A personal perspective

Jazz is important. There, I've said it!

Probably more important to you than you realise, and here’s why…

To say that jazz is important is, I must admit, something of a bold statement. But I don’t say it lightly, or for sensationalism.

How after all, can any one musical genre, be of any real importance in the world, compared to the things that really matter?

So permit me to lay out my case.

Firstly I think we need to define what I mean by jazz.

I’ve many times seen and heard people ask for definitions of jazz. And I’ve seen and heard many attempts at giving a definition (many of them very bad).

Here’s one definition I’ve cut and pasted directly from Google;

“a type of music of black American origin which emerged at the beginning of the 20th century, characterized by improvisation, syncopation, and usually a regular or forceful rhythm. Brass and woodwind instruments and piano are particularly associated with jazz, although guitar and occasionally violin are also used; styles include Dixieland, swing, bebop, and free jazz."

For me, the above isn’t an adequate definition. It may be an informative description, but define it? I don’t think so.

Whilst jazz undoubtedly owes its existence and heritage to the phenomenal musicianship and creativity of its black pioneers, I think we need to also recognise the difference between the specific conditions of its origins, and the music itself as a stand-alone art form. Hence we need to be mindful that by recognising its origins we do not DEFINE a genre of music by those origins. It would be like saying; “Oh well you’re bound to be good at jazz because you’re black”, which would kind of negate the talent and sheer hard work that those incredible pioneers had displayed.

I’d prefer to say that if someone is (or was) "good at jazz", its most likely because of their exposure to it, their life’s experiences, including for many of those early innovators the environment and socio-economic difficulties they lived through, their incredible talent, their phenomenal musical ear, their outrageous passion, and the fact that they’ve almost certainly worked like crazy for a long time to get to such incredible levels.

Equally I prefer not to define jazz by the instruments that are most frequently used to perform it. People probably most commonly associate jazz with saxophones. And this is only reinforced by the practice of spelling jazz in logos and signs with a J fashioned to look like a saxophone. But jazz played without a saxophone is every bit as much jazz as it is performed with one - and I write as a saxophonist. Jazz can be played on any instrument.

Common elements of jazz are indeed improvisation and syncopated rhythms, but neither are essential elements. Music can still be jazz without either of these things being present. I’ve also heard jazz defined as music which commonly makes use of the ii-V-I chord progression, or the I-vi-ii-V. Again its true that a huge amount of jazz compositions do make enormous use of these progressions (which are far rarer to find in rock and pop), but they are neither exclusive to jazz, nor essential elements of any jazz composition. In any case, arguably, jazz is far less about composition than it is about performance.

Music which challenges the listener’s ear

Jazz is a very broad church indeed, and I’ve often had people say to me; “I didn’t think I liked jazz until I heard you guys play”. This had nothing to do with our musicianship, good or bad, but was simply because the style of music we were playing was far more accessible, danceable, and sing-a-long-able than anything they’d previously associated with the name jazz.

So I’ll give my personal, and most definitely unofficial, definition of jazz...

I see jazz as music which challenges the listener’s ear. That’s a pretty broad definition and there are definitely some caveats around that. I don’t mean some awful screeching noise that challenges in a way you really wouldn’t want to listen to it (although some might argue you do get a bit of that in some forms of jazz).

I’m talking about challenging the listener’s ear, primarily with sophisticated harmonic extensions and chord progressions, and sophisticated rhythmic structures, and most probably some pretty challenging intervallic melodic or improvisational movement. But the rhythm, harmony, and melody still needs to make sense. It still has to please the ear (though there are exceptions!), although the ear may need to learn to adjust to accommodate and appreciate it, especially if you’ve only been exposed to 4 chord, and mostly triad based pop songs.

Add to this; well crafted, and typically not overly repetitive melodies, with sophisticated intervallic movement, and in the case of songs; clever lyrical constructs making use of vocabulary extended beyond the realm of normal pop and rock, and you end up with a heady buffet of aural stimulation.

For me, simply put, that’s jazz! And although you might argue that some examples of other genres could meet the above criteria, for the purpose of discussing why jazz is important, I think this will suffice.

Children who study music tend to have larger vocabularies and more advanced reading skills than their peers

Okay, so given all of the above, why is jazz so important?

1 Education.

Many studies have shown that music is beneficial in the intellectual development of children. You can Google countless articles on this. The first one I found lists Educational Benefits, Cognitive Benefits, and Social Benefits, in separate sections, with over 70 bullet pointed benefits/reasons in total. The first bullet point reads;

"* Children who study music tend to have larger vocabularies and more advanced reading skills than their peers who do not participate in music lessons (Arete Music Academy. "Statistical benefits of music in education." Arete Music Academy. Accessed July 17, 2014)."

I won’t list all 70+ but please do check them out for yourself at

Teach the brain to recognise more sophisticated musical relationships through exposure, and you end up with a more sophisticated brain

Music is of course very closely related to mathematics. Rhythm is simply about the subdivision of time. The relationship between notes (whether in melodies or harmonies) is just a case of the mathematical relationship between sound frequencies. The brain hears the relationship between the notes, finds them to be sympathetic to one another (i.e. harmonious), and likes that relationship. Teach the brain to recognise more sophisticated musical relationships through exposure, and you end up with a more sophisticated brain!

So how much more beneficial to the intellectual development of children must music be, when that music is jazz? i.e. music, which by definition (albeit my own definition), incorporates more sophisticated melodies, harmonies, rhythmic structures and lyrics than other forms of music.

2. Independent Will.

Okay, that IS a sensationalist heading. But its a point I really wanted to make.

We live in a world where the music industry (by which I mean the major record labels), are systematically and purposefully training us all to believe that their formulaic, factory produced pop is what we should like, and ALL we should like.

Please don’t misunderstand me - I’m not anti-pop. There are pop tunes I love. But the majority of pop music is now truly dreadful. 4 chord, repetitive, cloned versions of the same old “yeah baby yeah” fodder that the record companies can churn out at very little cost.

Dying through omission

The record companies don’t like jazz. They can’t reproduce it cost-effectively. They don’t like music that makes people think, or takes their focus away from what they can produce cheaply. So they don’t allow any space for it.

As a result, an awareness and appreciation of jazz is dying through omission. Simply through lack of exposure to it. We are losing our independent will to choose what we listen to, and to like what we choose.

This has been going on for some time, and I think is accelerating.

Jazz probably should have long since died. The fact that it endures is largely because there will always be a few musicians who are fascinated by performing it. Jazz presents musicians with their most accessible opportunity for self expression in the moment. And thankfully, where there are jazz musicians, there will always be a small audience, with the gift of an ear to appreciate the musicianship, and maybe even all those wonderful aural challenges that come with it. But that means that jazz has no footing in the mainstream. Very little radio exposure. And as such tends to be hidden away as a small venue, live art form, which many people will never get to experience, content instead to feed on the restricted musical diet that the music industry feeds them, blinkered and bemused.

So jazz is important because it stands against the machine, refuses to be compliant, and offers the world an expanded, and in my biased view, heightened, musical choice.

Jazz says; “I dare you”

Here’s another interesting read on why jazz matters, which includes saxophonist Wayne Shorter’s famous response to the question of what jazz means to him when he replied that jazz says; “I dare you”.

As musicians, jazz dares us to be bold, to try it, to have a go, to be adventurous, and to progress.

And for listeners, I would argue, jazz says exactly the same thing!