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Jazz vs. Classical Music


Upon entering a modern record store, one is confronted with a 
wide variety of choices in recorded music. These choices not only 
include a multitude of artists, but also a wide diversity of music 
categories. These categories run the gamut from easy listening dance 
music to more complex art music. On the complex side of the scale are 
the categories known as Jazz and Classical music. Some of the most 
accomplished musicians of our time have devoted themselves to a 
lifelong study of Jazz or Classical music, and a few exceptional 
musicians have actually mastered both. A comparison of classical and 
Jazz music will yield some interesting results and could also lead to 
an appreciation of the abilities needed to perform or compose these 
kinds of music.

 Let's begin with a look at the histories of the two. The music 
called classical, found in stores and performed regularly by
symphonies around the world, spans a length of time from 1600 up to 
the present. This time frame includes the Renaissance, Baroque, 
Classical, Romantic and Contemporary periods. The classical period of 
music actually spans a time from of 1750 to 1800; thus, the term 
Classical is a misnomer and could more correctly be changed to Western 
Art Music or European Art Music. European because most of the major 
composers up till the 20th century were European. Vivaldi was Italian, 
Bach was German, Mozart and Beethoven were Austrian; they are some of 
the more prominent composers. Not until the twentieth century with 
Gershwin and a few others do we find American composers writing this 
kind of art music. For the sake of convention, we can refer to Western 
Art Music as Classical music.

 Jazz is a distinctively American form of music, and it's history 
occupies a much smaller span of time. Its origins are found in the
early 1900s as some dance band leaders in the southern U.S. began 
playing music that combined ragtime and blues. Early exponents of this 
dance music were Jelly Roll Martin (a blues player) and Scott Joplin 
(ragtime). The terms "Jazz" and "Jazz Band" first surfaced in the year 
1900. Some say this occurred in New Orleans, although similar music 
was played at the same time in other places. The most prominent 
exponents of this early music, called Dixieland Jazz, included Louis 
Armstrong and Sidney Bechet. After World War I, Jazz music had evolved 
and was aided by the development of the recording industry. The
small dance band ensemble grew into the larger orchestra known as the 
"Big Band". The music of the Big Bands became known as "Swing." Two of 
the more famous Swing band leaders were Tommy Dorsey and Harry James. 
In the late 40s and through the 50s, a different kind of Jazz became 
popular. This music, played by a very small ensemble, was much more
sophisticated and complex . Its rich harmonic changes and melodic 
counterpoint were not conducive to dance. It became known as "Bop," 
with Charlie Parker and Dizzie Gillespie being the early proponents. 
In the last twenty years there has been a combination of Jazz with 
popular music of the US and Latin America. This modern Jazz music has 
been called "Fusion." Present day exponents include Pat Metheny and 
Chic Corea. There has also been a return to the sound of Bop in the 
last ten years by such musicians as trumpeter Winton Marsalis and his 
brother Branford, a saxophonist.

 Let's focus on the instrumentation of the two kinds of music. In 
Classical music, both large orchestras and small ensembles are used. 
But generally, the greatest and most prominent compositions are for 
the larger symphony orchestra. The largest part of the orchestra is 
the string section consisting of violins, violas, cellos and string 
basses. These instruments were invented very early in medieval times 
but really matured into their present form during the late 18th 
century. The wind instruments, comprised of brass and woodwinds, took 
longer to mature. The brass section in particular did not posses the 
ability to play chromatically (in all keys) until the advent of valves 
which allowed the length of the instrument to be changed while 
playing. This occurred around the middle to late 19th century. 
Consequently, the brass instruments are less prominent in the music of 
Bach, Mozart and Beethoven along with their contemporaries. Late 19th 
and early 20th century composers make use of a very large orchestra 
with all the fully developed wind instruments. Some of the master 
orchestrator/composers of this time were: Wagner, Rimskey-Korsakov, 
Ravel and Stravinsky. Currently, composers also make use of the full 
orchestra but with the addition of increasingly larger percussion 
sections which add many unique and unheard of sounds than in earlier 

 Early Jazz music was played in small ensembles making use of 
clarinet, tuba, cornet, baritone, drums, and piano. Dixieland groups 
of New Orleans had similar instrumentation. During the Swing era, 
larger groups were employed to achieve more of an orchestral sound. 
The Big Bands of the this era were predominantly wind orchestras 
containing alto and tenor sax sections, trumpet and trombone sections, 
along with piano and drums. When Bop music arrived, the alto saxophone 
and trumpet were the preferred instruments of the major soloists who 
were backed up by piano, string bass and drums. With the advent of
Fusion, electric instruments such as the electric guitar and keyboard 
synthesizer became prominent.

