Speaking the Lingo: A Classical Pianist Explains Jazz

The following article by Jeffrey Chappell appeared in Piano & Keyboard Magazine, July/August 1994 issue.

Classical musicians would say, “Some musicians in our chamber ensemble are coming to a rehearsal to try out their technical abilities on a contemporary composition that has some interesting ostinato phrases.” Jazz musicians would say, “Some cats in our combo are coming to a jam session to try out their chops on a happening chart that has some cool riffs.”

There is a correspondence between all aspects of classical music and jazz. Therefore, it is possible to explain jazz in the terminology of classical music. This short article does not deal with exceptions and details, but it does provide a classically oriented listener a grasp of what happens in the music called jazz.

Just as music in the Baroque, Classical, Romantic, and 20th-century styles is called classical music, so is there a constellation of styles collectively known as jazz. Gaining appreciation of different styles requires listening. First-acquaintance listening experiences might include performances of blues by Bessie Smith; ragtime by Scott Joplin; New Orleans-style jazz by Jelly Roll Morton; big band by Count Basie; bebop by Charlie Parker; modern jazz by Thelonious Monk; cool jazz by Bill Evans; free jazz by Ornette Coleman; and contemporary jazz by Pat Metheny. Also, numerous transcriptions of jazz performances have been published for playing and study.

If you tune into the jazz station on your radio, you will probably hear a small chamber group improvising variations. While jazz can be played on any instrument, the core ensemble is piano, double bass, and drum set, commonly supplemented by saxophone, trumpet, trombone, clarinet, flute, guitar, vibraphones, and/or voice. In a jazz vocalise (“scat singing”), the vocalist uses the voice as an instrument, singing syllables such as “doo-be-doo-bah.”

Within all these parameters, jazz musicians improvise. This mystifies classical performers who never improvise. However, everyone improvises all day long, whether having conversation, making soup, or driving a car.

The theme of a jazz composition (the “head”) is usually a popular song, such as a tune by George Gershwin or Cole Porter. It is 16 or 32 measures long in an A-A-B-A form, with the B section known as the “bridge.” If the song is widely used, it is called a “standard.”

Jazz musicians may also use a blues tune, which is 12 measures long in an A-A-B form. Basic blues has the harmonic progression I-I-I-I-IV-IV-I-I-V-IV-I-I, with all harmonies being dominant-seventh chords. This progression is often made more interesting by the insertion of alternate chords, for example I-IV-I-I-IV-IV-I-VI-II-V-I-I.

The standard procedure is for the whole group to play the theme and then for individual members to play variations (to “solo”), after which the group restates the theme. Prior to the restatement there may be a drum solo or an antiphonal section in which the drums and other instruments alternate playing four measures each (“trading fours”).

Unlike classical music, the variations are played without pauses between them, they are in one tempo throughout, and they do not modulate to another key or mode. Straightforward decoration of the theme, such as one might find in variations by Mozart or Haydn, is optional. A jazz line can include runs and figuration (“licks”), melodic fragments, and passagework, with irregular phrase lengths like those of conversational speech rather than those of verse. This blends harmonically with the theme’s chord progression (the “changes”), which is repeated over and over.

This chord progression is based on classical functional harmony like that of J.S. Bach. Jazz musicians customize it by, for one thing, keeping chords in root position. Because the root is always clearly understood, almost anything can be stacked on top of it and make sense. Simple triads are rare; sevenths, ninths (seconds), 11ths (fourths), and 13ths (sixths) are added, sometimes with chromatic alterations. For example, a dominant seventh chord with G as the root might appear from bottom to top as G-F-B-Eb-Ab-Bb; a C major chord might appear as C-E-A-D-F#-G. These dense, dissonant chords identify the music as unmistakably 20th-century, while the bass line keeps the tradition of functional harmony.

Jazz musicians also use “substitute harmonies” to enrich the chord progression. One of the most common is the tritone substitution, in which a dominant seventh chord is replaced by the dominant seventh chord with the root a tritone away. For example, a G dominant seventh chord would be replaced by a Db dominant seventh chord. The G chord in the preceding paragraph would become Db-F-Cb-Eb-Ab-Bb. This works because the two chords share the notes F and B/Cb.

Typically, the bass player constructs a line in quarter notes, frequently sounding the root of the chord. The pianist supplies the remaining notes. He does this by accompanying the other players (“comping”) with occasional chords during their solos or by using the left hand in the middle register of the piano while playing his solo with the right hand. These chord distributions (“voicings”) in the left hand usually consist of three or four notes, often span the interval of a seventh, and usually have the third or seventh of the chord as the lowest note. Quartal voicings are very serviceable because they provide one of the notes of the basic triad with two other notes. For example, a ii-V-I progression in the key of C major might appear as F-C-E, F-B-E, E-A-D.

