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The Opening Session

Jazzed Magazine • August/September 2019Lessons Learned • August 28, 2019

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At the opening session of my one-semester, chronological survey of jazz history at NYC’s Pace University, before I get into a definition of jazz, I first define the word “music” as, “rhythmically organized sounds and silences for aesthetic purposes.” I should point out that those last three words – “for aesthetic purposes” – are a crucial element of the definition, because it makes the important distinction between actual music and, say, the warning sounds of a fire engine or ambulance proceeding north on 8th Avenue – an all too common occurrence, I might add, as I often vainly seek a quiet environment in my 10th floor midtown Manhattan front-facing office/apartment.

In Mark Gridley’s outstanding jazz textbook, Jazz Styles (Pearson), he poses the question, “What is jazz?” and then goes on to put forth several possible definitions… definitions that provide the basis of a substantial portion of my course’s opening lecture, which I will discuss later in this article.

Indispensable Jazz Elements

Gridley first maintains that for music to be considered jazz it must contain two indispensable musical elements:

Jazz swing feeling, which he defines as:

  • Music that keeps a steady beat and is played with a constant tempo;
  • Music that is performed with spirit and rhythmic lilt;
  • Music that is played with a cohesive group sound;

Music that contains many syncopations (which I define to my class as the de-emphasis of strong beats or strong parts of beats, and the emphasis instead of weak beats or weak parts of beats (1 2 3 4 and 1 & 2 & 3 & 4 &).

Improvisation, which I define to the class as the spontaneous creation of variations on a musical theme and/or chord structure while playing (or singing), with the goal being to always create new variations; unlike composed/notated/published music which is fixed and immutable.

Jazz Performance Procedure

By way of demonstrating to the class the usual jazz performance format of:

A song’s melody and chords, followed by Improvised variation(s), followed by the song’s melody and chords again, I play for the class a roughly three-minute cut by Tony Bennett and Bill Evans of “Young and Foolish” from their 1975 studio album. On this particular Bennett/Evans recording, after a brief piano introduction, followed by a sung and played full chorus, Evans plays a solo improvised variation of the tune’s first half, before Bennett returns and concludes the cut with the tune’s second half.

Improvisation: A Definition

In early 1991, I was asked by the music magazine Piano Guild Notes (a division of the American College of Musicians in Austin, Texas) to define for them the term “improvisation,” because they intended henceforth to newly include an area in their annual student competitions, which they sponsored, that encompassed various aspects of jazz performance. I responded with the following:

“In a general sense, ‘improvise’ means to make up as one goes along, to invent something spontaneously.”

“In a narrower sense, however – as it applies to the world of jazz and popular music – to improvise means to spontaneously play variations of a song based upon that song’s melody and chord structure. The reason why jazz improvisers do not ordinarily write down their improvisations on music manuscript paper is that these musicians are expected to create a completely new set of variations with each performance. Composers, by contrast, work their music out carefully in advance, and write their music down for posterity so that it will always be played note for note exactly the same each time (but possibly with slightly varied interpretations of the nuances of the composition by different performers.)”

I go on to say: “Another type of improvisatory skill involves one’s being able to spontaneously provide a fully realized piano part from a musical sketch, called a lead sheet, consisting of melody and chord symbols alone – in much the same manner as classical keyboardists do when reading  Baroque figured-bass scores. Lead sheets are found in fakebooks – so-called because ‘fake’ is a jazz synonym for ‘improvise.’ A fakebook, then, is a book of songs in sketch form which serve as frameworks for improvisation. Part of the improvisatory challenge of playing from a fakebook is the acquired skill of playing chords with interesting voicings and desirable voice-leading, features not ordinarily provided by the lead sheet.”

A New York Times Critics’ Take on Attempts at Definitions of Jazz

Peter Watrous, former jazz critic for the New York Times, in an article on October 10, 1993 titled “Yes, It’s Improvised, But Is It Really Jazz?” states there are those who hold, “an inclusive sense of the term – gladly including music that bears a relationship to jazz – and those who take a more exclusionary view, wanting jazz to uphold what are seen as verities, including swing historicism and the blues sensibility… It seems only fair that a line be drawn between music that is related to or derived from jazz and jazz itself. It is a distinction that isn’t accepted in jazz culture at large, partly because of the near impossibility of defining what is and what isn’t jazz.” But Watrous goes on to say that, “a blues sensibility and swing are two of America’s great contributions to 20th-century music.”

Gridley’s Several Possible Definitions of Jazz

Jazz Styles author Gridley provides four different possible definitions of jazz, but some are flawed, as you will see.

Jazz is: Music or musicians associated with the jazz tradition, even if no improvisation is present.

To illustrate this point, I play several musical examples for the class:

Scott Joplin’s recording of his “Maple Leaf Rag,” followed by Jelly Roll Morton’s version of this piece, on Volume 1 of the Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz, in order to highlight the distinction between the original Joplin composed version and an improvised Morton version of the same work;

I play George Gershwin’s “2nd Prelude for Piano.” (This piano performance also serves to establish my bona fides as someone who can actually do, as well as talk about, the subject.)

