From the very beginning of jazz’s history, a premium has always been placed on musicians who create their own sound — one that is highly personal and instantly recognizable. Whereas classical musicians will learn the “correct” and “incorrect” ways to play their instruments, for the jazz musician, there is no “proper” way to make a sound. Though some jazz musicians study their instruments in conservatories, many also learn simply by picking up an instrument and figuring out how to make a sound they like, whether or not it has anything to do with “acceptable” technique. The great New Orleans clarinetist and soprano saxophonist Sidney Bechet, for example, developed a totally idiosyncratic technique on his instrument — one that would make a classical musician cringe — simply by experimentation, but he had an enormous, rich, and passionate sound that was impossible to duplicate.
Many jazz musicians start their careers by copying another jazz musician outright (legions of saxophonists, for example, have learned Charlie Parker solos by heart) but at some point they must learn to develop their own voice or the music becomes stale. In fact, one of the most damning criticisms a jazz musician can levy at another is to say “he or she is just a Charlie Parker imitator.” At the same time, all great jazz musicians are also good listeners, who take pleasure in what the fellow members of their group are trying to “say” with their instruments, and will often directly respond to ideas that are tossed out as part of an improvisation. In addition, all members of a jazz group pay close attention to how they sound as a group; brilliant solos are only as good as the context in which they are heard. Therefore, in any jazz performance there is always an interesting tension between attempts to sound like a true individual, as well to be a member of the “collective.”
A few more specific features of the jazz tradition can be outlined, and many are related to the dualities discussed above.
- Improvisation. Improvisation of some type is nearly always part of a jazz performance. Even if musicians are reading notes on a page, they can “improvise” through the way they attack or color a note, or the rhythmic impulse they bring to the music. In early jazz musicians often improvised by creating variations on a given melody. As the tradition developed, it became more common to use a chord progression as the basis for entirely new melodies. In more recent jazz traditions, even chords are abandoned and musicians will simply improvise on a scale, a motive, or even just a tonal center. No matter how they improvise, however, most musicians have a set of phrases (called “licks”) that lie easily under their fingers and can be used and reused in a variety of contexts. Charlie Parker, for example, had many signature “licks” that make his style instantly recognizable. In other words, jazz musicians do often play musical lines they have played before, but where they place these lines, and how they play them, is part of the art of improvisation.
- Instrumentation. Certain instruments have become strongly associated with the jazz tradition, mainly because of their tone color and ability to fit into an ensemble or carry a chord structure. And, from its earliest history, there has been a common division of some of the instruments into a subsection known as the “rhythm section” that maintains the rhythmic drive and reiterates the chord progression for other improvising musicians. Ensembles have continued to evolve, however, due to improvements in microphones and recording technology.
- The blues. Nearly all jazz has some connection, even if subtle, with the African American blues tradition, in performance technique, common forms used, and overall musical “feel.” In fact, there are those who would claim that when the music loses its connection to the blues, it ceases to be jazz. (This is the claim often used to prove that Kenny G. is not a jazz musician, even though he plays an instrument associated with jazz — the soprano saxophone — and improvises. His references to blues traditions, when they exist at all, are so stylized that they lack any strong connections to the genuine article.)
- Performance technique. Largely out of the blues tradition comes the jazz player’s proclivity for creating “new” sounds on his or her instrument, and using that instrument in an idiosyncratic way. Often these techniques mirror the use of the voice in various African American traditions; we know, for example, that the bending of pitches and growling or rasping sound often used by jazz musicians mirror black vocal traditions such as the blues, as well as both speech and singing in black church music. Listen to Louis Armstrong as both a vocalist and a trumpeter, and you will note there is little difference between the two. In addition, many people have likened the high pitches (usually out of the normal sound range of an instrument) associated with certain players such as saxophonist John Coltrane to “screams,” even though they may reflect excitement or intensity on the part of the performer, rather than anguish. Such “screams” or “squeaks” are something to be carefully avoided in Western classical music, but many jazz musicians incorporate them into their improvisations intentionally.
- Rhythm. Most jazz performances employ a subtle rhythmic sense that is often called “swing” or “swing feeling” (note this is a different meaning of the term than that used below to describe a style and era of jazz). This “swing feeling” is virtually impossible to define in words (one musician once noted:“if you gotta ask what swing is, you’ll never know”) but it is very different than the subtle pulse of most Western art music, the driving beat of popular music, or the dense polyrhythmic effect of many African traditions. Think of “swing” as a special kind of groove that is unique to jazz; it creates the subtle forward thrust of the music and often is what makes you tap your foot. Especially in the 1930s and 1940s, it was the “swing feeling” mastered by groups such as those led by Count Basie and Benny Goodman that made audiences leave their seats for the dance floor.