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Jazz is what?

Ron Scott | 4/3/2012, 1:01 p.m.

The question is often asked, "What is jazz?" The Merriam-Webster Dictionary simply states that it is "syncopated rhythms or American music characterized by improvisation." However, the late Dr. Billy Taylor, a pianist and educator, described jazz as "African-American classical music," meaning it covered much more territory than just improvisation. Duke Ellington called it "American music"; he felt the term jazz was much too limited.

African-American classical music is apropos since the foundation of jazz is deeply rooted in Africa. A form of jazz lingered on the brutal slave ships from Africa as the slaves used a rhythmic call-and-response communication that later appeared in the cotton fields and the Southern Baptist Church.

The preacher asked, "Can I get an amen?" The congregation's response: "Amen, brother" or "Praise thee." Call-and-response was a part of African-American work songs and in jazz it was a succession of two distinct phrases usually played by different musicians, where the second phrase is heard as a direct commentary in response to the first. Just listen to Marvin Gaye's "Can I Get a Witness" or "Pretty Little Baby" and check the chorus.

Motown Records' artists used the call-and-response singing style and tambourines in the background--both main elements in gospel music. Jazz is the connection to all musical genres, e.g., gospel, blues, doo-wop, R&B, rock 'n' roll and rock. It is understandable why many jazz musicians, R&B singers, rock 'n' rollers and crossover pop singers started in the church.

Some say, "Jazz is too complicated." "I just don't get all the music without words." "Jazz is old folks music." "It puts me to sleep."

The way brothers walk down the street with that cool strut, no one else can stroll with such swagger. It's the way Denzel Washington and Sidney Poitier strut in a movie or President Barack Obama steps off Air Force One. That is jazz in motion, baby.

The fine lady who turns your head as she passes is sho' nuff jazz. The way she moves or the way he talks, so hip and cool, they used to call it jive talk. The way he dresses to the nines, that's all jazz in the moment. The driving band behind the Motown Sound was mainly made up of jazz musicians who called themselves the Funk Brothers.

Hip-hop didn't start with Jay-Z, Sean Combs or Russell Simmons. It was Black radio DJs like Jack the Rapper, Jocko Henderson, Rocky G and Eddie O'Jay who started rapping on the beat.

The legendary Gotham radio personality (WBLS-FM) Frankie Crocker was so jazzy, so egotistical and so hip that he ordained himself the "Eighth Wonder of the World," "often imitated but never duplicated." He closed his show with King Pleasure's "Moody's Mood for Love."

"The Godfather of Black Radio," Hal Jackson continues to play everything on Sunday morning from Stevie Wonder to Ella Fitzgerald, Miles Davis and the O'Jays.

Jazz is Black music; there is always a bit of improvisation in the tune, from doo-wop to bebop and hip-hop.

Jazz covers a wide variety--fusion, smooth, avant-garde, soul, straight-ahead. For hip-hop, go directly to Lambert, Hendricks and Ross ("Everybody's Boppin," CBS). Their quick, syncopated harmony will dazzle you.