Skip to main content

What Is Jazz? How Is It Different From Other Music?

Tony is a writer and photographer who lives in Pretoria, South Africa.

Ernest Shololo Mothle

Ernest Shololo Mothle

The Problem With Definition

According to the Concise Oxford English Dictionary (Revised Edition 2006) jazz is "a type of music of Black American origin characterised by improvisation, syncopation, and a regular rhythm, and typically played on brass and woodwind instruments" and the origin of the word itself is given as "early 20th Century: of unknown origin."

The music commonly referred to as "jazz" has a range and diversity, a richness and beauty, that is totally belied by such a bland definition.

At the same time, I do understand the difficulty faced by the writers of the esteemed dictionary - how on earth does one encompass within a few words, in the form of a lasting definition, a musical tradition and experience that encompasses the sounds of Jelly Roll Morton and Cecil Taylor, Bix Beiderbecke and Don Cherry, Coleman Hawkins and Ornette Coleman, Sidney Bechet and Steve Lacy, Johnny St Cyr and Pat Metheny, and countless others at the various extremes and points in between that constitute the territory of jazz?

As to the origin of the word itself, that is also a matter of considerable controversy, with many musicians commonly associated with the music actually disliking the word "jazz" because of its possibly unsavoury connotations, especially the sexual ones. Among the musicians who did not like the word were Duke Ellington and Charles Mingus.

In a detailed study of the origin of the word, Dutch musician and language expert Bob Rigter argues that the word comes from the French word "chasse" which he says is likely given the French Creole culture of the city where jazz originated, New Orleans.

The details of Rigter's argument can be found in his article "The etymology of the word JAZZ" on his website. This is an abridged version of Bob Rigter (1991), Light on the Dark Etymology of JAZZ in the Oxford English Dictionary, in Tieken & Frankis (eds.), Language usage and description, Editions Rodopi, Amsterdam - Atlanta. ISBN 90-5183-312-1. (See link below)

The Sound of the Skipped Heartbeat

Perhaps one has to rely on ideas that pick up more on the experience than on any attempted academic definition, with phrases such as Whitney Balliett's "Sound of Surprise" (1961), which he elaborated on to describe jazz as "a highly personal, lightweight form - like poetry, it is an art of surprise - that, shaken down, amounts to the blues, some unique vocal and instrumental sounds, and the limited, elusive genius of improvisation (some of it in the set forms of jazz composition)."

Of course, such a description asks as many questions as it answers - what are the "blues" for example, what is improvisation, and how do composition and improvisation live and work together?

Perhaps John Fordham in his masterly 1993 book entitled simply "Jazz", captures the nature and spirit of jazz better in his simple sentence: "It is the sound of the skipped heart-beat, the caught breath, the sudden smile."

There is one word which appears in both of these descriptions or attempts at definition of jazz, that appeals to me as saying something meaningful about the music, and that is the word "sound". Jazz to me is about sound, it's about the expression in sound of an authentic response to life, all of life, with its ups and downs, its elation and heartbreak, its moments of relaxation and sweaty hard labour, its hate and its love.

Writing about Miles' Kind of Blue album, Fordham in his introduction writes about an example of that sound:

"It comes deceptively after a soft, padding double-bass statement of the theme 'So What'. As it ends, Miles Davis's trumpet solo begins, with only two notes, the second an octave below the first. The first haunting sound hangs on its own in an otherwise empty space for a second that seems to go on forever. As it dips, the drummer suddenly hits his cymbal with a single reverberating blow that erupts like a flare over a twilit scene, and the jangling rivets sizzle on as Davis's horn eases nonchalantly into swing. It sounds both inevitable and astonishing at every new hearing."

"Ain't No Other Music Like That."

The beauty of jazz, the magnificence of jazz, is that it reproduces and amplifies those sounds, time after time, moment after moment, in ways that speak directly to the heart and ears of the listener as no other music does. Keith Jarrett, using a photographic metaphor in speaking of jazz, said that while classical music was like a photograph of a clear mountain stream, jazz is the stream.

Renowned jazz drummer and educator Art Blakey put it simply, as quoted by Fordham: "From the Creator, to the artist, direct to the audience, split-second timing, ain't no other music like that."

