SA8: The What Is Jazz? Issue

Kaja Draksler

Ok, before I make an attempt to answer your question (and I'm not sure if this is very important, but still), I'd like to say that what struck me while reading your text was that being from Europe, and being born in 1987, this question of what jazz is, doesn't effect me as strong as you (and many of my American friends). One of the reasons might be that I've been continuously occupied by the mere question of how can I, a European female, digest this foreign (masculine) tradition and make it into something of my own. And when my music is labeled as "not jazz" (happens a lot actually), I don't mind that much.


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


Kaja Draksler: I believe, jazz has to be played by performers-composers who have their own esthetics and ideas, and the understanding of the jazz tradition/history in its broadest sense. It has to include a degree of improvisation, so that the individualism of the players involved (when it's a semi-composed piece) can be expressed. Whereas the pitch content, I feel, can be just about anything (including pure sounds or noise), the rhythmical component needs a deep understanding of the jazz legacy (again, in its broadest sense).


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


KD: What can't be present in jazz is rigidity.


SA: Somehow I find it strange that many of the European musicians I am talking to about jazz use the term "tradition" when defining the word "jazz". This is much rarer in American musicians, who you think would be more deeply involved in adding some sense of heritage to their definition. Why do you think that is? I'm not expecting a grand sociological overview of two cultures, but am interested in your take on it as someone with a different experience.


KD: Perhaps why Europeans are more concerned with the tradition is because since we grow up in an environment, that has not much, or nothing to do with jazz (in Slovenia, for example, it was (and to a degree still is) almost impossible to hear any kind of jazz on the radio or TV), it is not something that comes naturally to us. Jazz isn't something that surrounds us, we have to learn not only the "notes" but also try to understand the energy and the circumstances that triggered those "notes".


I remember that after spending a semester in New York in 2009, my understanding of jazz broadened immensely. There, I could experience, to some extent, the energy and vibrations that created this music, I could see it is still being shaped and changed by (young) people, and it felt as if everything was just a continuation/commentary on something that has been happening there for decades. It was a great luxury to be there; I could play more effortlessly, everything made more sense, because I was able to experience the music with my body in that space and environment.


SA: I really like your use of the term "rigid" as something that jazz can't contain. Just to play devil's advocate for a moment and see where the boundaries of that idea might be, what do you think about the kinds of "jazz" music that involve a great deal of attention to the way the player approaches the music (i.e. bebop). That's a form of rigidity in some of the ways it's practiced or major seventh on a dominant chord, no fourth on a major seventh chord. Would it be wrong to say that it's stopped being jazz if it's practiced that way?


KD: I'm not sure if the rigidity I meant would apply in a way you suggested.


I believe that people who choose to play in a "style" are sort of like folk musicians- they decide to follow the stylistic rules of specific music and keep it alive, they pass on the heritage. If a musician is good, he or she will be able to be flexible within the rules, so it will therefore not sound rigid.


It is true, thought, that one of the main aspects of jazz music is a constant search for new, for modern, for (social) relevancy, it's a music that encourages constant change, it encourages individualism and personal expression. In this light, musicians who stick to a specific style or doctrine are, funny enough, actually not following the tradition.

Marty Ehrlich

I find those two questions impossible to answer, but it’s been a good process to think about them because there’s something about jazz in the best sense that makes these questions very hard for me. So, I began to think about that. And, what I came up with is that I look at jazz as this field of radical inclusion, where this idea of evolution and revolution butt heads. As an example, to reference an observation I recently read in the biography of Bird by Stanley Crouch, nobody kept the Kansas City tradition alive and believed in that tradition as much as Charlie Parker, so in that sense he’s a great evolutionist. On the other hand, Charlie Parker can be seen as changing the entire paradigm of improvised music. So, he’s also a great revolutionary. I think it’s that tension; you can call it radical conservatism or conservative radicalism that is, to me, at the core of the music. And, it transcends ideas of style, exists in all historical periods, and it can embrace a whole range of methods.*


