If you’re new to jazz, you may find yourself asking, “What is jazz music?”
As with so many things in life, the answer is more complicated than you expect. There are many good jazz music definitions, but the fact is that there are as many different kinds of jazz as there are jazz musicians.
As we try to answer “what is jazz music?” we’ll talk a little about some of the different jazz styles out there, along with examples of songs we feel represent them best. Hopefully, you’ll come away with a better understanding of jazz and some jazz music definitions you can use to help others understand this genre better.
Definition: What is Jazz Music?
There’s such a variety of jazz that coming up with a jazz music definition that encompasses everything from bebop to cool jazz can be challenging. But a good rule of thumb is that jazz music is music that plays with rhythm and harmony.
Jazz music, especially in North America, is also characterized by strong ties to the African-American communities that created it.
However, jazz quickly gained traction as an up-and-coming genre, and as it did, it spread around the world, picking up the musical colors and characteristics of different cultures along the way. The result is a variety of jazz sounds.
However, there are some things all jazz has in common.
Jazz Music Characteristics
Despite its many different styles, there are some characteristics all styles of jazz share. Listening to these can help you pinpoint what jazz is and identify it as distinct from other musical genres.
What does baroque music have in common with jazz? Not a question people often ask, but baroque and jazz music share a long tradition of improvisation.
Improvisation is often done in long, solo segments of jazz music, and like the baroque musicians before them, it’s an opportunity for the singer or instrumentalist to show off.
It allows performers to segue from one interesting harmony to another, and the more harmonically complex, the better.
Despite the name, these improvisations are rarely as spontaneous as they feel to the listener. A professional musician will practice anywhere from five to ten possible improvisation segments for a solo piece in anticipation of a show. Then, they agree with the band which one they want to use before starting.
One thing that distinguishes jazz improvisation from other types of musical ornamentation is its inclusion of recognizable material. It’s common for jazz improvisations to feature:
- Snippets of jazz standards
- Nursery rhymes
- Scat singing or nonsense syllables
Another hallmark of jazz is its swing rhythms. Traditional rhythms stress the strong beats of a bar. For the non-musically minded, that’s beats one and three in a four-beat bar.
When you swing a rhythm, you stress the off-beats. In a four-beat bar that's beats two and four. It’s the musical version of emphasizing all the wrong syllables when talking. The result is a rhythm that feels less predictable and more fluid.
Because of their name, blue notes have a strong association with blues music. That’s understandable because blue notes exist in the musical space between the blues scale and the standard major scale.
But blue notes are also an integral part of what gives jazz its musical richness. These microtones darken or flatten the phrase being played, despite being in tune themselves.
7 Examples of Jazz Music
No two performances of jazz music are the same. So, when discussing what is jazz music, many people find themselves discussing performances by particular musicians rather than specific songs.
But when looking for a working jazz music definition, there’s a lot of music to choose from. From cool jazz to fusion, here are some of the best examples of jazz music.
With luck, they'll help answer the question, “what is jazz music?”
A-Tisket A-Tasket by Ella Fitzgerald, 1938
Ella Fitzgerald co-wrote “A-Tisket A-Tasket” early in her career. It’s an excellent example of how jazz borrows familiar material from easy-to-remember texts like nursery rhymes for its source material.
Fitzgerald was 17 when she joined the Chick Webb Orchestra. Despite this, the collaboration with Al Feldman on the song quickly became a jazz standard. The song was such a hit that throughout her career, Fitzgerald often stole its lyrics for moments of vocal improvisation in her other songs.
Webb and Fitzgerald even collaborated on a follow-up, “I Found My Yellow Basket”, but it never had the success of the original.
Nuages by Django Rheinhardt, 1940
“Nuages” offers yet another answer to the question of “what is jazz?” Written and performed by Django Rheinhardt, it’s an excellent example of gypsy jazz.
Rheinhardt invented this jazz style by drawing on his Romani heritage. It incorporates fast-paced strumming from the guitarist, who never gets to touch the top of the guitar. Many describe this as akin to playing a musical grace note, except that instead of adding a single note, the overworked guitarist must land an entire chord.
You’ll also hear atypical chord progressions while listening to “Nuages”. This is because of the musical influences that inspired Rheinhart. But it's also because when he came up with the genre, he was injured and couldn’t manage standard major and minor chords. Instead, he integrates a lot of major sevenths and sixths, and a few six-nine chords for variety.
Despite the demands “Nuages” makes on the musician, it has a luxuriously slow, even lugubrious tempo. It’s an excellent introduction to gypsy jazz.
Fever by Peggy Lee, 1958
“Fever” didn’t begin life as a staple of cool jazz. In fact, it was languishing when Peggy Lee transformed it into the jazz music definition of a cool jazz standard.
First sung by Little Willie John, the song began life as one more example of carefully sculpted rhythm and a bit of blues. Lee made it musically seductive, not to mention an instant hit.
Originally, the song featured piano. Lee scrapped that and replaced it with finger snaps that gave the song an undeniable sophistication. Instead of jaunty brass, Lee led into the piece with a throbbing heartbeat of a double bass.
