Characteristics of Jazz: An Introduction

Characteristics of Jazz
Characteristics of Jazz

Jazz in all its various forms has its roots firmly planted in the Blues. From Black American folk music of the early 19th Century came a genre of music that has remained in the public ear for decades. The enduring popularity of Jazz may in some part be attributed to the nature of the music itself. This article is dedicated to highlighting what can be thought of as the key characteristics of this unique genre of music.

Characteristics of Jazz

What separates Jazz from the vast majority of classical pieces is rhythm and use of rhythm. A key distinguishing feature is a rhythmic device called ‘swing’. Swing rhythm calls for performers to change the values of quaver or eight-notes from equal to a ratio closely resembling two-thirds to one-third. (See below)

Swing Rhythm
Swing Rhythm

The notation for swing rhythm is an approximation but as close as it can be without requiring immensely complex and cumbersome sub-divisions of note values. The result of the swing is a sense of forwarding motion and rhythmic drive that propels jazz music forward in a way that was unique in the early days of jazz. Swing itself became a whole sub-genre of jazz in the 1920s and ’30s with clarinetist Benny Goodman adopting the nickname ‘The King Of Swing’.

Swing In combination with ‘syncopation’ brings a compelling edge to jazz. When music is described as syncopated, it means that the emphasis in a given bar of music is placed on  ‘weaker’ beats of the bar as opposed to ‘strong’ beats of the bar. The stong beats are considered to be (in a 4/4 bar for example), 1 & 3. In jazz, you often find that the emphasis is placed on the second half of the second or fourth beat. This compliments the swing feel perfect and is a main characteristic of the genre.

When these two features of jazz are then fused with jazz harmony you begin to enter a world of musical possibility that offers huge creative possibilities. Jazz like classical music can be both tonal and atonal, although the vast majority of jazz is tonally based even though at times it can sound as if it is not. This is in part due to the type of harmony that jazz composers use in their work.

Instead of chords that are common in the music of classical composers such as Beethoven, Mozart or Handel jazz composers make prolific use of ‘extended’ or ‘altered chords’. What is meant by extended chords is usually the addition of notes that are not present in a standard major or minor chord? This could take the form of an additional 7th, 9th, 11th or 13th note to an existing chord. It can also mean creating chords from alternative intervals such as fourths or tri-tones. In practice this would look something like G – Db – F – A. The extended chords can also include ‘augmented’, diminished, half-diminished, chords all of which can and frequently are combined with major or minor chords to bring a unique color to jazz music.

Jazz harmony is further developed through the use of substituted chords. These are chords that players spontaneously insert during a performance to replace the ones suggested by the composer. Once again the effect is to create a harmonic color that is not only specific to that performance but often the choice of substitution particular to the performer too. A common and much-exploited substitution is tri-tone. This would, for example, mean if the existing chord was a G, the substitution would be a Db. At first, this may seem like a remote harmonic relationship, but it works astonishingly well.

There are harmonic progressions or chordal sequences that are characteristic of jazz. They are too many to list here but one of the most familiar to jazz exponents is what is called the ii – V – I progression. This series of chords often rounds off a phrase, ends a piece entirely or forms part of the sequence of chords used during the composition. If you were playing in the key of D major this would give you the following progression: E minor – A – D. This progression is often referred to as a ‘turnaround’ in jazz.

A further and essential characteristic of all jazz music is that of ‘improvisation’. Alongside all the features of jazz I have mentioned above, improvisation is at the very heart of jazz. It is not exclusive to jazz, as Baroque musicians would have been expected, for example, to be competent improvisers and interpreters of a ‘figured-bass’. In jazz, it is often the improvisation that forms the centerpiece of any performance. It is an opportunity for the player of the singer to demonstrate their skill in interpreting and even developing the musical ideas they have been presented within the piece. As the history of jazz evolved the kind of improvisation changed with it. Early examples of Dixieland, New Orleans style jazz improvisations were a world apart from those of the BeBop artists that followed forty years later.

There are many approaches to improvisation that performers use. In the early days of jazz, the improvisations tended to be based fairly closely on the melody and chords the composer had written. An arppeggiac approach was common in the music of the 1910/20’s that soon gave way to a more advanced style that began to create an almost completely new piece from the one that the performer had begun by playing.

Melodic development became more motivic in focus, the substitution of harmonies ever more complex and the technical demands almost unreachable by many players. If you listen to the music of musicians like Charlie Parker, Art Tatum or Buddy De Franco you quickly realize the astonishing skill involved in their performances. These jazz artists amongst many others,  take the concept of jazz improvisation into the musical stratosphere extending the possibilities way beyond what might be anticipated.

Musical form in jazz has undergone numerous changes throughout each emerging genre. Duke Ellington is often cited as one of jazz’s greatest innovators when structure comes under the spotlight. Whilst many composers contented themselves with the highly successful song model of AABA, Ellington strove to push the idea of what jazz could be much further. His ‘Black and Tan Fantasy’ is a great example of this.

‘Black, Brown and Beige’, is a further Ellington composition that seeks to extend jazz form as well as making a sharp political comment.


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