WHAT IS JAZZ?
by Mel Goldgerg
While jazz is difficult to define, improvisation is one of its major elements — the creative expression and interaction between composer and performer. Improvisation developed enormously over the history of the music. In early New Orleans and Dixieland jazz, performers took turns playing the melody, while others improvised counter-melodies. During the Big Band era, the reliance turned more toward arranged music while individual soloists improvised within the arrangements. With the shift back toward small groups, the melody was stated briefly at the start and end of a piece, but the core of the performance was a series of improvisations. Unlike symphonic music, which is played without ever varying a single note, skilled jazz performers interpret music in individual ways, never playing a composition exactly the same way twice. The performer’s mood and personal experience, interactions with other musicians, or even members of the audience, may alter melodies, harmonies, or even time signatures.
The jazz genre originated at the beginning of the 20th century within the African-American communities of the southern United States. It combined European harmony and form elements with African-based music, evident in its use of blue notes, improvisation, poly-rhythms, syncopation, and swing. From its early development until the present day, jazz has also incorporated elements from popular music, especially American.
As the music developed and spread around the world, it drew on many different musical cultures, giving rise to distinctive styles, like New Orleans jazz, bebop, Afro-Cuban jazz, avant-garde jazz, Latin jazz, jazz fusion, and other ways of playing the music.
Here’s an interesting feature on two jazz greats, Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane…