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What is jazz?

Anete Ašmane

Collective jazz psychotherapy session

Evilena Protektore

I wanted to learn what jazz is today, in 2020, when there’s more music than ever, and it’s so different and widely available. And also what it definitely isn’t. What defines it — what criteria, principles, traditions. Who decides — this fits into the jazz category, and that doesn’t.
So I invited four young musicians for a talk — all of them have got degrees in jazz, some have studied here, in Latvia, some in other places in Europe. Still, in their creative journey, they use not only jazz stylistics but also electronics, cinema music elements, contemporary classical music concepts, free improvisation, and much more. Are all of them jazz musicians? In the end — how do all of us perceive jazz?

I knew this task wouldn’t be quite this easy, but I hoped to solve this mystery. And that hope isn’t still lost. This talk is probably the first step, and the other steps will follow. Because I believe jazz isn’t dead, as Nicholas Payton writes, it just has transformed and continues doing that. A question is whether we decide to accept it or seem to ignore it.

Participants of the talk:

Matīss ČUDARS, studied at the Riga Dome Choir school and Conservatory of Amsterdam, composed music for the Latvian Radio choir, «Sinfonietta Rīga» chamber orchestra, plays at the «Spāre» band, trio «Auziņš — Čudars — Arutyunyan,» «How Town» and more. In 2017 was nominated for the Grand Music Award in the «Musician of the Year» category.

Edgars CĪRULIS, studied at Jāzeps Mediņš Riga Music school, Jāzeps Vītols Latvian Music Academy, and Aalborg Royal Academy of Music. Is a part of «Equanimity Trio,» «Skagerrak,» «Aisma,» and more. In 2019 was nominated for the Grand Music Award in the «Young Musician of the Year» category.

Miķelis DZENUŠKA, studied at Jāzeps Mediņš Riga Music school and Jāzeps Vītols Latvian Music Academy. Played at «KonBrio,» and BFNL. In 2020 released his album «Pritonā» and won the Nic Gotham Award for achievements in music.

Krists SARŽANTS, studied at Jāzeps Mediņš Riga Music school and Jāzeps Vītols Latvian Music Academy, also Aalborg Royal Academy of Music for an exchange program. In 2020 released his debut album «Then and Now.»

Probably, in the beginning, each of you could tell me what you understand with the word «jazz.»

Matīss: There are many sides to it. First of all, there’s a historical aspect itself, previous music jazz came from. In my opinion, it’s Afro-American folk music which was created under some particular circumstances, in a specific environment, while Afro-Americans slowly gained freedom that bloomed in some certain restricted places, and the music appeared there — both from what they got within generations and from what they survived in America. It instantly features liberation, aiming for something better, people’s freedom. In this sense, the music becomes quite universal — not only an Afro-American is identified with it; in the 20th century, or nowadays, everyone can be a part of it, because none of us is actually free, we all are under some restrictions. In my opinion, jazz cannot be jazz if it doesn’t have any freedom in it. At the same time — any music could be free, but any free music isn’t necessarily jazz. And hereby, I’m at the crossroads, so please help me! [laughs]

Evilena Protektore

Krists: If we look at jazz from that perspective, of how to define it nowadays, we can remember how jazz began — for a long time, it was characterized solely by the swing. But looking at how jazz has changed nowadays both in America, and Europe, also Asia and the Middle East, I’d define jazz as a fusion of two different music genres, which can be almost any style of music that still contains some traits of jazz — chord progressions, notes, sound, etc. Nowadays, it’s popular to include some electronics, folk music, classical music in jazz, we don’t hear jazz only in the quintet or quartet or big band lineup, we hear it together with some string instruments, DJs, lots more. That fusion that appeared some time ago and seemingly characterized how rock music came into jazz — in my opinion, it describes overall modern jazz music quite well. That’s a mix of different genres. A great example of that is the album «Finding Gabriel» by Brad Mehldau, which received a «Grammy» award as the best jazz album, containing many elements borrowed from different music styles.

Jazz has been mixed with many different styles from the very beginning — spirituals, marches, blues — but then you’d tell that the sources that create jazz altogether can change with time?

