Things that aren’t jazz

September 29, 2012

Photo, frawemedia

Okay, first of all: what I’m talking about here is the “mainstream” jazz tradition, insofar as such a thing exists (you can make a good argument that it doesn’t, really). “Jazz” is a wide net to cast. To flip it around, if I were going to list things that aren’t “classical” music, I might say “use of the electric bass guitar” or even “microtonality.” Are those things really mutually exclusive with classical music? No. But they are not part of the tradition of the Viennese masters, not what your local community orchestra would play, not what most people think of when they think of classical music.

One misconception that many classical musicians seem to have about jazz is that since it has strong improvisatory elements, it must be very free and unstructured. I think the opposite is true: improvisation, at least in the mainstream-bebop/hard-bop-influenced style, requires fairly strict structural underpinnings. None of the following works well when someone is trying to improvise:

  • Free forms. Form in jazz is much stricter than in classical music. Most common jazz tunes have one of two forms. The first is precisely 32 bars in 4/4 time, with four eight-bar sections: AABA. The second is precisely twelve 4/4 bars, a “blues” form. Anything that doesn’t fit exactly into one of these categories is most likely very closely related to one of them.
  • Free harmony. Bebop and hard-bop jazz are extremely tonal. While improvisers may play pitches that fall “outside” the chords, it is almost always within a tonal framework: the notes function as upper extensions of the chords, or at least they are used in a sort of polychordal way that has reference to the underlying harmony and will ultimately resolve back to it. The idea that “there are no wrong notes” isn’t exactly true; notes can definitely sound very wrong if they aren’t properly contextualized with regard to the harmony.
  • Free or changing meter. Jazz makes frequent use of polymeter and syncopation, which can give the impression of shifting meter, but most jazz doesn’t actually change meters, especially in improvisatory sections. The polyrhythms and syncopations work because they are overlaid on an unchanging metric pulse, and resolve to it.
  • Rubato. Tempi also tend to quite strict in jazz playing. A musician might “lay back” in the beat or stretch a rhythm, but the underlying pulse doesn’t change. (In my experience, jazz players generally have much steadier internal metronomes than classical musicians.)
The freedom that improvisers do have is to create melodies over these fairly rigid structures. The rigidity gives the improviser a predictable framework to work with (or perhaps against). At a more detailed level, there are certain melodic characteristics that classical musicians tend to associate with jazz, that I don’t hear when I listen to jazz or play with fine jazz musicians:
  • Extensive triplet-based rhythms, and the dreaded “triplet feel.” The idea that eighth-note lines should be “tripletized,” played with a downbeat:upbeat ratio of 2:1, seems to exist ubiquitously but exclusively among the jazz-uninitiated. Triplety rhythms don’t sound like jazz to those who know jazz. And when classically-trained composers attempt to incorporate jazz style into their music without really absorbing any jazz, they seem often to rely on lots of eighth-note triplets, to the extent that the music takes on a 12/8 feel. I don’t hear that sound very much in real, swinging jazz.
  • Staccato. Jazz style uses lots of squared-off note shapes, especially among the “horns” (in jazz, that’s any instrument you blow into). Short notes often end abruptly, without any taper, but they are almost never really short. Note lengths are vitally important to jazz style as a means of emphasis, and misuse of staccato often de-emphasizes the most important notes in a phrase. Phrases may be punctuated with silence, and may be quite brief, but movement from one note to another is almost always legato. Along the same lines: jazz bass players don’t play pizzicato in the same way that classical bassists do: their walking quarter-note lines feature fat, sustained notes, not fluffy, bouncy, separated ones.
  • Long slurs. Although the style is essentially legato, in “horn” playing the articulation is predominantly tongued, not slurred. Even with published jazz sheet music, jazz musicians routinely ignore long slurs or treat them as vague phrase markings. But when classical composers mistakenly write long slurs into passages that are intended to sound like jazz, classically-trained musicians will slavishly observe them, to the detriment of the intended style. The subtleties of which notes to tongue and which notes to slur are beyond the scope of this article, and something of an individual creative signature for many jazz musicians, but suffice it to say that slurs of three or more notes should be regarded with suspicion. (Trumpet player Clifford Brown is an oft-cited example of a jazz giant who consistently tongued virtually every note.)

If you are a classical composer or instrumentalist and want to incorporate genuine elements of jazz style into your music, please understand that there are no shortcuts, and jazz style isn’t something you can learn from a book (or a blog post, for that matter). But there are some excellent resources available to you:

  • Listen. Beef up your listening library with some real jazz, and get out to hear live jazz in your community. Expect to absorb the style over the course of a lifetime.
  • Ask. Most reasonably-sized American cities have highly skilled and highly underemployed jazz musicians. Get some lessons in style, in chord voicings, in improvisation. Ask lots of questions. Or buy a musician lunch and ask him or her to review your latest work and give you an honest evaluation of the jazz elements you have tried to include. Their responses may surprise you, for better or for worse.
  • Play. Find an opportunity to get involved in jazz, especially in an educational situation. Practice hard and get feedback.


  1. Syd Polk

    I like this article a lot. When I was in school, I took both jazz and classical lessons. Both had much to offer, but in general, studying jazz taught me to be a better player, technically and harmonically. Classical taught me phrasing, lyricism and balance with others.


  2. Geoff Allen

    Good stuff!

    On the structure thing, the analogy I like is of a conversation. We can get together and have a conversation about the weather because we have a common language, a set topic, and all have at least some knowledge about the subject. The conversation will be “improvised” in that it was not pre-planned, but it’s hardly random.

    Same thing when a group of jazz musicians get together and decide to play, say, “Autumn Leaves”. Non-musicians, and perhaps even musicians unfamiliar with jazz are often amazed that this can be done with no prior rehearsal. They can do that because there’s a common language (jazz), a set topic (the song, “Autumn Leaves”) and knowledge about the subject (i.e. they all know the song and its harmonic structure).

    The rendition of “Autumn Leaves” might be uptempo swing, a ballad, or even something out-of-the-ordinary, like a Latin rhythm. Just like the conversation about the weather might be academic, complaining about the recent lack of rain, or griping about the accuracy of the local weather man on TV.


  3. Geoff Allen

    And yes, PLEASE do not play a triplet rhythm (or even a dotted eighth/sixteenth rhythm) and call that “swinging”. It’s definitely a feel. One you get from listening, and one you can not fake.


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