Rhythmic Elements of Jazz

Most spirituals are now in this category of notated music, where an attempt is made to specify the rhythmic elements of the jazz style. This becomes either wildly complex or is just an approximation to the actual performance. For example Swing Low Sweet Chariot is now a traditional melody that has been written down and harmonised mostly to classical music notation models. It's probably a long way from the original spiritual that was invented at some time during the worship session. Instrumental jazz has a parallel, and is predominantly in the form of a composition. As an example, Tin Pan Alley was for a long time the primary source of American popular music is located in what was America's most cosmopolitan city. Some of the output is pseudo-black American in its form, but a lot had nothing to do with Afro-American music or jazz. However much of the output has become jazz by the fact that it has been performed and modified by jazz bands. A lot of First World War hits such as Whispering, Smiles, Trail of the Lonesome Pine, were jazz tunes by any stretch of imagination, but after being mutilated and modified by whole lot of individual jazz bands, is now considered part of the jazz repertoire. Even pieces of music like Jerome Kern's, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, which have no black American influence whatsoever and now firmly part of the jazz repertoire, as are hits like Pagan Love Song, I'm for Ever Blowing Bubbles, Romana.

This doesn't mean that the music is not jazz, Mark means that jazz has been modified from its roots, to the "sweet" jazz artists such as Art Hickman and Guy Lombardo have produced a hybrid varieties of jazz, that certainly does include some black American original elements, persist turned it into a sort of folk music of the American masses. Piece of music like Smoke Gets in Your Eyes and Babyface were not originally published as jazz numbers, but most people would recognise them now and think of them as just tunes, having been played by innumerable jazz orchestras. So jazz is changed, and such tunes are now truly chance.

Tin Pan Alley was barely influenced by the black American idiom. From the days of the minstrel shows, traces of harmonically shows melodic patterns from the origins of jazz have been included, and the some as being genuine work of Negro composers, but it can be argued that in pieces like George Gershwin's Fascinating Rhythm, the regional jazz style has been reduced to a classical music formula and elaborated in classical style. Thus, jazz has become divided into 2 strands which represent types of performance. There is the original "hot jazz" divide from black American improvisation and there is the "sweet jazz" or commercialised jazz which developed into the popular music of big bands and beyond, and incorporate all sorts of Anglo Celtic and Central European influences, plus a major chunk of Jewish influence from the great composers, who mostly Jewish, of Broadway shows.


Looking at the rhythmic elements of jazz in a simplistic way, there are 2 main elements, firstly simple syncopation and secondly the parallel playing of conflicting rhythms, known as pollyrhythm.

Simple syncopation is standard in Western European music, even being used extensively by Joseph Haydn in his string quartets, so there's nothing new about this. Syncopation is also claimed to be the basis of "ragtime" as opposed to jazz. The 2nd element though, the pollyrhythm, is not a part of the classical Western musical tradition and is viewed as being part of the African music tradition that was introduced by the black Americans at the start of the development of jazz. (Think here of the African tribal drumming, where several separate rhythms are played simultaneously, coming in and out of phase with each other and automatically forming complex rhythms between them. I think this is rather similar to the clapping that is part of the rhythmic base of flamenco music. I've been to flamenco shows in Spain, and also listened to flamenco being played in bars and in the streets of some of the Spanish towns and cities. Sometimes there might be a couple of guitars, but you complement is perhaps 5 or 6 people, not using castanets, but clapping. Each person is clapping their own rhythm and the rhythmic complexity that emerges from the whole group is simply amazing. But then flamenco music and flamenco guitar playing originates from the Arab and North African invaders who rule so much of Spain for much of its history, so there is a connection there with the African influences on jazz and the African influences on flamenco.

In comparison with this, syncopation is very simplistic, essentially being the upsetting of normal rhythmic pulse by the parents of the stress on a weak beat, while the following strong betas deprived of the accident. His most basic form it can be written by a quarter note followed by a half note in an ordinary for 4/4 bar. Syncopation can therefore be viewed as a distortion in the rhythm and as a method of achieving surprise, or something unexpected, and this is one of the elements of jazz, surprise, the unexpected.

To make syncopation appear as a surprise or something out of the ordinary, the music has to establish a regular and normal rhythm. Only then can the deviation from that rhythm caused by syncopation have its effect. Therefore, syncopation has to be done in one voice against the background of regular pulse. This sort of rhythm is very common in jazz, where often it is not a full syncopation as in Haydn string Quartet, but can be the anticipation of longer notes by a small fraction of the value, a bending of rhythm that can't be written down in any sensible way it has to be felt by the performer. An example of this technique can be heard in recordings of Louis Armstrong's Mahogany Hall Stomp. This is part of the technique of "swing jazz".

If you look at jazz that has been written down, you're likely to see many cases of syncopation. The base part will usually play the normal rhythm in a constant pulse, while the upper parts will sink about every now and again, against that rhythm. Sometimes the base part may take up the syncopation, almost stop playing for a few beats while the upper parts syncopated against a pulse that is only there in the listener's head.

A performance of a jazz piece, if played well, will include more complications in the syncopation type than the written down. This is the rhythmic distortion known as "jazzing" a piece of music, or more recently referred to as "swinging". An interesting example of the difference between the styles of playing of a jazz musician and of a classical musician comes in an orchestra that I play on. It's a jazz big band, but unusual in that it has a string section. The jazz orchestras of the wartime era didn't include strings, and this variation came in the 1960s/1970s. Because it's so unusual to have strings, one finds that the string players are purely classical musicians, playing in symphony orchestras and string quartets and never having played jazz before. This contrasts with the brass players, who mostly have been brought up on a diet of jazz and only sometimes play in classical ensembles. The woodwind are somewhere in between the 2 extremes, having played in wind bands that have a diet of classical and written down jazz, will probably have played in wind quartets, but will also have played a lot of true jazz.

This combination creates chaos, or at least it does until the string players get to understand the jazz idiom. The notes on the pages of the brass players and saxophone players may be exactly the same as those on the violin, viola and cello's pages, but they played quite differently. A series of quavers may not be played like that, they are played somewhere towards a dotted quaver and semi quavers pair, but not even like that. It's a curious long style that is neither one thing nor the other. It isn't even written down, which is a great confusion to the classical musician used to playing syncopation of Haydn string quartets.

Even more confusing to the classical musician is the difference in emphasis. A classical musician playing a string quartet would play what is written down on the page. A piece in 4/4 time is played with the first beat being the strongest, the 2nd week, the 3rd strong but less strong than the first, on the 4th beat the weakest. Comparing this first of all with folk music, and this is folk music for dancing as would be played by a ceilidh band or barn dance band, then in quite a few bars the 4th beat is the strongest, i.e. the last beat of the bar. This is to give the lift or emphasis to the dancers to launch them off on their dance steps. This confuses most classical musicians, it is a relatively simple device. What then of a classical musician trying to play jazz, where there are all sorts of emphasis in all sorts of parts of the bar, depending on the music, and not depending on which beat of the bar it is.

The 2nd device commonly used in jazz is the superimposition of different rhythms on top of each other. This produces some rather surprising results, as does Bartok's superimposition of different keys, as in the Bartok 44 violin duets, when some of the pieces one violinist playing in one key and the other violinist playing in another key. It gets quite amazing effects. I think, but I can't quite remember, that a similar devices use in at least one of his string quartets, but don't hold me to that. Whenever I tried playing them, they're so fiendishly difficult, but I'm never quite sure what I'm doing or what anybody else in the quartet is doing!