Krists: Yes, because jazz has been defined by swing rhythm for a long time, but if we listen to what happens nowadays, we see that everything has changed. Swing and Afro-American folk music are the two things we’ll find if we search for jazz music’s origins. Afro-American culture together with white people culture. It has been so for a long time, and so it went on, but now we’ve entered another time period, the music period when jazz contains more than just these two things. Yes, it’s still the basis, but a lot more comes along with it. And sometimes it’s hard to understand if it’s still jazz or something else.

Miķelis: I think nowadays it’s useless to talk about jazz as a style. We can talk about concepts instead of styles. Improvisation, the language of harmony — it describes jazz, but not a particular style because, in the end, everything can be «something with jazz elements.»

Matīss: I’ll let myself oppose that a bit because there are musical examples which don’t contain all the things you’ve mentioned (swing rhythm, specific harmonic language), where there’s no jazz in the classical sense, but there’s a philosophical idea of jazz.

Krists: Is that jazz?

Matīss: That’s a good question. There’s music that doesn’t fit jazz criteria, but you still feel that direction, that same feeling, the core, as in old authentic jazz music.

Krists: I might be mistaken, but I think you’re talking about free music, something aimed at free jazz, where some collective improvisation dominates…

Matīss: Actually, if we think, for example, about Steve Lehman’s octet or his work where he and the «International Contemporary Ensemble» plays a very thought-through, microtonal, totally non-swinging music, you can still feel the jazz there… Alright, he plays saxophone, and it’s an instrument that is very typical of jazz, but if he’d done all that on a midi synthesizer, you would still feel that jazz root there.

Krists: Again, I don’t know if I agree with that. I understand what you’re saying, but speaking of that core — it can be different. If we’re looking at blues, it has a similar essence, but it isn’t jazz. Jazz influence can be found in very different genres. That same saxophone — yes, it’s very typical for jazz, but you could listen to Glass and say it’s typical for modern classical music.

Matīss: Yes, different styles grow into one another.

Edgars: There’s one more perspective to investigate this from. I don’t know whether you are acquainted with a trumpet player Nicholas Payton, who in 2011 has published an essay in his blog, where he compiled his tweets of many years. The essay begins with «jazz is dead». He called that music «black American music» or BAM an exciting aspect to think about is — did these influential jazz musicians we all remember and iconize think of their music as jazz? I cannot state anything on their behalf, but I suspect they just thought of it as their music. There’s a theory that musicians themselves didn’t invent the word «jazz» — that’s only a definition created by white people to define something that comes from a different, black culture.

Krists: At the same time, it was considered POP music, and it’s different from how we see jazz now.

Evilena Protektore

Edgars: Etymologically, that word isn’t connected to the music, and it isn’t a nice word. Maybe that word was just a product of a culture of the last century’s separated race, and it isn’t useful nowadays anymore — it doesn’t inspire anything, just restricts our attitude towards this music.

In his opinion, Payton wrote that jazz died in 1959 — when it stopped being popular music and turned into a specific niche product. What, in your opinion, is it now if jazz died more than 60 years ago?

Krists: If we look at the other genres, there are changes everywhere — what was R&B 40, 50 years ago, and what it is now? Those are absolutely opposite things, but we still call it R&B. You can dispute if it’s died or changed. Jazz music has existed for a bit more than 100 years. If we look at how it has developed, we can see that every style — swing, bebop, hard bop, etc. — has been trendy for some ten or twenty years. The last thing we’ve separately looked at was «fusion» in the 1980s — 1990s. In my opinion, now we have to move on, but we have a big confusion over it.

Matīss: That’s how this new style is called — confusion. [everybody laughs]

Krists: The word «jazz» is often placed in a box of sorts. If you ask someone who doesn’t deal with it, they will probably associate it with Sinatra, Fitzgerald, etc.

I don’t even have to ask the ones who don’t deal with it. Each of you most probably has a different understanding of it.

