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Definitions and Semantics of #Jazz

It seems that most discussions about “jazz” usually begin and end with opinions and definitions as to what the word actually means. The discussion is rarely about the essence or specifics of musical expression, but rather an argument on semantics.  Either people believe jazz to be a specific genre – one that they either like or hate – a lot – or they just know that they hate it . . . . without really being able to define it.  They may have heard what they thought was “jazz” – but it was simply one variation of a singular style, and it probably wasn’t performed very well.

To say you “hate jazz” is to state that you really don’t like any music that has been created or has evolved since the onset of the 20th century . . . because it’s all inextricably related, with each style growing from the same source and root.

I have found one glaring similarity between those who love or hate this thing called “jazz” – neither can really explain what it is beyond a particular artist, song or style.

Many view jazz as one thing, or define it as a “style” of one era – traditional, Dixieland, swing, big band, bop, hard bop, post-bop, mainstream, cool, smooth, free, fusion, funk, straight ahead, chill, etc. etc. etc.   Many likewise separate “jazz” from the very fabric of what it grew from or has given birth to – blues, spirituals, gospel, ragtime, big band, rock & roll, rhythm & blues, soul, funk, etc., etc. etc.

There are many styles of “jazz” that masquerade under a multiplicity of different names, and for each one there is someone out there that believes it to be all that “jazz” is or ever was . . . thus demeaning its relevance, longevity, and vibrancy.

Jazz may just be one of the most misunderstood, under-appreciated, maligned, misinterpreted and misused words in the English language.  Whoever you are and whatever your opinions may be, you most probably have a visceral reaction of some sort to the word “jazz” . . . positive or negative, the opinions and reactions usually have little to do with what jazz actually is, what it can be, or what it has done for every style of music over the past century covering the planet.

I don’t want to get into a long historical analysis of the word – I already did that in another post (that people often complain about due to its excessive length).  So . . . I’ll just give my definitions.

This may well be my personal bias – but at least people will know what I’m talking about when I use these words. If you’re reading this, I probably sent it to you, and hopefully, we can avoid a long argument which is primarily semantic in nature.  So – here goes . . .


JAZZ (noun)
1. Music originating in New Orleans around the beginning of the 20th century and subsequently developing through various increasingly complex styles, generally marked by intricate, propulsive rhythms, polyphonic ensemble playing, improvisatory, virtuosic solos, melodic freedom, and a harmonic idiom ranging from simple diatonicism through chromaticism to atonality.

2. A style of dance music, popular especially in the 1920s, arranged for a large band and marked by some of the features of jazz. (Personal addendum – it was also a style of dance music in the 1930’s & 1940’s called swing and in the 1950’s by names such as the Jitterbug, and in the 1960’s by names such as the Twist & Mashed Potato, and the 1970’s as disco, etc.)

3. Dancing or a dance performed to such music, as with violent bodily motions and gestures.

4. It can also be used as positive slang for liveliness; spirit; excitement . . . or negative slang for insincere, exaggerated, or pretentious talk. It can also be used as an adjective or verb – positively & negatively.


America’s only indigenous, original art form – the word does NOT imply a specific style or genre of music, but rather a creative process that has spanned and helped shape ALL musical genres that developed & evolved since the turn of the 20th century.

Jazz was brewed throughout the 19th century, including elements & ingredients of every culture in the world that had come to America’s shores – starting out with the beat of African & Caribbean Rhythms, the mournful blues & spiritual cries of an unfree people yearning to be free, the songs, shouts, sounds & cries heard in the fields, factories, ships, churches, marketplaces, and the slave dances in Congo Square . . . all mixed together in a rich roux of soul.

Prior to jazz, classically trained musicians were only as good as the composer they interpreted.  Jazz set music free, giving it back to the people, putting improvisation and individual virtuosity in the forefront of musical performance.

A song (any song) was no longer a composition that had to be interpreted in a specific way – but a melodic & rhythmic idea that any musician could interpret anyway, and within any style, they chose. Jazz is about interpretation & change.

All other specific art forms & codified styles of music in America are hybrids that originated in other countries and were “Americanized”.  Jazz has ALL these influences in its DNA, but they were not forced together via composition – but arose organically out of the blood, sweat, and tears shed on American soil by an unfree people yearning to be free . . . as well as through their celebration and worship.