So, one thing that people might answer regarding what needs to be present in jazz is improvisation. But, I don’t think that’s necessarily true. African-American music, in its great splendor and range has elements that aren’t necessarily improvised. Collectivity is another facet. Jazz uses collective methods to startling results, but it also celebrates the role of individuals. You could say that it has to be in the blues vernacular, but there have always been musicians, starting with Duke Ellington in his early years that weren’t really using blues vernacular in particular. You run up against these things, so I like the idea that jazz is always a word that asks for more and maybe negates itself in that asking.


Sound American: It’s nice to hear you say that, because the intention of the questions and how pointed they are, was that they would be kind of impossible to answer. And so, everyone kind of swims around them in whatever way they feel most comfortable, but there are a few that just sidestep it and use it as an exercise to try and figure out what the word really means to them. And so often, it’s not a musical element but a philosophical or aesthetic element that comes to mind. And, I like the idea of conservative radicalism because, if you think of classical music in the 20th century, you really didn’t have a movement that was so organically both at the same time. I never really thought about jazz as encompassing both things at the same time.


Marty Ehrlich: I think that’s really important and would present, then, that to me it begins to define jazz. And, I think that’s what the fight is, helping to keep this space open when we have a say. George Lewis once put it this way, saying he tries to create a context for the musicians he works with where they don’t feel the tradition or the avant-garde peering nervously over their shoulder as they create. And, that made a lot of sense to me; it’s very hard. We’re probably our own worst self-censors anyway, but this thing that it must be one or the other, I find, doesn’t work. It just doesn’t work.


During the dispute of the word jazz and the attempt to replace it…often with very good things which got rid of its derogatory, racialized and sexualized nature…McCoy Tyner said that when he thought of the word, jazz, he thought of the great musicians and instrumental lineages and that was fine with him. He didn’t reject those other terms, but didn’t want to forget that the lineage, the people, transcends the word and I think that’s very true. So, for me and from what I know of you…and really for most of our colleagues, we’re interested in the cracks of things, and not the simple definitions. So, that’s kind of where I’m coming from with the idea of this field of radical inclusion. It is a living space. Its a dynamic space to create in, trying to feel out what’s working and not working. As I heard Wadada Leo Smith once say when asked which of the two solos he had just recorded he preferred, he smiled and said "the next one".

Harris Eisenstadt

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


Harris Eisenstadt: Improvisation


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


HE: Through-composition (i.e. a 100% pre-determined score)


SA: Of course, I'm speaking early in the process, but I think I'm going to find that improvisation is one of those central things that jazz must have to be defined as such. I'm interested, though, if you make a distinction between the kind of improvising found in jazz, say Sonny Rollins playing On Green Dolphin Street, and other forms of improvisation that may be classified under a different term like rock, experimental, noise, folk, bluegrass musics. I understand that your answer is NOT that any music with improvisation must be jazz, but I would be interested in hearing where you draw the lines and what, musically or otherwise, makes a music with improvisation jazz or something else to you.


HE: I don't mean that other genres of music are jazz just because they include improvisation. I guess what I mean is whether it's specified how to do it or not, the idea that a piece of music can change in real time in someway is what a spirit of improvisation means, so that's what I think of when I think of what jazz means; that spirit of malleability and individuality, that in the moment an individual or an ensemble can change the direction the music is going.


SA: Conversely, is there a possibility in your mind of something that is through-composed falling under the rubric of jazz to you? Say certain portions of Ellington's later work or Ornette's string quartet?


HE: As to whether Ellington's late music or Ornette's string quartets are jazz, again, I think it's an issue of interpretation, of how the performers approach the music and how the composer specifies what he or she wants, if there's room for individual interpretation, if a spirit of interpretive freedom is somehow valued as equal or greater than pre-determination. If it is, then a jazz spirit is present somehow, no matter the genre.


