It's been called the classical music of the 21st century,
America's gift to the musical world, even the democratic
principle put into action.
Still, after nearly a century, with adherents that include some
of the most accomplished musicians on Earth, with a body of work
that has influenced a dizzying array of cultural expressions,
the essence of jazz is about as easy to define as to capture as
a thimbleful of sunlight.
Does it reside in the ebullient styles of King Oliver, Jelly
Roll Morton and Louis Armstrong, the urbane sophistication of
Duke Ellington, the reckless careen of Charlie Parker? The WJCT
Jacksonville Jazz Festival lineup next weekend doesn't make the
picture any clearer for the uninitiated. It includes styles that
range from the hard-bop of Roy Hargrove to the breezy fusion of
So where does one start when trying to define jazz? Pretty much
anywhere, said Lee Mergner, associate publisher of JazzTimes
Magazine. Jazz is like a 100-foot-long buffet; dig in wherever
you please. At the beginning is preferable, but the middle is
fine, too. You don't have to know about Miles Davis' tenure with
Charlie Parker to like Kind of Blue. And you don't have to know
the history of jazz piano to like Vince Guaraldi's Charlie Brown
"We get all snooty about what is and what is not authentic, but
the fact is that people will enter jazz where they feel
comfortable and not necessarily in the linear fashion that we in
the jazz community would like," Mergner said. "Not everybody at
a baseball game understands how to calculate a batting average
or the designated hitter rule, but they still like baseball. It
is something that can be taken at face value and still supports
detailed analysis. It's the same way with jazz."
The music lends itself to definition on some levels. The most
common, and most widely accepted, standard says that along with
the all-important element of improvisation (composing new
melodies and themes on the spot), jazz has to have elements that
link it to its roots in African and African-American music. That
is, a propulsive, heavily syncopated beat (swing), and
instrumental and vocal inflections that suggest bluesy roots.
Jazz's undeserved reputation as soporific background music is
largely due to the decreased emphasis of blues and swing in some
But that definition, while useful, is just a starting point,
said Bunky Green, the University of North Florida's director of
Jazz Studies. There are great jazz players who don't meet some
of the criteria.
Pianist Cecil Taylor, for example, is regarded as a virtuoso,
but doesn't swing, at least not in the classic sense. Blues and
swing are both fluid concepts: Basie swings, sure, but so does
James Brown or The Meters.
"When you start defining anything, you immediately limit it,"
Green said. "Jazz is forever . . . in the process of becoming."
It's important to know the basics, Green said: the music's
roots in New Orleans, the evolution into swing, the post-war
be-bop revolution, the rise of West Coast cool, hard bop and
But only as a starting point, he said. What is true today may
not be true tomorrow. Be-bop and its founders are revered by
present-day jazzers, yet, during their own time, they were
scorned by no less an authority than Louis Armstrong.
And folks are still arguing about Miles Davis' plugged-in
trumpet. And what of the latter forays into hip-hop, world music
and pop by artists like John McLaughlin, Cassandra Wilson and
Steve Coleman? …