Printed music versus tradition in jazz

With this background explained, it can perhaps be understood why the composer and printed music plays little part in traditional jazz, though it is an essential feature of the larger jazz band and is part of some jazz forms that have moved away from from its roots. Because of this spontaneity and the inability of musical notation to convey military aspects of the musical style, it explains why when classically trained musicians try to perform printed versions of spirituals and jazz, it can sound so wooden. To my mind this is made very plain at the London prom concerts, where a jazz big band has been introduced for one of the concerts in the season. All good musicians, all good singers, but most of them not steeped in the traditions of jazz, and to my ear it sounds contrived and wooden. The printed version of the spiritual only approximates to the original version, leaving large gaps to be filled in by the musicians memory, imagination and knowledge of the idiom. In the example I've given, the idiom known by many of the performers seems to be classical music, and this shows.

Furthermore, when spirituals and jazz were transcribed into notation, it was often carried out by people trained in Western music, and there are indications that the music was "improved" to fit in with Western styles of correctness, probably considering that the original musicians were ignorant of musical niceties, rather than masters of their own musical form. This is very noticeable when listening to a really good female jazz vocalist, (I say female, because somehow female singers seem to be able to do this best); what I'm talking about is deliberately "singing out of tune". Of course, they are not singing out of tune, it is for a purpose and part of the style, but to many classical musicians with the session drummed into them for getting the "intonation" right, and playing music which on the whole has a rather simplistic range of harmonies compared with some forms of jazz, it seems out of tune to them.

I've tried playing jazz numbers that have been written by extremely good jazz arranger, with my string quartet. They are used to quartet arrangements of jazz music, written and made nice and bland by arrangers who are from a classical music background. The harmonies are so unusual to them that they grumble and think they're completely wrong, and the arrangement is rubbish. It's not. Far worse to such people is the genuine folk music of Hungary and other Central European countries. We are so used to hearing things like The Brahms Hungarian Dances, which have little to do in my opinion with genuine Hungarian folk music. I have some genuine folk tunes that were transcribed in Hungary, some by Hungarian musicologists and others by an English violinist. They are quite authentic in the way that they go through the rapid key changes that so characteristic of this music. In Western classical music there so much fuss about what key can follow another, and that is wrong to do this that or the other. If you play a Bartok string quartet, some of these niceties are dispensed with, and many people don't like listening to Bartok for this reason. However, if you go to the genuine Eastern European folk music, music this not been prettified to follow classical music conventions, then it can be quite shocking and take an awful lot of time to get used to. Key can change every 2 or 3 bars, and there's no nice convention about which key can elegantly follow another, they clashed through the keys to the extent that at first it becomes unbearable the classically trained ear. But listen to it, fight your way through the pain barrier, accept it for what it is and suddenly it clicks. The key changes are for effect, have meaning and purpose, and it becomes music of great excitement and drive.

After passing through this pain barrier, the English music of the barn dance sounds bland, the traditional ceilidh band music of Scotland sounds contrived, the music of Ireland has much more originality to it, and can bear comparison somewhat better, though compared with Eastern European music it can seem rather bland. The key changes the Eastern European folk music, and indeed the tuning, which is a little different from that of conventional classical music, relates to jazz singing, which again breaks the rules. Notes can be held flat or sharp against the surrounding music, intentionally clashing, only reaching their intended pitch at the very last moment, if at all. So often this kind of effect is missed out, possibly because the musician just is not aware of these things cannot perform them, other times because the music has to be sanitised for Western musical convention in taste. But true jazz doesn't go in for this pretty vacation, it is what it is and it's proud of it.


It's been traditional to classify black American music by its social purpose. Example jazz or ragtime is the definition of dance music, music of the dance will. Spirituals relate to religious music, or music that was sung by labourers in the cotton fields and chain gangs as "work songs". Nonreligious music connected with suffering and lament has been given the term "The Blues". This isn't very satisfactory from the musical point of view as there is considerable overlap between the categories, but also the basis for category can be different musically.

THE SPIRITUAL: it can be the spontaneous expression typical of the black congregation and passed the act of worship. It is normally based on a simple traditional military that is repeated modified by the congregation. Many spirituals have been taken and augmented by musical ranges to be performed in the concert hall. The spiritual is also sometimes applied to religious composition, written by a classical musician but imitating the original black American idiom, while sometimes a spiritual is based on white American hymn tune that has been taken over by black Americans.

JAZZ: a definition of jazz may include many things to, for example the spontaneous improvisation that is dubbed "hot jazz". It's also applied to the rehearsed music played by large professional dance orchestras in pseudo-black American style, typically with solo cadenzas that provide the hotness in Hot. It also gets applied to music that is not jazz but European in style that has been "jazzed up".

The main musical difference between what comes under spirituals and the music that comes under the heading of jazz, is that spirituals are predominantly vocal and jazz is predominantly instrumental, (though jazz bands will have vocalists as well of course). The spiritual of the shouting congregation typically has more connection with the style comes under hot jazz than it has the spiritual that is on by a choir or classical soloist. Indeed, the spiritual has many connections with certain forms of African tribal music.

By the time that it migrates to being in the category of hot jazz, it has gained influences of American city life and gains standardisation and distancing from raw emotion that is typical of a large community, and I've even seen it written that this is reflection of the mechanisation and automation of the Industrial Revolution, is that perhaps a bit far-fetched? But whatever the truth, whereas the voice used in the spiritual has the same vocal chords as the tribal African, instruments used to perform our jazz are not African instruments, but white European instruments, so that inevitably will have an influence.

Despite all of this, the shouting spiritual of the religious service and hot jazz are remarkably similar in many ways. Both are largely improvised, both are rich in African rhythms and tonality. Inevitably though, once jazz is performed for an audience and not just for the benefit of the performers, the best improvisation is tunes tend to get remembered and repeated. It got to paying audience you got given quality, it is for your own benefit you can experiment your hearts content and never mind if you fall flat on your face for a few moments. So hot jazz migrated into the realm of compositions, perhaps not put down on paper so that they can be repeated, but memorised and improved on with repetition, so following the same process as a conventional composer.

In the 1930s vocal quartet called Mitchell's Christian Singers recorded some spirituals which, though a little rehearsed, considered to be close to the original style. It contains many features that can't possibly be written down in musical notation, so can be considered authentic. Inevitably, the style was copied and the tradition was continued by The Golden Gate Quartet, and eventually the style reached the masses on the radio through the group called The Ink Spots.

More common are recordings of jazz bands. There are many recordings, (high quality for their time) musicians and bands like Benny Goodman, Fats Waller, Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith and of course Duke Ellington. (I remember inheriting a huge pile of 78 from my grandfather, together with the gramophone with steel changeable needle. As a youngster I listened for hours to these recordings, lacking in bass and middle notes and excessive in the higher registers, together with their scratches and clicks. I also had a classical music recording of Beethoven's 5th Symphony with a particularly prominent scratch across one of the sides. If I listen to the Symphony nowadays, even if it's a live performance, when it gets this place in the music I can hear the click click click of the scratch. Weird that.)

Going back to Benny Goodman et al, they've course form into the memorised, repeated and partly composed category of jazz, with clear evidence of having been rehearsed but still clear and free of the limitations of written notation.