What is Jazz?…

"…if you hafta ask, you ain't never gonna know!" - attributed to Fats Waller.

One of my former philosophy professors was fond of that quote, although he usually attributed it to Louis Armstrong. The answer always struck me as a bit of naive bumptiousness. Still, one can sympathize with Waller (or Satchmo, as the case may be), asked to encapsulate the essence of a complex musical movement in a few words, and his answer contains a germ of truth.

Like all other art, music is a means of communication through an abstract symbology that has to be learned. There is no basic, universal music, unless it be the beat of the drum that mimics the pounding of the human heart. In this regard, music (and art in general) is much like language, with tens of thousands of variants and dialects, both living and dead. True fluency belongs mostly to its native speakers.

So what is jazz? Damfino. Like other music, some of it I enjoy, some of it I don't, and my acquaintance with jazz and its antecedants is merely nodding. It has its roots in both European and African musical traditions, mixed and baked in the cotton fields of the American south. It relies heavily on syncopation, which means the players slide the notes into the framework of the beat wherever it happens to feel right. That doesn't tell you much about the music, though. So I thought it might be best if I simply let musicians explain it:

"Jazz is America's classical music."
- Dr Billy Taylor

"Jazz came to America three hundred years ago in chains."
- Paul Whiteman

"A jazz musician is a juggler who uses harmonies instead of oranges."
- Benny Green

"Jazz will endure just as long people hear it through their feet instead of their brains."
- John Philip Sousa

"[Jazz] went from the classics to ragtime to Dixieland to swing to bebop to cool jazz,…But it's always jazz. You can put a new dress on her, a new hat, but no matter what kind of clothes you put on her, she's the same old broad."
- Lionel Hampton

"I'll play it first and tell you what it is later."
- Miles Davis

"What we play is life."
- Louis Armstrong

"True music must repeat the thought and inspirations of the people and the time. My people are Americans and my time is today."
- George Gershwin

"Music is your own experience, your own thoughts, your wisdom. If you don't live it, it won't come out of your horn. They teach you there's a boundary line to music. But, man, there's no boundary line to art."
- Charlie Parker

"I say, 'Play your own way. Don't play what the public wants. You play what you want and let the public pick up on what you're doing - even if it does take them fifteen, twenty years'."
- Thelonious Monk.

"All art is communication of the artists' ideas, sounds, thoughts; without that no one will support the artist."
- Lionel Hampton

"You can't copy anybody and end with anything. If you copy, it means you're working without any real feeling. No two people on earth are alike, and it's got to be that way in music or it isn't music."
- Billie Holiday

"Never play a thing the same way twice."
- Louis Armstrong

"Bebop was about change, about evolution. It wasn't about standing still and becoming safe. If anybody wants to keep creating they have to be about change."
- Miles Davis

"There's more bad music in jazz than any other form. Maybe that's because the audience doesn't really know what's happening."
- Pat Metheny

"Jazz is a music that really allows a person to express his deepest self, his most personal self - Africa being the primary source of jazz. Naturally, improvisation and swing are a part of jazz, improvisation being the key."
- Harold Land

"He's no Bill Clinton! "
- Benny Carter (following a 1996 jam session with the saxophone-playing King of Thailand)

The background music on this page is a midi version of "A Night in Tunisia" by Dizzy Gillespie and Frank Paparelli; midi sequencing by Jeanne Coello at The Jazz Cafe

Tim Eagen
November, 1999