Today is International Jazz Day and I want to revisit an old article I wrote about what jazz is to me. My take on describing jazz is a little different. It’s not a history lesson. I’m not writing today about what jazz WAS. I’m writing about what it has become today, from my perspective.
Jazz is a musical philosophy that welcomes all musicians as they are.
To me, jazz is a unifier, a bringer together of persons of diverse cultural backgrounds. I have jammed with complete strangers all over the world. In every place that I have jammed, the people I played with quickly became something other than strangers. I’m not suggesting that we were best buds or anything like that. But we recognized each other as being members of a world wide community of like minded musicians.
Yet, like minded in what sense?
Like minded in our acceptance of each other regardless of our differences. Jazz is a music that accepts all people for who they are, with no attempts to force you to be someone you are not. This is just as true across cultural and geographic boundaries as it is across age and gender gaps.
I remember reading an article some time ago about why you should never criticize a younger player at the jam sessions. The writer pointed out that we all have to make our way in this art. No one starts off as a great player out of the womb. There is a learning process and the person you mock or make fun of today may be tomorrows Charlie Parker.
Heading out to the jams is a very important part of that learning process. Instead of making fun of the younger players, what I have seen is an unconditional acceptance. The older “cats” welcome the younger players with open arms.
In my life experience, jazz musicians have been the warmest, friendliest, most welcoming people in the world (more so than any church I’ve ever been to). When you attend the jam sessions, it no longer matters what your politics are, or your world view, or your religious views, or your race, or ethnicity, you are still one of the “cats”. You are not only accepted for who you are, but encouraged to be yourself and find your own voice.
I have heard many arguments about what makes a certain kind of music jazz, and none of it holds true. Not in my opinion. Jazz as a musical art form is whatever the musicians bring to the conversation. I believe the music is influenced by the musicians. The more honest and sincere the musician is, the more people will connect to that music! Jazz is one of the only musical art forms that not only allows but encourages this sort of musical honesty. People from all walks of life have the freedom to express themselves as jazz musicians and it will still be jazz. In fact, the more different the better.
When It’s NOT Jazz…
It’s not my place to point fingers at which musicians or which recordings are going against this jazz philosophy. However, it is important to point out that there are commercial entities that wish to manipulate the music in a way that generates massive amounts of income. This, in and of itself, does not make their musical output less honest or sincere. But there is a push in that context for insincerity – for the sake of profits. And once a musician crosses that line, for whatever reason, it is no longer really jazz.
Not in my opinion. It may sound like jazz. It may have all of the technical elements of jazz. But the musician will know, deep down in his soul, that he is being dishonest to gain popularity or to make money. This goes against the jazz tradition. Remember, jazz welcomes all musicians with open arms. There is no real need for musical dishonesty. It is when we realize we have been lied to (figuratively speaking) that we no longer accept that musician’s performances as being “in the spirit of jazz.”
Parallels With Christianity
In that sense, there are a lot of similarities between jazz and Christianity. Jesus died for everyone. The gift of grace through salvation has already been given. But if you try to lie, cheat and steal your way into heaven, it’s not going to go well for you. What could have been yours, as a free gift from God, you will have squandered by thinking that it was yours to take with any means you deem necessary.
That’s how some people approach jazz, and it’s not very jazzy. You are not a true jazz player if your intention is to sound just like Clifford Brown, John Coltrane or any other musician for that matter. The true jazz philosophy is that you find your own voice and learn how to use it fearlessly.
I had the opportunity to perform and hang out with a relatively famous “smooth jazz” musician who told me he had been in a slump for a few years. He told me how much he had come to despise playing the smooth, overly commercial, watered down music some people call jazz. The fact that he wasn’t getting any calls to perform and record music that was a more honest personal expression was giving him a very heavy heart.
I don’t blame people for making a living. And in fact, I am a FIRM believer in things like being obedient (to your record label – if you have a contract), and supporting your family (by making recordings that make money). I am in no way suggesting that these are bad people or that the music industry is evil or anything juvenile like that. But when we look at the question, “What is jazz?” it is necessary to look at those commercial influences as part of the equation.
Musical Manifestations of Honesty
In the end, REAL JAZZ has nothing to do with how well you play your horn. It has nothing to do with how many gigs you have. It has nothing to do with how many tunes, or licks scales you can play. You are a true jazzer when what you play in your jazz is true to who you are as a person.
That’s what jazz has come to mean to me. A musical art form that welcomes everyone as they are is going to have as many different sounds as there are people. You and I are different people. Musical manifestations of our honesty is going to lead us in two different directions. And the beauty of jazz is that we can take those two directions and interweave them into one collectively honest sound.
That’s why people have struggled for so long to create a definition for jazz. What jazz is, in any given room on any given day, is going to be different from what we call jazz in another room, somewhere else on the planet, on that very same day.
Now you know what jazz is to me. What does it mean to you? What is jazz in your world? How has it affected your life?