jazz musicology by Owen Richason

Jazz Musicology

Jazz, perhaps the most complex and ubiquitous of music genres, is a type of music first developed by African-Americans in the first decade of the 1900s. Jazz music has a conspicuous stylistic evolution and enjoys a semi-unambiguous history. The genre developed contemporarily with blues and pop; consequently, these genres parallel and paradoxically coincide in many ways. Since its genesis, jazz has facilitated and permeated into so many genres and their subsequent styles that no single description categorizes all of them accurately. Of course, a few generalizations can be assigned; nevertheless, one must bear in mind that for all of these collaborative genres and sub-styles, exceptions can be cited.

Jazz is considered to have originated in the intermingled musical traditions of American blacks – which consist of immigrated traits surviving from West African music; American black folk music; eighteenth and nineteenth-century European popular and light classical music; and more contemporaneous twentieth-century pop music influenced by black music or composed by black artists.

Louis Armstrong

The principal surviving African traits are free vocal color styles; an instilled custom of improvisation; call-and-response patterns; and rhythmic complexity, found in both the syncopation of individual melodic lines and in the seemingly conflicting rhythms performed by the various ensemble members.

European music forms such as hymns, quadrilles, marches, waltzes, and light theatrical music, and Italian operatic music heavily contributed specific styles and forms to the otherwise circumambulating parameters of jazz music. Furthermore, European music introduced a modicum of theoretical elements, particularly harmony, reciprocally as a lexicon of chords and as a concept related to musical form.

Elements of black-influenced popular music that contributed to jazz include the banjo music of nineteenth-century minstrel shows, the syncopated rhythmic patterns of African- influenced Latin-American music, the barrelhouse piano styles of tavern musicians, and the marches played by black brass bands in the later part of the nineteenth century.

Near the end of the nineteenth century, ragtime emerged, becoming another heavily influential genre. Ragtime was a composed music that combined many elements, including syncopated rhythms (from banjo music and other black sources) and the harmonic contrasts and formal patterns of European marches. In the early 1900s another influential form, the blues, creep into the developing jazz and ragtime genres.

Because of the merging of these various influences into jazz, it is difficult to reconstruct its origins. Moreover, it is challenging to pinpoint when the conglomerate genre became the recognizable contemporary genre of today, since it occurred before the existence of recording.

What is known is that most early jazz was played by solo pianists or in small dance bands. Besides ragtime and marches, the repertoire included all kinds of popular dance music and blues. The bands typically played at picnics, weddings, parades, and funerals.

Dizzy Gillespie

Characteristically, the bands played dirges on the way to funerals and lively marches on the way back (a tradition that survives to this day in New Orleans). Blues and ragtime had arisen independently just a few years before jazz and continued to exist alongside it, influencing the style and forms of jazz and providing important vehicles for jazz improvisation.

Jazz musicians frequently improvise within the conventions of their chosen sub-style. Normally, these improvisations are complemented by repeated chord progression (usually based on a popular song or an original composition). Commonly, jazz instrumentalists emulate traditional black vocal styles, often employing glissandi (sliding movements that smoothly change the pitch), nuances of pitch (comprising blue notes – notes played or sung slightly lower than the Ionic of the major scale), and expressive tonal effects such as growls, wails and scat singing (an ad-libbing vocal of wordless syllables. In the beginning, scat signing was done either in imitation or instead of instrumental solos).

Jazz artists wanting to stand apart from the crowd would seek to define their tone color (an idiosyncratic sense of rhythm and form delivered vis-à-vis a personal technique in execution). Additionally, artists create rhythms characterized by constant syncopation (the practice of placing accents on anomalous beat divisions, particularly on the weaker or up beat). Individuals also place emphasis on their swing (which is defined as a sensation of momentum in which a melody is alternately heard together with, then slightly at variance with, the regular beat).

Because jazz inherently lends itself to heavy improvisation, written scores merely provide structure and therefore, are mostly used as guides. Instruments that are innately found in the rhythm section are piano, upright string-bass, jazz trap set (a drum set that typically contains only a high-hat, snare, kick bass and single cymbal), and an optional guitar, along with any number of wind instruments. Traditional three piece jazz bands feature a piano, upright string- bass and a saxophone. While in Big Band jazz, all of the above instruments are featured in the rhythm section with the wind instruments being traditionally grouped into three sections: saxophones, trombones, and trumpets.

Johnny Coltrane

Though jazz bands can consist of only three to five musicians, the genre is based on the concept that the chord progressions of any song can rhythmically support an infinite number of solo, poly-rhythmic or counter-rhythmic melodies. Because of the extraordinary liberal autonomy that jazz musicians enjoy, they are open to improvise with a multiplicity of melodies that complement the chord progression (which in many cases is continuously repeated as each band member is featured as a soloist, in as many choruses as preferred).

There are two frequently occurring fundamental forms or formal patterns found in the song arrangement in both traditional and modern jazz.

The first pattern is the form A-A-B-A, found in pop-music choruses (which typically consist of 32 measures in common time or 4/4 meter, subdivided into four 8-measure divisions). The introduction consists solely of division A, followed by a largely unaltered repetition of division A. Division B follows, and is considered the bridge, interlude or release and often begins in a new key, which is followed by one last encore of division A.

The second form, the 12-bar blues, is profoundly rooted in traditional black folk music, and is dissimilar to the 32-bar A-A-B-A form, principally because blues songs have a rather uniform chord progression.