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What is Jazz?

There are many different kinds of jazz: swing, bebop, modern jazz, smooth jazz… the list goes on. But what exactly is jazz? As with most musical genres it’s almost impossible to give a succinct definition. Dictionaries may give a list of characteristic traits, and even a historical perspective, but even these fall short of clearly defining the style.

If there were a single element that makes jazz jazz, it would most likely be improvisation, where the performer makes the music up on the spot. And following on from this perhaps one of the simplest working definitions of jazz might be: music that contains a high proportion of improvisation, where the improvisation is the main feature. However, what exactly constitutes a ‘high proportion’ of improvisation is open to question, and how to explain as jazz jazz standards where the improvised solo sections might be short, not actually improvised, or not even there at all, is another problem.

Nevertheless, the definition does successfully explain why some music with improvised sections isn’t jazz. For example, a pop song may contain an improvised solo, but the improvisation usually isn’t very long and isn’t the main feature therefore, using the above definition, it isn’t jazz. So, while accepting the definition is far from perfect, it does serve as a good starting point, and doesn’t require an understanding of other terminology, such as the ‘propulsive syncopated rhythms, polyphonic ensemble playing’, and ‘deliberate distortions of pitch and timbre’, mentioned in the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary for example.

Below are the definition of jazz taken from three on-line dictionaries.

Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary:

jazz
American music developed especially from ragtime and blues and characterized by propulsive syncopated rhythms, polyphonic ensemble playing, varying degrees of improvisation, and often deliberate distortions of pitch and timbre.

Oxford Dictionaries Online:

jazz
a type of music of black American origin which emerged at the beginning of the 20th century, characterized by improvisation, syncopation, and usually a regular or forceful rhythm. Brass and woodwind instruments and piano are particularly associated with jazz, although guitar and occasionally violin are also used; styles include Dixieland, swing, bebop, and free jazz.

Cambridge Dictionaries Online:

jazz
a type of modern music with a rhythm in which the strong notes are usually not on the beat and which is usually improvised (= invented as it is played).


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