SA: You use the term spirit to describe a number of things in both of those answers. How would you formulate your answers if you couldn't use the word spirit and had to somehow concretely quantify/qualify malleability, individuality, and interpretative freedom? Is it possible?


HE: I'm not sure I can get much more exact than below...


Even if I remove the intangibility of describing the "spirit" of things, I would stay that whether something is jazz - even in part - or not has to do with whether interpretive freedom for the musician(s) is valued as equal or greater than pre-determination.

Satoko Fujii & Natsuki Tamura

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


Satoko Fujii: I think some kind of improvisation need to be present in Jazz. Natsuki Tamura: The music that doesn't have any limitation.


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


SF: Well...this is kind of ideological thing...but I think something which is not "alive" cannot be present in "jazz." It needs to be fresh as "sushi"! NT: Any limitation.


SA: Natsuki, if there is no limitation then that means the jazz could be completely written, correct? Or do you feel, like Satoko, that improvisation has to be present?


NT: Yes, I think so.


SA: Satoko, can you try and put into words what you mean by the "aliveness" in jazz. Is it just a feeling you get, or is there something you hear in the "freshness" that means jazz to you?


SF: It is pretty much the feeling I can get. I think Jazz needs to have the spirit to try anything, not just keep the style and to conserve. In this way, Jazz cannot be seen in any museum. When I say "improvisation" in Jazz that doesn't mean just unwritten stuff. Even with all written material, I think the music can be played with freedom that the players can play with their own words. And I think that is the spirit of "improvisation." For me Jazz doesn't mean only musical style, it is more like spirit which we can do anything. Jazz can eat anything to change their shape.

Tomas Fujiwara

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


Tomas Fujiwara: Improvisation. Even the widest and most inclusive list of "jazz" musicians, bands, albums, etc. would all contain some sort of improvisation.


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


TF: Trying to find an actual concept, as opposed to a lacking of a concept (e.g. "no improvisation"), is tough. The answer I feel most strongly about, but also an easy answer, would be lack of improvisation, or non-improvisation, etc.


Pressing myself to think of something else, I also come up with a slightly less satisfying answer which would be that I would be hard pressed to think of "jazz" that was exclusively electronic and electronics produced, though as I write this, I'm fairly certain someone could come up with something that would make me rethink this statement.


SA: Maybe it is something as simple as improvisation. To not have it means no "jazz", but the example I've been throwing toward people as I play devil's advocate is what about some of the larger-scale works of the past that have almost no improvisation involved, or pieces in which the improvisation has been codified to a degree. For me, something like String of Pearls that has an "accepted" solo from the recording that should be reproduced still feels like jazz for some reason...or, even though I know that Lee Morgan started his solo to Moanin' the same way each time, it still fits the definition. Do you feel like there is a limit or a set of exceptions to how much or how the improvisation is used before it isn't jazz any more?


TF: I don't know that I can say there is a limit or set of expectations as far as improvisation goes. The two examples you give involve "solos" as we know them in jazz, but I think that the criteria for improvisation can also apply to accompaniment, comping, etc. So, even if a solo is more or less planned out, are the interactions from chordal instruments (voicings, attack, etc.), bass (choice of walking notes, for example), and rhythm (snare and bass drum conversation, ride cymbal variations) un-improvised? Usually not. They typically still retain that real time improvisation, conversation, interaction that I think is central to any music that fits under the wide jazz umbrella.


SA: I've been thinking about the electronics thing as well and haven't come up with a good example, although somehow I feel like the fact that it's all electronic wouldn't necessarily preclude it from being jazz based on the improvisational definition, right?


TF: I'm with you on that. I'm not fully convinced, and yet I can't think of an example that refutes it. And, to clarify, I didn't mean electronic instruments, exclusively. You could certainly play electric keyboard and electric bass as a duet and have it be very much jazz. I mean more that it would be exclusively computer generated using electronic sounds, eliminating interaction, and also spontaneity. Tough one, though...

