What Is This Thing Called Jazz?

“Ahhh – those Jazz guys are just makin’ that stuff up!”

Homer Simpson

“It’s easy man; just let it happen!”

I’ve often gotten a variation of this answer when asking accomplished jazz musicians for advice (Tell a story,” and “play what you feel” are a couple of other variations). The frustrated over-thinker in me asks the logical question in return, “just let what happen?” As I’ve gotten closer to my own answer, I’ve realized that their answers simply reflect where they are in their journey; they have progressed (through hard work/study/ experience/magic/whatever) to where they can literally play without thinking. And the simple truth is, they lack the words to actually describe it—because there are no such words (and I would never presume to have the answer myself).

To begin with, there is an important distinction between “playing jazz” and “improvising jazz”; many folks play jazz, but few can improvise it (as in “letting it happen”). The good news? Anybody can link together some jazzy patterns and play something that sounds like improvisation to an unknowing listener (and if it sounds like “jazz,” it is jazz)! I have worked with many very convincing jazz musicians who fit this category; though I know they’re not necessarily “improvising,” the effect still satisfies my discerning taste for jazz. Being years away from letting go myself, I am aiming for “convincing regurgitation” for the time being.

Great jazz musicians have a knack for making it look/sound easy, which for them, it is; they seem to just tap into something deep in their soul and let it fly. In a sense, that is exactly what they are doing! In most cases though (i.e., a “normal” human being with “normal” musical gifts), that spontaneous easiness came only after many years of dedicated, determined practice and study (and the continuing habit of practicing a lot); we don’t see that part. Our blindness to this process serves a jazz musician well; some of them would prefer you to think it’s inimitable magic, not just a matter of hard work!

There is a common myth that jazz musicians don’t bother with the what, because that can get in the way of it. Let me ask this question: If there is no what, then what is it? If they didn’t already know their scales and arpeggios and a whole bunch of patterns based on them (whether they “learned” it from a book or “came by it naturally”), what would they play? Because it sure sounds to me like they’re just playing a bunch of “jazzed-up” scales, arpeggios, and patterns! Anything else would sound like garbage to us; simply put, there would be an awful lot of wrong notes and nonsensical meandering in something not informed by scales/arpeggios/patterns! Music as we know it wouldn’t exist without them—much less improvisation!

“In Jazz, improvisation isn’t a matter of just making any ol’ thing up. Jazz, like any language, has its own grammar and vocabulary. There’s no right or wrong, just some choices that are better than others.”                     

Wynton Marsalis

 I think about the example of Charlie Parker; many consider him to be the “Mozart of jazz.” Most forget though that his first foray into a cutting contest (a competitive jam session) ended with the embarrassment of being kicked off the stage. He then spent the next 3 years practicing 6-8 hours a day before his big breakthrough.

Of course, there are rare savants out there for whom music of any kind is easy, without having to bother with actual work, study, or practice! I caution against using them as role models though; they have a gift that you and I simply don’t have! You will only set yourself up for failure if you compare yourself to them (like me comparing myself to Buddy Wachter for all those years of “wishing instead of fishing”), or especially, if you use their example as an excuse/reason not to work hard yourself (“See, he/she doesn’t study or know how to read music; why should I?”).

Idolize them if you must; that’s your prerogative. Just don’t be discouraged if you just don’t have it, because most of us don’t! And don’t tell me I should “just be like them”; I’m apparently not like them, so some actual constructive advice would be appreciated.

In conclusion, true improvisation is the act of “letting it happen,” so your eventual ideal should be to “just let it happen.” Trying to let it happen when you don’t have it though is a path to frustration; telling any kind of story without an understanding of basic grammar and/or a strong vocabulary is impossible for the majority of us. We have to develop it first! I have identified only one true path to that promised land—that is the path of self-motivated hard work and study. Wishful fantasizing doesn’t cut it here.

1 comment on “What Is This Thing Called Jazz?Add yours →

  1. Ok, this may be somewhat controversial but here goes anyway…

    Charlie Parker: I don’t dig his music, nor his personality…

    And the idea of Charlie Parker being any kind of inspirational figure for jazz improvisation on the plectrum banjo just seems, um, weird and wrong.


    Because the banjo, much like the clarinet, is always going to sound anachronistic in a jazz setting… no matter how technically proficient or imaginitive its player may be.

    Now returning to Charlie Parker: regardless of anything else you might care to say about him or his music, he was never a big fan of anachronism.

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