Whoever is playing a solo uses notes of a scale that is compatible with the sounding harmony. For example, a C major seventh chord is combined with a C major scale or, for greater color, a C Lydian mode; a C minor seventh chord is combined with a C natural minor scale, or, for greater color, a C Dorian mode; a C dominant seventh chord is combined with an F major scale or, for greater color, a whole-tone scale, a diminished scale (alternating half and whole steps), or the C blues scale (C-Eb-F-F#-G-Bb). The blues scale is also versatile enough to be used with many types of chords, and the chromatic scale can be used with any chord.

Jazz musicians find the chord progression notated as figured bass. The melody is written on a treble staff, above which appear symbols for the chords that coincide with the notes of the melody. This is called a “lead sheet”, and many lead sheets can be bound together to make a “fake book.” The chord symbols provide the bass note plus figures indicating additions to the basic triad. For example, G7 means a dominant seventh chord with G as the root; Cmaj7 means a major seventh chord with C as the root; and Dmin7 means a minor seventh chord with D as the root. Inversions are indicated by writing the lowest note after a slash: G7/D means a G dominant seventh chord with D as the bass note.

In actuality, any piece of music with a chord progression, from a Chopin prelude to a church hymn, could be used as a theme for jazz. This is true because jazz owes its identity more to rhythm than to harmony, in contrast to the opposite situation in classical music. Jazz might be said to be harmonized rhythm.

The principal trait of jazz rhythm is syncopation. This can be manifested by the accentuation of offbeats or the placement of long note values on offbeats. This seems to be the same as classical music except that the experience of pulse is different in jazz. In classical music, the beats in a measure are felt to have unequal strengths, with the first being the strongest. Otherwise, a performance becomes leaden: just think of a Bach minuet counted as ONE-TWO-THREE instead of ONE-Two-three. Syncopated notes under these conditions are, in effect, misplaced strong beats seeking their rightful place. Eventually, the rhythmic tension resolves to a downbeat.

In jazz, 4/4 time is felt as ONE-ONE-ONE-ONE. The evidence of this is that you, the listener, are tapping your foot with equal force on every beat. Against this underpinning, the syncopations are self-sufficient and don’t have to resolve anywhere.

In classical music, the beat is flexible. Accelerando (speeding up) and ritardando (slowing down) are common, and rubato (the stretching and contracting of the rhythm) affects the beat as well. For example, we can stretch the first three notes of the “Blue Danube Waltz” almost indefinitely without losing orientation to the beat. In classical music, it is undesirable to play “metronomically.”

In jazz, it is essential to “keep the time.” This makes it possible to create and to communicate incredible rhythmic variety. In addition to employing syncopations, jazz musicians may weave together different levels of rhythm as polyrhythm; or they may “play off the beat” by slightly anticipating or lagging behind the beat in their placement of the notes. The beat (the “groove”) remains constant throughout. In classical music, the beat is supposed to be felt, not heard. It is an implicit guideline, and foot-tapping is frowned upon. A jazz beat is made explicit by the drummer.

Jazz often “swings.” What is notated as two eighth notes is performed approximately as a triplet: a quarter note plus an eighth note. Thus, 4/4 meter is actually performed as 12/8. Because of the 1-1-1-1 beat, a swinging 12/8 is experienced as a presto 3/8 + 3/8 + 3/8 + 3/8, which gives the music enormous vitality.

The amount of swing increases or decreases depending on the tempo of the piece. A slow piece (“ballad”) can swing a lot, but a fast piece (“uptempo”) leaves little time to swing. However, there is another element to swing that applies even in fast tempos: the accentuation of the offbeats. Eight eighth notes in 4/4 time will have emphases on the second, fourth, sixth, and/or eighth notes.

Within all these parameters, jazz musicians improvise. This mystifies classical performers who never improvise. However, everyone improvises all day long, whether having conversation, making soup, or driving a car. It consists of making choices based on changing circumstances and of drawing new connections between familiar elements.

Jazz musicians may improvise by keeping track of the chord progression and choosing notes from compatible scales; by purposely incorporating silence, repetition, and contrasts of dynamic, articulation, and register; by aiming for the root, third, fifth, or seventh of a chord or by emphasizing certain notes of the theme; by building phrases from the last note of the preceding phrase, or on rhythmic or melodic motives from the preceding phrase, or from completely unrelated ideas; by using a vocabulary of learned phrases that can be transposed to any key and adapted to any circumstance; and by intending to shape a beginning, middle, and end to the solo as well as a climax.

