Wynton Marsalis says jazz is what swings. Louis Armstrong said jazz was his idea of how a tune should go. Charlie Parker said it’s “happiness blues.”

Sure, jazz means different things to different people – check out the reader contributions to our page “What Is Jazz?” –  but it’s also a musical form with certain rules and expectations. As mentioned last time, improvisation is the common element in any jazz performance, the soloists’ extrapolation and “spontaneous composition” on the key, chords and melodies of a song.

King Oliver's Jazz Band, 1923When most people think of jazz, they think of the jazz combo – the trio, quartet, quintet or sometimes larger group that plays the music. Most people can probably even tell you what instruments are in a jazz band: drums, bass, a couple horns – saxophone, trumpet, sometimes trombone – and a piano.  These are the lessons of Operation Jazz Band, one of the education programs that the Healdsburg Jazz Festival has been producing for most of its 13-year life. These are the building blocks of jazz music.

So if jazz is improvisation, how do 3 or 4 or 5 people improvise? Well, in general, it’s the soloist who takes the lead in improvisation, when it’s his turn. For several choruses or run-throughs of a melody, the saxophonist (for instance) swings and honks and blisters his way through a shower of notes, then turns over the spotlight to someone else —  maybe another horn player or the pianist or, less frequently, the drummer or bassist. What these musicians do is to add their own interpretation of the song – and not just the song itself, but the song in how it’s being played that night, right now, in this instance.

When several musicians of improvisational training play together as a combo, they each apply their own musicianship and personalities to the performance, playing with and in counter-point to each other, creating a new “composition” – though it’s actually a performance, a take, or a set, an ad hoc moment of time. That’s jazz, too: the social and artistic interplay between musicians.

At some point, in pure jazz at least, all the musicians are “spontaneously composing” or recreating the number. It becomes a conversation, a group endeavor. It’s the same song, but it’s a song in the process of rediscovering itself by a particular group of musicians at that point in time. Or as Stan Kenton put it:

“A session in jazz,” said Kenton, “is comparable to an open forum where theories and opinions are discussed openly and freely. Without inhibition or the fear of being reprimanded, a soloist rises and speaks without the aid of notes or previous preparation. … One soloist will speak for himself on a chosen topic and then retire to hear the feelings of another on the same subject. On occasions, they will speak of happy things, then those of a more serious nature, sometimes somber and even tragic. All phases of life’s emotions are felt and experienced in jazz.”

So it’s not just improvisation that makes jazz, but the fertile environment for collective improvisation and personal expression that makes jazz what it is.  It’s pretty much been that way since the earliest years of the 20th century, with the first Dixieland bands in New Orleans – think of the wild climax of many Dixieland tunes, with the instruments blaring out in new and competitive directions in a cacophony of braggadocio.

But jazz embraces much more than Dixieland, or the blues or the so-called Great American Songbook. The reason that jazz is constantly evolving, and changing, is built into its DNA, so to speak – it’s a living music that breathes, grows and changes with every instrumentalist or vocalist who joins in. So new songs, new techniques, new riffs, new rhythms, new directions are embraced in jazz as in few other forms of music. Its strength is its wide embrace.

Perhaps you’ve had the experience of jazz, too. You have some friends over for dinner, the food was good and the wine is better. Everyone’s getting along great, several conversations are going at once… and you suddenly become aware that everybody is saying something different, both unmoored from dialog yet still held together by a conversational thread. In that moment, everything seems to sail along of its own glorious momentum, and no matter what you say it’s in synch and right and rhymes… That’s when it becomes a real party, and that’s what jazz is: a party among musicians that the audience can enjoy.

In this week of Thanksgiving and the first wave of holiday obligation and reward, remember to value the healthy properties of a party: its social interactions, its feasting and imbibing, its ceremonial aspects. Remember and value most of all the jazz that we all seek and appreciate in our social world, our connectedness with the music of our friends, neighbors and family.

— Christian Kallen

Think you know what jazz is? Leave a comment on our page, “What Is Jazz?”