Krists: Yes. I think maybe too much is made out of it. People can be divided into two parts — the ones like us who can let it go more, do what they do, letting everything come into place; and some people strictly insist on creating these philosophical debates that jazz is indeed dead, and that it had died alongside Coltrane, the thing that we have now isn’t jazz, etc.

See, jazz as a genre has become somewhat academic because it is taught in educational institutions; it has become a profession — jazz musician. In my opinion, the problem appears when each school has teachers with a different understanding of what jazz is or isn’t. Someone perceives it more freely and widely, someone — very strictly and narrow-like. A teacher’s status has authority, there’s a traditional hierarchy established in educational institutions, so such different perceptions can evoke conflicts.

You too have studied in different places — not only in Latvia but also in Europe. Haven’t you felt such a different attitude yourself — that maybe something you do isn’t considered jazz, so you aren’t allowed into such a department?

Miķelis: I’m lucky to get Artis Orubs as a teacher, who was waiting for every idea of mine with a great passion, let me do what I wanted; I didn’t feel any pressure from him. I had the freedom to do what I wanted. I’ve never been a fan of jazz music; I just chose the best option from the study options I had. I didn’t want to learn to play classical percussion instruments; instead, I tried to understand what improvisation is and learn the harmonic language.

Yes, it wasn’t that easy to learn at Madars Kalniņš, but it was a pleasure that Artis let me do what I wanted. He gave me creative tasks — to transcribe bird songs, deal with classical music. I didn’t have to play two standards at the end of the term just to get that tick in a box.

Evilena Protektore

Matīss: Of course, the attitude and understanding of teachers towards jazz gets projected onto their students. I remember that my first lesson was something similar to music theory, where I had to write harmonization of the melody. I was sitting for a long time, found the real chords, brought them to my teacher, and he told me, «No, this is wrong!» Then I got it — alright, I’m here, so I have to learn these aesthetics.

Each school has its own direction. Maybe somewhere they give you more freedom, let you search for your own colors. This is what I’d support the most. But where I was, there was a traditional jazz aesthetic. Actually, looking back now, I’m grateful it was like that because it gave me a structure of sorts. Right now, I am leaning more towards composition — I compose, want to study it, grab everything I see on my way, try to get it, but I always come back to an idea that if you begin something, it’s cool if you have a concrete starting point. If you chew it a bit, then you can throw it away and completely forget it. Creativity evolves when you’re slightly restricted.

It could be challenging to start from scratch with non-restricted opportunities — you still should somehow find that starting point and direction.

Matīss: That is definitely individual, but I personally agree, yes. I’ve understood — if I have unlimited opportunities, I begin repeating myself, saying the same things, and getting back to where I started all the time, cannot move on.

So the structure that went alongside you while you were studying jazz now just helps you as a method?

Matīss: Yes. So I’d say that education isn’t that bad.

Miķelis: I agree, it has helped me as well that there was a jazz practice, jazz history, solfeggio. But you have to separate these things from the specialty where you are let to create…

Edgars: I’ve tried out both scenarios. While studying in Latvia, the teacher paid attention to a particular music era, language, form, instrumentation, and way of arranging — the desired sound was very precisely defined. I had to try really hard to put something of my own in it. In the end — was it even necessary. I could do it for two years, and the last two years of my bachelor studies were spent in Denmark. There I was studying with a teacher who has lived in New York for ten years and did that school, but at the same time, he has strong roots in contemporary classical music. The school’s approach is not to put marks for almost anything, that a final recital is a half an hour-long performance where you can put together your line-up and play anything you want to. Even if you learn to play the piano, you can just sing a capella at your exam; the most important is how creative you are. It’s interesting that when I began to study for the master’s there, I got a feeling that there’s too much freedom, and I was striving for more preciseness. Not to get a question about what I want, but to get offered studying content, where it’s a matter of my choice whether to accept it or not. Similar to what Matīss said — when you have considerable freedom, you keep repeating yourself all the time because you cannot accept any new information, and keep putting in what you like. The teachers accept it, tell you it’s cool, and you keep doing it, it’s still cool, but you’re merely doing the same things.

