What is Jazz?

Jazz is a musical style driven by emotion, where the written song is treated as a guideline open to interpretation. In jazz, musicians are given free reign to improvise, infusing a song with their own personal style.

To some, jazz may sound chaotic, like a jumble of notes going in every direction. But whether it's a single piano, a trio, a quartet, or even a full big band orchestra, there is a structure beneath the chaos.

In the early 1900s, jazz emerged from city brothels and barrooms, primarily in the redlight district of New Orleans. Considered low-class by the high society of the time, the sounds of early jazz spread across the country through touring vaudeville shows. Musicians in Chicago, New York, and other cities continued to evolve the style.

Being an evolutionary style of music, it is difficult to define jazz. Many sub-genres have been created, such as swing, bebop, and bossa nova. It is easy to imagine jazz as a tree, with the earliest jazz elements as the trunk and the various sub-genres branching out in many directions.

While improvisation is at the heart of all jazz, there are basic elements of structure and instrumentation that persist. Understanding the basic structure of a song and the roles of common jazz instruments can help you better appreciate the music.

Typically, a jazz standard begins with an introduction before moving into the main melody of the song. Next, a bridge leads into a series of extended solos, showcasing some or all of the instruments. When the solos are complete, the melody is usually repeated before the song is ended.

To many, the extended solos are what give jazz its soul. Improvised solos can be similar to the main melody or may stray so far that the song temporarily becomes unrecognizable. No matter the degree of variation, solos are built on the same fundamental chords and structure as the original song.

During each instrument's solo, the rhythm section (typically, piano, bass, and drums) provide accompaniment, called "comping." When comping, rhythm players fill in and complement the solo, but are careful to stay out of its way. Comping shouldn't detract or step on the solo and musicians have to be avoid playing clashing notes.

Bass lines are the heartbeat of jazz. They can be complex or simple, but jazz wouldn't sound like jazz without them. Next time you hear jazz, listen for the underlying bass rhythm. Bass lines are often arpeggiated chords, where each note of a chord is played individually, giving it a "walking" sound. If you were to hear a song without the bass, it would lose much of its emotion and drive.

However you define it, jazz is a complex form of music. Some people are instantly drawn to it, others find it confusing or chaotic. Whatever your initial reaction, remember that there is a wide variety in jazz styles. Some sub-genres of jazz may speak to you while others put you off.

Try listening to several jazz styles to hear their variations. Listen to each instrument, hearing the way they intertwine. Most importantly, listen to the feeling behind the music and hear your own emotional response. That is the true heart of jazz.

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