Don't call it jazz



This piece is a collaboration between writers Anne Templer and Sammy Stein.


According to one report, the Montreux Jazz Festival put on almost a third of acts whose music could not be wholly aligned with jazz. Reviewers are noticing this trend in other jazz festivals too.

Reasons for this could include jazzmusicians may also play pop, reggae, soul, hip hop, or classical, so they choose to play a range of their material to audiences. Some are classically trained, like 'cellist Asja Valcic and pianist Uri Caine, so they naturally include some classical in their performances - including those at a jazz festival. Some, including Shabaka Hutchings and Soweto Kinch, are jazz-based but bring other genres into their music.


A more profound reason is the reluctance of sponsors and promoters to limit their influence to a niche audience. To clarify 'niche,' jazz is a high art form; some find the word 'jazz' challenging, while others genuinely find the music challenging to listen to. Sometimes it can be. Early on, jazz musicians made it clear through their performances that you needed all the skills of classical musicians and the ability to listen and respond as freer, more expressive players. This need for craft, added to a deep absorption and expression of harmony, makes jazz difficult to play convincingly. Lesser musicians say they dislike jazz, perhaps because they can't play it and - subconsciously or otherwise - reject it. Jazz listeners still make up just under three percent of the music listenership, and sponsors and promoters are increasingly influencing programming.


Most jazz festivals are under 'siege' of sorts as new management groups and sponsors take over. Despite the surge of popularity of a raft of young musicians, jazz tends to skew to an older demographic and still has a limited, albeit growing, audience (it is also increasingly diverse, which in turn increases audience diversity, but that is for another discussion).

Generally speaking, these traits do not endear to new, more business/less genre-oriented senior management groups. They want to be involved and see the relatively small but nonetheless significant market opportunities with jazz audiences as theirs for the taking. But business managers don't want just three percent of music listeners; they want a more substantial section of society to attend jazz festivals and events.


To give some context to the amounts involved, in the UK alone, a conservative estimate is that jazz festivals generate around £30 million a year. Across the globe, other festivals generate vast amounts for the local economies. In Cape Town, the jazz festival generates around $40 million (700,000 rands), and the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage festival generates about $300 million. In addition, audience members who travel to jazz festivals and events contribute to local economies through accommodation, eating out, using local shops, transport, and much more.

Lucrative revenue gathering is a significant motivation behind music festivals. New management groups place considerable pressure on traditional jazz festival artistic directors to book more non-jazz acts with more mass appeal.

The above is to take nothing away from the many smaller, non-profit festivals run by (people who support) jazz lovers and are an important cultural anchor. However, these are not the big commercial ventures that attract new investment.


Many jazz festivals have jazz comprising 65 percent of the total acts, with Toronto an exception at approximately 70 percent. Some festivals book more 'near-jazz' or 'jazz-related' genres (Blues, R&B, Soul, Funk, etc.) while others move even further from jazz in an effort to increase their mass appeal, especially with younger audiences. They may include hip hop artists (we must not forget hip hop would not exist without jazz), and many become general music festivals, with jazz as we know it slowly slipping away. All in the name of 'volume' of audience, mass appeal, and profit optimization.

Some music festivals, like Latitude in the UK, will include next-to-zero jazz acts ( although Shabaka Hutchings played in 2021). A few may continue to call themselves 'Jazz Festivals' yet have little jazz remaining in their program. However, jazz musicians are pretty good at squeezing in under the door. More often than you would think, jazz acts, under the cloak of 'acoustic' music, will play at folk festivals, and others will sneak in chord substitutions and extensions that perhaps only a few with discerning ears will notice. With the older demographic still predominating at jazz festivals, performers that were popular decades ago, such as Grace Jones and Sister Sledge, entertain at festivals such as Love Supreme; a surprise to jazz fans but not necessarily an unfavourable one.