Evilena Protektore

I think every person has to see these two parts. When a creative person grows, he needs a certain discipline, then absolute freedom, then a discipline again, then freedom again. At least I want that cycle. Jazz education has given me an understanding of how music is built. Maybe I cannot always perform it authentically, but I know how it works, I understand the characteristics. Perhaps I don’t have a precise language for a specific style of jazz, but if I’d wanted, I’d know how to get it.

Matīss: And, once gotten such an experience, you can translate it into other disciplines. If you suddenly decide you want to learn modular synthesizers, you have the experience to learn with structure and discipline. You can just transfer the methods.

But is it essential in this context that you have a jazz education? Because the learning methods, ability to structurize things and be disciplined are crucial to everything, not solely jazz.

Matīss: We are also talking about creating musical material here, while playing or composing, in other words — about improvisation. Jazz music studies give an opportunity to become a part of the music you hear.

Krists: Improvisation teaches us to compose in a certain moment instead of sitting down and trying to come up with things. It helps to feel more freely within harmonies, understand that musical field you’re into, so there’s less chance to get lost in the music.

If we get back to discipline — I agree it is fantastic if someone teaches you a certain thing. If somebody teaches you how to play the music of a certain period authentically, everything is fine. But it doesn’t work if someone hits you at your fingers while you play jazz and says that you cannot play like this.

Does that really happen?

Krists: Yes, it does. You have to find the right balance — give some frames to have something to lean out of, and also let you learn from them. I had a great teacher in my high school; we were awesomely balancing tradition, basics, and free flow. So I began composing myself quite early. Then I enrolled in the Music Academy — it felt like you go to a classroom, and someone is waiting around the corner, hits your head with a stick, and says: «This is wrong! You cannot do that! How can you compose like that?» At that age when you’ve just begun doing something on your own, it’s really hard to get together after that. Edgars and I have accidentally gone through the same teachers in Latvia and Aalborg, and Denmark also helped me understand what is what. It helped me overcome those frames that I was taught in Latvia. There they showed what corresponds to a certain style, how you should authentically play it, but let also do it the other way, taking into consideration that it isn’t that style anymore. Nobody hit your face anymore, but they’ve created a balance between all this. You can find out which gammas, chords, improvisations are typical for bebop, meanwhile, you are allowed to do something else yourself. It doesn’t exclude one another.

Evilena Protektore

It sounds in tune with what Ēriks Miezis has stated in the first part of his review of Miķelis’ album review: quite many young people enroll in jazz departments not because they’re interested in jazz, but because compared to classical music studies, is more liberal, open, with free space for further development. At least in Latvia, we don’t have many more opportunities, we can only choose between the classical and jazz departments. This is how it looks from a young musician’s perspective, not from a jazz department teacher’s.

Miķelis: I think it depends on a teacher — at JVLMA, each teacher is also in his own world.

Krists: I’d say in Latvia, it would be way more fitting to rename the jazz department of JVLMA into a traditional jazz department. Especially if we compare it to how it all goes down in Europe. In Latvia, during three out of four years of education, the focus is on the time period until the middle of the 20th century. During the fourth year, it gets a bit freer; you can focus on what you create. So, suppose you have to choose between the classical and the jazz department. In that case, it’s important to understand if this jazz department of ours is just an alternative to a classical one, or if you’re interested in jazz tradition itself. There are many different opportunities to get musical education globally — there are rock music, pop music, and production schools. But none of them in Latvia — it’s just two opportunities here.

Yes, so it makes sense that not everyone who ends up in the JVLMA jazz department is a jazz music enthusiast. Maybe someone just doesn’t have another option. And then clashes with teachers are unavoidable.

Krists: Yes. But, just as Miķelis said, it still depends on a teacher. It makes sense that the teacher, as a performing artist, doesn’t know all the styles; he also has his strengths and weaknesses. But we have a minimal choice of teachers; we have just one or two people for each specialty. And each of them has his own personal focuses and interests. So I also said that JVLMA teachers tend towards traditional jazz, and it isn’t good or bad; it’s just that you have to admit that it is like that. Here they don’t teach jazz music as a whole thing with that new period that happened this century.

