Everyone seems to love jazz music but often times the styles of jazz are confused and blurred. To further complicate matters, listeners (and dancers) often ask "What is great jazz?" or "How do I know if what I'm listening to is 'great jazz'"?
It's difficult to put in words, but let's give it a try. Remember jazz legend Louis Armstrong says: "If you have to ask what jazz is, you'll never know." While jazz can be broken into elements and much has been written on jazz theory, the most important thing to keep in mind is that the spirit that characterizes truly great music can't be dissected. The first rule of thumb of identifying great jazz music is that if you like it, if it touches your soul, then it's great.
Think of it this way - when you walk into an art gallery or museum and ask to see a great painting or sculpture, what is the museum guide supposed to show you? Art is personal! Even worse, ask an artist to explain his or her painting to you. Great art is not meant to be explained. It either hits you, or it doesn't. It bypasses the left part of the brain that analyzes and categorizes things and goes straight to the right part of your brain that feels emotion and connects to your heart and soul. Music speaks to you in the same way.
Now as for the technicality of what you're hearing, that's a bit different. Jazz can be broken into many styles, including traditional jazz, contemporary jazz, progressive jazz, modern jazz, dixieland jazz. Nevertheless, there are still six elements that really comprise all great jazz music, and we've named them Improvisation, Syncopation, Blue Notes, Freedom, Interaction, and Feeling.
IMPROVISATION: is the heart of jazz music. When a performer leaves what is written on the page and begins to "speak" (musically) from his head and heart you are now witnessing a conversation, perhaps even participating through a sonic dance. What is really happening is that the musicians are conversing with each other but within a given structure (or language). When the musicians know each other well enough (and it can be instantaneous or take years to develop), then they are able to understand, support and converse thru that language.
SYNCOPATION: deals with the idea of rhythm. In our universe of space and time, everything vibrates. Vibration consist of two things: on and off. It is the constant interaction of the on and off (crests and troughs) that cause us to experience the universe. Those on and offs are expressed over time. So here's the jazz music. When you fool around with those vibrations from a very rigid form (strict rhythm) to either slower or faster but with variety you'll get "Syncopation". It's fun. It's what you like in music. It's what you're relating to when you dance. It's what MOVES you in jazz music.
BLUE NOTES are an important part of a jazz musician's vocabulary in the musical conversation. Within scales and keys can be certain altered notes, some of which are called "Blue Notes." Blue notes are key to creating dissonance and harmony, tension and resolution.
The following three elements are less a function of music but come more directly from a musician's spirit. How the following three affect the previous three are what really defines "taste" in jazz music.
FREEDOM: Within the ensemble framework, musicians may take solos. Or you may hear a vocalist interpreting a melody - that's pretty much the same thing for the purposes of this discussion. It is that very freedom expressed within the language of music that lead to jazz. It's the talent and skill of a musician to express those feelings that lead to GREAT Jazz. Hey, the old sayings still apply. "Live Free or Die!"
INTERACTION: No man is an island. OK, that's not to mean their are not great jazz soloists such as pianists, harpist, guitarists or other instrumentalist, but the overwhelming majority of jazz music ranges from duos to ensembles of say 20 musicians (Think big band jazz).
For the finale, so to speak: FEELING. Feeling is a key element because when all is said and done, feeling is really the heart of it all. How the musician feels about what he's playing and how you feel about what you're listening to are both important elements, as well as the feelings that are being expressed from moment to moment. In the end, great jazz music is about expressing (for the musician) and hearing (for the audience) the great range of human emotion.
Finally, a definition of great jazz? Let's say it's the interaction between performer and listener. And if that interaction communicates feelings that you can't express as words, if you feel as though the music speaks to you, if you can feel the performers emotions he's trying to express thru his instrument, then the only words left are "That's GREAT jazz"!
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