SA8: The What Is Jazz? Issue

Darius Jones

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


Darius Jones: Improvisation is something I feel is vital to the idea of "jazz". Let me clarify my definition of improvisation. Improvisation to me is the ad-libbing or manipulation of written material in the moment; freely composing in the moment over a structure whether that be chord changes, a musical form, or a static rhythmic cycle; and composing in the moment based on no preconceived concepts or ideas.


I would also have to add that improvisation is deeply connected to the African-American tradition. "Jazz" is historically part of that tradition but socially at this time that connection is not as strong, unfortunately.


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


DJ: I think anything can be a part of "jazz". That is the beauty of improvisation; it is all up to the individual. "Jazz" to me is kind of like the Blob. It just keeps getting bigger and more undefined as time moves forward. There are no limits or boundaries in my mind.


SA: I really like your definition of improvisation. I think it's very clean and clear as to how you define it, which is not really that easy to do. So, if you consider all jazz to have improvisation, do you think all improvisation has some feeling of jazz, or is that where the connection to African-American tradition separates "jazz" from, say, Baroque organ improvisations?


DJ: "Jazz" and improvisation are two different things. Improvisation is used in "jazz" but it isn't "jazz". Improvisation to me is something far greater than art or music. It is a function of daily living for all creatures on this planet. I feel the lack of distinction between these two words is what creates a lot of the misunderstanding behind "jazz," which is why I brought up its connection to the African-American tradition. "Jazz" can't simply be summed up by one musical device because it carries too much historical baggage. If I was to describe the feeling of "jazz" it would be American with a large portion of the blues. This is what I ultimately feel separates "jazz" from Baroque organ improvisations or any other type of improvised art forms in the world.


SA: Do you feel comfortable talking about how the connection to African-American tradition is getting weaker? I think this is a major issue in a discussion about what the word "jazz" means. I'd be interested in what you've seen and how you feel about it. This may be a question for our in person talk, but if you feel like putting something in print, I'm all for it. I'm looking for all the angles of how all of us that are involved in jazz are viewing the word and its history.


DJ: I feel the weakening connection between jazz and the African-American tradition was inevitable. All people evolve with time, which means their modes of artistic expression do as well. I feel many African-Americans can't see themselves in this music any longer. This is unfortunate because "jazz" still has a lot to offer and gain from African-Americans. As a student of this music I find myself continuously marveling at the diversity of the artistic expression within the whole history of "jazz". This is why I feel so many cultures have been inspired to embrace this music called "jazz".




In a later email, Darius added this thought.


This discussion about "jazz" really got me thinking. If I were to add anything else it would be:


"Jazz" is a living art form. It is truly about the human process. Similar to life it is confusing at times, unbelievably beautiful at times, and completely taken for granted. The more "jazz" musicians and listeners accept the whole history of this music. The better things will be for everyone.

Ingrid Laubrock

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


Ingrid Laubrock: I don't have a very clear definition of what jazz is, and don't spend a lot of time thinking about it. I care about making music, the rest is secondary. For example, last week, when a US immigration officer asked me what kind of music I played, I said 'Jazz' without hesitation. If a fellow musician asked me the same thing, my answer would be much more complex - depending on what I imagine our shared references are, and that is because I don't really believe one term is wide enough these days to describe it all.


When the immigration officer asked ' what kind of jazz' and added ' I like smooth jazz', I said 'think the opposite end of the spectrum' and we sort of settled on that. (I don't think that really made it any clearer though)


In terms of musical terms, I cannot just find one thing, but I feel it might need at least 2 of these in different combinations, and this is really broadly speaking of course: syncopated rhythm, improvisation on melody (and or) form (and or) harmonic structure, improvisational non-static & non-repetitive group interplay that lives in the moment. (Obviously in a some forms of jazz different instruments' roles are more clearly defined than in others, but the interaction seems to be always present.)


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


IL: Lack of improvisation + interplay.