But isn’t it interesting that the educational program in many music high-schools isn’t about jazz music only? It’s called «Jazz music» only in Riga Dome Choir school, the other schools have «Jazz and popular music,» «Jazz and contemporary rhythm music,» «Modern rhythmical music» programs. So on the high-school level, the scale and spectrum are broader, but after that, the young person interested in modern rhythmical or popular music, but not jazz, doesn’t have an option to realize his interest within the Latvian educational system. What would he do? What’s your advice?

Matīss: Good luck! [everyone laughs]

Krists: it’s a pity that it is like that. And when such a person comes to a jazz department, he disturbs everybody else who studies there a bit as well. Imagine, the academy takes six new people every year — one of them wants to play jazz, three — rock, two more — pop music. What should they do with such a band? What does a teacher need to do with such people who are not placed in their comfortable environment but can’t study anywhere else? At the age of 18, 19, it’s quite difficult for the student to tell — okay, this one teaches me this way, I can take it, but I won’t like to use it in my work. No, a student gets confused. Answering your question, what should he do — unfortunately there’s not much to do in Latvia. Because if JVLMA wants only to teach jazz tradition, they’ll do it, and it will remain so. It’s a choice of every student to go study there or not, but he should take his own interests and the interests of JVLMA teachers into consideration. Latvian teachers have to think of the bigger freedom, a broader scope.

Matīss: In the end, school is just a starting point; it’s the first book you read. You can do anything you want with this information. But I support it that jazz and any other creative music education has to grow and develop. However, I don’t have any recipe for a perfect educational program. It’s definitely easier to do that in an independent institution that doesn’t follow any criteria the country puts upon them. If there are any criteria, one has to follow. If any board of directors has decided that the student has to play 50 standards at the end of the year, the teacher just makes it happen; his task is to ensure that his student can do that. And then a human factor comes in, the one Miķelis mentioned concerning Artis Orubs — Artis also had someone from above to tell him Miķelis has to learn everything. Still, Artis reacts to that situation as a human being. I had different issues with the teachers as well, but I met a lot of open people who have seen through me, understood who I am, saw my potential, got to know me as a person and as a whole, instead of thinking I’m just one of many guitar players who should be quickly released from a conveyor belt. I think it’s the most important thing — to keep a human side also in pedagogy, where some criteria come from above. I accept that teachers who aren’t involved with their profession don’t like doing it; they exist. However, I don’t have a lot in common with them. Suppose a young person isn’t interested in playing Charlie Parker but is interested in «Led Zeppelin,» and interested so much he has dug really deep into that music. In that case, there’s a really productive environment that would be really stupid to bury just because it’s not Charlie Parker.

Evilena Protektore

Krists: Yes, I agree. If you’re working as a teacher, in my opinion, an individual approach is critical, an ability to see what a particular student is interested in. Teachers, of course, have restrictions and educational programs, but they aren’t such tremendous obstacles to overcome if there’s a need. If a student is keen on something, his teacher cannot make him do something else; it isn’t productive. There always has to be an analysis, work, coming out of the comfort zone, developing your own abilities, but whether it happens within the riffs of Charlie Parker or Led Zeppelin isn’t that important, I think. The most important thing is for the young musician to understand what he wants to do, and the teacher has to help him understand that, even if it’s not jazz. After graduating, the musician has to do what he’s interested in, not what his teacher is interested in.

Matīss: And here we come up with a problem with the musical education itself. Unlike road engineering, bank systems, or public administration, music is an absolutely elastic definition. It’s clear we’re talking about something audial, but it can be almost everything. I think that music doesn’t have any goal, but it’s at the same time also a trump.

Miķelis: I’d say everything has its own goal.

Matīss: Yes, but for us, as people, as three-dimensional creatures… I don’t have any explanation as to what the one main goal of music for us is. I could name a trillion of such reasons, and that list would have no end, but how could one put it all into a music education system? And it’s really not important which genre we’re talking about.

Krists: It’s essential to understand what a person himself wants.

Miķelis: In my case, at one point, jazz education was moved to the background because I became more interested in production, but no one teaches that in the academy. So, I was interested in something, but the academy required me to focus on something else.

