Wednesday, November 10, 2021

"What Is Jazz" - From Jazz Americana by Woody Woodward [From the Archives]

 © -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“Frenchmen call it Le Jazz Hot. If you want a hot argument, just ask two
or more jazz enthusiasts to define it for you.”

“The jazz musician begins as such. He does not simply graduate to it as his taste dictates. Jazz is there from the beginning of his musical awareness.”          
- Woody Woodward

The record label that was the California equivalent of Blue Note Records during the post world War II years was Pacific Jazz. It was established by Richard Bock in the early 1950s, initially to record the new Gerry Mulligan - Chet Baker Quartet

In the case of Pacific Jazz, Richard Bock was blessed at the outset to have the brilliant photographic work of William Claxton form the basis for most of his album cover art.  Ray Avery, a contemporary, once said of Claxton work: “Some of us take photographs of Jazz musicians, but Bill does much more than that: he is an artist with a camera.”

In fairness, Dick Bock’s Pacific Jazz label gave Bill Claxton a place to learn and practice his art as a photographer so the creative purposes of each were well-served through their business relationship.

Acknowledgement should also be made of the skills of Woody Woodward, who designed many of the Pacific Jazz covers, and without whose logistical and technical contributions, Dick Bock’s Pacific Jazz would have been even more disorganized, and of Dotty Woodward, the firm’s accountant and the person who managed the royalties for the musicians and composers.

Thanks to a close friend who is pretty much the unofficial historian of all things Pacific Jazz [and all things West Coast Jazz, too], I recently learned that Woody Woodward was also somewhat of a Jazz historian and the author of Jazz Americana: The Story of Jazz and All Time Jazz Greats from Basin Street to Carnegie Hall.

Jazz Americana was published in 1956 in a 6.5” x 9” magazine format by Trend Books and sold for 75 cents. Fortunately, I was able to track down a fairly serviceable copy at a reasonable price and I thought it would be fun to share some excerpts with you.

Let’s begin at the with Chapter 1 - What Is Jazz - which Woody subtitles: “Here It Is! The First Good Definition of Jazz”

Despite this imposing assertion, Woody put a great deal of thought into his definition of what Jazz is including, what it isn’t.

In many ways, it is one of the more coherent and cogent definitions of Jazz that I’ve ever come across, one that is especially helped by the clear and direct writing style in which it is presented.

In retrospect, given when it was written, Woody’s definition of Jazz stands the test of time and holds up very well.

See what you think.

“ I find myself confronted with the task of writing an entire book on a subject that hasn't even the advantage of an adequate definition. In 50 years, all the articulate and learned men whose opinions and observations have been placed before the public have failed collectively to produce a generally accepted definition for the common everyday word jazz. A more compatible relationship between jazz and its public might have been achieved sooner if it had been possible to offer the inquirer a useful definition. So little agreement has existed on informed levels that the question, "What is jazz?", too often remains unanswered. In its place comes a thin, superior smile and a condescending shrug — inferring, "... if you don't know what it is I can't tell you." Small wonder that the public has been so often confused, especially when one considers that there have been as many personal concepts as there are experts. As might be expected this leads to a great many misconceptions about jazz, made worse by the cliquish groups "in the know" who seemed quite satisfied to keep the whole business about jazz a mystery.

Time has shown us that the public has been a great deal more willing to accept jazz than they've been given credit for and jazz musicians considerably more interested in being accepted then they’ve been given credit for. The jazz musician wants very much to have his music understood and be respected as a professional. In the main, he believes this can be done without subverting his integrity. This has been made difficult for him since most of the media of mass communications - radio, television, motion pictures, and the written word  -have consistently caricatured him as an inarticulate ne'er-do-well. A typical motion picture approach shows the jazzman, after years of struggling, at the heights of achievement when his jazz concerto is presented in Carnegie Hall. This is usually showcased by a hundred-piece symphony orchestra with the composer conducting, especially sobered for the occasion. Being allowed on the stage of a concert hall is symbolic of his emancipation from so coarse and useless an existence as being a jazz musician. The inference is, "See, jazz musicians aren't so bad after all. They even read music and wear formal clothes."