Descriptions like these, however, can lead to an over-romanticised idea of what jazz is all about. Jazz is certainly an art of the moment, but it is also an art in and of a particular history, and history flows out of every horn playing jazz, every rhythm, every harmony and word sung by a jazz singer.

Jazz is also rooted in life; it takes all that life has to offer and makes a rich amalgam with the history of the music, of the people who perform it and with the sounds that inspire or comfort those people. It might be ephemeral, but it is not ethereal, floating somewhere above and untouched by sometimes ugly realities of life, life both in the large movements of history and the small daily activities of ordinary people sweeping their homes, washing their clothes, reaping their harvests and dealing with broken hearts and broken bones, broken pride and broken skin.

Jazz, like all music, has certain essential elements which it shares with other musics - harmony, rhythm, melody. These elements, together with some particular and unique elements that belong to jazz alone, are combined in jazz in ways which produce the sound to which Fordham alluded to in the quotation above.

The unique elements of jazz, about which there is always a great deal of debate among musicians and critics alike, are "swing" and "improvisation." The OED definition quoted above alludes only to improvisation as a unique element, as the other two elements it mentions are found in many other forms of music. Syncopation happens in many other musical genres, as does a regular beat. Even improvisation can be found in European classical music and, in fact, in most ethnic musics as well.

So what is left that can be called unique to jazz?

  • 100 Greatest Jazz Songs of All Time
    A non-traditional list of the all-time-best jazz songs, including music created by artists who don't necessarily fit into the purist's definition of the genre.
  • A Beginner's Guide to Listening to Jazz Music Part 1
    I know there are a lot of people out there who don’t listen to jazz music because they feel intimidated by the music. That’s where I come in.
  • How to Listen to Jazz Music Part 2
    Just like all forms of popular music, jazz can be broken down into a bunch of different categories: swing, big band, traditional, smooth, acoustic, jazz, new age, free form, and more.

What's Swing Got to Do With It?

What is unique to jazz is the way these elements are combined to produce the sound of jazz.

The one thing that most jazz musicians and writers agree on is that jazz "swings", by which is not meant the "swing" style of the 1930s and 1940s, but something that jazz has but cannot be adequately described.

South African jazz musician Chris McGregor wrote in a 1964 article in the arts journal The Classic. edited by Barney Simon, that the term "swing" had "no precedent and no real equivalent in any other music."

He went on, "I find it impossible to elucidate this term which is crucial in the appreciation of jazz. It denotes a certain warmth of rhythmic feeling only obtainable by a very special kind of muscular and spiritual relaxation which I don't think can ever be taught."

For McGregor, "swing" was the most important element of jazz, and he indeed elevated it to a high position in the history of music: "But I am certain that it is the outstanding musical discovery of the 20th century, comparable to the discovery of harmony centuries ago – in the same way it opens a completely new musical dimension. The exploration of harmony has occupied European musical thinking for at least ten centuries – it occurs to me that the exploration of 'swinging' by jazz musicians has only just begun."

Even the use of the word is not without controversy, with some jazz musicians denying the importance of swing, but with the lack of a clear definition of precisely what is meant by the term, perhaps they are using it in a different way. For instance, in the original liner notes to the album Blues and Roots bassist Charles Mingus wrote, "I was born swinging and clapped my hands in church as a little boy, but I've grown up and I like to do things other than just swing."

So is Mingus' "swing" the same as McGregor's "swing"? Since both musicians are dead and did not, during their respective lives, meet, all we can do is listen to their music and see what we can elucidate from that.

Interestingly, both Mingus and McGregor are overtly Ellingtonians in that they both acknowledge deep indebtedness to the music of the great Duke, how he composed, how he arranged and how he played. And there was surely no greater exponent of the "swing" that McGregor talks about than Ellington. Indeed the band that McGregor worked with the longest, his own Brotherhood of Breath, Graham Lock wrote in Chasing the Vibration (1994), "really shook the foundations, with their gleeful and exuberant approach to swing."

As McGregor said in an interview with Lock, "I've always been ultra-attracted by that organisation and putting-together capacity that was so uniquely Duke's."

Mingus too, I think, could not play without swinging. Listen to the tracks on Mingus at Antibes, Mingus Ah Um and the rest, and you will hear swinging of a high order.