So we’ve talked about what nowadays is or isn’t jazz, how it relates to and influences the educational system, but now let’s talk about the wider audience and society. How can you — musicians with jazz education, but different and individual directions — position yourself and fit in a whole musical and cultural scene? Of course, in the ideal world, you wouldn’t need to put anything into any particular category, you wouldn’t need to sell anything, everyone would still live beautifully, would create and listen to the music. But alongside creative manifestations, the modern market requirements always ask how to bring the music to the listener. How to reach him? How can your artistic contributions avoid being lost in this prosperous cultural life? And you also have to define yourself to a broader society in an understandable way. Especially in the very beginning, when not a lot of people know your name yet.

Krists: Why is that necessary? In order to reach your target audience. In my opinion, there’s no other goal.

But that listener has to be reached and interested in coming to your concert, and I’d like to say that it’s important for the listener to choose what to attend consciously. If anyone wants to attend a show of a specific genre, he is waiting for it, and if he gets something else, it can often be a disappointment because reality doesn’t meet the expectations.

Matīss: I don’t consider myself a well-stabilized musician to be able to talk about it too much. But when I compose, it helps me if I know and understand which will be the physical and emotional environment for performing that composition. It helps me in my creative process — to learn which people will perform it, where — at Kaņepes Culture Centre or in a hot air balloon, for example. Each music has its own place that’s more suitable, and it’s important so that the music is born in such a place. So while I’m composing, it helps me if I know it. Of course, it doesn’t help me define its genre and style, but it helps me market my music and understand how to sell it.

Edgars: I present myself the way that’s more advantageous for me at that moment, depending on whom I talk to. If someone wants to hear me playing jazz, I can say I play jazz; if someone wants me to play improvised music, I can call it that way. It doesn’t matter to me much; I’m still the same person. My attitude towards all possible music is equal, attitude towards the sound is identical, no matter the genre. The more I think about what a genre or a style is, the more comical it is. We believe the listener has to know that, but does he?

Ass a listener, imagine that you noticed some news about a concert where some musician you don’t know yet performs. Maybe he’s young, and there are no recordings that you could listen to get an impression of him. You have to understand somehow if you want to attend that concert, if there’s any music that can address you, or whether you’ll hear something you won’t like.

Miķelis: I think the situation described is very important, but it’s complicated to write such a description for a musician himself.

Evilena Protektore

Krists: Yes, but if you write it into your description that you’re a jazz musician — we’re talking right now that it’s so unclear what jazz means to everyone. In my opinion, if we talk about advertising something that isn’t well-known yet, — mention the artists you’re inspired by. Some four, five famous names you connect your music with, and maybe someone knows these musicians or would like to listen to them. At least understand the direction. This, in my opinion, could be a more detailed advertisement of yourself, if your name isn’t well-known to the listeners yet. It will definitely be more evident than mentioning a genre that can be widely understood and misunderstood as well.

Matīss: but if you can tell you’re an indie-pop-folk-half-jazz musician and if it comes naturally, so that, call all the four, five genres. It can be different. You can also describe your music — if I tell you there are some stinging rhythms in my music, it’s clear this won’t be a concert where we lay down on the yoga mats for three hours in a row.

If we get back to jazz and the Latvian society’s understanding of it, maybe we have to try to broaden the genre’s definition borders and say that everything each one of you plays can also be jazz. On the contrary, if we don’t call you jazz of any sort, we are left with the idea that jazz really was just something that happened and ended in the last century.

Krists: I got a bit tired of this question during all these years. What is or isn’t jazz? Can jazz also be something that isn’t the swing? And so on. If most people consider it tradition and swing — let it be so, let this be true jazz, and all the other things could be named differently.

Matīss: We have understood within this talk that each of us has a different understanding about it, but I believe that some listeners may think jazz is what they hear in the elevators and hotel hallways. Isn’t it our duty to bring out and clarify the name of jazz? I don’t know.

Krists: Jazz is 120 years old; maybe we should let him understand what he is himself! [everybody laughs]

So this is what we’ve come up with!