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What Is Jazz

What Is Jazz
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Being the Dean of American Jazz Humorists®, I am often called upon to weigh in on a variety of important issues affecting the future of Jazz. For instance, I weighed in at 294 pounds on the topic of "Why Jazz Still Matters" and a relatively svelte 275 on the topic of "Where is the Next Generation of Jazz Coming From?" I won the first debate by fall in 2:35, and the second by a 8-1 majority decision. So, let's consider those matters settled.

Still, there are a great many issues facing Jazz as the very fabric of society changes rapidly, almost daily. The most pressing, in my opinion is "What Is Jazz?" Or, more to the point, "What Is Jazz Right At This Moment?" The old definitions, which themselves were inadequate and vague, composed of personal biases and half-truths, are now completely antiquated. Just think about the difference between what defined the simple telephone thirty years ago, compared to today's reality of what a telephone is. And compare today's smartphones to what a telephone was just five years ago. The more you think about it, the more you realize not only how far things have come, and how quickly they are changing, but how much your own initial definitions are rooted in long-held ideas that no longer apply. Then, you will come to the conclusions that it's probably best to just say "to hell with it" and have a nice soothing glass of bourbon until your head stops spinning and you no longer feel like you're 150 years old.

For the longest time, Jazz could be more or less accurately described as "an acoustic, improvised music created in America by a melding of African and European influences using traditional instrumentation." It was, indeed acoustic; electric instrumentation didn't made any significant inroads, beyond the occasional use of the electric guitar, until the 1960s. It was predominantly improvised, using a predetermined melody and set progression of chord changes. It would grow less improvised with the strictly charted tunes of the Big Band era, with improvisation reserved for designated solos. Jazz would not be completely improvised until the advent of Free Jazz, and you see how that turned out. Our Music was indeed created in America, and mostly from African and European influences. But the mixing of those influences is so complex, so multifaceted, that it would almost be easier to make your own Worcestershire sauce at home than it would be to sort out the exact blend of influences that contributed to Jazz.

PROTIP: Do not attempt to make your own Worcestershire sauce at home. No good can come of it.

While these definitions still apply to some of Our Music, it is no longer descriptive of the entire purview of Jazz. Electric and electronic instruments now share the stage with the classic horns, strings and keyboards that have been standard instrumentation almost since the very beginning. It is incorporating more world music from Middle Eastern to Asian to wherever the hell it is Bobo Stenson
Bobo Stenson
Bobo Stenson
b.1944
piano
is from. Improvisation, while still integral to Jazz, has been reigned in at least to the point where it is no longer acceptable to sound like you're pulling random strings of notes, heretofore undiscovered chords, and erratic rhythms out of your ass. And, on a related note, it is no longer possible for even the hippest cat to wear a fedora without coming off like a complete doof.

None of that really answers the question of what Jazz is right now, possibly because that is virtually impossible to define. Jazz is a living thing, as is all music (with the exception of the soulless top-forty nonsense that has been foisted on every generation since Mencken said that "no one ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public"). Jazz breathes, it grows, it changes, it adapts. With Our Music, it is virtually impossible to play a tune the same way again. Some element will be different every time. As a Buddhist philosopher once said, that it is impossible to step into the same river twice. So, by comparing these two seemingly disparate ideas, it is easy to understand that the reason Jazz is not a more conventionally popular music is because the American public is all wet.

Forget I said that.

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