Panentheism.  Revisionism.  Anarchocapitalism.


Barry Ulanov


Essays by Me

Essays by Others


Chapter 4 of Barry Ulanov, The Handbook of Jazz, Viking Press, 1957, 65-74. 

“Much of the time jazz musicians have sought and obtained an unashamed aphrodisiac effect; they have also worshiped in their music, variously devout before the one God and the unnamed gods.  Like poets and painters, they are of all faiths, their doctrines are many; but they are united in one conviction, that they have found a creative form for themselves, for their time, for their place.”

—Barry Ulanov 

The Elements of Jazz

Barry Ulanov 

The definition of jazz has always been surrounded with mystery.  Some of those who write or talk about it, even a few who play it, have deliberately insisted upon the enigmatic nature of jazz and have refused even to examine the possibility of analysis.  Others, after examining the music in some detail, have confessed themselves baffled by elements so difficult to define and have insisted that there was something beyond the merely melodic or harmonic or rhythmic that simply was not susceptible of verbal definition.  The strong impression remains, after an examination of both approaches to jazz, that in its essential nature there is a mystery unlike that of any other art.

Just how true is this?  Is it any more true of jazz than it is of music in general, or painting or sculpture or poetry?  Is it possible really to define with any certainty the substance, the essence, of any art?  Is the definition not, rather, in the doing?  Do we not really identify poetry by the performance of poets and thus content ourselves that we can recognize the phenomenon even if we cannot altogether effectively define it?  And should we not really be at ease with a comparatively simple phenomenological definition of jazz?

To the extent that a series of questions, no matter how rhetorical, suggests mystery, then a mystery jazz will remain after this chapter has been read.  But if one is sensitive to the forms of any art and the content thus expressed, one may find satisfaction here in a brief examination of the phenomena of jazz-the defining phenomena which produce in some the phenomenon we call jazz.

Jazz obviously is a form of Western music.  For all the efforts of some to root it elsewhere, it clearly finds its background, materials, and habits of being and becoming in the European melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic traditions.  If one listens to jazz, one must surely recognize that it is diatonic: that is, its melodies and harmonies are, like the rest of Western music, based upon whole tones and half tones arranged in octaves.  For an understanding of what distinguishes the melodic and harmonic substance of jazz, one must go to the origins and development of Western music; the relationships that distinguish our tonalities from those of the East are no more particular to jazz than they are to the music of Beethoven or Victor Herbert, John Philip Sousa or Johann Sebastian Bach.

Jazz has made some alterations in the melodic traditions of the West.  It sometimes seems to approach the subtleties of pitch, the quarter tones and microtones of Eastern music and some Western imitations of it, in its motion toward or away from a particular note.  These inflections are unmistakably clear in singing such as Billie Holiday’s and in the performance by Johnny Hodges or Rex Stewart on such instruments as the saxophone and the trumpet where one can scoop pitch, bend a note, sail into or away from a particular tone from above or below it.  There has always been in jazz, too, a restlessness with the key concept, as the blues indicates in its acceptance all at once of the flatted third and seventh, which are the blue notes of the scale, and the natural inflections of those notes as notes in the same key.  This, of course, is not strictly speaking a jazz phenomenon; a large-scale development away from fixed tonality has marked the work of many in European music in our time, from Debussy’s first whole-tone writing through the polytonal composers to the twelve-tone school of Schönberg and Webern and Berg and their descendants and disciples.

Harmonically jazz has moved in a remarkably short timeless than half a century-from the simplest sort of chord structure to the most complex.  It has achieved its present harmonic breadth through augmenting and diminishing and inversion, through alterations of a serious kind and of the most frivolous-the merely ornamental.  Jazz harmonies have in recent years reached the point where little that can be achieved in the superimposition of sound upon sound is foreign to jazz.

It is significant that the brief history of jazz in this century is characterized by a parabolic descent and ascent in which the music has first been emphatically melodic and horizontal, then harmonic and vertical, then once again emphatically horizontal.  It has matched, in this not always graceful are, the recent history of classical music, coming finally to something like a rest in our own time in long melodic lines in which music of an additive nature, played with a most captivating forward motion, has been the concern of the most advanced and influential jazzmen.

