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What Is Jazz?

Notable musicians consider an old question that warrants re-asking in the year 2021

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What is Jazz?
Jahi Sundance (and friend Riley Kirkland Glasper): “What I want people to know is the music that came before the music that they love.” (Photo: Joseph Allen)

Is Merriam-Webster’s definition of jazz, “American music developed especially from ragtime and blues,” valid in South Africa or Brazil? Is the first sentence of the National Museum of American History’s “What Is Jazz?” essay (which was the first thing that came up when I Googled “what is jazz”), “Jazz is a kind of music in which improvisation is typically an important part,” valid for Billie Holiday’s music? Is the last sentence of that same essay, “Jazz is one of the United States’ greatest exports to the world,” accurate and comprehensive enough in this era of global connectivity and instantaneous communication?

Looking at these questions, it’s tempting to invoke the parable of the blind men and the elephant and say that no one person has the answer because each person attempting to answer can only touch a small part of the music. But doing this ignores the fact that the definers have eyes that work, eyes that can enable them to see the full totality of the music. The blindness of those giving insufficient explanations is blindness they’ve chosen. 

The cultural arbiters of the United States of America are currently engaged in a controversy over the true arc of American history. This controversy is a battle between those who defend the presence of the American caste system and those who see America’s reliance on that system—like reliance on fossil fuels—as untenable, and have decided that now is the moment to transition to a new cultural fuel.

Everything African Americans have accomplished has required navigation through and contest with the American caste system. The reality is that a major portion of the nation’s evolutionary energy has been consumed by the fraught project of harmonizing the intercultural dissonance built into the foundation of this country, and the fact that the concept of a fully existent African America is by nature fundamentally at odds with foundational tenets of the American project needs to be recognized when you speak about American culture. Any statement about America, about American life’s birth and progress, should be seen in that light. And that would include statements about jazz, “one of the United States’ greatest exports to the world.”

Having come this far with me, you may now see that when you ask, “What is jazz?”, you’re not just asking a question about a form of music. You’re asking, “What is this piece of American culture’s relationship to the American caste system and the evolutionary process of harmonizing intercultural dissonance?”


At this point, some of you readers must surely be saying, “So what? None of this changes the fact that Miles Davis made Kind of Blue, and none of this changes the reality that his record can spin on my turntable whenever I want it to.”

To the So-Whatters I offer this: The greatness you feel when you hear Kind of Blue is your greatness, is every human’s greatness. We all carry the greatness of Kind of Blue inside of us. But to access that greatness in our own lives, we have to allow ourselves to get to the heart of what Kind of Blue really is. We have to listen on another level. Listening on that other level is a commitment. That commitment involves the human family as a whole. Getting to the heart of Kind of Blue means getting to the same level of humanity that Miles Davis reached. I’m asking you to, in the comfort of this moment in your life, manifest the same humanity Miles Davis did when he brought Bill Evans into his band back in the days of legal segregation. 

Being fully heard is what we strive for. This is why so many of us find the word we’re using to describe the music problematic.


While formulating an answer to the question “What is jazz?”, I found it useful to examine the process that the science of physics took to arrive at its current “What is?” In short, Sir Isaac Newton’s work in the 1600s defined scientific progress and led to the Industrial Revolution, which in turn led to what we think of as the modern world. Then, in the early 20th century, Albert Einstein and his contemporaries looked further, dug deeper, and found a fuller, more accurate explanation of physical reality. Their explanation in many ways contradicts Newton’s. But, paradoxically, both explanations are correct. Future scientific progress will be made by digging even deeper where Einstein and his contemporaries dug. Newton’s explanations, while true as far as they go, weren’t comprehensive enough to give us the technology we currently depend on. In a similar way, the definitions of jazz that have been disseminated by the American cultural/institutional powers-that-be and their supporters are not enough to keep the music moving forward. We need to look at the Einsteins of jazz and their contemporaries, and the new generation of musicians building on their knowledge. 

The builders I reached out to include pianist/composer Vijay Iyer; trumpeter/composer Ambrose Akinmusire; vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Georgia Anne Muldrow; drummer Will Calhoun; DJ/producer Jahi Sundance; and bassist/composer MonoNeon. 

So, what is jazz?


First things first. Jazz was created by African Americans. In the words of Vijay Iyer, “This thing that’s been called jazz is Black music. What that means is that it was created by Black people. Lots of very interesting Black people in the 20th century under circumstances of extreme adversity and oppression and dispossession made something that changed the world—and continues to. That’s the legacy that we all study.” 

This comes first because when you ask, “What is jazz?” you have to come to grips with the reality that what you’re really asking is “What is it like to live life as a Black American?” And when you listen to the creators and innovators of the music, you should take time to ponder that what you’re hearing is their answer to that question. 

When an explanation of jazz starts with “Jazz is a kind of music in which improvisation is typically an important part,” recognize that to fully address the improvisatory nature of jazz you have to address the improvisatory nature of Black life. In the context of African America, improvisation is not a separate skill. It’s a core competency.


Ambrose Akinmusire explains, “It’s the sonic representation of how Black people navigate through the world. The improvised element. It’s the never know[ing] what’s coming your way, but reacting and staying calm and knowing that no matter what it is there’s a way to spin it and make it work.” Georgia Anne Muldrow adds, “The solo does not stop when you leave the stage. It’s about what you observe in life. It’s about how you process your world, and how that input translates into output.”

To put it in concrete terms, every time I’m stopped by a police officer it’s a new solo. I cannot depend on what I did last time, and I don’t have the luxury of not practicing for it. In 1959, right after Kind of Blue came out, Miles Davis got beaten by New York police in front of Birdland, where his name was on the marquee. None of the audience intervened. They didn’t know how to comp that solo. They didn’t even know the changes. They had no need to. I mention this because you need to understand that when the question “What is jazz?” is posed by Black Americans, there’s another question lurking inside it: “What needs to be done so that the cops don’t beat my ass?” 

Heed the words of Jahi Sundance: “If you listen to Duke Ellington’s music and Count Basie’s music you hear the struggle. All through the fuckin’ music. You listen to Coltrane’s music, you hear the struggle all through the music. Miles … all through the music …” To this roll call I add the names Sun Ra, Charles Mingus, Max Roach, and Randy Weston.


“I always ask fellow non-Black musicians, and students in particular, ‘How do you make sense of your relationship to that struggle, to that history?’” Iyer says. “It’s more than that this is Black music in some sort of abstract sense. If you care about the music, you have to care about the people. What are you doing for the never-ending battle for justice and equity, on this shore or any other?”

Speaking about his work with Robert Glasper, Jahi notes, “One of my functions is to bring the direct narrative back to the audience, ’cause they lost it somewhere. Somewhere they forgot that Trane wrote ‘Alabama’ for a fuckin’ reason. So I bring this narrative into the show that redirects them, back into a position of ‘No, you need to listen, [it’s] not just some cute notes so you could tell somebody on your ’Gram you went to see some jazz, but you need to try to take in some of this shit that we’re putting into the music.’”



Melvin Gibbs

Melvin Gibbs is a bass guitarist, composer, and producer whose 40-year career has featured work with Defunkt, Ronald Shannon Jackson’s Decoding Society, Eye and I, Sonny Sharrock, John Zorn, Rollins Band, Eddie Palmieri, Femi Kuti, and Arto Lindsay, among many others. He is currently one-third of the trio Harriet Tubman with guitarist Brandon Ross and drummer J.T. Lewis. In the 1980s, he was an original member of the Black Rock Coalition.