The essence of jazz is improvisation, playing variations on a melody, substituting extra notes and chords. Every musical piece has a harmonic structure; that is, a sequence of chords that fit together, sound good. Almost all musical pieces have a beginning and an end. They may include one or more 7-note standard scales such as C major, E minor, etc. A folk or blues tune will often have only 3 chords, one scale and last 12 to 24 measures. This gives a very simple feel and is easy for people to learn. On the other end of the complexity spectrum is classical music which will be lengthy, cycle through many scales and chords, change melodies, and require some education to appreciate.
Jazz is a term used loosely and rightly so because to create a box called “jazz” would violate the main principle of improvisation and experimentation. Anyone can improvise just as anyone can finger-paint. The best classical composers can improvise on the spot, but using refined rules. The difference between musical finger-painting and jazz is found in the skill and talent of the musician. So the jazz musician must be familiar with all the chords, all the scales, and a repertoire of tunes.
So if we take a tune like “Happy Birthday” and jazz it up, we would add a number of substitute chords or passing chords to the original three chords. Some substitute chords may suggest a change in melody to fit that new chord. Then we would diverge from the original melody at will as long as we play notes that match the correct chord. Each scale sounds right with certain chords and wrong with others. So when we sit down to play “Happy Birthday”, we and others in the band will know the chord sequence and basic melody (or have it written down). If it’s a band, someone will start with the standard melody, other members will support by keeping their notes within the proper scale and chord. The soloist or “front man” will play a number of improvised cycles of the tune, returning to the beginning of the tune each time. The “rhythm section” is usually a bass, drums and piano or guitar, and their job is to maintain the tempo and chord sequence so the band will not get lost. While improvising it’s possible to get off track and not know where in the tune you are. This is embarrassing. Each tune usually ends by returning to the beginning or “head” to play the standard melody.
You can jazz anything up using these techniques. Even though Mozart, Bach and Beethoven were great improvisers and jazz pianists, there were no recordings. So they would write it down and now we play it as written and call it classical music. Today’s jazz genre has grown out of blues, show tunes and dance band. These “jazz standards” are tunes from this tradition, many borrowed from these previous styles, others composed by a jazz master. Jazz standards are 12 to 32 measures long and always repeat a number of times. It can be very practical to repeat many times; thus one needs to learn fewer tunes for a recording or concert. However, the more repetition, the greater the need for real creativity.
The basic three person combo will have written down or memorized a sequence of chords and a melody for many tunes. An experienced group will have hundreds of tunes memorized in this fashion and will have the skill to play the tunes in any key. A combo or band that has more than 2 or 3 front men (soloists) will need someone to arrange the tune, so the piece becomes more orchestral and more fixed, yet allowing passages for improvisation. The big dance bands started this tradition of allowing a skilled soloist to “ad lib.”
Jazz and classical music require about the same musicianship. Both use complex chord sequences and melodies, changing scales, including difficult passages. By tradition, jazz differs in that tunes are shorter, there is a more rhythmic bass and drum, more unusual rhythms, the melodies tend toward a be-bop, be-bob rhythm rather than a da-da-da found in classical, and many of the tunes are familiar as popular songs. The big difference of course is that a classical piece sounds almost identical no matter who or when it is played because every note is written down.
I find listening to jazz is interesting and entertaining, even enlightening because I pay attention to these elements. It helps to recognize the tune, or it is a catchy tune. There are some melodies which are harder to like but the band wrote them; ergo you have to listen. Then there is that beat and rhythm which can make you want to dance or at least move. The virtuosity of a soloist can be amazing or obnoxious, creative or repetitive. Recognizing the tune or getting familiar as it is played, I begin to anticipate the chord changes during improvisation. Thus the soloist may be off on a tangent but I hear the original melody in my head. This is where many people get lost in that we always want to understand the pattern and the soloist may not give us enough predictability. However the icing on the cake is listening to how each player relates to the others and how each fits in to a total sound, how they “cook”. And usually there are little incidental “riffs” played by supporting members that spice up the piece, if you are watching for them. This is all much easier in concert. Another subtlety found in jazz is “pushing the beat” when notes are played just slightly ahead of the regular beat; this tends to add energy, speed and power to the feel of a piece.
Scale – In western tradition is 7 notes, do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti-do. There are 12 major scales, 12 minor scales and other scales defined by the intervals between each note in the scale.
Chord – The basic chord is 3 notes played together such as do-mi-so, or re-fa-la. Notice the space between each note. More complex chords include 1 to 4 notes added to the original 3.
Measure sometimes called a “bar” – a small unit of music mostly consisting of 3 or 4 beats. A piece will have at least 12 measures. “Happy Birthday” has 8 measures and 3 beats in each measure.
Beat – Each measure is divided into beats. Tunes typically keep to a specific number of beats per measure and the drummer will emphasize these beats. There may be 2,3,4 or more beats per measure. A waltz always has three which gives it a wave-like feel.
Melody – usually the high notes played by one instrument that stand out, like the words of a song.
Rhythm – How individual notes are spaced out in time. It can be very regular or irregular and will influence the feel of a piece. “Happy Birthday” is very regular. “Jack and Jill” is irregular and more jazzy. Soul music introduced a lot of irregular rhythms or “funk”. Reggae music tends to “drag” the beat by playing slightly after the beat.
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