What Is Jazz?

2017 saw the celebration of 100 years of jazz... We wanted to take the opportunity to take a close look at this ineffable, timeless genre.

What Is Jazz?
Le trompettiste Louis Armstrong en studio d'enregistrement avec les Dukes of Dixieland, au début des années 1960., © Getty

Jazz cannot be easily defined in the same way as baroque music or a sonata. To date, there is no 'official', or at least no single, definition. Jazz is a genre that brings together a hundred others.

If we were to attempt to outline it, we could say that jazz was born in the early twentieth century in the United States, and more specifically in New Orleans. It celebrated its 100th anniversary this year because the first recording considered as jazz music dates from February 1917. It's a 78 of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band.

Les musiciens de l'Original Dixieland Jazz Band, en 1920.
Les musiciens de l'Original Dixieland Jazz Band, en 1920. , © Getty

Did jazz not exist before 1917? Of course it did, but in other forms and under different names... The origin of the term is also the subject of mystery: is it a derivative of the French word jaser or the English orgasm? Could it be a contraction of jackass? 

Jazz is perhaps not easily defined because it is as complex and in-flux as a living being. When the producer of the France Musique Open Jazz show, Alex Dutilh, was asked how he would define the music that has animated his show for more than twenty years, he told us:

"Jazz is a vampire who, since birth, has sucked the blood of other music to regenerate. Mostly for love. He goes out at night and his keen sense of improvisation allows him to thwart attempts of confinement. When in shape (as a soloist, small group or organised band), we recognise its silhouette, which has sway that golfers call swing and geeks call groove. Every ten years his death is announced and every ten years he invents a new youth. Jazz has the wrinkles of its lost heroes and displays the youthful smile of those who look the future right in the eye. "

Alex Dutilh
Alex Dutilh, © Radio France / Christophe Abramowitz

Intriguing, no? In this beautiful and poetic definition, Alex Dutilh details the characteristic features of jazz. Here are the main ingredients ...


« Jazz is a vampire who, since birth, has sucked the blood of other music to regenerate »

Jazz is sometimes defined as the encounter between African music, brought into the United States by slaves, and classical European repertoire. A fusion of the songs and rhythms of the black peoples with European harmonic conventions.

But it's not really that simple, jazz was born out of all music, as it has  continued to evolve and absorb other genres throughout its history. Though 1920s jazz is full of traces of negro spirituals (in songs like Go Down Moses and Let My People Go by Louis Armstrong), ragtime and blues, other varied musical influences can also be found. 

Jazz musicians continue to cultivate their music, developing and exploring their instruments, building or changing their bands, and mixing musical genres, to survive, adapt and to retaliate against the commercial reappropriation of their art.

An Inner Bad Boy 

"He goes out at night"

Jazz is a vampire, not a prince or a brave soldier. And this is an essential point for anyone interested in its history: jazz music was not born in beautiful salons. It was, by contrast, cradled in the saloons of New Orleans, a port city known for its brothels and bandits, with the music acting as a response to the passion of those who wanted to abandon themselves to debauchery.

Even as jazz began to conquer the cabarets of Chicago and New York, it remained associated with unsavoury places and bad personalities. It was only later that it was popularised by performers such as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington or Cab Calloway and began to lose its dark side. 

Jazz was also branded as 'black' music by the segregated, racist American society of the time. Not all early Jazz musicians were African-American - the Dixieland Jazz Band was composed of white musicians - but it was initially most popular amongst the American black community.

Today jazz has spread around the world from Europe to Japan, and has been adopted by so many artists. There is, however, still a whisper of the Bad boy of the New Orleans saloons and Harlem clubs. 


"His keen sense of improvisation allows him to thwart attempts of confinement"

Jazz has been compared to early, baroque music. And rightly so ... because the musicians of the past centuries, particularly before the invention of printing presses, did not use scores. They performed from memory, allowing performances to be shaped by improvisation. They listened to each other and adapted to each others' playing, without the support of sheet music. 

It's the same for jazz musicians: they let themselves go, listen and play, in both senses of the word. Take Louis Armstrong for example, in the 1920s he expertly reinterpreted American standards, that were thought to have been entirely exhausted. It will also be one of the great talents of singer Ella Fitzgerald, to give new life to decade old popular songs.

Armstrong and Fitzgerald are also very impressive scat singers; jazz musicians improvise with every instrument, including the voice.

Though the genre diverged to encompass Benny Goodman's swing, Charlie Parker's bebop, Miles Davis' cool jazz and saxophonist Ornette Coleman's free jazz, improvisation remained at its heart. A jazz musician can listen and play with melody and rhythm, without knowing how to read music.

And that Swing!

"We recognise its silhouette, which has sway that golfers call swing and geeks call groove"

What is swing? It is hard to extricated Jazz from Swing... they are so closely intertwined. You could say that the music has a beat and not just a rhythm, measures, that it sways and is brought to life. 

Everybody has a different kind of swing. "But, let's see ... the swing is ... well, we feel it, somehow ..." Ella Fitzgerald told a journalist. Glenn Miller said that "It's something you have to feel; a sensation that can be transmitted to others," while for Ozzie Nelson, swing is" a compact firmness in the attack, combining the rhythm section with the other instruments, to make those who hear it want to dance".

There's the swing of the big bands and Count Basie, as well as that of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillepsie... It's a complex thing and just like improvisation, swing is an integral part of jazz.


"Every ten years his death is announced and every ten years he invents a new youth." 

Jazz is only a hundred years old, a very small period of time in the history of music. And yet it has already lived a thousand lives: it began as  improvised music in clubs and cabarets, transformed into orchestral and dance music, and has also existed as free, cool be-bop. 

It usually regenerates when it is in some way limited or threatened. Be-bop was born in the 1940s, as a reaction to the discipline of the big band orchestras. Be-bop musicians, such as pianist Thelonious Monk and saxophonist Charlie Parker, wanted to let go and return to the roots of their music.

Nearly twenty years later, the free jazz movement pushed the structural limits of jazz even further. Rhythmic and harmonic norms were revolutionised by the experimentation of Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor and Charles Mingus. This renewal was not only musical, it also represented a shift in sources of inspiration and means of distribution. 

As early as the 1930s, European tours by Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington took the genre to Europe, particularly Paris, where it was supported by  figures such as producer Hugues Panassié and almost more favourably received than in the United States.

Though jazz is a spontaneous form of music driven by inspiration and improvisation, it has been used to great effect in records and on the radio. It has therefore not only been influenced by great artists but also by major producers, most notably Hugues Panassié in France and Norman Granz in the United States. Without these recordings, much of this spontaneously composed, unnotated music might have been lost....