Many audience members are pleasantly surprised (a few appalled) at how jazz has evolved, grown, and diversified. It is still a relatively young genre and has always reflected societal changes, so it is no surprise that jazz continues to change. A benefit of attracting a broader demographic to jazz events is more people see the newer jazz being played – music they may not realise is out there due to jazz being considered passe, at least among the younger members of society not actively involved in the jazz scene. M


The organizations sponsoring and making money from major jazz festivals are not interested in supporting jazz as a genre per se. On the one hand, they want to attract a jazz-loving audience and expand the demographic attending jazz festivals and other jazz events. On the other, their fundamental motivation is to run a successful and profitable business.

Investing in new music and including some jazz might be a wise move long-term because astute managers are aware of the powerhouse of young musicians rising in jazz at the moment. Leo Pellegrino, Nubya Garcia, Laura Jurd, Elliot Galvin, Mike Casey, Esperanza Spalding, Connie Han, Zara McFarlane, Polly Gibbons, Kit Downes, Moses Boyd, Poppy Adjudha, and Yazz Ahmed, to name just a very few - are attracting new, younger audiences to jazz. A few years ago, when covering an event for BBC3 in London, where the audience was around fifty percent under thirties, I was told by one of these young jazz fans that they were bored with being fed banal music and that jazz was the new trend in their age group. Incidentally, the group playing were free jazz veterans, the People Band.

If you go to a jazz event where most of the performers are young, don't expect to hear them playing what might be termed 'traditional' jazz. The music is as far removed from traditional jazz as folk dancing from opera. Yet, there is a connection ­– you know this music is jazz.

And the question on everyone's lips when they hear non-traditional jazz today is, 'is that jazz?' It is not easy to define jazz or place parameters such as the inclusion of improvisation, syncopation, polyrhythms, and a swung beat.

Other writers and I have tried to define jazz in our books, essays, articles, and papers, but it seems that while the technicalities of the musical theory may be clear (more or less), the true definition remains elusive. It may not even be important. Musicians do not like labels in any case– they maintain they prefer to be called musicians (yet, oddly enough, look at many profiles on social media, and you will see 'jazz musician').


Logically, if we categorise music as 'jazz,' there must be a definition, so musicians can be included in jazz events – or not. It seems we need to categorise music so audiences and retail platforms can navigate it, but how do we know if music is jazz?

Is it music with a large percentage of improvisational content? Syncopation? Extended and higher harmony?

I decided to ask those who surely would know ­­- musicians, jazz aficionados, listeners and others connected to jazz. They'll know for sure, right?

To start the conversation, I asked how people viewed jazz and decided if something was jazz or not. Musicians suggest jazz is music that contains elements of improvisation, syncopation, and works collectively. I countered that jazz might not be the only music for which all these are true, and third stream, classical, and many other genres incorporate them, but that jazz was often described as containing them, particularly the improvisational element, more than others. The debate went on back and forth, on social media and off, but the conclusion was that the definition of jazz was broader now than it has ever been. Indeed, it might be so broad that soon anything with a swung beat and improvisation is in danger of being gathered into jazz's embrace – whether it wants to be or not. Is there another dimension, almost another genre of 'not quite jazz' perhaps?


Jazz guitarist Vic Forte said, "The main thing that sets it apart is improvisation. Yes, I know some jazz is not improvised. But even so, improvisation is a big enough part of the music to form its character as a genre. The best phrase I have come across is jazz is 'the sound of surprise.' Sure, other types of music are improvised, and some jazz is not improvised. But solo or ensemble improvisation is a massively important feature of the music. It was born in America. It has a strong but flexible rhythmic structure, chord patterns, and sophisticated harmony."

Pianist and composer Andy Quin added, " I am an improviser. The main expression of this is through what most would call jazz. However, it's not limited to jazz. I feel an improvised element of some sort is a vital component of jazz, although I realise there may be exceptions. Not sure of the necessity of syncopation."

Many musicians spoke of the need to remember that the music originated in black culture. Of this, there can be no doubt, and jazz folk affirmed this; Writer Anne Templer said, "I would absolutely start with black music; that is ultimately where this wonderful tradition comes from. You can hear it. I know we have added other stuff since - but the tonality and rhythm are clearly different from, say, Baroque improv - even free jazz". Many musicians said similar things, though it still might not help with a definition.

