Jazz 101: The Elements


Today, we’ll be continuing our discussion of John Szwed’s “Jazz 101: A Complete Guide to Learning and Loving Jazz“.

Last time, we introduced this new series, and gave a brief overview of the history of jazz as a genre. We looked at the diversity seen in jazz over the years, how the genre has evolved, as well as how it’s perceived today. We also discussed some of the misconceptions surrounding jazz, and touched on a few of its defining features.

Today, we’ll get a little more in depth, and start to look at the different elements that make up jazz. Due to its evolution and splintering off into sub-genres, not all of these elements will be found in every jazz song that you hear. Rather, these are more general elements that characterize jazz music in a broader, and more historical context.


Szwed lists only two distinct elements that are found in jazz, and their names should come as no surprise, as they’re elements that make up all types of music.

Harmony and Melody

What may come as a surprise, is that Szwed considers melody to be the least unique element, because “jazz music has freely used virtually anything as a melody at one time or another” (p. 26). The reason behind this goes back to something we covered in the last article, which the nature of jazz shamelessly borrowing from anything and everything.

“An equally large variety of harmonic structure has been used in jazz, for every note used in a melody can imply a different chord or chords: the groups of notes that trace the movement of the melody and that form a configuration in relation to a scale or key” (p. 26).


Szwed dedicates most of the space in his chapter on elements to rhythm and its accompanying terms. Just for the sake of clarity, we’ll review a few that are likely to come up again.

Tempo refers to the speed of a piece. A beat is a heard or felt pulse of the music. Meter refers to a grouping of beats that are based on their repeating pattern. A bar or measure is a group of beats based on the meter. Certain beats can be heard as “strong” or “weak”, depending on their placement and emphasis.

“In early jazz, especially, the first and the third beats of the bar were emphasized, often leaving the second and fourth beats silent, with a resulting ‘boom-chick’ feel” (p.29). This particular pattern is known as the two-beat. When you take this pattern and invert it, you get what’s called a backbeat. Szwed also adds that, “Time in music is a highly subjective matter, and jazz often makes a virtue of what others might see as a problem” (p.30).

Other Terms

Szwed closes the rest of the chapter by describing a variety of different rhythm techniques used by drummers. He also touches on the relationship in jazz between the rhythm section and the rest of the band.

Double-time refers to when one or more instruments in an ensemble doubles their tempo, while the others maintain the original tempo. “This is a standard device in ballad or slow tempo playing that allows the soloist to display a range of abilities and express different responses to the original melody” (p.30).

The break is a momentary suspension of the accompaniment, while the soloist continues to play. “The affect it creates is one of tension release, but when the rhythm returns it can suggest that the whole piece seems to accelerate (p. 30).

Final Thoughts

The rhythm section in a jazz ensemble is an integral part of jazz music. “The idea of a section implies a unity, an internal interaction that operates somewhat apart from the rest of the instruments of the band” (p. 31). While the main concern of any rhythm section is to mark the time, in jazz, there is a more intimate connection between it and the rest of the ensemble.

“This interaction with a rhythm section is so strong that even when jazz musicians play solo, they operate as if a rhythm section is implied” (p. 33). Jazz rhythm sections play more interactively, with the beat shifting, rather than staying fixed and rigid.

Hopefully, this shed some light on the elements of jazz in contrast to other genres of music. To recap, melody is borrowed from anything and everything, and takes second place to rhythm in jazz.

Next time, we’ll discuss the different forms of jazz, and begin to look into improvisation, composition, and arranging.


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