Tia Fuller

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


Tia Fuller: To constitute jazz, the one thing that I think has to be present is 'selfless freedom.'  In order to play this music we constantly have to live in the place that gives over and over again.  To be selfless is 'to esteem, enhance and engage others in a conversational way.  No one ever controlling the conversation, but constantly maintaining a 'give and take.'   It is always evolving and transient.  To also live is a state of non-expectation, and seizing the moment, from one to the next.  The freedom exists in the unexpected, spontaneous nature that improvisation is bred from.  From the mother land of Africa, this music of jazz is a culmination of culture, passion, rhythm and improvisation that we all must live in day to day; weather it be socially, historically, culturally or is all the same.


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


TF: What one thing cannot be present in jazz is the direct antithesis of above, selfishness and enslavement of thought and approach.  We can't be enslaved to our ideas and what we think is going to happen.  We can only continue to approach jazz in the moment.  Being proactive with our preparation, but when the moment comes only respond and live with NO expectation.

David Grubbs

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


David Grubbs: I’m sympathetic to your wish to bring more rigor to these conversations.  Your parenthetical “musically, socially, historically, whatever” is the most helpful, productive part of the question.  Any single thing that might need be present for jazz will be overly broad (to give an example of a musical quality, “all jazz includes improvisation”) or verging on tautology (“all jazz references and extends the history of jazz”).  I think that jazz is identifiable as such not through individual defining traits, but through a constellation of musical, social, and historical elements.  A combination of numerous elements that summon the category “jazz.”


In his recent book Experimentalism Otherwise, Benjamin Piekut does an excellent job of delineating the historical category “experimental music” in a manner that draws upon Bruno Latour’s actor-network theory.  Piekut describes experimental music in the 1960s as “arranged and fabricated through the hard work of composers, critics, scholars, performers, audiences, students, and a host of other elements including texts, scores, articles, curricula, patronage systems, and discourses of race, gender, class and nation.”  That’s a good preliminary sketch of the constellation of elements that constitutes “jazz.”


That said, I can also switch gears—throw it in reverse—and say that there are few pieces of music that I’d recognize as jazz that do not contain improvisation.


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


DG: Ha—the striking asymmetry!  At the moment I can’t identify anything that cannot be part of “jazz.”


But I also sense that this is a riddle that I should be able to answer.


SA: Well, as expected, you threw my mind into a different way of thinking.... well, actually I think you articulated my original idea a little more clearly than I had to myself. I had been approaching things from a Descartes attempt to take everything apart, explain it and then reconstruct it using the same methodology on each piece. If I understand you correctly, you're saying that you define "jazz" as a collection of multiple parts that include musical, but also social, political, and historical components. I'm simplifying, but is that the basic idea?


DG: Most definitely.  I'd approach the constitution of jazz through its networks of participants and their productions, rather than by building up a list of its essential ingredients.


SA: If so, is it possible that certain pieces you perceive as "jazz" that don't contain improvisation contain enough of the other parts used to build your definition to qualify the music as "jazz"?


DG: Yes.  I think it would be easy to point to performances of jazz compositions where improvisation is so tightly circumscribed as to be more or less incidental.  (I'm thinking of recordings of Ellington and Armstrong ensembles from the 78rpm era, where particular compositions are truncated to match the length of a side of a record and solos fly by in a manner of a fleet few bars.)  Are there pieces where improvisation is circumscribed out of existence that can still be described as jazz?  Why not?  But I imagine they are not so numerous.


SA: Your methodology of defining the word jazz through its "participants and their productions" is something I've been thinking about since your first set of answers. It brings up a different angle of the word "jazz" that, because everyone I'm talking to have at least a basic amount of technical experience performing it, has so far been overlooked. What role do you think the shallow cultural perception of what jazz is should play in the definition? If I take the participants/productions methodology to the extreme, is there a pop culture definition that just comes from the Blue Trane record cover or any one of the iconic Miles Davis photos on t-shirts, Louis Armstrong's version of "What a Wonderful World" or Brubeck's "Take Five" in a car commercial? Do you think these things have a place in an accretive definition?