SA: It would be great, though, if you can talk a little bit more about the idea of improvisation + interplay that has to be present for it to be jazz. If I am guessing right, you are saying that the interplay is there, even if it's subtle. I wonder if you wouldn't mind giving an example of some music that has this subtle improvisation/interplay? Where do you think the line is and are there musics that have this improvisation/interplay that you would avoid putting in the realm of jazz? Just as an exercise. Obviously, this is not the sort of thing anyone would spend their time doing if they didn't have an annoying friend asking them to.


Also, I would love to hear your personal feelings about the subject to the degree you feel comfortable talking about it. I recognize that this is a minefield set of questions, so it's totally up to you, but I think the more people talk about their personal take on the word, the more we all see how complicated and weird it is.


IL: yes, for example, strictly speaking I wouldn’t put some of the of the improvising musicians in Europe or of the ‘downtown' improvising scene in the jazz bag, although I am sure a lot of them have listened to and are much influenced by it.


(Barry Guy, Peter Brotzmann, Irene Schweitzer, Paul Rutherford, Albert Mangelsdorff, Connie Bauer, Johannes Bauer, Phil Minton, Thebe Lipere, Alexander von Schlippenbach, Wolfgang Dauner, John Russell, Derek Bailey, Tony Marsh etc.)


(Eugene Chadbourne, Andrea Parkins, Okkyung Lee etc.)


There are obviously some that have been more influenced by it than others and borrow from it, but there are others who clearly come from a totally different background, be it classical, folk, brass band, electronic music, visual arts or just the curiosity of exploring sound and an instrument.  The same goes for other improvisers worldwide who are coming at improvisation from a different angle, often an angle to do with the music of their culture, as subtle as it may be.


Also  - Classical music involving improvisation, jam bands, music from other cultures that involves improvisation definitely isn’t jazz…say, South Indian classical music, which involves improvisation within strict parameters has absolutely nothing to do with jazz.


And - the gig you and I recently played with Sam Pluta was entirely improvised, but definitely not jazz, right? Although we might incorporate jazz articulation, and even the way we relate to each other when playing ‘lines'. [Laubrock is speaking about a concert in which she and I improvised with live electronic manipulation of our sound by electronicist/composer/improviser Sam Pluta]


Personally, I spend little or no time thinking about ‘what jazz is'. But here’s a little bit of what it means/has meant to me. I grew up in a tiny village with musical parents who were classical music lovers. So what was musically available to me in terms of learning how to play music, was super limited: church choirs, recorder quartet, and classical piano lessons. I learned reading music before I learned reading words because people thought that that’s how you played music where I grew up.


When I played piano, I would often find myself thinking about something completely unrelated and totally not being in the moment, yet playing the music ‘correctly’. This didn’t really feel good, I always felt slightly disconnected from it all. And - as I often wasn’t thinking about it, I actually knew the pieces by heart/finger memory - but if you took the music away, I couldn’t do it. So I was heavily relying on this crutch!


So, when I heard improvised music on the radio and later got into listening to jazz (for a long time without playing it, as I was super shy/introvert), there was this realization that not all music has to go from A-B and be “just so” but could be varied every chorus/version. I remember as a kid, listening to 4 different version of Lullaby of Birdland and kind of getting a glimpse of it all - hearing it’s the same song but not the same at all.


What deeply moved me and really messed me up, was listening to Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew for the first time when I was about 15 or 16. At the time, I felt this was somehow bigger and deeper than anything I ever heard.I really felt it and was completely enveloped by the music. It sparked off my imagination, put me in touch with deep emotions, and I would have geometric visualizations when I listened to it. I never even though about it in an analytical way, it just completely involved my senses. That and other Miles Davis' records from around that period made me really want to play ‘jazz’. Now - was that music even jazz? I don’t know, but the more I think about it, I also really don’t care.


Practically speaking, I felt the need to pick up a new instrument (saxophone) to get away from reading music and start learning how to use my ears, imagination and how to access harmonic + rhythmic knowledge etc.


In a way, for me jazz was taking the music 'off the page' or not having a page to begin with. (Although, in the beginning I did learn tunes form the real book because I didn’t know any other way, later starting to transcribe by ear)


It meant digging way deeper than I had been able to playing classical music. Basically, it meant using my ears + knowledge + imagination (not my eyes) and trying to hear everything that is going on, not just what I was playing.