Structurally jazz has suffered over the years from the most symmetrical of concepts.  It has been restricted, again as so much other Western music has, to multiples of two and four and eight, to conventionally balanced melodic statements in which a monotonous parade of figurations of two and four and occasionally eight measures has made its way into the boxlike twelve-bar or sixteen-bar or thirty-two-bar choruses of popular music.  The limitation has been the limitation of popular music with its assiduous concern for the true and tried, its standards those of the box office, fixed firmly in the hackneyed and the obvious.  Today there are signs of a reorganization of form, a considerable revolt against these restrictions, in the work of such musicians as Lennie Tristano and Charlie Mingus, Teddy Charles, George Russell, and the Sandoles, of Jimmy Giuffre and Teo Macero.  One can look forward to a time when jazz will not be limited by empty symmetries and foolish orthodoxies of chorus length or fixed chord structure.

The need has been to hold on to certain defining limits, those which made collective improvisation possible.  This has accounted for the dependence upon tunes and chords borrowed from popular music, the tidy little figures, the clearly defined choruses.  Thus, in a simpler era, was it possible for musicians to get together and to stay together in performances spontaneous in certain respects at least, no matter how restricted in others.

In all this, that musical element with which the jazz musician identified himself most characteristically was the rhythm.  In spite of the fact that he played, almost always in four-four time, a music that was for many years relentlessly syncopated—in spite of every sort of rhythmic circumscription, jazz made rhythmic progress, for these boundaries did not and do not really enclose jazz rhythm.  This is where the mystery occurs, turning jazz away from the familiar and the obvious, giving new textures and shapes to the music to fit all the different kinds of personality that have found expression in it.

Even when it has been most monotonous, its syncopated periods falling into the most even rows of weak and strong beats, it has been impossible accurately to notate jazz rhythm.  Here, in exhilarating variations of the most subtle kind, shifts of emphasis gave even the familiar dotted eighth and sixteenth notes of an earlier jazz a pleasing tension.  Here the vitality of jazz asserted itself.  This is the pulse, this is the drive; this is the reason why almost nothing in jazz compliments a musician so much as the adjective “swinging.”

It is really impossible to reduce this mystery to note-paper description.  It is generally true, as Willi Appel says in the Harvard Dictionary of Music, that “It would be a hopeless task to search for a definition of rhythm which would prove acceptable even to a small minority of musicians and writers on music.”  How much more difficult to define rhythm in jazz, where words and notes fail to do more than faintly suggest meanings and procedures.  And each year the task grows more difficult because the rhythms become more complicated.  Though four quarter-notes to the bar remains its common time, jazz looks beyond this nowadays to more complicated rhythms, to setting time against time in a counterpoint of rhythms, even to the sort of measureless beat which has an unmistakable pulse but cannot be reduced to a lowest common denominator.

Happily, for all the difficulties involved in running to earth jazz rhythms or any of the other formal elements of the music, one can say enough about it to make some sort of assessment of its nature possible.  One can begin with the sort of definition I offered in my History of Jazz some years ago:

. . . it is a new music of a certain distinct rhythmic and melodic character, one that constantly involves improvisation—of a minor sort in adjusting accents and phrases of the tune at hand, of a major sort in creating music extemporaneously, on the spot.  In the course of creating jazz, a melody or its underlying chords may be altered.  The rhythmic valuations of notes may be lengthened or shortened according to a regular scheme, syncopated or not, or there may be no consistent pattern of rhythmic variations so long as a steady beat remains implicit or explicit.  The beat is usually four quarter-notes to the bar, serving as a solid rhythmic base for the improvisation of soloists or groups playing eight or twelve measures, or some multiple or dividend thereof.

These things are the means.  The ends are the ends of all art, the expression of the universal and the particular, the specific and the indirect and the intangible.  In its short history, jazz has generally been restricted to short forms and it has often been directed toward the ephemeral and the trivial, but so too has it looked toward the lasting perception and the meaningful conclusion.  Much of the time jazz musicians have sought and obtained an unashamed aphrodisiac effect; they have also worshiped in their music, variously devout before the one God and the unnamed gods.  Like poets and painters, they are of all faiths, their doctrines are many; but they are united in one conviction, that they have found a creative form for themselves, for their time, for their place.

From this preliminary definition one can go on to a summation of form and content in jazz. These materials do group themselves into something like a recognizable pattern, making up what seems to me a satisfactory five-fold description, if not definition, of jazz.