DG: I do.  The word that caught me up in the preceding is "shallow."  I don't think that terms like "shallow" or "deep" or "surface" (as an adjective) or "sophisticated" have a meaningful role in talking about the very constitution of jazz.  That's not to say that certain musical performances or cultural representations identified as jazz aren't shallow or deep--it's rather to say that their depth or their shallowness aren't determining factors in whether they're meaningfully described as jazz. On a slightly different point, I also think that even the most kitsch jazz performances and jazz iconography can serve as stepping stones for younger players or writers or thinkers who might wind up producing powerful, powerfully deep jazz.  (On this, I'm speaking as a parent who is suddenly around a number of grade-school age kids who are learning to play brass and reed instruments; it just seems so basic not to foreclose upon whatever kinds of first contacts with jazz that might fire a kid's imagination.)  Also, these seemingly corniest examples might themselves be material for most excellent re-workings and re-wirings.

Mary Halvorson

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


Mary Halvorson: A shared improvisational language.


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


MH: In an ideal world, the answer would be nothing.


SA: You are the first person to say that the improvisational language has to be shared. I think that's an interesting point and really tightens up the notion that jazz is primarily an improvisational music. Does the shared language have to have a connection to the jazz tradition? I'm just thinking of examples in what we might term noise music or the improvisation that occurs in Baroque music, which is a shared language, but wouldn't necessarily fall under the title of jazz.


MH: I do believe that the shared improvisational language has to be rooted in the jazz tradition in order for that music to be considered part of the jazz umbrella. Jazz musicians at least partially communicate using knowledge of a specific shared language which they have learned and absorbed. It seems that where the debate lies as to whether something is still considered 'jazz' has to do with whether musicians stay within the confines of that existing language, or merely use it as a reference, foundation or starting point. It's that grey area that starts to become confusing.


SA: And maybe that idea of shared language starts to move us toward your answer to the second question where everything is possible?


MH: The reason I said 'nothing cannot be present' is because I was having a really hard time coming up with any one specific thing. In an ideal world, because I equate jazz with innovation and experimentation, anything should be possible (however in order to call it jazz I still do believe it has to have a reasonably strong foundation in the jazz language and jazz tradition).


SA: You and I have been talking mostly about what it means to have a shared language and what that means in a definition of jazz. That's come up elsewhere in other conversations as well. I wonder where our shared language comes from, though? Is it some abstract feeling of jazz tradition, or is it from all listening to roughly the same records or going through a somewhat standardized jazz education regimen? What makes the shared language one that people recognize as "jazz"?


MH: I believe that most musicians begin to learn about jazz through listening to jazz records, and/ or listening to live jazz. Although not everyone has the same starting point, a lot of musicians I know started by listening to any number of "classic" jazz recordings (of which there are thousands, and which change depending on who you ask). Because there is so much music out there, listeners branch out in a million different directions, and not everyone has the same experience. However, it seems musicians can still end up with a similar enough fundamental understanding of what the language sounds like regardless. Learning to play jazz is also a huge part of understanding it, and again methods vary; some musicians are self taught or learn through schools, private lessons or a combination.


SA: There seems to be a certain agreement that "I know jazz when I hear it" that permeates a lot of people's thinking and it seems like part of what you're talking about with a shared language feeds into that kind of unnameable but ever present "jazz-ness" that maybe comes from collective listening to a tradition of recorded material?


MH: Yes. There are a lot of classic jazz records that are probably fairly easy to identify as jazz. However, as we stray farther from that, we may find music that contains some elements of jazz, but is mixed with other influences to varying degrees. In those cases, it all becomes kind of intangible, which is why defining it is so hard!