Definition

Attempts at defining the word jazz have had varying degrees of success or failure depending on any given reader’s point of view. The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians gives the following as an opening to the article on Jazz:

Attempts at a concise – even a coherent- definition of jazz have invariably failed. Initial efforts to separate it from related forms of music resulted in a false primacy of certain aspects such as improvisation, which is neither unique nor essential to jazz, or swing (the quality of rhythmic momentum resulting from small departures from the regular pulse), which is absent from much authentic jazz, early and late.1

The article continues to describe its author’s ideas about the over-emphasis of various cultural factors involved in the creation and/or definition of jazz, such as the African-American slave element. As a whole, the article reflects poorly on jazz and jazz studies, and exhibits the placement of jazz study and history in the scholarly world of the time, or more aptly, its lack of placement. However by the mid 1980s, jazz had become more acceptable in academic circles and a number of studies on its history were written. In the more recent publication The New Grove Dictionary of American Music, jazz received the following definition:

A music created mainly by black Americans in the early 20th century though an amalgamation of elements drawn from European-American and tribal African musics. A unique type, it cannot safely be categorized as folk, popular, or art music, though it shares aspects of all three. It has had a profound effect on international culture, not only through its considerable popularity, but through the important role it has played in shaping the many forms of popular music that developed around and out of it.2

This latter definition reflects the substantial change in attitude and research in jazz since the late 1970s. While this new drive in jazz research is heartening, specific areas have not been thoroughly studied, such as individual instruments and their performers. While there are a number of books and articles on individual artists, such as Louis Armstrong, lesser known figures are often brushed to the side.

This more modern approach to the definition and origins of jazz does recognize the importance of the African-American slave contributions, but also includes many other cultural factors, such as the French and Spanish influence, as well as the post-Civil War brass band tradition that ensued among southern Louisiana plantations. When trying to define jazz as a genre or style, it is easier to articulate the definition through a brief synopsis of its history.

Jazz has traditionally been said to have originated in New Orleans around the turn of the century. This attempt at giving jazz a locale or point of origin simplifies matters from the historical point of view, but misleads the reader by ignoring the many factors that went into the creation of this new genre. This would be comparable to giving the symphony an exact point and date of origin. Some modern jazz scholars would argue that the music we call jazz would have originated in some form, with or without the city of New Orleans; cultural attitudes in that city only helped to speed the process of its creation. While jazz may have originated in many places at once, New Orleans is undeniably an important starting point; many of the well-known early trombonists started in New Orleans, and from 1890-1920 it was the starting point for many of the famous bands that went to Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York.

  1. Max Harrison,“Jazz,” New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians , 9:561-579.
  2. James Lincoln Collier, “Jazz” The New Grove Dictionary of American Music, vol. 2, 1986.