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Jazz: Notes Toward a Definition

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Jazz music, as is also the case with the old down-home spirituals, gospel and jubilee songs, jumps, shouts and moans, is essentially an American vernacular or idiomatic modification of musical conventions imported from Europe, beginning back during the time of the early settlers of the original colonies.

Specifically, jazz as such began as a secular dance music that evolved from ragtime piano music, brass-band music, and the guitar, vocal, harmonica, barroom, honky-tonk, and juke-joint music called the blues, which generates an atmosphere of groovy delight and festive well-being in the very process of recounting a tale of woe. As any church member will testify, generating a Dionysian atmosphere is precisely what honky-tonks, juke joints, barrooms, and gin mills are all about.

In any case, the jazz musician's blues should not be confused with the torch singer's lament, which is a matter of wearing one's heart on one's sleeve because one has loved unwisely and not well and has become not the one and only, but the lonely, "ain't these tears in these eyes telling you." In this sense, Billie Holiday's famous recording "Strange Fruit" is not blues music. It is a political torch song, a lament about unrequited patriotic love. We have loved and fought and died for this country for all these many years, the song asserts, because it has been our official homeland for this many generations, and now just look at what some of these other folks think they have a right to do to somebody because they want to think that they are better than them.

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Actually, "Strange Fruit" is not even written in any of the established blues stanzas. "The St. Louis Blues," by contrast, is also about unrequited love, but it is written in the most widely used blues form, the twelve-bar blues chorus. And what it inspires, whether in up-tempo or in slow drag, regardless of the words, is not regret and despair, but elegance and good-time movement. (For a jazz musician's inflection of a famous torch song, listen to Roy Eldridge's rendition of "After You've Gone" of 1937, and also the Jazz at the Philharmonic version of 1946, featuring Mel Powell, Charlie Parker, Howard McGee, Lester Young, and others.)

Ironically, as little as it has been noticed, it is the pale-skinned or so-called white European, not the dark-skinned Africans, the brown-skinned inhabitants of the Middle East, the so-called yellow skinned Asians, or the so-called red-skinned people of the Americas, and so on, who describe their moods in terms of changes of the color of their skin (mainly of their faces!), which have traditionally been described as becoming red with embarrassment, green with envy, gray with concern, dullness, or "the blahs" of boredom, and blue with sorrow and self-pity. Hence, the blue devils of torment or torment by blue demons, as in the case of delirium tremens. (Blue skies are another matter altogether.)

There was a time between the 1890s and the early 1920s when ragging a tune and jazzing a tune added up to just about the same kind of musical statement. Did the word "jazz" win out because "jazzing" sounded more Dionysian than "ragging"? After all, legendary accounts of early jazz in New Orleans place great emphasis on its connection with the red-light district of Storyville. According to Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, jazz is "a Creole word meaning to speed up, applied to syncopated music, of American Negro, and probably of African origin; a type of American music, characterized by melodious themes, subtly syncopated rhythms, and varied orchestral coloring."

But neither the earthy ambivalence of the blues nor the elegant syncopation of ragtime is indigenous to New Orleans. It was in Memphis that W. C. Handy, who was from Alabama, codified and put the old down-home blues stanza (which he first heard in Mississippi) into the public domain of American popular music, as Scott Joplin from Texas had done for ragtime in Sedalia, Missouri a few years earlier. Perhaps the most obvious—if not the most definitive—haracteristic of early New Orleans jazz was its special emphasis on polyphony and improvisation, though it was Kansas City jazz that was to become known and celebrated for the subtle syncopation of its swinging 4/4 stomps, jumps, and shouts.

Even so, there was a small group in New Orleans in 1908 that was sometimes known as the original Creole Jass Band. Also King Oliver, after moving to Chicago following the closing of Storyville, once led a group called the Original Creole Jazz Band, and at another time he led one called the Dixie Syncopators. Most ballroom or dance-hall bands outside of New Orleans continued to bill themselves as "syncopated orchestras" until the early 1920s. By the mid-1930s, they were advertised as swing bands as well as jazz bands. But by then jazz had become the generic term for an American secular dance music with its own style, variations, and repertory.