Rhythmically - syncopation isn't something you deal with if you grow up around cows and oom-pah! Listening to the drums while playing and being pushed by it - the rhythmic propulsion was and is super exciting for me.


I felt so much more involved in the music, playing jazz. Physically, in terms of concentration and spiritually. And I finally was able to express something other than what a composer who died 300 years ago wanted me to express.


Having said that, there was a time where I felt like having the constraint of melody, form and time was stopping me form going to the next level of involvement and I spent two years or so almost only improvising. (Obviously not anymore ;-) To me, this wasn’t playing ‘jazz' anymore, if anything, I was trying to get away from it and explore the saxophone and the sounds that are buried in it. It also meant improvising with non-jazz musicians, which meant the ‘jazz’ language I accumulated over the years didn’t really work or made sense anymore.


Now, when I improvise I try and keep an open mind and just go. When it’s good, it feels like it’s ‘swinging' - not in the regular use of the word, but in an ‘all-universes-come-together-we-are-one-vibration’ kind of way. (The German word for vibration is Schwingung and also means swing)


My personal approach is more and more to just make music with whoever I happen to make music with. That means tuning in, listening, concentrating and letting go. It also means allowing myself to use everything I have available on my palette without thinking too much about it, just making sense of it all aurally, not stylistically.

Magda Mayas

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


Magda Mayas: First of all, I don't consider myself having a broad knowledge of jazz at all, or having listened to all the "important " records… Even though I studied jazz piano for five years in Berlin and Amsterdam...


My interest in jazz came from wanting to learn how to improvise. And my introduction and first jazz records, that I randomly bought at a flea market, picking piano players of course, when I was around 15 or 16 were Lennie Tristano, followed by Alex v. Schlippenbach, Bud Powell and then shortly after that I saw my first Cecil Taylor concert. And as different as those musicians are, they all blew my mind and deeply impressed me and to some extent I guess influenced what I like and choose to do myself. And I don't know if its too much of a cliché if I say they all take risks and have an incredible drive and energy to their playing and whole performance.


So I guess what I find essential for my understanding of jazz or what I consider jazz, is a strong energy that is based on a rhythmic feeling, a pulse, a forward drive - and I obviously don't only mean playing in time. Maybe just "drive".


Hope that’s not too vague.


And additionally I think, for me, Jazz, even very free forms of Jazz, still deal with harmony and pitch, as opposed to the focus on noise and sound and silence of " improvised music" or " free improvised" music- another vague label….


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


MM: I’m very tempted to say "silence"


And I mean "silence" as an equal element and building block in the structure of the music.


That’s the best I can think of for now…

Nicole Mitchell

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


Nicole Mitchell: That’s difficult to put as “one thing”! I actually cannot answer that question with one thing.  Innovation, individuality (soul), community and improvisation combined with a touch of African aesthetics makes a good recipe for jazz.  We have such diversity in the 21st century in the ways that jazz can be expressed, but I believe these elements are present in any form of jazz.


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


NM: What cannot be present in jazz is totalitarianism.  We have historically had a balance and tension between tradition and innovation, but if there is a totally controlled force in the music, there is no way for it to survive.

Ted Nash

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


Ted Nash: Improvisation.


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


TN: I can't think of anything. I keep coming up with phrases that start "lack of" or "absence of".


SA: Do you think there's an instance where there have been great works of jazz music where improvisation has been limited or not present at all? On some level, interpretation is improvisation, so some definitions might include the "jazz" works of [Igor] Stravinsky or [Dmitri] Shostakovich...or some of the more through-composed works of [Duke] Ellington or [Charles] Mingus. Do you think there's a limit to how little improvisation is present before it stops being jazz?


TN: In the case of Stravinsky, Shostakovich or even [Darius] Milhaud their “jazz” compositions are certainly influenced by jazz, and have a lot of elements that are present in jazz music, like swing, blues and certain harmonies. Stravinsky’s “Ebony Concerto” was commissioned by Woody Herman, a jazz musician. But it’s more a classical composition that incorporates jazz elements. With extended works by Ellington or Mingus, they are jazz because they come from the pen of established composers and players who include improvisation as an important part of what they do.