This is rather a negative approach and reveals almost nothing of the nature of jazz; however the movies are not alone in promoting the Big Fable. On highly dramatic New York television plays or Hollywood films, it is currently very fashionable to play jazz records behind any act of violence. The slick magazines' preoccupation with anthropology, antiquated jazz slang, and endless intellectual dissertations, while less damaging, add to the confusion. It is something of a testimony to the taste and good sense of the public that people are presently supporting jazz in the manner to which it is unaccustomed. Despite the difficulty of getting much in the way of intelligent information on jazz from the usual sources, the public and jazz are getting together. This is something of a testimony to the strength of the music and the men who make it. Not so long ago sentiments were so strong in camps of the cultists that none could condone the existence of the others. Each group imposed confining limitations on the jazz of its choice. Each maintained his jazz was the true jazz. Dixieland People scorned Swing People, Swing People fought verbal battles with Bebop People, and Beboppers depreciated both. In the past few years, jazz has begun to emerge from this fog of music prejudice. Visibility could be improved but the haze is lifting; today Louis Armstrong, Count Basie and Dave Brubeck can stand side by side, offering their art to all whom will listen.

Be it Dixieland, Swing, or the embracing horns of the .Mulligan Quartet, to a steadily increasing hundreds of thousands, jazz is a new found source of pleasure, a multifaceted, infectious music as calm and organized as a Bach fugue, as extroverted and exciting as the Mardi Gras.

I mentioned the absence of an adequate definition of jazz. This is not to say that none has been attempted. A few have found their way into print, some of them rendered by knowledgeable men. However, nearly all that have come to my attention have been more in the way of a description. One of the best of these was written by Wilder Hobson for the 1956 ENCYCLOPEDIA   BRITANNICA.  As it contains several thousand words, Hobson's offering is not useful in the normal dictionary limitation of perhaps 50 or 60 words. Be that as it may, I recommend it to all concerned with the subject.

A better example of what's available might be a typical dictionary definition. Webster's New School and Office Dictionary, ordinarily a source of accurate definitions, says: "JAZZ (jaz) noun—Negro term for syncopated music or ragtime played discordantly on various instruments: a boisterous dance to such." This definition is very misleading. It infers that jazz is played unharmoniously, and implies that it is the product of a number of instruments presumably played simultaneously. It further suggests that jazz is attended by dancing. While any or all of these conditions may be present in jazz, none are required.

Jazz is not exclusive to the Negro. Many other races have produced and supported it. Jazz does not have to be discordant . . . and rarely is. The playing of jazz need involve no more than one musician. He may be the soloist in a large orchestra which features no other jazz musicians, or a lone musician playing in an empty ballroom.

Barry Ulanov, former editor of Metronome, an excellent magazine with a strong dedication to jazz, has referred to "freshness, profundity and skill", as important requisites for good jazz. These are qualities that may separate the mediocre performance from the outstanding, but this phrase is not helpful in defining jazz, as all three qualities may be absent from a performance and yet be jazz.

One problem Is that jazz does not fall within the confines of definite form like the symphony which is traditionally presented in four movements, or the fugue which utilizes its moving melodic lines in a predetermined manner. Jazz is without movements and is not constructed like a fugue. Jazz. musicians may use these devices but they are not peculiar to the medium. The closest we come to this in jazz is in the case of the blues, where a 12 bar tune is involved, using a specific set of chord progressions. However this is not form in the strict sense. It is rather a framework on which to drape a series of improvisations. The elements of form, so far as classical music is concerned, involve the traditionally-accepted manner of presenting music in a particular way. While a jazz composer may avail himself of these forms, the use of them actually has nothing to do with jazz itself. It's simply another way of presenting and expanding jazz.

Another element that further complicates matters is the fact that the jazz musician is not required to produce what might be termed a standardized tone or sound from his instrument. In classical music, each instrumentalist strives to produce a standard or uniform sound; a trumpeter from Paris, France, will produce a quality of sound almost the same as a trumpeter from Indianapolis, Indiana, assuming that each has had the advantage of similar training. With slight exception, there is only one way to play the instrument correctly, by classical standards. The very nature of jazz encourages the individual to express himself differently, though the musician may have the technical background to play in the classically accepted manner.

If jazz is not dependent on definite form and uniform sound, as with classical music, in what manner are we able to detect its existence? How are we able to separate jazz from all other types of non-classical music? I should preface this by mentioning that very few qualified sources have ever agreed completely on the important elements of jazz. However there are several components arrived at more frequently than any others. These are: (1) improvisation, (2) a rhythmic conception exclusive to jazz, and (3) a range of sounds distinguished by individuality. The disagreement between the experts is not whether or not the above elements are important, but to what degree each should exist in relation to the others. Some feel that improvisation is the most important and that rhythm and sound are lesser things. Others believe that rhythm plays the dominant role, and so forth. At any rate, it's the balance of all three elements that constitutes the individual style of a jazzman. It is the existence of these three elements and the way in which they are combined that separates jazz from other music.


