Here's a tricky question: What is the point of jazz? Actually, what is the point of music in general? Oh sod it, let's the go for the big one and ask what is the point of art?

These are indeed Big Questions, far too big for me to deal with comprehensively on a Monday morning in fact. Having said that for me personally, at least part of the answer to those questions would be 'to reflect or communicate human emotion'. Pretty much all of my favourite music either makes me feel a certain way or communicates a clear feeling from the composer/performer/song-writer.

It's a commonly held belief that jazz started to disappear from the mainstream in the be-bop era because people couldn't dance to the music any more. Maybe that's true, but I'd be also be willing to wager that at least part of it was due the the music becoming less obvious in it's emotional appeal.

Think about it. The Great American Songbook is full of direct and obvious emotional messages such as 'I Love You', 'I Miss You', 'I'm Very Happy We Are Together', 'I'm Very Sad You Went Away' and so on. In the old days, you knew what jazz was on about. Could this be why jazz singers seem to be the most popular and accessible jazz performers for the mainstream, non-specialist audience?

I only mention this because it occurs that much of the instrumental jazz I hear today doesn't really seem to have a lot to say emotionally. Or, if that's a little harsh, jazz increasingly seems to choose from a rather limited palette of emotional expression.

Here's are some obvious examples of the way jazz solos attempt to communicate emotion:

The Passionate Outpouring

This is the most common emotional vehicle for jazz musicians. Some may say, the only one! It's the one we all got from Charlie Parker and perhaps more notably, John Coltrane. It's the the one where you convey your passion/spirituality/feeling by playing more and more notes, getting higher and higher and louder and louder and giving the impression that you are overcome by the music and are simply letting raw feeling pour through you.

This can be very effective in a live situation, although in my experience, it never really translates as well to record. Maybe this is a big part of why jazz is much better experienced live.

The Contemplative Cool

This is the Chet Baker/Miles Davis moody, melancholic and minimalistic approach. It is characterised by (sometimes deceptive) simplicity and leaving more space than in most other situations. Again, this can be very effective and is often found in the first part of solos on ballads before the inevitable shift to passionate outpouring

The In-Joke

Happiness isn't the first emotion that most people would associate with jazz, but the in-joke has been a staple of jazz performance for a long time. This is most obviously seen in the form of 'quotes' in solos, where a player will play a phrase from another piece of music in his improvisation. It could be part of a head from another tune, a theme from a classical composition (Mozart symphony no 40 seems to be the most popular choice here), or a melodic fragment from a famous jazz solo.

Again this works best in live situations, as the audience members who are knowledgeable enough to spot the quote can prove they get the joke by chuckling audibly, visibly and knowingly whilst casting their eyes around the room to see who else is hip enough to pick up on it.


Ok, maybe I'm being a bit facetious, but there is a serious point to this. When people talk about any art that they love, it's usually bound up with some kind of intense emotion - they love the art because of the way it makes them feel. If, as I am beginning to wonder, instrumental jazz has increasingly devalued the importance of emotional communication in the music, it's hardly surprising that the non-specialist audience has found it harder to engage with this music.

I'm not necessarily saying that this is intrinsically good or bad, after all, much pop music is transparent in it's emotional 'appeal' and yet is is utterly vapid and uninteresting.

What I am saying is that the majority of people look to engage the arts emotionally and if jazz and jazz musicians don't keep that in mind, they will increasingly struggle to communicate with a wider audience.

What do you think?