 How has each of these kinds of music been transmitted to later 
generations of musicians? Early in the evolution of classical music, a 
system of notation was gradually developed which for the most part 
remained stable from the Renaissance on. This gave the composer 
control over how his compositions were to be played. Throughout the 
history of Jazz, however, notation was more like a rough sketch. This 
was because the syncopated rhythms of ragtime and the melodic riffs of 
the blues were not easily notated. Also, early Jazz musicians were not 
formally trained; they usually learned by ear. Some songs were 
transcribed and written down, but not in precise ways. Jazz music 
became more of a passed on tradition that a musician learned through
interaction with other players. In a similar way, the modern Jazz 
musician must rely on previous recordings to get a feel for the
style and technique which he desires to learn from. But in classical 
music, one composer can learn from an older composer by looking at and 
analyzing the music that the previous composer wrote down. Likewise, 
classical musicians can master the parts they must play by practicing 
the music that has been written or published beforehand. These two 
approaches to passing on tradition are both valid. However, without 
the recording medium Jazz music might have developed much differently 
than it has.

 The cohesive element that keeps a musical group together is also 
an interesting contrast. In Classical music, the conductor uses a 
baton and plays the orchestra as if it were his instrument; he looks 
at a complete score of all the events happening in the composition and 
interprets these events based on his knowledge and intuition of what 
the composer intended. Jazz groups rarely utilize conductors. The 
swing era employed them for the sake of keeping the larger sized group 
together but other jazz styles did not and do not to this day. The 
drummer of the Jazz ensemble provides the beat that keeps the group 
together but even he is interacting with the other soloists as the 
song is performed.

 Perhaps the most interesting point of comparison between the two 
types of music is in improvisation. Improvisation is the ability to 
play and compose spontaneously "on the spot" while the music is 
playing. This has been an important element of Jazz from it's 
inception. Although improvisation was less prominent during the swing 
era, it regained importance with Bop and onward. Early Jazz was 
improvised, using ragtime and blues as a loose structure. In the swing 
era, popular songs were arranged by an arranger and soloists played 
improvisations over the repeating sections in order to lengthen the 
song for dancing. With the advent of Bop, improvisation assumed great 
importance. The musicians memorized the chord changes to a song, along 
with the melody, but then played very loosely and in the end 
substituted new chords along with greatly embellishing the original 
melody to the point of being unrecognizable. These factors, along with 
the ability to interact with each other, became important and remains 
so in the Fusion music of today.

 In Classical music, modern listeners are mostly unaware of the 
fact that many of the great composers of the past were not only
excellent performers but also great improvisers. Starting with J.S. 
Bach (1685-1750), the greatest composer of the Baroque era, he in fact 
made his living through his great skill as an improvisor. It was 
common for the Lutheran Church organist of his day be able to 
improvise on choral melodies and Bach was considered one of the 
greatest at this. There are written accounts of other composers 
improvisational abilities including Mozart (1756-1791), Beethoven 
(1770-1829), and Franz Liszt (1811-1886). Yet, as time went on, 
improvising gave way to the composer's desire to exert complete 
control over his music. By the late 19th century, improvising was rare 
and not used at all in public performances of classical music.

 In summation, we can say that Jazz and Classical music represent 
two approaches to Art Music. The Classical composer or performer has a 
long and rich body of music in written form that he uses to learn from 
while the Jazz musician uses a body of recorded music to learn. 
Because of it's small size, the modern Jazz ensemble allows loose 
interaction while the symphony orchestra's large size and diversity of 
instruments provides many different sounds and wide dynamic range. In 
classical music the composer strives for control; he uses printed 
music to guide and direct the musicians through the conductor. In Jazz 
music, the songs are loosely composed, thus forming a basis for 
individual expression within an ensemble. When you go to hear a
symphony, you hear an orchestra conducted by the conductor playing a 
composition. When you go to a Jazz club you hear a small jazz ensemble 
interacting and improvising a song. Both of these kinds of music 
provide rich expression and detail to the serious listener. They take 
different paths to reach their final form but give a person equal 
opportunities to appreciate the creative output of each.


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