How do you define America's unique contribution to world art?
Clevelander Mark Gridley, the author of the nation's leading introduction-to-jazz college textbook, devotes several pages of his book, Jazz Styles, History and Analysis, to a discussion of the problems of defining jazz. Essentially he says it is difficult to define.
Historian and critic Barry Ulanov agreed, saying, "There is no common definition of jazz; it resists dictionary definition."
Some of the biggest names in jazz have said basically the same thing in different words. Benny Goodman, one of the most important figures in the history of the art form, admitted he could not define jazz. Louis Armstrong, the man who propelled the art form, had a simple definition: "Jazz is my idea of how a tune should go." Duke Ellington, usually pretty articulate with words (as well as music), once defined jazz as "freedom of expression." But he admitted that really wasn't a very serviceable definition. Later, Ellington said, "I don't think I have a definition anymore, unless it is that jazz is a music with an African foundation which came out of an American environment." Singer Ella Fitzgerald found it impossible to define jazz. She said, "I don't know. You just swing!" Big band drummer Chick Webb, who discovered Ella in the 1930s, tried to define jazz in personal terms. He said, "It's like lovin' a gal, and havin' a fight, and then seein' her again." Saxophonist Charlie Parker once defined jazz as "a happiness blues."
Textbook author Gridley attempted to get through this maze of inability by the art form's major practioners to articulate the nature of the music. The Shaker Heights resident wrote there are two essential elements: First, "each jazz performance must represent an original and spontaneous creation --- improvisation. Jazz requires its performers to create their parts as they play them."
Critic Leonard Feather wrote that "Improvisation is the governing factor of almost every performance generally classified as jazz." However, Gridley rejects the idea that improvisation is the only element that distinguishes jazz. He points out that other forms of music also have improvisation.
American classical music composer Aaron Copland wrote in 1952 that solo improvisation was common during the Baroque Period. He said the unique thing about jazz is group improvisation. "When you improvise, it is axiomatic that you take risks and can't foretell results. When five or six musicians improvise simultaneously, the result is even more fortuitious. That is its charm. Something has been developed here that has no duplication."
Jazz artists create --- or even compose --- as they play, within the limits of the style they select for themselves. It may be 95% improvisation of variations of the head tune or it may be only an individual solo within a written arrangement.
The Glenn Miller Orchestra, a band noted mainly for tightly-performed arrangements and not considered "a jazz band" by many, proved that jazz improvisation does exist in solos played within carefully written and performed arrangements. Miller, who started out as a jazz trombonist, defined jazz as "something you have to feel, a sensation that can be conveyed to others."
In addition to improvisation, feeling and sensation, Gridley says that to qualify as jazz, the music must project what he calls "jazz swing feeling."
Drummer Gene Krupa, perhaps the all-time king of "jazz swing feeling," defined it as "complete and inspired freedom of rhythmic interpretation." Pianist Jess Stacy, who also played with Goodman's swing band, called it "syncopated syncopation." Trumpeter Wingy Manone put it in these words: "Feeling an increase in tempo, though you're still playing at the same tempo."
One of the best descriptions of jazz I have ever heard was articulated on a radio broadcast in the 1950s by Stan Kenton, the exponent of what he called "Progressive" big band jazz. Kenton said, "Jazz is a distinct music that depends and thrives on individuality and yet the individual is not oblivious to others nor is he immune to their feelings. Jazz is free. Through spontaneous improvisation, a musician expresses his personality consciously and subconsciously. His music, with its variation of melodic lines and rhythmic patterns, can establish a changing flow of attitudes just as those revealed by a facial expression or a gesture even without words.
"A session in jazz," said Kenton, "is comparable to an open forum where theories and opinions are discussed openly and freely. Without inhibition or the fear of being reprimanded, a soloist rises and speaks without the aid of notes or previous preparation. Speeches with words of various inflections and insinuations are replaced with a flow of melodic, rhythmic music. One soloist will speak for himself on a chosen topic and then retire to hear the feelings of another on the same subject. On occasions, they will speak of happy things, then those of a more serious nature, sometimes somber and even tragic. All phases of life's emotions are felt and experienced in jazz.
"Some of the music is complex and reaches far below the surface while other forms dwell lightly. There are speakers in improvised jazz who are eloquent in their ability. Musical words flow freely. Others tend to speak in short sentences with a simple vocabulary. However, if sincerity prevails, everyone is felt, understood and appreciated."
Despite this excellent description of jazz by Kenton, we are still left without an adequate working definition of jazz. Perhaps Ellington was right when he said, "It's in the ear of the listener. If a man has some very hungry ears for what he considers jazz, or for a pleasant noise that makes him feel he wants to swing, that's jazz."
Jazz is what you or I say it is. Or, as Satchmo said, "My idea of how a tune should go."
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Copyright 1996 Joe Mosbrook
You can hear radio versions of Cleveland Jazz History on WCPN/90.3 Monday nights at 9:30 and Friday afternoons at 12:30. Mosbrook's 1993 Cleveland Jazz History book, based on research for earlier broadcasts, is available from some Cleveland area bookstores, libraries, and the Northeast Ohio Jazz Society (216-397-9900).