Nothing can be said to be jazz that is not in some way spontaneous, that is not in some manner improvised.  It may be as little as on-the-spot manipulations of note valuation, changes of rhythmic emphasis, the faintest distortions of tone, the lightest tints or shades of color added or subtracted.  It may be an entirely improvised performance, in which well-known tunes are developed in the traditional form we call “variations upon a theme.”  It may involve an entire alteration of the chord structure of a tune or the creation on the spot of a progression, of a new tune, or of no recognizable tune at all.  It may be made up of great cadenza swoops or brief sweeps away from fixed time or tune or tone.  As long as some element of the extemporaneous is involved, this central part of jazz, the core of the music, will have been preserved.


The Beat

The faith of the jazz musician of whatever school or musical conviction remains the beat: it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.  This is the propelling force that drives a solo forward, that makes one man’s work contagious to another and moves everybody equally to that collective tension that produces rhythmic excitement and fresh improvisation.  With the beat, continuity is effected in jazz.  The rhythm section may be restricted to a monotonous “chunk-chunk” or “chug-chug,” “plunk-plunk” or “plink-plank,” or it may be free to develop its own melodic lines as it goes; the beat may be weak, strong, weak, strong, or vice versa, or the resolute one, one, one, one of bop.  The beat may be packed into finite squares or strung forward in what seems like an infinite series reaching far beyond the actual limits of the performance.  Those who play jazz and those who follow it closely as listeners will recognize it when it occurs; they all know that without the beat, without this pulse, music cannot be called jazz.



Jazz is no longer dependent upon the trumpet and trombone growls effected by mutes or plumber’s plungers, or both; it no longer needs the glissandos of clarinets and scoops of saxophones to produce its identifying colors.  But that freedom with which musicians like Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington’s brassmen duplicated almost any sound still exists in jazz.  The colors are more subtle now, expressed through more legitimate employment of reed instruments that do not vibrate half so much as they once did, by brass instruments much cooler in tone than they used to be in jazz, by a flock of instruments new to jazz-flute and English horn and oboe, bassoon and French horn and tuba—and by the organ, piped or pushed by electrons, and all the string instruments.  The distortions of conventional playing procedures are fewer today, but color remains vital to jazz, for it is in the twist or turn in the blowing or fingering of an instrument, the extension or the cutting short of a note, the gasp or grasp at a sound that nobody has ever heard before in any music, that jazzmen can express all those states of being, subtle or obvious, with which their music has thus far been concerned, can express them as composer or arranger or improvising instrumentalist, or as that eighth wonder of the world who is all three.



This is another basic ingredient.  The enthusiasm of a jazz musician is like that of a Southern political stump speaker, with much of the folklore, the secret store of information, the built-in argot of the down-home character talking up his work, his worries, and his sources of good cheer.  This is not the artificial enthusiasm engendered by a stimulant, but the real thing elicited by the materia prima—jazz, jazz cool, or jazz lukewarm.  In their music, as in their speech, jazz musicians continually take busman’s holidays: they talk shop.  They talk in their music, very much of the time, about their music.  For many of them there is nothing else to talk about.  After all, these men are still among the first generations working at the construction of an art form.  This is something new and something good taking shape right before their eyes and ears.  One can understand their being enthusiastic; one can better understand their music as a result of their contagious enthusiasm.



Most of the time jazz musicians have had to work in the dark, in the slums, underprivileged or underrated, little appreciated or downright contemned.  Such an atmosphere builds suspicion, hostility, or at the very least a kind of bad- or good-humored irony.  Fortunately for us, it is good-humored in modern jazz, as it has been most of the time in jazz from the very beginning.  It is a little bitter at the edges occasionally, like an ancient brandy of great good taste, but it is essentially sweet and full-bodied humor.  Everything in the history of jazz bespeaks a healthy skepticism, a brilliant irony expressed in parody and caricature, in a splendid refusal to take seriously the sentimental extravagances of popular songs, of popular culture.  One can point, for example, to the performances of the late Fats Waller, who regularly stuck out his not inconsiderable tongue at every sticky bit of nonsense that came his way.  The present-day ironists dig away a little more subtly at the foolishness of the popular music and related culture of their day-a little more subtly than their predecessors but no less cuttingly.  If one joins to this sort of ridicule and mockery the stoicism of Bessie Smith and the early blues singers, talking and singing about catastrophe, then one may be able to point to the most significant sort of content in jazz.  This irony, this stoicism, fights pretense, takes pompousness down a couple of pegs, and usually manages to remain entertaining, engaging.  No matter how hard it is to identify in a musical performance, it is an essential part of jazz, perhaps the very substance upon which the music and our interest in it survive.

Posted March 18, 2008

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