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What Is Jazz?
Wynton Marsalis believes America is in danger of losing the truest mirror of our national identity. If that’s the case, we are at least fortunate that today jazz’s foremost performer is also its most eloquent advocate.
October 1995 | Volume 46, Issue 6
Starting outside the note and moving back inside it. You could start a half-step or a quarter-tone outside. It’s usually called a blue note, which people think is always minor, but if you’re in a minor key it could be a major interval. I just call it a “blues tone,” an intonation that has blues in it. Someone like Son House could do it with one note, or Ben Webster, or Louis Armstrong. The real masterful blues players could do it, where one note had that dissonance and that consonance in it.
What else constitutes the essence of jazz?
It has to swing. Swing means constant coordination, but in an environment that’s difficult enough to challenge your equilibrium. In jazz somebody’s playing on every beat, generally the bass and drums. There’s not a lot of fat in the rhythm, unlike, say, in funk, where there’s plenty of space between beats. That’s what makes swinging in jazz a challenge. On every beat there’s the possibility of the rhythm falling apart. You have the constant danger of not swinging.
Swing isn’t rigid. Somebody might take the swing in a new direction, and you have to be ready to go that way. You’re constantly trying to coordinate with something that’s shifting and changing. You can’t be lazy in jazz.
In jazz, swing comes out of the shuffle rhythm. The interesting thing about the shuffle is, it’s a combination of the march and the waltz, the two basic rhythms in Western music, two-four and three-four. I think New Orleans musicians picked the shuffle up out of the march tradition. “Didn’t He Ramble,” one of the oldest New Orleans jazz tunes, is a sixeight march. John Philip Sousa’s “Washington Post March” is a six-eight march. A lot of what Afro-Americans did in music was refine things that already existed. The shuffle has always been out here; if you listen to some types of African music, often you hear somebody shuffling way up on top. The shuffle’s like basketball: Afro-Americans didn’t invent it, but they refined it to another level and put another type of American twist to it.
What else is essential?
Collective improvisation, people getting together and making up music as a group.
Can you have jazz without improvisation?
Yes, you can. But it won’t sound as good. You can play basketball without a basket and dribble the ball around and shoot at an imaginary basket, and it’s still basketball.
Syncopation. A syncopated approach to rhythm, which means you’re always prepared to do the unexpected, always ready to find your equilibrium. If you’re thrown off, you get back on. You challenge the rhythm. In jazz you’re impro vising within a form. You challenge that form with rhythms, with harmonies. Art Tatum challenged form harmonically, inventing new harmonies and resolving them. You can challenge form melodically, like Lester Young. Ben Webster challenged form with timbres and textures. It’s all connected to the notion of play. You set parameters and then you mess with them.
Is that the essential difference between jazz and classical music?
Yes. Classical music doesn’t prize improvisation. It doesn’t place a premium on individuality. In jazz the point is to achieve your identity on your instrument, no matter what role you play. You could play the most insignificant role in the music, just a simple riff—the challenge is, play that riff like you. That’s not the concept in classical music.
Sure it is. Beethoven used music to express the individual’s mighty soul.
O.K., it’s the concept for the composer. But in jazz the greatest composers are the ones who can write themes that invite others to improvise on them. What makes Ellington so great is that he could write something that Johnny Hodges would want to play on. In jazz it’s “How can we, as a group, organize the music?”
Let’s continue with our basic traits.
You’d have to include call and response: statement, then counterstatement and confirmation. Almost every kind of music I’ve ever heard has call and response, even Baroque music. In Beethoven’s Third Symphony, in the main theme of the first movement, say, the call and response is written out. In blues, call and response is formalized: The singer states his theme, the guitar answers. But in jazz, the call and response is spontaneous. You invent it. Players call and respond freely, all the time.
You have two types of call and response in jazz. The first is concurrent. In the King Oliver band, they’re calling and responding together. The response is also the call. The trumpet’s playing and the clarinet too, inventing something to go with the trumpet —and he doesn’t know what the trumpet’s playing! He’s listening and making it up. And the trombone’s playing too. So each is making decisions all the time—“I’ll play a long note here, a short one there.” That’s the most fascinating call and response, the simultaneous type. That’s true collective improvisation.