That wasn’t the only thing Lee changed. She also drastically altered the lyrics, showcasing famous love stories throughout history.
Now, it sounded like the promised “Fever” of the title. Everyone loved it. It climbed quickly into the top ten in America as well as Britain.
And while many people have covered this jazz staple since, each bringing their own signature style to the piece, few hold a candle to Lee’s reinvention of the musical wheel.
One Note Samba by João Gilberto, 2018
Another answer to “what is jazz?” is bossa nova. João Gilberto was instrumental in inspiring this fusion of jazz with Brazilian music.
“One Note Samba”is part love song, part playful deconstruction of musical convention. It features many of the jazz conventions, like:
- Scat singing
- Harmonic progressions
The lyrics for “One Note Samba” were written by Newton Mendonça. Later, Jon Hendricks wrote the English lyrics many listeners know.
As you listen to this song, notice the pronounced samba rhythms.
Additionally, “One Note Samba” ably demonstrates how the tamborim or small drum transforms the rhythm of bossa nova. It’s still dance-like, but with a hint of jazz — it swings and sways in unexpected ways.
At a time when jazz was starting to lose its appeal, bossa nova helped inspire a wave of new jazz trends and styles, and the “One Note Samba”, with its wry lyrics and lilting rhythm, was an integral part of that redefinition.
The title comes from the main melody line, which spends much of the song as one long, oft-repeated note. Far from being boring, the underlying chord progression ensures there’s interesting harmonic variety, even while the singer sticks to that one note, with a handful of exceptions.
Despite that recurring one note, the song hit the top of the Billboard 200 in 1963.
Chameleon by Herbie Hancock, 1973
Herbie Hancock wrote this jazz fusion standard in collaboration with Bennie Maupin, Paul Jackson, and Harvey Mason.
The piece is immediately recognizable by its 12-bar bass. Hancock played it on a synthesizer and used a funk beat.
Unlike other jazz standards, which rely on chord progression and melody to progress the piece, funk rhythms heavily emphasize the strong percussive beat of the bass to advance the music.
‘Chameleon' was the result of Hancock’s growing frustration with his music. He was always experimental, and many people are most familiar with him for his score compositions for the film, Blow Up.
To mitigate that frustration, Hancock began practicing Nichiren Buddhism. He spent hours meditating on the problem of his compositions, and it was during one of these visions that he saw himself playing a funk rhythm. Hancock took this as inspiration and disbanded his musicians. He, then, joined forces with Maupin — renowned for soul and funk — along with Mason and Jackson. The result of the collaboration was “Chameleon”.
How High the Moon by Ella Fitzgerald, 1947
“How High the Moon”,as sung here by Ella Fitzgerald, is another song that helps illustrate a jazz music definition. Here, it’s bebop — the style of jazz prominent between the 1940s and 1950s.
Bebop was the successor to Big Band Swing. It’s faster and introduced scat singing to audiences. There’s also a high caliber of musicianship needed in bebop. Unlike its predecessor, this isn’t music to dance to. It’s music for listening.
To that end, the harmonies and improvisations are much more complex. Coupled with the pace of bebop songs, the resulting performances are feet of tremendous vocal and instrumental acrobatics.
Fitzgerald’s “How High the Moon” is an excellent example. From the moment it starts, it moves at a clip. The piano rattles through chord changes, and even though they sound casually thrown out, each one is crucial in getting the music to where it needs to be for Fitzgerald to enter.
It slows down fractionally so that Fitzgerald can get the words out. But that only lasts until the improvisation starts. Then the music takes off, and we get one of Fitzgerald’s classically self-deprecating improvisations before reverting to scatting and a faster pace.
Once it gets moving, “How High the Moon” keeps moving, right up until its grand, orchestral finish. It’s a tour de force performance and a hard act to follow. But it’s also a popular jazz standard and remains a staple of modern jazz.
A Love Supreme by John Coltrane, 1965
“A Love Supreme” is an excellent example of modal jazz. It’s hard to answer the question “what is jazz?” without also talking about the late 1950s turn from using Western keys to modal music formations.
Modes are another way jazz echoes early modern music, and many early church compositions were set to modes rather than keys. Modal jazz was popular with musicians like:
- Miles Davis
- John Coltrane
“A Love Supreme”opens with a four-note theme in the bass line that becomes instrumental to the rest of the song. As it progresses, listeners have the opportunity to pick that theme up in every possible key combination. There are twelve available, and Coltrane uses all of them.
Talking about recording the song, Coltrane’s fellow musicians recall that he gave few verbal directions. Instead, he reproduced the intimacy of the club settings they typically played in since he felt this was where they achieved their most successful performances.
It worked, and the result was an astonishing testament to the years of playing together the group had experienced.
But the song was also personally significant for Coltrane. It became connected to his growing closeness to God and faith. The song came to signify the point at which he resolved to break from drugs and alcohol and embark on a better life.
Top 5 Jazz Musicians
So, that’s a look at what jazz is. But what about the musicians behind it? Here are some of the best-known musicians who helped define jazz music.
William James “Count” Basie appeared on the jazz scene in 1920. He went to Harlem and was soon part of the music scene there.