A jazz tune, melody, or composition is usually based on either a traditional twelve-bar, eight-bar, or four-bar blues chorus or on the thirty-two-bar chorus of the American popular song. In either case, the overall structure is a series of choruses, which may be preceded by an improvised vamp instead of a conventional prelude or overture, and it is climaxed with an out-chorus that may or may not be followed by a coda, the jazz term for which is a tag.

Duke Ellington's "Koko" is in effect a blues-obbligato minus the original twelve-bar melody. "Moten Swing" by Count Basie and Eddie Durham for Benny Moten's Kansas City Orchestra is in effect an obbligato minus the thirty-two-bar chorus of the original melody of the pop song "You're Driving Me Crazy." Thelonius Monk's obbligato treatment of "Please Don't Talk About Me When I'm Gone" became "Four in One," his version of "Sweet Georgia Brown" became "Bright Mississippi," and "Straighten Up and Fly Right" became "Epistrophe." Thus did Charlie Parker's recording of "Ornithology" come from "How High the Moon," and Dizzy Gillespie's "Groovin' High" from "Whispering." And so on it goes, with the jazz musician treating even the most sophisticated popular standards as if they were folk ditties.

The improvisational nature of jazz musicianship is such that a truly competent performer must be prepared to function as an on-the-spot composer who is expected to contribute to the orchestration in progress, not simply to execute the score as it is written and rehearsed. In fact, the "score" or lead sheet may often turn out to be "dictated" verbally or instrumentally rather than written. There is much to suggest that it is this special aspect of jazz musicianship as it is exercised, developed, and refined in informal jam sessions that accounts for the rapid rate at which jazz (which was perhaps never really a folk art!) moved from the level of a popular art around the beginning of the twentieth century to the precision and the sophistication of a fine art by the mid-1930s. Nor should the matter of aesthetic refinement and existential depth be confused with social status: it is the innovating artist, regardless of his or her formal training and certification, who actually creates that which the so-called critical establishment evaluates and values after the fact.


The dance-oriented percussive emphasis of jazz was derived from West Africa along with the various tribal natives imported during the years of the North Atlantic slave trade, although very little African music as such continued to be performed by them in North America. Not only were ancestral African rituals generally forbidden, but also, as a rule, the local slave population was almost always so diverse in language and in tribal culture that the erstwhile Africans could not communicate with one another in their native tongues anyway. Moreover, they were inevitably more preoccupied with practical techniques of coping and surviving on harsh local terms than with preserving procedures, relics, and talismans from their past environments, however sentimental they may have been.

In any case, there are grounds to believe that the definitive percussive emphasis in jazz is owed finally to trains—that it is more a matter of an aesthetic involvement with American railroad locomotive onomatopoeia than with transmitting tribal messages. Messages to whom? About what? After all, slave owners were always on the alert and were notoriously pre-emptive about Africans' talking drums. But it is the locomotive onomatopoeia that is so characteristic of down-home guitar, harmonica, and honky-tonk piano folk blues: its employment as an elementary local color or atmospheric device should be obvious as soon as you listen seriously to the music.

Trains, train whistles, and train bells came to suggest all kinds of possibilities and aspirations. There were the metaphysical trains in the sermons and songs of the Christian church, which incidentally the captive West Africans seem to have embraced with fervent enthusiasm largely on their own. There were the metaphorical trains of the underground railroad escape routes from bondage to freedom, the likes of which existed nowhere other than America. And there were also those actual north-to-freedom locomotives running on railroad tracks that captive West Africans had been used to help lay and maintain, inventing section-gang spike driving and track alignment rhythms and chants even as other slave workers invented field chants, woodsman's calls, swamp hollers, and so on. Moreover, it is not very likely that any creatures anywhere in West Africa were more impressive than these man-made, man-controlled mechanical creatures that also had voices, personalities, and even names and numbers.

Incidentally, in many instances, especially in down-home folk blues, the syncopating locomotive onomatopoeia is very literal, and the music (that is, the sonority) as such as well as the rhythm and the beat is in effect as programmatic as it is in Honegger's "Pacific 231" or Duke Ellington's "Track 360," or as in such novelty popular features as "Alabama Bound," "California, Here I Come," and "Chattanooga Choo Choo," all of which employ programmatic devices in much the same way as say, Prokofiev, did in Peter and the Wolf.