Improvisation is the ability of a musician to "make up" a tune in a spontaneous fashion, or to play a series of variations on a melody without consulting written music, and without prearrangement. Generally a specific set of chord changes are agreed upon in advance by the participating musicians. This establishes a format and a sequence, but allows the freedom necessary for improvisation. Often several musicians improvise simultaneously, producing counterpoint, a second melody line sympathetic to the first.

This has been a common practice since the very beginning of jazz. Early New Orleans bands frequently utilized three improvisational lines at the same time; the trumpet played the melody, the clarinet played an obbligato or second line, and the trombone punctuated rhythmically or produced a series of tones very close to the chords. The results were similar to the melodic styles of the barbershop quartets so far as the harmonics were concerned.

Because of this collective improvisation, a performance was produced that could never be completely duplicated even though a group of jazzmen might play the same tune many times during their association. This is also true today. Even at a recording session, where a piece of material is played six or eight times in a row in an effort to get the best performance, the collective improvisation produces a wide variety of renditions to choose from.

Improvisation is not limited to jazz. Almost any skilled musician is capable of making up a tune as he goes along. A knowledge of the chord progressions of a tune and familiarity with the melody is sufficient to enable a musician to embellish the composition. Improvisation to some degree exists in most popular music. It is also employed in classical music occasionally, particularly when showcasing a soloist with an orchestra; certain parts of the orchestrated composition provide for this.

In the Seventeenth Century, improvisation was more common than in today's classical music. In Bach's and Mozart's time, it was quite frequently used in chamber music. The elements of improvisation can be taught but, for the most part, it is instinctive rather than learned. Since improvisation plays a major role in his music, the spontaneous improvisation of the jazz musician is quite unique and manifests itself differently; when two or more jazz musicians improvise together, a rapport can be established that finds a parallel nowhere else in the world of music.


The rhythmic conception in jazz is perhaps its most unusual feature. Generally, a syncopated beat is used in 4/4 time. Like improvisation, 4/4 time and syncopation are not limited to jazz; 4/4 time is common to most American and European music and syncopation is found in almost all music to some extent. However, its occurrences outside jazz are in a more formal manner, occurring in a regular pattern and on the same beats of every bar. In jazz, the musician plays unexpected accents with great freedom, syncopating in an irregular manner. He often plays with no strict adherence to time value at all, other than tempo; some play right on the beat, some behind the beat, and some anticipate or play a little ahead of the beat. It's not uncommon to hear a soloist demonstrate all these rhythmic variations within the course of a single chorus. He may enter the chorus anticipating, then fall behind the beat or produce any other combination of time values. This particular ability seems to be the one element that can't be taught. It can be developed if the latent ability is present, but in its accepted usage it is a native talent. The musician either possesses the ability to generate this rhythmic force or he fails completely to play with a jazz pulse.


The sounds of jazz are the most difficult to describe and are perhaps the easiest of the three basic jazz elements for non-jazz musicians to affect. Jazz sound is distinguished by the absence of regulation. It is a broad unconfined sound that can be likened to the human voice; each voice possessing a timber not entirely like any other. Jazz sound is a personal utterance, carrying with it the peculiarities of the individual. Almost any sound an instrument is capable of producing, within the realm of good taste, is acceptable in jazz.

Despite this, a characteristic does exist; the general absence of a "legitimate" attack. The jazz musician tends not to hit a note right on pitch. He is inclined more to slur or slide up to a note then slide on to the next without much more than passing through the pitch. Of course, when the need to hold a note occurs, the jazz musician, like all other, holds to proper pitch.

As was mentioned before, a classical musician must produce a sound traditionally associated with his instrument. Most of the music he plays is written and orchestrated in such a way as to take advantage of the sound his instrument customarily produces. Any marked deviation from this is very undesirable. In jazz the same instrument seldom sounds the same. One musician might play with a light vibrato-less tone, another dynamically, with a robust strident tone. The myriad of sounds that lies between these two extremes are as numerous as the musicians playing jazz. Even with a large jazz orchestra of i5 or 20 men, where group compatibility is essential, it's the combined styles of the men involved that give each orchestra its characteristic sound. The same arrangements, under the direction of the same leader, will never sound quite the same if different musicians are involved.