On the swing elements, guitarist Kelly Kintner commented, "To me, Jazz swings. If it doesn't swing, it's something else," while audio engineer John Micensky audio engineer says, "To me when something sounds "jazzy" it often has extended chords or drums with a clear swing to it. Sometimes it's jazzy to me because the song uses the same progression as an old standard that I'm familiar with."

Defining swing can itself be a can of worms. Perhaps it is sitting on the back of the beat (maybe illustrated by a drummer with the musically decorative left hand on the snare) - and yet, where there is a percussionist, the ride cymbal and hi-hat continue to power through and provide the engine and rhythmic drive of the ensemble - but this can equally be the horns depending on the line-up configuration. Or is it the hung beat, the minuscule delay to an entry?

In my experience, jazz can contain elements of swing, syncopation, and polyrhythms and always contains improvisation. Musicians seem to agree with this.

Greg Snedeker comments, "Two descriptors help define the jazz style: the use of predominantly 7th chords and the swing rhythm. One can re-harmonize other styles using seventh chords. One can also swing music that isn't predominantly 7th chords. Each makes it sound jazzy, but we wouldn't necessarily call it jazz.

Of course, improvisation is at the heart of the process, but when we listen to jazz recordings, we know it is jazz by recognizing the combination of the two descriptors, not by what may or may not be improvisation. Jazz (as opposed to the style) as a social concept is a much broader topic."

Jazz musician Robin Phillips added, "I spent some time considering this a few years back and canvassed opinions via my social media platforms. I ended up with 1) improvisation, 2) conversation, and 3) interpretation. Not always, but most of the time, this seemed to work as it didn't require a 'swing' beat."

Classical and folk musicians also contain elements of characteristics found in jazz. For example, Mozart, Beethoven, and Bach were brilliant and natural improvisers - but their music was eighteenth and nineteenth-century German. Folk musicians are also great improvisers, communicators, and interpreters - but their rhythmic and harmonic language are different. There lies part of the inadequacy of words compared to the physical experience of hearing jazz.

Jazz appreciator Rachel Burnham commented, "I think a core feature of jazz, alongside improvisation, is that it is polyrhythmic." while Saxophonist and composer Richard Davis told me, " Jazz is more about attitude and freedom of thought on what should go into your music."

So, some found it relatively easy to define jazz by the presence of one or several elements, though more often than not, there was a far broader definition and jazz, it seems, spreads its wings across many music forms.

Composer, arranger, and jazz pianist Scott Routenberg explains, "Jazz is a constantly evolving improvised musical language that is both influenced by the sonic legacy of past masters and perpetually renewed by borrowing elements from other musical styles of the times—thus, the broad understanding of its current definition."

Several spoke of jazz being like a journey. You know where you start and finish, and you might have to stop at set locations along the way, but how you make the rest of the journey – how you get from A to B and B to C, and the final destination might involve changes of speed, a rest or two, harmony, dissonance, common practices and communicating with others.

Nathan Holaway said, "Instead of looking at jazz as an 'umbrella,' just simplify by flipping the perspective. Jazz is the rain, sunshine, wind, or whatever the umbrella provides a barrier to. People are the umbrella. Jazz is fluid and ever-changing. Jazz is a soul embrace."

Singer Kate Williams added, "I think it's music that lays out a structure (melody, rhythm, harmony, sometimes, lyric) then deliberating to explore in and around that structure. It's exploratory music."

A common theme among musicians I spoke with was jazz music allowing them to find, or at least seek, the perfect musical moment. Jazz allows exploration, and a musician can explore a theme, a path that comes to them as they play and look at the variations of a theme, emotion, or ideas. The search is to find that perfect moment in the music when you can say you are at one with your instrument, the sound, the other players, and the audience – a musical Nirvana, so to speak, moving beyond craft into art at a spiritual level. You may never reach that point, but trying is important.

What separates jazz from other music genres is the lack of the need to conform to pre-set ideas. The direction comes more from within an ensemble than from a composer whose ideas are reflected in the playing style, right down to when to play loud, soft, speed up or fade out. You can follow a composition, but there will be a chance to express yourself, connect to something outside the parameters of the music set before you, work out ideas, and communicate with others. As pianist, arranger, and composer Liam Noble says, "It never settles because once the practice becomes stylised, it has to move. So the definition for me depends on the time it is defined. If someone says jazz is "syncopation," immediately jazz will emerge with none."

