Chapter 3: Jazz in America
* The Author: Dr. Paul Beaudoin, Department of Music, Fitchburg State College
- degrees from University of Miami in Coral Gables, the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, MA and a Ph.D. in Music
Theory and Composition from Brandeis University in 2002
-teaches music theory, history, composition and clarinet
-2003: awarded Northeastern University’s Excellence in Teaching Award
-Compositions of acoustic and electronic music recorded on the Wergo and CeC labels
-2008: “Music in the U.S.A.: A Documentary Companion,” written with Dr. Judith Tick, published by Oxford University Press
(I. September 15, 2009 – Class 8)
With its propulsive and syncopated rhythms, improvisatory melodic freedom, and collaborative
creation, jazz is a music that remains difficult to define. When asked to define it, Louis
Armstrong's answer was quintessential: "If you have to ask," he said, "you'll never know."
Originally a musical expression of African American musicians in and around New Orleans at
the end of the nineteenth century, jazz has now transcended racial, ethnic and geographical
boundaries. Like the diversity that characterizes America, jazz too blends elements of African,
Caribbean, and western European culture and is a democratic music where the individual
expression of its creator is a treasured attribute.
Jazz is deeply rooted in an oral tradition and this is one reason why its earliest years are
shrouded in controversy. The vibrant immediacy of jazz is difficult to capture in music notation
making jazz more ephemeral than many other kinds of western music. On the other hand, jazz is
a music that has the advantage of coinciding with the advent of recording technology that is often used to preserve its rich legacies.
Two of the most essential aspects of jazz are syncopation and improvisation. Syncopation is the effect of displacing the emphasis so
that the strong beats are undermined and the weaker beats strengthened. Since much of the music we listen to in western culture
strongly emphasizes the metrical placement of the beat (or pulse), the frequent use of syncopation is an aspect that instantly identifies
the jazz sound.
Improvisation is the ability to compose and perform instantaneously, essentially "making up" music on the spot. When a vocalist
creates an improvisation, it is called scat singing. In scat singing, singers use nonsense words or syllables that can often sound like
One of the most common structural forms in jazz is that the improvised section comes in between two statements of the main tune.
The tune, or head as it is usually called in jazz, is a generally straightforward performance of the composed music. When the
improvisation takes place, the basic elements of the head continue (a sequence of chord progressions, bass lines, etc.) but now the
melodic line is replaced with an improvised one. This section is often of indeterminate length but generally lasts as long as it takes for