Finding a good definition of the term “Jazz” is more elusive than one might think. It seems like for every attempt at an all-inclusive definition, there are more and more exceptions that at least some people would consider to be “jazz.”
Here are 4 definitions of the music we know as “jazz.” And for some reason, all 4 of these sources begin with the letter ‘W.” Pure coincidence!
1.Webster’s dictionary defines jazz as: “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”
2. To the saxophonist/composer Wayne Shorter, it means, “I dare you.” This is relevant because a lot of people don’t consider some of his music “jazz,” even though Shorter himself does.
3. Trumpeter/bandleader Wynton Marsalis has spoken at length about what jazz is and what it isn’t. He basically says that jazz is “music that has swing 8th notes.” (Many jazz musicians have a broader definition of jazz.)
4. One of my jazz piano students, Will, recently emailed me that, “Jazz, to me, is that music that utilizes a simple or even complex melody that is supported by lush harmony and rhythmic sophistication. It is as varied as its players and it covers the spectrum of human emotion. But the most important aspect of Jazz to me is that it is alive.”
Which do you prefer?
Here’s a special memory I have of the great jazz pianist/composer Dave Brubeck.
Take your left hand playing to a new level with my free ebook: Left Hand Techniques for Jazz Piano
You’ll also get my weekly jazz newsletter with practice tips and inspiration