Jazz 101: An Introduction


Today, we’ll be starting a new series following anthropologist, critic, and scholar John F. Szwed’s book, “Jazz 101: A Complete Guide to Learning and Loving Jazz“.

As a genre, jazz has had a rough time, relatively speaking. Of course, it gets plenty of attention from scholars and musicians alike, but, much like classical music, has always had a reputation of inaccessibility. A lot of people say they just “don’t get it”, or claim that it’s boring or too hard to follow.

I used to belong to this way of thinking too. But over the years, I’ve made several efforts to expand my musical tastes. Jazz has always been a genre that I wish I understood more. So this series is also an effort to learn what I can about this elusive genre, and hopefully shed some light on it, to make it more accessible to others who share an interest.

Jazz 101

Szwed starts off the book with an overview of the history of jazz, giving us some context for the coming chapters. He also states quite clearly the current state of the overall perception of jazz as a genre, claiming it finds itself stuck between the classical music “elite” and the populist centrists.

“It is excluded on one side as merely ‘pop music’ and on the other as being no longer popular; neglected because of its lack of pedigree and ignored commercially because it doesn’t sell enough records” (p. 5).

This is where we find jazz. Too wandering and “simple” to be valued by classical scholars, and too far off the beaten path to be adopted by the mainstream culture. And like all uninformed judgments, these are both examples of not only a lack of appreciation, but of understanding as well. It’s easy to see why jazz is currently overlooked, but that wasn’t always the case.

Historical Context

Jazz started off in the 1920s in New Orleans. “New Orleans was the perfect city for all of these elements to come together, as it was a port city, a meeting place for people of different ethnic groups, and a city with a nightlife where musicians had the opportunity to play together, learn from each other, and blend all of these elements”.

Jazz continued to develop in America through the 1950s, but it wasn’t until the ’60s that it began to really fuse with other genres.

“In the 1960s jazz established its ‘new,’ which would stay new for years. At the same time, bebop moved to become the center of jazz, and swing underwent a late revival. It was the beginning of permanent diversity in jazz” (p. 4).

This diversity in jazz had no bounds. Musicians were fusing folk, popular, and classical music of all types into something new. The trend spread, as around the world other musicians started to see new possibilities, adopting elements of jazz and improvisation as valuable resources.

Breaking Norms

One thing that sits at the heart of jazz is an impulse to defy expectation and break the mold.

“Jazz was perhaps the first art to challenge the definition of high European culture as the culture, the first to challenge the cultural canon, the idea of the classics as ‘time-honored’ and ‘serious'” (p. 8).

This characteristic resulted in poor critical reception as jazz was getting its footing. And there’s just something very American about the way it challenged traditions, cultures, and ‘high society’.

“Jazz was postmodern before we knew what that was, shamelessly borrowing anything not fastened down, ignoring origins and cultural status; mocking hierarchies and pomposity, relishing contradiction and absurdity” (p. 9).

Final Thoughts

Despite the misconceptions many people have toward jazz, new faces continue to emerge, waving the jazz flag proudly. While we can be confident that jazz as a genre will survive for the foreseeable future, what form it will take is another thing entirely.

“Jazz continues to define and give shape to American culture, even as it is becoming more popular elsewhere in the world” (p. 10).

Although it may have started as a culturally American genre, jazz has now evolved past that. Indeed, with the way modern musicians are approaching music, it’s hard to say anymore that one form of music ‘belongs’ to anyone at all. One particular passage at the end of the first chapter hits on this quite effectively.

“There are still others who embrace another kind of purism in jazz, one which sees music as free from function, tradition, ethnic origin, and the like. For them, lines crossed in music are natural, not artificial or arbitrary, for music knows no boundaries” (p. 11).


Next time, we’ll look at how Szwed defines jazz, and introduce some of the elements which comprise it.


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