What is Jazz? 

What is Jazz?

I just finished an online class last week at Berklee College of Music in Jazz Arranging. One of the questions that the class made me think about is - What is Jazz?

If there are no horns - is it Jazz?
If it is simplistic - can it still be Jazz?
If I use effects on my guitar - can I still be playing Jazz?
Can I love playing Jimi Hendrix songs and still be a Jazz guitarist?
Is Boney James a jazzy instrumentalist or an instrumental jazzist?
If "Stella By Starlight" was a pop tune then why can't I do my Jazz version of "Whip It" by Devo?
What's so weird about arranging "Back In Black" for a Jazz Orchestra?

Here's a real question - can I break tradition and be original in my own way of playing instrumental music without worrying about what anyone thinks about it? I think the answer is yes! The answer is yes because that's the answer to the question "What is Jazz?" Jazz is freedom! The only limitation that Jazz has is that which you put upon it. If you want to sound like John Coltrane then John Coltrane is your limitation. If traditional jazz guitar is your thing then an arch-top guitar with no effects are your limitations.

Is there anything wrong with limitations? Of course not! Clint Eastwood said it best as Dirty Harry "A man's got to know his limitations".

I think the problem is when you impose your own limitations on someone else. If your limitations include the traditional Jazz guitar sound then you shouldn't impose that on me. After all I'm not you & you are not me. I like playing a Telecaster guitar with effects. I have chosen to not be limited be the tradition of Jazz guitarists using only arch-top guitars.

Wes Montgomery & Joe Pass chose to not be limited by the tradition of using a guitar pick. Charlie Christian chose to not be limited by the tradition of playing without amplification. Eddy Lang chose not to be limited by the tradition of playing banjo in the rhythm section of the band and played the guitar instead of the tenor banjo. There were plenty of other musicians that went along with the tradition of their times, but choosing not to follow the tradition is a big part of the history of Jazz, and is quintessential to the development of the music.

So that's the answer to the question -
What is Jazz?
Jazz is freedom!
Freedom of choice.
An American art form because -
Jazz is life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness!
That's what it's all about right there!!!


James Murrell