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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." 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 understand the difficulty faced by the writers of the esteemed dictionary.

Diversity of Jazz Makes Categorization Difficult

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?

Origin of Word is Controversial

As to the origin of the word itself, that is also a matter of considerable controversy. Many musicians commonly associated with the music actually dislike the word "jazz" because it had unsavoury sexual connotations in the early 20th century. Among the musicians who did not like the word were Duke Ellington and Charles Mingus.

In his essay, "The Etymology of the Word 'Jazz,'" Dutch musician and language expert Bob Rigter argues that the word comes from the French word "chasse," meaning "to hunt." He says this is likely given the French Creole culture of the city in which jazz originated: New Orleans.

An Art of Surprise

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 is the blues, for example, what is improvisation, and how do composition and improvisation live and work together?

The Sound of the Skipped Heartbeat

Perhaps John Fordham in his masterly 1993 book, entitled simply Jazz, captures the nature and spirit of the genre with his simple sentence: "It is the sound of the skipped heartbeat, 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".

An Authentic Expression of Life and Living

Jazz to me is about sound, about the expression in sound of an authentic response to life, all of life, with its ups and downs, elation and heartbreak, hate and its love, and moments of relaxation and sweaty hard labour.

Writing about Miles' Kind of Blue, Fordham captures this perfectly when he says:

"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."

Jazz Is the Stream

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.

"Ain't No Other Music Like That"

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. That history flows out of every horn playing jazz, and every rhythm, harmony and lyric sung by a jazz vocalist.

Jazz Always Exists In a Historical Context

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 Importance of Swing and Improvisation

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?

Don't Mean a Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing

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."

The Outstanding Musical Discovery of the 20th Century

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.

Tete Mbambisa

Tete Mbambisa

The Duke Ellington Influence

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.

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.

Opposition to Swing May Be Opposition to Expectation

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."

The Importance of 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.

The Art of the Spontaneous

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. McGregor writes:

"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."

Chasing the Vibration

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.

The late, great Lulu Gontsana

The late, great Lulu Gontsana

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.

Further Reading

  • How Did Jazz Originate?
    Jazz was born out of the pain of slavery and the clash between the cultures of West Africa and the Protestant ethos of the United States. This article will examine the roots of this quintessentially American genre.
  • What Is Jazz? How Is It Different From Other Music?
    What is jazz, and how does it differ from other kinds of music? Read on to find out!
  • 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.

© 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!