But time passes, and over the years the refinement of locomotive onomatopoeia as a definitive device of jazz sonority as well as rhythm has been such that the locomotive elements now function in the way that dead metaphors function in conventional discourse. In Ellington's "Harlem Air Shaft," the blues locomotive sounds are still there, but now they represent a storyland panorama of people in a given area of a great metropolis. The locomotive onomatopoeia is also still there in Ellington's "Mainstem," but there it evokes the sights, the tempo, and the sounds of Broadway, including the special glitter of midtown Manhattan and Times Square. A very popular early "swing era" example of Ellington's programmatic use of locomotive onomatopoeia is his rendition of the old ragtime showcase novelty tune "Tiger Rag as Daybreak Express."

Fletcher Henderson's arrangement of "Shanghai Shuffle," by contrast, and his orchestra's recording of Benny Carter's arrangement of "Limehouse Blues," are excellent examples of musical dead metaphors. The syncopation is definitive, but it is no longer about locomotives as such. It is about a dance tempo. But then there is Ellington's three-part "UWis Suite," written near the end of his life, as a tribute to the University of Wisconsin while the band was in residence on campus. The first part is an instrumental prom chant of deluxe-hotel-ballroom-type music that goes nicely with fraternity and sorority functions, groovy and up-tempo plus off-beat by turns. The second part is a tongue-in-cheek polka to charm the Midwesterners and the outsiders alike. And then comes the third part, which at first sounds for all the world like an old down-home juke joint bump-and-grind stomp, but turns out to be "Loco Madi," a fine onomatopoeic account of the band's train trip—from, say, Chicago up to Madison and the University of Wisconsin. Incidentally, in this instance the locomotive onomatopoeia is somewhat less obviously programmatic than in its use in the "Happy Go Lucky Local" section of Ellington's "Deep South Suite," where, as in "Daybreak Express," the train itself is the subject. Here it suggests how the composer feels about his destination, the happiness with which he anticipates his arrival.

Whether it is a dead metaphor or a thematic program, the syncopating locomotive onomatopoeia is precisely what provides the velocity of celebration that drives the jubilee songs, shouts, jumps, and ever so elegant stomps and grinds, shakes and shimmies and wobbles, on festive occasions. There is also reason to believe that locomotive onomatopoeia may be the most direct source of that definitive emphasis on syncopation that distinguishes jazz percussion from the West African percussion from which it was derived, and also from the Afro-Caribbean percussion to which it is so closely related.

The juke joint, the honky tonk, and the ballroom also represent one more thing, anthropologically speaking: a ceremonial context for the male-with-female-duet dance flirtation and embrace, upon which the zoological survival of the human species has always been predicated. The Latin American influence on this aspect of jazz as dance music is quite obvious. (The African dancing most familiar to Americans tends to be ensemble or choral dancing that suggests military preparation for aggression or defense.)

Although jazz music for such dancing is generally regarded as secular, neither the music nor the dance movements (which may be ceremonial re-enactments of primordial purification and fertility rituals) is totally forbidden at religious feast day celebrations. They are excluded from church ceremonies as such, but not from such sacred but extramural church-based celebrations as public Christmas and Easter season dances and post-church wedding receptions. And the relationship of male-female duet dances to rituals of season changes and of planting, cultivation, harvesting, storing, and preserving should not require elaboration.

Jazz music has come to be internationally recognized as something like the musical equivalent of Constance Rourke's idea of American humor: an emblem for a pioneer people who require resilience as a prime trait. Jazz is also the musical equivalent of what Kenneth Burke called representative anecdotes. By its very nature, jazz typifies the national dynamics or natural history of exploration, discovery, and improvisation; and the ever so tentative settlement of what might become a great metropolis, a pit stop, or a ghost town of lost chords. As the musical equivalent of representative anecdotes, not only do jazz performances make people around the globe feel that they know what the texture of life in the United States is like, they also make a significant number of those people want to become American. (I wonder how many immigrants to America the performances of Louis Armstrong were responsible for.) So let the trail blaze on and on, and the riffs, too, those elegantly improvised tidbits that inevitably turn back into solo opportunities!

Albert Murray is the author of The Hero and the Blues (Viking) and Stomping the Blues (Da Capo Press), among other works.