THE ESSENCE OF JAZZ
A composer’s view
Jazz has been an influence on my work as a composer for about 30 years. I have frequently used both the rhythms and harmonies of jazz, but without the improvisation- a kind of “semi-jazz”, similar to that found in those fully notated pieces in the examination syllabuses of the Associated Board, and represented by the work of Christopher Norton in his Microjazz collections. And, along with many other classically oriented musicians, I admire the jazz musician’s improvisational skills- that ability to compose on the spur of the moment, and often with much inspiration and expertise.
In this brief survey I do not want to go much into the thorny problems of the origins of jazz, or of whether it is European or African or both. Those questions have been exhaustively dealt with by scores of earlier commentators, without definite unassailable answers ever being produced.
There seem to be as many views on this subject as there are jazz experts ready to expound on them. All that I will say is that to me, jazz does not sound either European or African, but seems to be American in its sonorities, its harmonic language, and its treatment of rhythm. In the same way that America assimilated cultural influences from both Europe and elsewhere to produce a distinctive style in its architecture, its language and its art, so it blended disparate musical elements to produce a quintessentially American music- i.e. what we now call Jazz.
Why is some music jazzy?
The music that jazz most closely resembles is European classical music. They both share the same harmonies, the same instruments, the same notation (note values, the five line staff etc.) and the same forms, the most widely used form in jazz resembling what classical musicians call “ternary”-or in jazz terms, the 32 bar song form with a “middle eight”, da capo and coda. The practice in jazz of improvising solos over a repeating chord progression is paralleled by the variation form in classical music- in which it is most often the harmonic structure that is retained as the basis for variation of melody and rhythm. Also, in common with classical music, jazz has developed primarily as music to be listened to rather than as a background to other things- despite some use of jazz as dance music in the swing era and later. But jazz does not sound like classical music- why?
As Pleasants pointed out as long ago as 1962, there can be jazz without the jazz or blues scale, without improvisation and, I would add, without that distinctive jazz harmony of added note chords, but not without the one indispensable feature of all jazz- its treatment of pulse and rhythm. Now, the rhythmic essence of jazz is that the pulse or “beat” is not just implied as in much European classical music, but made explicit and usually kept mechanically steady by the “rhythm section” of a jazz ensemble, (or by the soloist, if there is just one performer), for the duration of a piece. Against this unvarying pulse the soloist(s) must, if the spirit of jazz is to be preserved, produce syncopated rhythms of lesser or greater complexity depending on their skill and the mood of the piece. Without a steady beat and without some syncopation there can be no jazz.
Concerning the oft- disputed extent of the African influence on jazz, two things may be said: Firstly, if we examine genuine African rhythms, as for example in the Djole drumming of West Africa, we hear complex polyrhythm built up over a steady pulse, but we may note that this seldom occurs in jazz, except in improvised “breaks” for the drums. In a jazz ensemble the rhythm section is more concerned with “marking” the beat than with producing complex rhythmic patterns- although there will inevitably be some syncopation in this as in any of the strands that make up the jazz sound. Secondly, syncopation- sometimes thought of as an African characteristic of rhythmic organisation- is not peculiar to jazz alone: there are many examples from the classical repertoire, and some composers- Beethoven for instance- made use of it as a distinctive feature of their personal styles. Of the syncopations found in jazz, we may note a few basic types which can be summarized as:
 Pleasants, H. Death of a Music, 1962, Gollancz, London