transposed. What does that mean, improvisation, also? Is it patterns that you learn and transpose; play in different time signatures and tempos, or do you really invent something?


SA: I always think of that kind of improvisation as a kind of math; solving equations by putting the right pattern over the right harmony.


SC: But even in free improvisation, it’s like that. It’s just a different kind of pattern.


SA: That makes sense to me and is interesting because the two things that have most commonly are that there is improvisation and something having to do with the time feel, whether someone says it has to be swing or something closer to what you said. And of course, the minute you say that you can think of a bunch of exceptions, but what I’m starting to realize is maybe there is a group of parameters: say a kind of improvisation, which could be worked out in advance, or a series of patterns or some historically accepted way of playing a big band solo, combined with this idea of rhythmic feel, combined with something else, etc. etc.


SC: But I think everyone will have his or her own definition of jazz.


SA: Absolutely. So you don’t think of your music as jazz?


SC: Some of it. I just did a record with bass and drums, and for me it’s a jazz record, because there’s much more of a notion of playing with the time. A group like Mephista [a trio of Courvoisier, Ikue Mori, and Susie Ibarra] is very far away from jazz, but there is some jazz in it too, somehow.


SA: I wonder how often one gets blanketed by the term jazz. Once your group includes jazz elements it’s a jazz group, or once you play in a jazz group, you are a jazz musician. Really, it’s just a singular element among a lot of different elements.


SC: It’s just a word, you know? Like now I’m playing with a bunch of Flamenco guys. I don’t play Flamenco at all, but everyone thinks I’m a Flamenco player, because I play in this group. If you play with a jazz group, you are a jazz musician. If you play in a Flamenco group, you are a Flamenco musician. Sometimes if I play in a classical festival, they think of me as a classical pianist.


SA: I feel like that happens most often with musicians that study jazz…that they’re chameleons somehow, in the way that they are defined as musicians.


SC: Well, when you are a jazz musician, you have to learn to imitate. I remember listening to the radio and imitating what I was listening to. You develop the habit of becoming a sponge and imitating.


SA: Maybe that’s one of the reasons the word “jazz” is so abstract, though, and why so many people have a hard time…


SC: Yeah, for some people the word jazz is very negative, because for them it means “ching-a-ding, ching-a-ding”.


SA: Exactly, and I’m talking to people with some experience playing jazz, but for the general public the definition of jazz could have more to do with cultural things like the cover of [John Coltrane's album] Blue Trane or a pork pie hat or something that isn’t nearly as technical, musically, as what we’re saying, and that can cause some of the difficulties as well.


SC: Yes, and there is the connection of the word jazz and drug use


SA: So, this one is harder for most everybody. What can’t be present in the music if it’s going to be jazz?


SC: A delayed beat. Like in classical (sings a phrase that is very rubato behind the tempo she’s conducting)…In jazz, that’s so hard; that sense of time like in Classical music [flexible breathing time with a conductor]


SA: Even with jazz players that play behind the beat.


SC: It’s something different. They’re always moving forward. There’s