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We asked prominent Australian
jazz pianist, music educator Matt McMahon
to answer the following question...

Matt MacMahon

January 2009

The Question:
What is “jazz” and what is “not jazz”?

Response by Matt McMahon share this - email, favourites, social bookmarks and more

Like most words, when you scratch the surface, or scrape the metaphor, “jazz” is a term whose meaning seems perpetually in dispute and flux. There are and have been many definitions of “jazz” and many people have an interest in “jazz” being defined in particular ways. As time passes more controversies are added to old ones as more musicians are accepted or rejected as performing or composing jazz, and the meaning of the word changes. More influential people than I have offered thoughts on what “jazz” is or might be.

The pianist Bill Evans, in a documentary from the 1960s, “The Universal mind of Bill Evans”, argues in an absolute sense jazz is more a process of spontaneity than a style – even though we often tend to think of jazz as a style too. What he calls the “jazz process” – improvising, creating in the moment – is for him the most interesting aspect of his musical life. He sees that whoever improvises, Chopin or Bach for instance, is in some sense playing jazz.

Saxophonist Wayne Shorter has said that for him jazz means “no categories”.

Louis Armstrong is reported to have said “If you have to ask, you’ll never know.”

American trumpeter Wynton Marsalis argues that the presence of blues and swing (more definitions needed!) are crucial as necessary and defining elemets of jazz – he holds up Duke Ellington as the jazz musician par excellence. He sees a tradition in place with rules and parameters that define it.
Shane Nicholson in his book “Is jazz dead (or has it moved to a new address)” discusses at length the controversy surrounding Marsalis’s position – especially in his programming and artistic direction of the Jazz at Lincoln Centre program in New York. He quotes writer Paul Erickson from a 1997 article as saying the controversy over Jazz at Lincoln centre placed Wynton Marsalis at the heart of “some of the most acrimonious debates in the jazz community for years, debates which have led to name calling, fistfights and broken friendships.”

Some insight into the fluid nature of these issues may be provided by a look at some influential musicians of the last century. Charlie Parker was “accused” of not playing jazz to which he apparently replied that he was indeed not playing jazz. His music came to be identified with the word “bebop”, a word sometimes considered one of many “styles” or “periods” of jazz. Ornette Coleman with his albums “The Shape of Jazz To Come” and “Free Jazz” invited controversy as many in the community hailed his music as anti-jazz. His endorsement by important figures in American musical culture of the late 1950s, John Lewis, Leonard Bernstein, John Coltrane and others saw a challenge to “jazz” definitions which was not easy to dismiss and his influence has been huge.

Miles Davis was accused of selling out and abandoning his jazz heritage with his album Bitches Brew which changed the course of the music scene in the 1970s - as many of the most celebrated younger musicians in his circle, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Joe Zawinul, Tony Williams, Chick Corea, John McLaughlin, embraced rock rhythms, electric instruments and new forms and structures. Some draw a line and call this music fusion, or jazz-rock. Others see it as coming under the jazz umbrella. In later years Miles called his music “social music” – insisting that’s what it had always been.

I remember doing a gig with an older musician a few years ago and he told me that when he was younger there were fans who didn’t consider Louis Armstrong to be jazz – “Jazz” for them meant three frontline instruments simultaneously improvising, in the manner of New Orleans bands of the 1920s and Armstrong had forsaken his early jazz playing for something else. Of course, most people interested in jazz would see Armstrong as one of the important early virtuosi who established himself by his solo work, changing the nature of jazz forever.

It seems that the definition of jazz is and has long been contested ground. Many musicians, festival directors, writers of curricula, club owners, journalists, event co-ordinators, broadcasters, fans, have different ideas of what the word might mean or include, or exclude.

In my own experience I would say that when someone uses this word to me I seek some further clarification as to what they might mean. Some of the people who use the word are experts in Miles Davis and Louis Armstrong. Others may know little about music at all. At some point the mention of individual musicians seems to come up – Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Cecil Taylor, Kenny G, Rod Stewart, Gunther Schuller, Quincy Jones, Art Tatum. Even before we get to whether some of these people might be or might not be considered “jazz” I would say that each individual listener or performer is a complex of tastes, changing likes and dislikes, strongly held convictions, re-assessments. They are involved in communities, have heroes, favourites, friends to support, enemies, vested interests.

I have spent a lot of time around the word “jazz” – performing, composing, broadcasting, listening, talking, reading. Some of my favourite music has been made by Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Wayne Shorter, Adam Ponting. I also love Bach, Ravel, Stevie Wonder, Seamus Ennis, The Beatles. More recently I’ve been listening to some Arabic Oud repertoire, and Jackie Orszaczky. I’ve really enjoyed playing music with lots of individuals – my brother Michael, Phil Slater, Greg Osby, Simon Barker, Jono Brown, Steve Hunter, Dale Barlow, Don Burrows, Vince Jones, Guy Strazz, Joe Tawadros etc. The more I study and listen the less sure I become about it all. But all of it, listening and playing, is very enjoyable. Living with confusion and doubt may be part of the human condition. It’s certainly been my experience of playing music and improvising but I still love doing it and I’m still continually surprised and amazed by so much of the stuff I listen to, and the things people play when I’m playing with them.

As I write I’m listening to my friend Sean Wayland’s new album “Pistachio”. I’m not sure how I’d describe it – words like funk, jazz, pop, rock and fusion circle around. Also lots of discussions about music with Sean over many years come to mind – specific chords, rhythms, keyboard sounds etc. I can hear the influence of some of Sean’s heroes – Steely Dan, Alan Holdsworth, Herbie Hancock etc. But none of this does justice to what’s actually gone into the music – not just from Sean but also from the other musicians on the album. We need words and categories to help us organise ourselves. But with reference to music these are shorthand terms to describe millions of tiny decisions by individual people which have taken years to develop, and those decisions informed by thousands of years of music practice by prior creators. “Jazz” is an example of a word which resists easy definition – it is fluid, mysterious, mutable, a word people feel very strongly about, a word to argue about, something real but hard to hang onto. Something to explore, whether player or listener, and know that you’ll never get to the bottom of it…

© 2009 Matt McMahon

Have Your Say
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Thanks for the article, Matt.  A very comprehensive discussion of a very slippery, but, I feel, necessary term.  Somehow calling what we do merely improvised music, or spontaneous composition, or instantly re-cliched chord charts seems to be inadequate.  I do prefer to call it jazz, with all the variety of persnal conceptions or misconceptions it may entail.  For myself, the Bill Evans definition comes closest, even including the European baroque and classical composer/improvisors - I always hoped that the process was a creative music making endeavour that was an older tradition than the most recent Afro-American blossoming.

Posted by Glenn Henrich on Thursday 1 July 2010
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