If you ask most people about jazz music, they will tell you it’s this complex type of music that is quite removed from the usual. Before you dismiss it for an “out-of-bounds” area of music for you, this post will help you appreciate this unusual style of music.

What is it?

One of the first things you may want to understand is how to define jazz music. The following is what the dictionary states:

According to the Concise Oxford English Dictionary (Revised Edition 2006) jazz is “a type of music of Black American origin characterised by improvisation, syncopation, and a regular rhythm, and typically played on brass and woodwind instruments” and the origin of the word itself is given as “early 20th Century: of unknown origin.” Via Spinditty

vintage jazz label
Image Courtesy of Pixabay

The definition, however, has its own set of challenges since it is quite difficult to explain the diversity and richness found in jazz within a simple statement or two. Another definition provided through experiencing the music itself is given below:

Whitney Balliett’s “Sound of Surprise” (1961), which he elaborated on to describe jazz as “a highly personal, lightweight form – like poetry, it is an art of surprise – that, shaken down, amounts to the blues, some unique vocal and instrumental sounds, and the limited, elusive genius of improvisation (some of it in the set forms of jazz composition).” Via Spinditty

Its Characteristics

However, these definitions may not necessarily give a tangible explanation of jazz music, they are only an attempt to explain the intricacies of this genre. Nevertheless, jazz has characteristics of music that are common to other genres of music too. It has the elements of melody, rhythm, and harmony. The skill with which these aspects are put together is what makes it different.

The unique elements of jazz, about which there is always a great deal of debate among musicians and critics alike, are “swing” and “improvisation.”…Syncopation happens in many other musical genres, as does a regular beat. Even improvisation can be found in European classical music and, in fact, in most ethnic musics as well. Via Spinditty

How It’s Done

Jazz sounds quite complex to anyone who listens – complex yet very rich. If you are wondering why this is so, the following explanation will help you wrap your mind around it:

band performing on the streets
Image Courtesy of Flickr

Great jazz musicians sound as though they’re implementing highly complex and difficult concepts that mere mortals could never hope to access, but in reality, professionals think simpler than you’d ever imagine. Via Jazz Advice

Simple? You wonder. That’s the last thing you would expect to hear when you talk about jazz. The following example gives a practical explanation:

When you think Michael Brecker, you probably don’t think simple. He plays so fast. So effortless. So perfect. But, when you closely study what he’s playing and take away the lightening speed that he’s known for, you’ll see many simple concepts you’re familiar with. Via Jazz Advice

Music Theory

Basically, if you want to understand jazz, you need to be familiar with music theory. This will give you a guideline for what happens when jazz musicians do their thing. It is basically a combination of the simple concepts found in basic music theory, as explained below:

Complex concepts are not usually complex. They’re typically one of three things:

A simple concept modified in a small way

A simple concept applied to a different context from which it originated

A simple concept combined with another simple concept Via Jazz Advice

The post continues to explain how Michael Brecker applies these elements to his music. You can learn a lot from his application of music theory.

jazz show in progress
Image Courtesy of Flickr

How Jazz Knowledge Can Improve Your Musical Skills

Before you nod your head in passive appreciation of jazz, there is a lot that this knowledge can add to your music:

How will jazz make me a master of my instrument?

Here comes that word again: improvisation!

When you sit down to play from sheet music, everything is printed there for you: the note combinations, scales, articulations, inflections, etc. Sheet music is a map though a song.

When you improvise, you have no map– except for your own skills, tastes, and choices.

Hence, learning to improvise requires you to become more physically and mentally engaged with your instrument. Naturally, your understanding of elements like theory, rhythm, and idiomatic inflection deepens. Via Piano Power

Final thoughts

Do you want to become a master of your instrument? Then you may want to pay attention to jazz and learn to apply these concepts to your playing of the instrument you love, whichever it is. It could just be the missing ingredient that will transform you from an amateur musician to one of the best composers around. Aren’t you excited? Go try it out today!

Featured Image: Image Credit

Jazz Theory with Barry Harris, Part One

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