Jazz – An imprecise precis

Fine Music Sydney has broadcast jazz since it first received its broadcast licence 45 years ago. This piece reflects my own journey of discovery of what is this art form that I so enjoy.

What is the sound of jazz? Does it have to have brass? No. From trumpet and trombone to the woodwind of saxophone and clarinet, to more unusual instruments like sousaphone and didgeridoo. So, it has to feature wind? No! From piano to Hammond organ to jazz violin, double bass or bass guitar. Oh, it must have strings! No, but there will usually be a strong rhythm provided by bass and drums. Is there any instrument that isn’t used in jazz? Hardly, there are even examples of clapping and the jaw harp.

So, what makes jazz different from other musical genres. Rhythm. Well, no. There might always be a rhythmic grounding to establish the tune. But then, it will often feature some improvisation that moves the soundscape into a different rhythmic pattern or syncopation, and return. Oh, improvisation? Well, yes. There will nearly always be a core melody, and then improvisation around that, varying from small amounts of ornamentation to extensive departures that allow the musician to have wide expression.

Ah, improvisation differentiates jazz. Well no. The classical composers of yore created the cadenza, to allow musicians to improvise within the structure of the piece. But, so disappointed were the composers in the outcome that they started scoring improvisation! Now many performances are frozen with exactitude. Some composers kept the score open, even sketchy. Bach was amongst these. Fine Music has many examples of Bach concertos improvised by French pianist Jacques Loussier. Indeed, there are more pieces of Loussier’s improvisation in the classical collection than the jazz library.

To many, improvisation sounds like the musician has lost the plot and left the auditorium. But listen closely to the rhythms and syncopation to discover that ornamentation lies within some quite structured rules. There are no bad notes in jazz; just bad subsequent notes. The journey often starts with a simple deviation from the melody, a harmonic progression, each note transports the original theme without losing track.

The name Jazz has mixed and curious beginnings. It is thought to have originated in 1895 in New Orleans when the Spasm Band advertised themselves as the “Razzy Dazzy Spasm Band”. A competing band was promoted as the “Razzy Dazzy Jazzy Band” to avoid street violence. The expression certainly arose in the better brothels of New Orleans, which also provided music and dancing. Certainly, there are many sexual inuendoes in this often earthy and emotional music.

But the sound of jazz is so varied! There are broadly some very fuzzy jazz eras:

• Ragtime: from 1895 through to early 1920s;
• Dixieland: from 1917 through the Depression;
• Swing: the heydays of the mid-1920s to post-World War II;
• Big Band: from the Depression years through post-WWII;
• Bebop: the WWII era to the mid-1950s;
• Cool Jazz: of the 1950s and 1960s;
• Bossa Nova and Free Jazz: of the 1960s; and
• Jazz Fusion, European and Scandinavian: 1970s and late 20th century.
• 21st century: we have had 20 years of innovation and improvisation. This is the jazz of today!

But more of that another time.

Keith Pettigrew (presenter of Emergent Jazz)


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