So what was Mingus talking about when he wrote he wanted to other things than "just swing"? I think, and maybe others will disagree, but that's OK too, that Mingus was talking about the expectation that people have of what in rock is usually called the "beat", that somehow jazz was expected to have this solid 4 by 4 foot-stomping rhythm of the kind found in the holiness churches, with great uniformity and little subtlety. The qualifier "just" in front of "swing" in Mingus's writing is perhaps the key. "Swing" is a very subtle thing and has to do more with how rhythm is experienced and played, than with any one rhythm. As McGregor wrote, it's very difficult to elucidate the term. But it is an essential part or characteristic of jazz.

Perhaps it's true, that saying of Louis Armstrong: "If you've gotta ask, you'll never know."

What About Improvisation?

To look at the term "improvisation" is to look at another important aspect of jazz that is often misunderstood.

As Fordham writes, an enduring misconception is that "jazz performers simply make it all up as they go along, freewheeling without structure or theory."

The fact is that jazz musicians go into a performance, whether "live" or in the studio, with a whole history of the music, structures and theories, in their heads or written on charts, from which they actually compose in the moment, which is what gives jazz its immediacy.

Chris McGregor captured this in the same article quoted above: "Jazz music is an art of the spontaneous. The jazz performer and composer are the same person, and the acts of composing and performing are essentially simultaneous."

He went on to point out that although some people see this as leading to shallow music-making, the opposite is in fact true: "The fact is that it can lead to music-making of an almost incredible depth in performance. The performance will reflect the depth of the performing musicians thought at that very time. The discipline involved (and it is no mean discipline) is for the musician to be constantly in touch with his deepest musical thoughts and to develop the facility to express them at any moment."

A Profound Spiritual Experience

This is why, in my view, jazz is able to touch me so deeply, so immediately. When I hear jazz well-played, especially live, but also in a recording, I feel in the notes and the sounds not only the experience of the individual or individuals playing, but I hear and feel the history out of which they have emerged, the experience of people's lives.

Graham Lock put it well: "So I'm still chasing the vibration, still wondering how and why this music can touch me so profoundly. I no longer expect to find any definitive answers, but I have learned that when the music calls, you ignore it at your peril."

Or as Sonny Rollins wrote in the Foreword to Fordham's book: "Sometimes when I am in the midst of a really good performance my mind will imperceptibly switch to automatic pilot, and I find myself just standing there while the spirit of jazz, as it were, occupies my body, choosing for me just the correct note, the correct phrase, the correct idea, and when to play it. It is a profound spiritual experience."

Jazz happens when history and the moment collide, and that collision is captured in sound, the sound of surprise.

A Note About the Photos Above

For the past many years, I have been privileged to hear some wonderful musicians in South Africa. I have often taken my camera along with me, and the photos above are all my own. I do not claim to be a great photographer, and all of the pictures were taken for my own enjoyment rather than for publication, so please forgive the quality!

If anyone chooses to use one of these photos, I would feel honoured, and still more so if you would credit me when you do use them. I would also like to know if you do.

© 2009 Tony McGregor


M. Drum on April 19, 2019:

Jazz lives and breathes like no other form of music. In the beginning it was the root of all modern American music to follow. In the present it is the product of everything it itself has influenced. Always alive and ever flowing.

De Greek from UK on April 30, 2014:

Many thanks for this!

domh333 on January 29, 2013:

Great read, wish I was better at jazz guitar.

Some jazz is so relaxing and some is a real headache.

My swing band plays some jazz,

Tony McGregor (author) from South Africa on June 30, 2011:

John - thanks for the comment which I really appreciate. I have in the works more articles which will bring the story up to date. Just being a little slow in writing at the moment - maybe the cold wionter we are experiencing here!

Thanks again for stopping by.

Love and peace


jtyler on May 16, 2011:

Excellent article. It was right on the money. The only things I didn't like was the fact that miles played three notes (E,D,E below in his key), not two. Second, it seems that this article implies that jazz no longer exists today, not like the way it did at those times. I think you should include a section about today's jazz and its role in music.

Tony McGregor (author) from South Africa on April 04, 2011:

Tom - thanks for stopping by. I appreciate your comment very much. Just been over to your site and Stumbled it! Looks and sounds like a lot of fun.