If you’ve ever seen a musician take a solo on any instrument, and play something other than the primary melody . . . you’ve experienced jazz. That’s pretty much as deep as it gets.

Jazz is the only art form that truly belongs to all of us, and combines all our diverse cultural elements into one expansive gumbo that can be traced to our ancestors, as well as back to our countries of origin, and back again as new genres and styles that were influenced by the freedom introduced by this thing called “jazz”.


So . . . is there such thing as “REAL” JAZZ when referring to a specific genre of music?

Yes, actually, to be real, original & authentic . . . it has to be live; created “in the moment” – music that happens in real time and can never be repeated exactly the same way again.  It happens once, and must be recreated organically – never simply repeated.  This spontaneity cannot be narrowed to just one style or genre – but rather, as an organic act of creative improvisation within any style.

You can also find “real jazz” in spontaneous acts of theater, comedy, and worship.  Jazz is bigger than music, it sets creativity free via improvisation – never to be repeated exactly, only to be recreated.

“Real jazz” can also be used to define what real democracy is all about (giving each individual a voice, a solo, a chance to be heard, etc.) . . . but that’s a different post.

There to really only two classifications for music – not genres or styles, but CONTINUUMS that have built on each genre and style for over 1,500 years.



Pope Gregory the First codified the musical scale sometime around 600 AD (or rather, he was given credit for it after his death so that no one would assume that the plainchants being sung in churches came from pagan Greek & Roman roots) . . . and all styles and eras of music that were composed and played after this – up through the 21st century – are defined or classified as “Classical” . . . even though the specific era and “genre” called “Classical” only spanned 1750-1825.

However, we now lump all styles & genres of music prior to the development of blues and jazz as “Classical”.  This is a composer’s art form.

These styles, genres & eras include PlainChant, Plainsong, Gregorian Chants, Medieval, Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, Rococo, Classical, Romantic (early & late), Orchestral, Chamber Music,  Choral, Avant-Garde, Classical Crossover, Expressionist, Impressionist, Minimalism, Modern Composition, Opera, Sacred Music, Wedding Music, Ballata, Estampie, Madrigal, Motet, Organum, Saltarello, Ballade, Canzona, Carol, Chanson, Fantasia, Chromatic fantasia, Galliard, Intermedio, Laude, Litany, Madrigal comedy, Madrigale spirituale, Mass, Cyclic mass, Parody mass, Paraphrase mass, Pavane, Sequence, Tiento, Toccata, Allemande, Canon, Cantata, Chaconne, Concerto, Concerto Grosso, Solo Concerto, Courante, Fugue, Gavotte, Gigue, Minuet, Opera buffa, Opera serial, Oratorio, Partita, Passacaglia, Prelude, Sarabande, Sinfonia, Sonata, Flute sonata, Trio sonata, Suite, Bagatelle, Ballet, Cello concerto, Clarinet concerto, Double bass concerto, Flute concerto, Oboe concerto, Piano concerto, Trumpet concerto, Viola concerto, Violin concerto, Étude, Impromptu, Intermezzo, Mazurka, March, Music hall, Nocturne, Ballad opera, Comic Opéra, Operetta, Overture, Symphonic poem, Singspiel, Zarzuela, Concert Aria, Polonaise, Piano quartet, String quartet, Oboe quartet, Quintet, Piano quintet, String quintet, Requiem, Rhapsody, Rondo, Scherzo, Serenade, Sinfonia concertante, Piano sonata, Violin sonata, Viola sonata, Cello sonata, Clarinet sonata, Bassoon sonata, Symphony, Choral symphony, Waltz . . . to name a few.

Yet, once again, they are ALL currently lumped into what is defined as  “Classical” . . . kind of like lumping rock & roll, blues, and R&B together into the greater continuum called “Jazz”.

This Continuum was forever changed as the Romantic Era of the 19th century encouraged the blending of Folk music & other influences from around the world into “Classical” compositions.  During this time, America experienced a tremendous influx of cultures – particularly in our Southern seaports – which lead to the blending of Classical & folk melodies, African rhythms, Spirituals, Field Hollers, Work Songs, Blues, Marching Bands and Ragtime via improvisation . . . creating a new Continuum that lasts to this day, and will most probably continue for centuries to come.