A 4-minute cut from a recording of Morton Gould’s Interplay, 3rd movement, “Blues.”

Other possible musical examples of jazzy composed works that do not contain elements of improvisation might include George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” and “Piano Concerto” in F.

Music played with jazz swing feeling.

To illustrate, here I play two versions of “You Are My Sunshine,” an unjazzy version that I perform legato and unsyncopated… followed by a jazzy version that I perform with jazz swing feeling, by adding various accents, anticipations, staccatos, silences, and dynamics from note to note rather than long crescendos or diminuendos found in classical music.

Improvised music – but this overlooks certain kinds of classical music (such as figured bass and aleatoric music), Indian raga music, rock music, et cetera.

Music that is both improvised and swings in the jazz sense (Gridley’s favorite definition), discussed earlier.

Here, playing devil’s advocate, I play a recording of Cecil Taylor’s free-jazz Enter Evening, and ask the class to state whether they think this is or isn’t jazz. After they have offered their comments, I point out that while this music lacks a steady beat and swing feeling in the traditional sense, it does contain improvisation, cohesive group playing, spirit of a sort, and the musicians themselves are firmly associated with the jazz tradition. Moreover, while the oboe on this recording is not a traditional jazz instrument, the bass, piano, trumpet and saxophone are.


After a 15 minute break at this point, upon the return of the class I spend a few minutes discussing the course syllabus and its various requirements, including student attendance at two live jazz performances and the requirement that a Reaction Paper be written on each.

Another thing I do here, in order to make the class more interactive, is to ask each student to talk about any previous musical experience the student might have had. Did the student ever play a musical instrument? If so, did he or she continue with it, or stop at some point? Why?

Additional Points

Additional points I emphasize to the class in this initial overview, are the following:

Jazz is the result of the gradual blending of three different cultures: African, European and American.

This blending first occurred in turn-of-the-century New Orleans, Louisiana, a port city where people were brought as slaves.

Jazz musicians travelled from New Orleans to Chicago, then to New York City where jazz was first recorded in 1917. Recordings had a great impact on jazz – in fact the development of the entertainment industry was crucial to the development of jazz. Had jazz stayed in New Orleans and not been recorded, American music would probably sound vastly different today, So emphasis must be placed on technology (the innovation of recording), because the fact that jazz eventually reached New York City and was recorded marked the real beginning of jazz, in the view of many.

More than half of all jazz musicians and nearly all of its most influential innovators have been black.

Musical Textures

By way of having my students develop appropriate vocabulary to comprehend and describe certain musical phenomena, and because the collective improvisation of early combo jazz produced a polyphonic musical texture, I now teach the three basic musical textures to my students to conclude this opening session: monophonic (one melody no accompaniment), polyphonic (two or more melodies simultaneously), homophonic (one melody with accompaniment). The musical examples I play for my class in order to illustrate these textures include:

  • Monophonic – A recording of Gregorian plainchant
  • Polyphonic – A recording of the opening of the J.S. Bach “French Suite in D minor,” or any Bach fugue; plus Joe King Oliver’s “Dippermouth Blues” (SCCJ, Vol. 1)
  • Homophonic – On the piano I play the melody of “Happy Birthday” (or any other familiar song) with my right hand, as my left plays the accompaniment chords.

Two Effective Ways to Listen to Jazz

Finally, I point out that jazz is best listened to on two different levels, or – by some experienced listeners – on both levels simultaneously:

First, if one is familiar with the tune that serves as the framework for improvisation, one may silently imagine the underlying tune while at the same time actively listen to the improvisations. Occasionally an improviser may make brief melodic references to the original tune, which can be decidedly helpful in one’s attempting to follow the goings on. Being aware of the original melody, possibly by silently humming it during the improvisation and trying to discern its relationship to and compatibility with the improvisation, is a proven satisfying way to listen to jazz.

Another effective way to listen to jazz is to hear the improvisation as a creative melodic line in itself, without reference to an underlying original song. In effect, the improviser is spontaneously composing an entirely new song, which ideally might be as interesting or compelling in its own right as the original song on which the improvisation is based.

I personally feel that as the budding jazz fan develops greater exposure to jazz and experience as a jazz listener, he or she is likely to come to view the second method, above, as the more sophisticated and possibly ultimately satisfying approach to hearing jazz, but that is certainly open to debate.

Lee Evans, Ed.D., is a professor of music at NYC’s Pace University. His most recent solo piano books are Jazz Piano Scales and Exercises (Hal Leonard) and Lee Evans Arranges Famous Latin Hits, 2nd Edition (Hal Leonard); also Starter Classics (Stipes Publishing), a collection of 32 essential solo piano early intermediate/intermediate level classical repertoire compiled and edited by Dr. Evans; the popular solo piano books Classics With a Touch of Jazz and Opera With a Touch of Jazz; and the acclaimed foundation workbook Crash Course in Chords (all published by Hal Leonard.)

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