However, masterful jazz musicians go beyond these techniques. They seek to establish an inner state of flow that automatically brings the right results. Their ideal is the spontaneous expression of their own feelings and ideas at the moment of performing. As such, jazz musicians hold honesty and imagination as the highest values in a musical performance.

This can lead to some misunderstandings on the part of jazz musicians about classical music, in which composers have ideas and performers execute them. Classical performers recite, just as actors speak their lines. Classical music is a portrayal: the singer is not Carmen, the pianist is not Liszt, and the folk tunes are not played by folk musicians.

Jazz musicians do not portray; they present themselves. They wonder why classical performers would give up their own voice. On their part, classical musicians may feel that Handel or Ravel express what they want to express better than they could themselves. Also, someone else’s music might awaken feelings that they weren’t aware of having, which is one of the greatest benefits of playing classical music.

In both jazz and classical music there are performers who hide behind technical brilliance, imitation of other performers, and repetition of the familiar. There are exhibitionists who say, in effect, “I want to show what I can do.” But jazz and classical musicians prize the players concerned with the essence of music that transcends the instrument it is played on. Classical music says, “Don’t show what you can do, show what music can do.” Jazz says, “Don’t show what you can do, show who you are.”

The fact is that jazz and classical musicians share the same ideals in performance: honesty, imagination, spontaneity, flow, risk-taking, and freedom. These may seem to be the traits of an improvised performance, and they are. Improvisation must be the oldest form of music-making and, as such, is not strictly the domain of jazz. Before the historically recent specialization and compartmentalization of composers and performers, classical musicians were expected to have improvisation skills. Composers have always improvised; Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven were famous for it. In one sense, composition is edited improvisation, and both composers and performers take great care to create the effect of an improvisation when they make music.

Improvisers don’t play from a page of music; they play from their own musicality. However, classical performers also do this as they internalize the composer’s set of instructions and then re-create the impulses that originated it. Whether we play Schubert or Dizzy Gillespie, music starts inside us and moves out; it is expressed. The music is not in the instrument, nor is it on the page in front of us. We are the music.

The difference is whether we play the notes we choose or the notes that someone else chooses for us. A path is laid out for classical musicians: the notes are in a predetermined sequence from which the classical player must not deviate. Jazz musicians are assigned no such path. Although the changes and the groove point the direction for them, during improvised solos jazz musicians make their path as they go.

Jazz musicians are expected to deviate from, if not transform, a score. Their individuality lies partly in which notes they play, and they object to the idea of playing the same notes over and over again. Each performance should be different. Nonetheless, no two performances of a piece of classical music are the same. Classical musicians’ individuality lies not in which notes they play but in how they play the notes-namely, the tempo, rubato, dynamic range, and sonority they choose and achieve-and this will be different in every case.

Naturally, classical musicians repeat the same notes. A classic is something that bears repetition, whether it is a Brahms quintet or the story of Little Red Riding Hood. Give jazz musicians a Miles Davis recording, and they too will listen to the same notes over and over again.

Both jazz and classical musicians feel that their music encompasses the whole range of human expression. It is true that there are infinite possibilities within jazz styles and within classical styles, but to be infinite does not mean to be all-embracing. If jazz could express what classical music expresses and vice versa, the music would sound identical. The only music that encompasses the whole range of human expression is all of music.

Classical music expresses the formal, the abstract, the aristocratic. It sings. It reaches for the heavens. Passionate, it sublimates sex. There is no virginity in jazz. Jazz expresses the unceremonious, the worldly, the popular. It dances, and with each tap of the foot, jazz musicians reaffirm their connection to the earth. Its casual nature is evidenced by the inoffensiveness of wrong notes being played; by singers taking breath sometimes without relations to lyrics; and by audiences applauding and bandleaders introducing musicians during a performance. With its root-position chords, exotic scales, and syncopated rhythms, jazz shares the characteristics of many types of folk music. The jazz term for classical music — “legit”, as in legitimate — underscores the feeling of being outside higher society.

Raise your eyebrows, smile, and say “Aaahhh!” That’s classical music. Lower your eyebrows, smile, and say “Yeahh!” That’s jazz.

Listen to Jeffrey Chappell being interviewed about a life in music in this half-hour “Muse Mentors” podcast from October 2020.