All styles of music developed, performed and recorded since the 1890’s that have been created out of a process of improvisation, rhythmic and polyrhythmic syncopation, melodic counterpoint, and a blending of sounds and cultures with a focus on individual and group virtuosity and communication. There are no specific rules or guidelines – just a living, breathing art form that is created new each time someone picks up an instrument or sings an original note.  The word “jazz” was apparently never used to describe this new music until 1917.

The Jazz Continuum can also be defined as any style or genre of music that is NOT part of the Classical Continuum wherein the musical process was focused on composition, and the interpretation of composition, rather than spontaneous performance, improvised solos, dancing, rocking, grooving, soulful shouts,, blues and a blending of styles and cultures into a multicultural cornucopia.

The Jazz Continuum has no walls, no boundaries – but rather serves as a bridge to all cultures and styles of music around the world.  Unless we develop a new process of musical creation, the Jazz Continuum will continue to include all styles and eras of music developed since the onset of the 20th Century.

What specific “styles” or “genres” are part of this “Jazz Continuum”?  Well, there’s …  Blues, Ragtime, Gospel, Spirituals, Sacred Songs, Call & Response, Spasm Bands, Cakewalks, Juke, Vaudeville, Traditional Jazz, Dixieland, Brass Bands, Stomp, Western Swing, Bluegrass, Stride, Boogie-Woogie, Hot Jazz, Scat, Gypsy Jazz, Big Band, Swing, Sweet Swing, Hot Swing, Standards, Showtunes, American Songbook, Country, Alternative Country, Americana, Contemporary Country, Country Gospel, Honky Tonk, Urban Cowboy, BeBop, Hard Bop, Post-Bop, Vocalese, Cool Jazz, Modal Jazz, West Coast Jazz, Chamber Jazz, Mainstream, Straight Ahead, Progressive, Third Stream, M-Base, Avant-Garde, Free Jazz, Rhythm & Blues, Rock & Roll, Doo-Wop, Jive, Rockabilly, Reggae, Chicago Blues, Memphis Blues, Delta Blues, Jump Blues, Piedmont Blues, St. Louis Blues, New Orleans Blues, Acoustic Blues, Classic Blues, Contemporary Blues, Country Blues,  Electric Blues, Ragtime Blues, Rock, Soul, Funk, Fusion, Disco Funk, Dazz, Jazz Rock, Funk Jazz, Free Funk, Soul Jazz, Progressive Rock, Contemporary Jazz, New Wave, Punk, Art Punk, Alternative Rock, College Rock, Experimental Rock, Folk Punk, Goth, Grunge, Indie Rock, Steampunk, Classic Rock, Alternative Rock, Retro Swing, Smooth Jazz, Nu-Jazz, Neo-Soul, Nu-Soul, Rare Grooves, London Soul, Acid Jazz, Hip-Hop, Go-Go, Trip Hop, Spoken Word, Breakbeat, Breakstep, Dubstep, House, Deep House, Electro House, Electroswing, Garage, Eurodance, Brazilian Jazz, Bossa Nova, Bossa Groove, African Jazz, Euro Jazz, Asian Jazz and various assortments of any combination of grooves therein . . . .just to name a few.


So, there you have it, two classification – Classical or Jazz Continuum. Everything you’ve ever heard fits one of those . . . and you are free to give it any name you so choose – as long as you remember that they are ALL connected at their root and core.


One last definition – well, not exactly a definition, but rather a Hashtag I developed for Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and anywhere else you may wish to use it.

#ATLANTAJAZZ – Live music, videos, songs, recordings, events, gigs, concerts, clubs, happenings, any artist making music or adding to the culture of greater Atlanta.

This is my favorite hashtag, I have used it daily in an attempt to create a trend for the past 10 years.

The #AtlantaJazz hashtag which can and should be used liberally on any social media platform whenever discussing, promoting, reviewing, or identifying any live music, videos, songs, CDs, recordings, events, gigs, concerts, clubs, happenings and music making in greater Atlanta.

It’s even better when it is accompanied by a link. Algorithms have been set up to seek and find this hashtag, and automatically share it across platforms.

Okay, so – have I cleared things up?  Questions, comments, attacks, continual arguments?  Go for it.  🙂

Agapé Y’all,

J. Scott Fugate – “The Jazz Evangelist”





  1. Pingback: Do You Know Where To Hear . . .? | NOLA obsessed - July 7, 2015

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