I have several books in my personal library that serve as reference points for all types
of music, from Gregorian chants to Barenaked Ladies.
One of them takes a run at a half-dozen major types of music, among them jazz. Under the
jazz classification, there are no fewer than 25 subcategories that split jazz into
fragments, historically and generically, from "ragtime" to something it calls
"modern creative," whatever that is.
My own tastes are not as complicated as that. As a matter of fact, most of the dedicated
jazz lovers I know are receptive to most variations on whatever their particular favorite
themes are. That's what makes them jazz lovers: they are more smitten by the music than by
naming it. And they recognize that in the possibilities of variation reside the very
essence of jazz.
Having said that, it is important for me to note that what follows falls loosely under the
category of "hybrid jazz," but that's as far as my personal taxonomy goes. What,
then, you may ask, is "pure jazz?" I don't know. I doubt that there is such a
thing. But, herewith, a few observations about hybrid jazz:
The explosion of musical experimentation in the 1960s led a lot of rock musicians
backward, and that accrued to the good of jazz. For example, Al Kooper, a musical gadfly
if ever there was one, formed Blood, Sweat and Tears at about the same time that funky old
Paul Butterfield in Chicago added horns to his blues lineup. The result was a new respect
among young music consumers for the traditional acoustic instruments that saw jazz through
its early years.
The influence also led to what some musicians and critics call "jazz rock" or
"fusion" by virtue of their having been re-seduced by electronics and, in a
sense, picking up where the rock 'n' roll detour into jazz began. That music is a very
different animal from the one born of BS&T or Butterfield. For example, the former
Chicago Transit Authority -- latterly known simply as Chicago -- trod the same path but
lost its way, falling into the pop-tune trap much earlier than BS&T did and traveling
through smooth jazz territory until any trace of jazz disappeared altogether from the
group's music. Chase, the ill-fated outfit headed by the late trumpeter Bill Chase, was
rock all the way with a few high-note trumpet licks thrown in for good measure.
But there are other hybrid influences that bear noting. Josef Zawinul and the Modern Jazz
Quartet separately have meant a hybridization that collected blues, pop and classical
influences. The freshet that these innovators drank from is often called the "Third
Stream." But, like some of his younger colleagues, Zawinul wandered into the
netherlands of electronica while the MJQ kept their collective feet firmly on each side of
the line that separated the discipline of classical music from the abandon of jazz. Reed
man Jimmy Giuffre has kept the hybrid alive and ever fresh, at least to my ear. Whose
influence will be more important? Time will tell.
There is a mistaken notion among purists that ballads automatically slot into the
"smooth" or "light" jazz categories. I maintain that, although some of
this music deserves consignment to elevators and airports, it does not necessarily follow
that romanticism will get you booted from the jazz fraternity. But much of balladeering is
hybrid jazz of the healthy type. How else do we explain the ever-girlish pipes of Ella
Fitzgerald, playing off against the angular eccentricities of Thelonious Monk as she sings
his composition, "'Round Midnight'?" Or Coleman Hawkins bringing his blues
sensibilities to so tender a tune as "Yesterdays?" And what of Billy Strayhorn,
who could take a simple 12-bar blues and turn it into something as sophisticated as a
My rock 'n' roll brethren still listen to our old Allman Brothers Band albums with the
pleasure of jazz devotees, because the core of the music, its very backbone, springs from
the same set of sonic genetics as Duke Ellington's galvanizing Newport Jazz Festival
performance in 1956 of "Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue." Paul Gonsalves and
Duane Allman both deserve a bow.
Purists are born to rail against innovation. In jazz, they are the musical equivalent of
conservative politicians who view every step ahead with a jaundiced eye. But music is not,
nor should it be, politics. We might argue among ourselves as consumers of the music
whether it is worthy of bearing the name of jazz. But, if we are genuine fans who
understand it, we welcome the experiments and are willing to judge the music by what it
intends, not by what we wish for.