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Defining Jazz: The Swingin' Thing

Although jazz listeners may not agree on which music and musicians qualify as jazz, at a basic level, you can identify jazz by a few distinguishing traits: swing and syncopation, improvisation, bent notes and modes, and distinctive voices.

Duke Ellington wrote "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing),"and jazz singer and bandleader Cab Calloway popularized it. Critics and historians expend thousands of words attempting to define jazz, but Cab covered most of it with just these 11 words. After all the searching, only a handful of elements exist that musicians and experts commonly accept as defining characteristics of jazz.

Swing and syncopation

Swing is the rhythmic momentum that makes you want to dance or snap your fingers to a good jazz tune. Part of what makes jazz swing is the use of syncopation.

Syncopation is the technique of placing accents or emphasis in surprising places. When jazz truly swings, the beat bombards you, even if the players emphasize the beat by playing right with it some moments or just before or after it at other times.

To get a better understanding of this, think of classical music. Classical music is primarily written music — musicians rely on sheet music which shows them phrasing, where the beats fall, and what notes to play. Jazz, on the other hand, is felt. Sure, a lot of jazz standards (songs known and played by many musicians) exist as sheet music, but usually only in an outline form showing the basic changes (chord structure) of the song and its melody. The swing feel and syncopation can't be captured in musical notation, only in live jazz, where players either have the rhythmic stuff, or they don't.

To hear what syncopation sounds like, take a look at a common holiday song: "Jingle Bells." Sing the first line the usual way, just like you learned it:

"Jin-gle bells, jin-gle bells, jin-GLE all the way."

The "GLE" on the third "jingle" gets special emphasis.

Now sing it a few times and change some accents like this:

"JIN-gle bells, JIN-gle bells, jin-gle . . . ALL . . . the way."

Make up your own interpretations. Try it with other songs such as "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star" or "Somewhere Over the Rainbow." The variation is the basic idea behind syncopation. And when you get a few players bouncing these ideas back and forth, some of them hitting one beat harder, others hitting a different beat harder, you begin to feel the magic of great jazz.

Improvisation

Good jazz demands tremendous technical and creative ability because its players invent at least half of the music spontaneously. Famous jazz tunes have familiar melodies set to consistent chord changes, but legendary jazz players from trumpeter Louis Armstrong to saxophonists Lester Young and Charlie Parker made their mark with their phenomenal ability to improvise. The melody and changes of a jazz tune make up a framework and starting point for exploring the possibilities of a song.

Blues has the most basic structure for improvising in jazz. A basic blues song comprises 12 measures or bars. (Blues that most people can instantly recognize is commonly called 12-bar blues: Each bar, or measure, contains four beats.) Here's a basic blues song, invented on the spot.

Wait . . . before you sing, start tapping your foot slowly and steadily: 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4. Each line gets one measure or group of four beats.
"Well, I woke up this morning . . .
got on Dummies (dot) com.
(pause)
(pause)
"Well, I woke up this morning . . .
got on Dummies (dot) com.
(pause)
(pause)
"Put on some Coltrane
man my soul was shook."
(pause)

(pause — and back to the beginning!)

Now, expand the song on your own. Make up a couple more verses and invent your own words, melody, and accents.

Congratulations! You've now completed a basic seminar in improvisation. And while 12-bar blues is just one simple structure used in jazz, you're starting to get a feel for how jazz players invent music within a framework.

Bent notes and innovative modes

Jazz players often use note combinations that can't be produced on a piano. They bend a note (by bending a string on guitar or sliding between notes on a saxophone) to alter its pitch and make a sound that doesn't exist in the western chromatic scale (start at middle C on a piano, and move up key by key to B, just before the next C. Those 12 tones constitute the western chromatic scale). Bent notes help give jazz its mystery, tension, and energy.

Another unusual jazz technique is the use of modes. Modes are various scales or groups of notes. The term modal jazz refers to a new approach pioneered by Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and others in the late '50s and early '60s. Instead of using rapid chord changes that required a soloist to employ many different scales, modal jazz songs (and improvisations) build around one or two scales — either chromatic scales or scales from Indian, African, Arabic, and other world music. Many nonwestern scales subdivide an octave into smaller increments, or microtones. Arabic scales, for instance, have 17, 19, or 24 notes; an Indian scale has 22.

Other American music, including Broadway show tunes and modern classical compositions, uses many more different chords and scales instead of modal jazz's minimalist approach. These types of music possess their own assets, including surprising melodies and intricate harmonies, but they don't give the same freedom to a soloist that modern jazz does.

In addition, the leader of a jazz group may say, "I like these nine notes. Improvise with them any want you want, but only choose from these nine notes." That's also modal. And guess what? It's also okay, and it's part of the invention and innovation that keep jazz evolving and exciting.

Distinctive voices

In the same way that every person has a distinctive voice, so does every jazz musician. With experience, you can detect variations in phrasing (the way a musician puts together a string of notes, similar to our patterns of speech), tone, rhythmic sense, improvisational style, and other elements that mark each player's musical personality. These original voices characterize modern jazz, which is often music designed to showcase great soloists and their voices. For example:

  • Miles Davis played the trumpet in a muted whisper.
  • Charlie Parker's saxophone had a sharp edge, and he soloed with phenomenal speed and variety.
  • Jo Jones, on drums, invented a symphony of sounds using only his cymbals.

With a little listening experience, you can recognize the distinctive voices of many players. A jazz musician isn't only a musician, but also he's an unusual type of composer who invents music spontaneously and whose style and preferences affect his performance just as much as the structure of the song does.

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