He left briefly to tour as part of a vaudeville show but found his way back to jazz and a job at Leroy’s, a club famous for its lack of sheet music. Instead, musicians improvised their way through the evening.
Here, Basie met Fats Waller, himself a pianist, and Waller taught Basie to play. By 1929, Basie was in Kansas City and developing a band of his own. By late 1936, he had earned his nickname “Count” and was producing recordings.
The band returned to Harlem, where theirs and Basie’s reputation continued to flourish. As time went on, Basie began supporting other musicians and giving them their openings in much the way Waller had once taught him his way around a piano.
Arthur Tatum was a blind jazz pianist of such technical skill that Fats Waller famously said of him, “I play the piano but tonight God is in the house”.
But before he was God, Tatum got his start on a radio show, playing the interludes between commercials. He soon had his own show. And since Tatum enjoyed the company of fellow musicians, he spent his evening in Harlem’s jazz clubs.
His improvisational skill was such that it soon caught the attention of greats like Duke Ellington and, of course, Waller. He participated in a contest with several other musicians, and his performance of “Tea for Two” sealed his reputation as one of the best jazz pianists of the time.
Ella Fitzgerald’s career began when, at 15, she won a music competition at the Apollo Theatre. She began competing in any and every competition she could find. She did well, and Chick Webb tentatively hired the then-17-year-old Fitzgerald to do a turn in his band. His only condition was that the audience had to like her.
Audiences loved her. Webb hired Ella, and by 1936, she was producing albums. “A-Tisket A-Tasket” launched her to sudden fame in 1938, and from there, there was no going back.
She married Ray Brown in 1946, and through him, met Norman Granz. Granz was convinced Fitzgerald’s fame could become a thing of legend in the right hands, and their initial artistic collaboration became a lasting friendship.
Ganz also happened to be right. Fitzgerald was soon a favorite on television shows and touring internationally. And hearing her sing, George Gerswhin purportedly said he hadn’t realized how good the music he and his brother wrote was until Fitzgerald started singing it.
Thomas Wright Waller or Fats Waller was one of those jazz musicians with a finger in all kinds of pies. He was a jazz pianist first and foremost, but he also played organ and violin. He composed, he sang, and he entertained.
But he was famous for his complex harmonies and unlikely jazz improvisations. His musical output was astonishing, and among the many jazz standards he penned, some of the best known are:
- “Ain’t Misbehavin’”
- “Honeysuckle Rose”
- “Jitterbug Waltz”
He also wrote for Broadway, and his musicals include:
- Keep Shufflin’
- Hot Chocolates
His longtime collaborator was Andy Rafaz, who wrote the lyrics to the music Waller composed.
It turned out Waller’s music really was music to die for when, in 1926, he was kidnapped and taken to Al Capone’s birthday. It, then, emerged that he was a surprise guest, and with a gun to his back, Waller played for the other attendees. He came away unharmed and went on writing and playing until 1943 when he died of pneumonia.
Born Eleanor Fagan, Billie Holiday was a jazz musician who significantly contributed to the musical landscape of the time.
In collaboration with Lester Young, and despite being a vocalist, Holiday took her stylistic cue from jazz instrumentalists.
Holiday got her to start performing in Harlem nightclubs. She was immediately popular with John Hammond, who helped Holiday shape her early career.
She met with tremendous success in the 1930s and 1940s but later was struggling with drug abuse and legal problems. However, she remained popular. After her death, she received several Grammy Awards, and induction into the Grammy Hall of Fame and National Rhythm and Blues Hall of Fame.
The History of Jazz
So, what is jazz music? It began in the late 19th century and grew out of the African-American music tradition. The genre hails from New Orleans, where jazz greats like Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton drew on the ragtime and blues traditions to shape a new kind of music.
It became integral to the Harlem music scene, where it gave black musicians opportunities to perform that weren't available elsewhere.
But jazz music, by definition, isn’t static. As it evolved, it began borrowing from other cultures and genres to create new and innovative kinds of jazz. The result gave us music like:
- Latin jazz
- Gypsy jazz
- Bossa nova
All were recognizably jazz, but all had slightly different rhythmic, harmonic influences.
However, it wasn’t all change, and there remains a set of jazz standards that many musicians use as inspiration for albums, even today.
Contemporary jazz artists continue drawing on a wide range of influences. Some artists preserve the traditional jazz sound of the 1940s and 1950s, while others play more modern jazz, emphasizing hard bop instrumentation. Still, others mix everything from blues to rock ‘n roll with their jazz sound, proving that jazz is one of the most flexible genres out there.
What is Jazz Music? Final Thoughts
By now, it's apparent that jazz comes in all shapes and sizes. Sometimes, jazz music encompasses mellow, slow pieces, and other times they’re fast eclectic show-stopping performances.
Jazz was and will always be an innovative, breakthrough genre. It continues to push musical boundaries and incorporate new cultural and musical influences. That gives jazz music a staying power to move and change the society that not many other genres can boast.
So, what is jazz? It’s music with the power to move its listeners deeply, and in the right hands, change the world.