Love and peace


SteelTom on April 02, 2011:

Dang this is quite a write-up you did here. When someone asks me I usually say "it swings"

Tony McGregor (author) from South Africa on December 16, 2010:

Katie - thanks for stopping by. I agree that jazz can change one's perception and one's soul. It is very deep music actually!

Love and peace


Katie McMurray from Ohio on December 16, 2010:

I always enjoy listening to jazz and now I more knowledgeable as to what Jazz is. There truly is no other music like it. It's so soulful and integrates with the heart and soul of the listener changing them.

Tony McGregor (author) from South Africa on November 12, 2010:

Piotr - thanks very much for stopping by and leaving such kind words. I really appreciate it very much. I too am passionate about this music!

Love and peace


Piotr Yordanov from Lebanon on November 11, 2010:

Ow ow ow!!! man i know and play jazz on piano.. I never asked myself the question cuz it was so obvious... but this article is Sooo wel writtenn and so full with info plus photos!!!

Thank you very much for this soo beautiful hub :)

Lee Boolean on September 30, 2009:

Hey Tony,

I only really discovered Jazz in Europe, if you ever plan on coming here, do it around June, Jazz rally time, its a fabulous few days with some of the best the world has to offer, still we have not seen many South African greats here though. about two years ago I had the opportunity to see the German master Klaus Doldinger, who wrote the music for "Misdaad" if you recall obscure dubbed seventies TV programming. I bought two of his albums, you should give him listen. So it would seem that my taste in music is maturing, thanks for the great Hub(s). Take care, Lee

William F Torpey from South Valley Stream, N.Y. on July 17, 2009:

I enjoyed this hub very much, Tony. I love the music of the 1930's and 1940's and most of the great jazz musicians. My idol, Bing Crosby, loved jazz, too, and often sang the praises of Louis Armstrong. Personally, I favor music with clear melody. I'm not a musician, so much of the detailed descriptions you write of may be lost on me.

James A Watkins from Chicago on July 06, 2009:

I love jazz, though in my career as a performer I played rock. My favorite album of all time is Romantic Warrior.

Tony McGregor (author) from South Africa on July 01, 2009:

Thanks for all the wonderful comments - I sincerely appreciate them.

Teresa - Chris was my brother.

I also love Baroque music and in fact listen to something Baroque most mornings. At the moment my favourite morning listen is Jordi Savall's Tous Les Matins du Monde soundtrack. Sublime stuff!

And there are definitely similarities between Baroque and jazz - the complexity you mention and I think the rhythmic feel and the opportunities for improvisation.

Russ - I agree, trying to understand jazz (oir mnost other music, in fact) is not really the point. Sit back aqnd enjoy the experience of the sounds and the understanding, if its necessary, will come.

Love and peace


shamelabboush on July 01, 2009:

Jazz is a great genre and appealing to almost anyone. It's so rythmatic and charming. Well-researched hub Tony.

Russ Baleson on June 30, 2009:

This is great Tony! Well written, wonderful pics, excellent quotes. It somehow catches this often difficult to articulate form. I have found recently that when taking friends to experience jazz for the first time, the best thing I could tell them was not to try and understand it, just to let it in and enjoy it, and then somehow the understanding / feeling permeates. Thanks for this.

ESAHS on June 30, 2009:

"Yes I can hear the music awaking my soul!"

"Two thumbs up!"

 CEO E.S.A.H.S. Association

Sheila from The Other Bangor on June 30, 2009:

What a lively and engrossing read. The South African jazz experience is brought vibrantly alive here. Was the musician Chris a relative?

I like jazz a lot, and I'm learning a lot from your richly detailed hubs. But I don't have your passion for it, and I know it means that I'm missing out on some of the key moments of pure joy in the music. The stuff that knocks me off my feet is the intricate convolutions of baroque music -- hearing it at a concert usually has me in tears and laughing at the same time. I suspect that's how it is for you with jazz.

But I also suspect there is some sort of similar "access to the whole range of possible expression" going on in both jazz and baroque pieces, where the complexity is the puzzle and the pleasure is in its completion. Or maybe I have no idea what the heck I'm talking about.

Your photos are great, incidentally, and they are a good addition to the hub.

Related Articles