Yet, in certain setups, the music is so structured that the improviser is having to produce the musical equivalent of taking penalties; four bars to say something meaningful, for example - encapsulating a golden nugget in a concise space of time - a huge musical challenge.

Saxophonist Mike Casey said, "the specific nature to and the sheer amount of group improvised communication sets jazz apart (for, at this point, the vast majority of the music's history). Other common elements (i.e., blues/swing) and syncopated rhythms with improvisation are also in other styles of music."

Singer/songwriter Evelyn Laurie said she felt about jazz, " Sometimes it's weaving a vocal around a beautiful melody with harmonising chords providing a secure music bed."

So there are different opinions on what jazz music contains, how much of each element, and the agreement that defining jazz is elusive. Just when you think you have nailed it, something throws you. There are a lot of extraneous concepts associated with jazz that are not directly pertinent to defining the music - the sense of playing as a collective, listening to others, engaging with the listeners, as well as pushing boundaries, and improvising around elements such as a chord sequence, a riff or part of the scale.

One man who is not a musician but a jazz devotee told me jazz, for him, is equally an emotion, communication, and feeling via the vehicle of sounds. It is perhaps easier to say what jazz is not than to say exactly what it is.

Most say it doesn't matter. You know when it is jazz or not when you hear it. Nothing beats listening to it or playing it. Ultimately, describing jazz in words is a fruitless concept; it is an aural, sensory experience that must be experienced.

Trumpet player Freddie Gavita comments, "For me, it's being part of a lineage. You can hear people improvise and know that they haven't absorbed the feel/language of the music, how it resolves or doesn't. It's like speaking a language with a great accent.

This description doesn't capture all of jazz, though. In many ways, an anti-establishment mindset of saying, 'I'm going to play my instrument how I play it,' regardless of established techniques or rules. It's a tough genre to describe."

Many added observations along the lines that trying to define still-evolving music like jazz is obsolete before the conversation ends. And, of course, the ever-popular but completely subjective, "If you have to ask about jazz, you don't get it! People who do get jazz don't ask," cropped up a few times in conversations.

I think drummer Will Glaser probably summed things up when he said, "I'm going with jazz is a four letter point of contention."

Several quoted Potter Stewart's comments on pornography about knowing it when you see it (though in jazz's case, knowing it when you hear it, I guess, might be more applicable).

Jazz came from black roots. It evolved from diverse cultures in a city unique in America because enslaved lived cheek by jowl with the free, and music was exchanged; it took on many influences from African, European, and Asian origin and developed, over time, into music that has never ceased evolving. The 'golden age' (commercial age) of jazz meant stars like Armstrong, Basie, Ellington, Coltrane, Coleman, Ayler, Franklin, Holiday, Simone, and others became the definition of particular kinds of jazz, whether that was traditional, modal, free or progressive. Yet, while they remain musicians hailed as jazz's founders, jazz has evolved since they proved their mettle on stage and vinyl.

As singer Deelee Dube says to perfectly sum up the conclusion or lack of it, "jazz is life. It is ever-evolving, and similarly, how can you define life?"


Thanks to all those who allowed me to quote from their responses and those who contributed to the discussion. These include Adil Hasan, Andy Derrick, Andy Quin, Anne Templer, Arun Luthra, Billy Stokes, Brian Burke, Danny Jaeggi, Deelee Dube, Different Hats Music, Evelyn Laurie, Graciela Carriqui, Greg Snedeker, Dave Anderson, Jeff Lynch, John Micensky, Kate Williams, Kelly Kintner, Liam Noble, Mark Murphy, May Lux, Mark Lemieux, Michael Fahey, Michael Woodruff, Mike Casey, Nathan Holoway, Neil Brand, Patrick Hadfield, Rachel Burnham, Richard Davies, Rick Simpson, Robin Phillips, Scott Routenberg, Prof Scott Hallgren, Simon Latarche, Simon Purcell, Stephen Hastings-King, Steve Tromans, Tom Woods, Troy Wheeler, Vic Forte, Will Glaser.