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The Evolution of Jazz: True Art in the Making?

The Evolution of Jazz: True Art in the Making?

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An essay for the 2011 Undergraduate Awards (Ireland) Competition by Christopher Corcoran.
An essay for the 2011 Undergraduate Awards (Ireland) Competition by Christopher Corcoran.

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Published by: Undergraduate Awards on Aug 31, 2012
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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The Evolution of Jazz: True Art in the Making?
In his article “The Styles of JazzJoachim Berendt claims that ‘[the]evolution of jazz shows the continuity, logic, unity, and inner necessity thatcharacterize all true art’.
According to Berendt jazz can be seen as “true art”,which he believes requires “continuity, logic, unity, and inner necessity”.However, this characterisation leads to a variety of problems: What do we defineas “true art”? Must art possess all the elements attributed to it by Berendt – or less,or more? Is jazz even art, not merely popular entertainment, and does that meanart cannot be popular or entertain? And most importantly, if art possesses all of Berendt’s attributes and if these attributes can be found in jazz, does it necessarilyfollow that jazz is art? As Gridley, Maxham and Hoff point out: “Is jazz artmusic? To address this question we must have definitions of jazz and art music.”
As finding a definite definition for would be too lengthy an exercise for this essay,I will accept what is considered as Western art music as “true art” for argument’ssake and will use Berendt’s premise that art requires “continuity, logic, unity, andinner necessity” in order to investigate these questions further and show that jazzmay be seen as art, but perhaps not measured by Berendt’s standards.In an effort of finding a suitable definition for jazz, Gridley, Maxham andHoff identify three main characteristics that set jazz apart from art music:improvisation, syncopation, and popularity during the twentieth century.
If these points are central to jazz, then they are the main factors to investigate in light of 
Joachim Berendt, ‘The Styles of Jazz’,
The New Jazz Book: A History and Guide
, (London:Peter Owen, 1962) p. 3 f.
Mark Gridley, Robert Maxham and Robert Hoff, ‘Three Approaches to Defining Jazz’,
The Musical Quarterly
, 73:4 (1989), p. 515
Gridley, Maxham and Hoff, p. 519 ff.1
Berendt’s proposition. As far as similarities between art music and jazz go one canrefer to Ernest Ansermet, who compares an early jazz band to the predecessors of Haydn and Mozart, saying those predeessors cleared the way for the greatcomposers by creating “expressive works [out] of dance airs”
.As Ansermet points out, at the beginning of the twentieth century Jazzdeveloped analogously to art music from vocal music. Early jazz grew out of so-called street cries, the Blues, Gospel and Afro-American vocal music, parallelingsecular art’s music folk-song roots. Despite instrumental influences such asmilitary band marches or Ragtime, jazz’ primary source was initially vocal musicarranged for instruments available to the black population in order to create dancemusic. This tradition of making use of a popular melody has survived throughout jazz history in various forms, as the establishing of so-called “standards” becamea prerequisite for the improvisatory nature of jazz – jamming is only possible if every participant knows the melody and chord progression.From here on jazz developed primarily as dance music, similar to earlysecular art music, which drew mainly on court dances such as Sarabandes,Gavottes, or Gigues. Furthermore, similar to folk music and early Baroque music,where for example the performers had to fill out the harmonies above a set figured bass, early jazz musicians were given a certain freedom to improvise within acertain range and role typically attributed to their instrument, as can be heard onrecordings by The Original Dixieland Band. In contrast to art music theimprovisatory freedom granted to Dixieland musicians was based on lessharmonic consideration in advantage for simultaneously improvised lines. AsGridley and Rave suggest, this may perhaps go back to jazz’ African roots, as“African harmonic textures generally result from the simultaneous performance of 
Larry Kart,
 Jazz in Search of Itself 
(Yale University Press: 2004), p. 12
melodies with similar rhythmic patterns rather than from chord progressions”.
This independence of the individual lines led to jazz-specific chords. Today jazzcomposers like Bill Dobbins still recommend this so-called “linear approach” inorder to keep the music from becoming static.
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Mark C. Gridley and Wallace Rave, “Towards Identification of African Traits in EarlyJazz”,
The Black Perspective in Music
, 12:1 (Spring 1984), p. 50
Bill Dobbins,
 Jazz Arranging & Composing: A Linear Approach
, (Advance Music: 2005), p.8
taken from Dobbins, p. 373

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