In the early nineties I studied with Bob Brookmeyer who was starting to limit the amount of improvisation that took place in his compositions. He said it was because the more you leave to the player to interpret your music the farther it will get from your objective as a composer (I am paraphrasing here). I understood what he meant and why that was important to him. But by taking away this important element that makes jazz the unique art form it is, he was heading more in the direction of classical composition.


For me, even when I compose and arrange complicated and occasionally through-composed pieces, improvisation is at the heart of the environment I create.


Kenny G improvises, but I don’t call that jazz. It’s instrumental pop. It is missing other important elements that, for me, would classify it as jazz. I am not saying his music is bad or unworthy of being enjoyed or listened to, but just that it is not jazz.


There are a lot of players who for the most part have abandoned the swing feel in their music in favor of straight-eighth grooves, but their music is still jazz because it is largely improvised and still contains a strong jazz sensibility. I have heard people say, “If it doesn’t swing it isn’t jazz.” You can't make such a blanket statement.


When it comes down to it there is no real black-and-white way to look at it. There is a lot of gray area.


SA: You use the phrase, "strong jazz sensibility" as one of the benchmarks of jazz to you (along with improvisation of course). Is it possible for you to articulate what that sensibility is to you? I only ask because you use it in conjunction with straight eighths feel and I think many people would think of "swing" as part of the jazz sensibility. I'm just wondering what, if not that, creates a jazz sensibility to you?


TN: A strong jazz sensibility is the ability, instinct and willingness to respond and interact using the harmonic, rhythmic and emotional tools one has developed. Whether it is swing or a groove there still is a way to fit inside that rhythmic concept and feel it in a way that comes from a jazz perspective.

Jeff Parker

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


Jeff Parker: This is a very difficult question to try and answer, especially since I mostly find the term jazz to be meaningless in today's world.  At the same time, I am full of contradiction because, out of convenience, I will easily define myself as a jazz musician. This comes from my alignment with certain traditions that have been passed down to me through dedicated study and the social and professional practices of dealing with this musical vernacular, even though I believe that I have a broader, more idiosyncratic take on that self-definition than many other jazz musicians that I commune with.  I don't know what has to be present for something to be considered "jazz".  I have abandoned use of the term in any musical sense.  It is only useful in an historical or cultural context.  Through my experiences, I have come to the conclusion that it is impossible and counter-productive to separate the musical elements of what is called "jazz" from its cultural or political contexts. (I believe this is likely to be true of any art that is created through commerce, that which has a commercial element behind its production) To try and reduce "jazz" to musical characteristics - even from its most narrow definition - would lead to a cycle of contradictions, many simply dictated by the limitations of language itself.


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


JP: Cultural Imperialism is the result of separating the music of jazz from its cultural context. The music's history moves along in congruence with the people's history - struggles, triumphs, etc. No matter where the music goes, it all comes from the same place. This should be used as a unifying force. But so often the institutions (cultural and financial - schools, record labels, magazines, critical establishment, etc.) use this as a way of dividing the community-at-large, and marginalizing artists and their work.

Matana Roberts

Matana Roberts: To be honest I've tried to avoid these types of discussions because I feel some people go at it with the wrong intentions in mind. I also straddle so many different sound worlds at this point... But thanks for including me. I deeply respect yourr work and thought process so I know you will understand the nuance that has to be paid attention to when dealing with this slippery topic!


I think the word jazz is important when placed in a socio-economic + political reference of a peoples history, but I think some have taken it too far. Its been used to demonize folks, caricature folk, and box in creativity, create divisiveness.....It's just a word in the end.....Some feelings/acts/rituals can not be accurately named/conjured etc...


At the same time I've just always had problems with people judging creativity in American music. I pretty much try my best to avoid folks who do that too much---- whether professional or novice. The fact that someone is actually trying is enough for me.  Sometimes these judgements remind me too much of a colonial mentality that I can't really even acknowledge really...


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


MR: Vision.


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


MR: To me, everyone at this point in history is sonically welcome to the party...