Any attempt to define jazz must be arbitrary; the absolute is not found in this medium. It must be further realized that any useful definition of jazz must encompass all styles and concepts within that medium from the very beginning to the present, with the additional capacity to include and anticipate all that jazz may produce in the future. With this in mind, and the further knowledge that the definition I offer here, may fail to meet universal acceptance (as the many attempts that preceded it) I submit the following definition for jazz:

JAZZ (jaz) n. a native American music, a popular art form, begun by the negro, originally influenced by African and Caribbean rhythms and popular music available to the negro around the turn of the twentieth century. A product of the instantaneous rather than the premeditated, characterized from the beginning to the present by three basic elements: Improvisation, a unique time conception, and a range of sounds distinguished by their individuality.

The 1956 jazz picture encompasses such a wide range of styles and means of presentation that it is far more difficult for the layman to recognize jazz than it was 20 or 30 years ago. In 1926, jazz meant pretty much the same thing to everyone; there were fewer styles then and these were closely related. Ten years later the Swing Era was well underway and big dance bands were gaining prominence. Still, the situation remained uncomplicated. Whatever jazz acceptance went with the dance bands was mostly for the soloists. To most people, jazz still meant Dixieland.

By the end of World War II the big bands had received recognition. They took their place alongside earlier jazz developments. At the same time, a number of brilliant young jazz musicians were busy shaping a whole new approach which came to be known as Bebop, Progressive, and several other confusing names. From the standpoint of jazz activity, this movement was to overshadow all but three or four of the most firmly entrenched big bands. The Swing Era had come to a close and in it's place there was a return to small groups and a re-emphasis on improvisation.

In 1956 we have access to the accumulation of more than 50 years of individuality. Today, it's possible for us to hear in concert, club, or on record, all the styles in the Dixieland Tradition from the turn of the century through the Twenties; the products of the Swing Era; and the multitude of jazz concepts that developed following the second World War.

It scarcely seems possible that these many jazz styles are more than slightly related —  yet, they are. All result from steady and continual evolution. None could have developed without that which preceded it. Jazz draws always from its heritage. Honest and spirited mainstream jazz never loses its luster and appeal. Because jazz is so much a product of the moments during which it is played, it undergoes constant change as the moments pass into days and the days into years. This is why jazz of different decades seems so unrelated. Today's jazz is minutely different from last week's jazz. It is a reflection of the life and times contemporary with its performance. The past can never be completely recaptured, even by those who were among the molders of jazz past. Even men whose concepts have matured, whose styles have crystallized, arc subject to the changing times.

But how do we distinguish between that which is jazz and that which is not? At what point does a musician cross the threshold into jazz? The answer lies in this basic premise: if the musicians involved are jazz musicians and the material being performed does not require the participants to subvert their musical identity, then the product is jazz. This is in direct proportion to the number of jazz musicians participating. If five members of a 15-piece band are not jazz musicians, then the performance suffers to that degree.

The composition being played can be a waltz, mambo, foxtrot or anything else that allows the jazzmen to apply their art. Structurally, it can be a 12 bar blues, a popular tune or a fugue. In short, a jazz composition can be anything that does not require the jazzmen to sacrifice their individuality.

Because of the need to preserve the basic jazz elements, certain approaches to composing and arranging are more conducive to the medium than others. The material must be compatible with the musicians involved to be successful. This has led to a whole new field within jazz — that of composing and arranging material especially for jazz.

This began during the late Twenties when musicians realized a need for more challenging material and a larger framework for their improvisation. Then, too, the emergence of larger bands required more organization than the five- and six-piece groups that preceded them. The use of arrangements was the answer to these problems and grew from the same needs for individual expression that brought jazz forth. Composition and jazz could not be better suited. All jazz musicians are endowed with the ability to compose, though not all possess the technical knowledge to write their compositions. They compose whenever they improvise. The difference between those who actually write and those who are unable, is the ability to organize music on a more extensive scale — not the lack of compositional talent.

The one thing that remains unchanged is the fact that jazz musicians are required to play jazz. It cannot be produced by others.

This seems to be a rather obvious factor; however, a widespread misconception is that virtually any young musician associated witli a dance band is a jazz musician. Since jazz has become so much an integral part of American popular music, most popular musicians and singers display some jazz influence. Obviously, mere influence does not make a jazz musician. The jazz musician begins as such. He does not simply graduate to it as his taste dictates. Jazz is there from the beginning of his musical awareness.”          

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