 I'm of the opinion that at this point in history, If you choose to claim a word, claim a deep love of a history, then it's yours to claim, as long as you can positively defend yourself (within reason....) In my ideal world "jazz" is an attitude I sometimes still pull on for fearlessness more than the placement of a sound..... it's not a presentation, platform, pulpit, private beach etc....


SA: You said jazz is useful when describing the "socio-economic + political reference of a peoples history". Can you talk a little bit more about what this reference is to you and how the tradition or naming of jazz can be useful or harmful?


MR: well, I see  the word jazz useful as it sits in the pantheon of  various modes of African American creative expression/experience--though not exclusive to African American expression/experience... this to me is where the sore issues lie for most people.... In reference to African american history I see it as deeply political self expression, even in it's earlier heyday... I see it as it sits amongst the foundation it laid for the self esteem of a community, the faith of a people in something better for themselves, and an  evolutionary understanding/coping tool of a very painful history. But I also see it broadly as American music first and foremost and that I feel is really important to remember... My lineage is very mutt like-- that is very American, this "mutt-ness" as it were. Jazz is no different to me..... Visually speaking most of the most well known jazz musicians identified as African Americans, but that American word is so important bc to be truly american in some sense is to have a way into possibilities/traumas of a  mixed lineage, as did many of those musicians.... The unfortunate historical fact  revolves around how African American musicians, of earlier generations,  where relegated to the art form, almost forced into the art form, bc the artform was seen at one point as a "service job", not far from butler or maid etc. and etc... so African-American musicians did the best they could with what they were given and what they intrinsically had..... This is modus of operandi of any oppressed peoples throughout history in my opinion....But my biggest problem is how people have tried to claim ownership of the word based not on creativity, passion, humility, reverence,  but based solely on issues of  melanin. That doesn't work for me in the 21st century at all. I understand where it comes from and I understand that homage should be paid heed too, but I also feel people like to use it as a way to divide creative voice instead of bringing it closer together. The problem with this type of division in art is that eventually it forces artists into caricatures of how the art form is supposed to be represented, and it's something tht I battle with a lot, most times not by choice. It's pretty much why I skirt around the word jazz in my own work. My jazz roots are obvious, but I do not wish to be relegated to a word in the way  I have seen African American creators of the past forced to it for the sake of a generalization of what "blackness" is and is not.


SA: How would you describe "vision" in terms of what you think is necessary for jazz? Is it definable, or is it simply a quality you recognize?


MR: It takes a lot of courage to step forward and create art that you wish accounted for. Vision to me is faith in one's own abilities that goes beyond the judgement of others, and that can not be swayed by such. It's not completely definable but I do feel I can recognize it on occasion at this point in my life. Not always right away, but eventually....

Ned Rothenberg

It’s a bit funny, in a political sense,  most creative musicians would like the definition of 'jazz' to be broad and inclusive.  This would be something as basic as 'any music with a strong improvised component'.  However, when most of us use the word 'jazzy', we accept many of the more conventional definitions - it is largely improvised AND has a pulse based syncopated rhythmic feel and a source logic coming from American blues and folks forms.


On a more personal level, I have very little fascination with defining 'jazz' these days, its something I have striven to avoid.  I have certain nostalgic associations with the word, because it has been used to describe so much music that I deeply love.  However, it has become a slogan in funding politics for certain closed musical definitions of which music deserves support, as 'jazz'.  I've become sickened, not fascinated, with the discussion.  Part of me would like to just award Wynton Marsalis and Stanley Crouch this f'ing 4-letter word that Duke Ellington despised and let them build their little empire on it.  Just leave me alone to do the music I want to do.  Unfortunately, this would be self-defeating because the music I want to do only occasionally complies with the rules of these 'jazz police'.  Thus many creative musicians like myself are largely closed out of new 'uptown' style establishments.  So the question really becomes a tactical one, can I make a claim to play some music called 'jazz' so as to play at certain places?  This becomes a pressure and a burden, an unpleasant mountain I resent having to climb.


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


Ned Rothenberg: Improvisation


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


NR: An aim to execute a 'finished', through-composed musical composition, i.e. something totally repeatable from performance to performance.