Some of the most accomplished musicians of our time have devoted themselves to a lifelong study of Jazz or Classical music, and a few exceptional musicians have actually mastered both. A comparison of classical and Jazz music will yield some interesting results and could also lead to an appreciation of the abilities needed to perform or compose these kinds of music. Let’s begin with a look at the histories of the two. The music called classical, found in stores and performed regularly by symphonies around the world, spans a length of time from 1600 up to the present. This time frame includes the Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, Romantic and Contemporary periods. The classical period of music actually spans a time from of 1750 to 1800; thus, the term Classical is a misnomer and could more correctly be changed to Western Art Music or European Art Music. European because most of the major composers up till the 20th century were European. Vivaldi was Italian, Bach and Beethoven were German, Mozart was Austrian; they are some of the more prominent composers. Not until the twentieth century with Gershwin and a few others do we find American composers writing this kind of art music. For the sake of convention, we can refer to Western Art Music as Classical music. Jazz is a distinctively American form of music, and it’s history occupies a much smaller span of time. Its origins are found in the early 1900s as some dance band leaders in the southern U.S. began playing music that combined ragtime and blues. Early exponents of this dance music were Jelly Roll Martin (a blues player) and Scott Joplin (ragtime). The terms “Jazz” and “Jazz Band” first surfaced in the year 1900. Some say this occurred in New Orleans, although similar music was played at the same time in other places. The most prominent exponents of this early music, called Dixieland Jazz, included Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet. After World War I, Jazz music had evolved and was aided by the development of the recording industry. The small dance band ensemble grew into the larger orchestra known as the “Big Band”. The music of the Big Bands became known as “Swing.” Two of the more famous Swing band leaders were Tommy Dorsey and Harry James. In the late 40s and through the 50s, a different kind of Jazz became popular. This music, played by a very small ensemble, was much more sophisticated and complex. Its rich harmonic changes and melodic counterpoint were not conducive to dance. It became known as “Bop,” with Charlie Parker and Dizzie Gillespie being the early proponents. In the last twenty years there has been a combination of Jazz with popular music of the US and Latin America. This modern Jazz music has been called “Fusion.” Present day exponents include Pat Metheny and Chic Corea. There has also been a return to the sound of Bop in the last ten years by such musicians as trumpeter Winton Marsalis and his brother Branford, a saxophonist. Let’s focus on the instrumentation of the two kinds of music.
In Classical music, both large orchestras and small ensembles are used. But generally, the greatest and most prominent compositions are for the larger symphony orchestra. The largest part of the orchestra is the string section consisting of violins, violas, cellos and string basses. These instruments were invented very early in medieval times but really matured into their present form during the late 18th century. The wind instruments, comprised of brass and woodwinds, took longer to mature. The brass section in particular did not possess the ability to play chromatically (in all keys) until the advent of valves which allowed the length of the instrument to be changed while playing. This occurred around the middle to late 19th century. Consequently, the brass instruments are less prominent in the music of Bach, Mozart and Beethoven along with their contemporaries. Late 19th and early 20th century composers make use of a very large orchestra with all the fully developed wind instruments. Some of the master orchestrator/composers of this time were: Wagner, Rimskey-Korsakov, Ravel and Stravinsky. Currently, composers also make use of the full orchestra but with the addition of increasingly larger percussion sections which add many unique and unheard of sounds than in earlier music.
Early Jazz music was played in small ensembles making use of clarinet, tuba, cornet, baritone, drums, and piano. Dixieland groups of New Orleans had similar instrumentation. During the Swing era, larger groups were employed to achieve more of an orchestral sound. The Big Bands of this era were predominantly wind orchestras containing alto and tenor sax sections, trumpet and trombone sections, along with piano and drums. When Bop music arrived, the alto saxophone and trumpet were the preferred instruments of the major soloists who were backed up by piano, string bass and drums. With the advent of Fusion, electric instruments such as the electric guitar and keyboard synthesizer became prominent. How has each of these kinds of music been transmitted to later generations of musicians? Early in the evolution of classical music, a system of notation was gradually developed which for the most part remained stable from the Renaissance on. This gave the composer control over how his compositions were to be played. Throughout the history of Jazz, however, notation was more like a rough sketch. This was because the syncopated rhythms of ragtime and the melodic riffs of the blues were not easily notated. Also, early Jazz musicians were not formally trained; they usually learned by ear. Some songs were transcribed and written down, but not in precise ways. Jazz music became more of a passed on tradition that a musician learned through interaction with other players. In a similar way, the modern Jazz musician must rely on previous recordings to get a feel for the style and technique which he desires to learn from. But in classical music, one composer can learn from an older composer by looking at and analyzing the music that the previous composer wrote down. Likewise, classical musicians can master the parts they must play by practicing the music that has been written or published beforehand. These two approaches to passing on tradition are both valid. However, without the recording medium Jazz music might have developed much differently than it has. The cohesive element that keeps a musical group together is also an interesting contrast. In Classical music, the conductor uses a baton and plays the orchestra as if it were his instrument; he looks at a complete score of all the events happening in the composition and interprets these events based on his knowledge and intuition of what the composer intended. Jazz groups rarely utilize conductors. The swing era employed them for the sake of keeping the larger sized group together but other jazz styles did not and do not to this day. The drummer of the Jazz ensemble provides the beat that keeps the group together but even he is interacting with the other soloists as the song is performed. Perhaps the most interesting point of comparison between the two types of music is in improvisation. Improvisation is the ability to play and compose spontaneously “on the spot” while the music is playing. This has been an important element of Jazz from its inception. Although improvisation was less prominent during the swing era, it regained importance with Bop and onward. Early Jazz was improvised, using ragtime and blues as a loose structure. In the swing era, popular songs were arranged by an arranger and soloists played improvisations over the repeating sections in order to lengthen the song for dancing. With the advent of Bop, improvisation assumed great importance. The musicians memorized the chord changes to a song, along with the melody, but then played very loosely and in the end substituted new chords along with greatly embellishing the original melody to the point of being unrecognizable. These factors, along with the ability to interact with each other, became important and remains so in the Fusion music of today. In Classical music, modern listeners are mostly unaware of the fact that many of the great composers of the past were not only excellent performers but also great improvisers. Starting with J.S. Bach (1685-1750), the greatest composer of the Baroque era, he in fact made his living through his great skill as an improviser. It was common for the Lutheran Church organist of his day be able to improvise on choral melodies and Bach was considered one of the greatest at this. There are written accounts of other composer’s improvisational abilities including Mozart (1756-1791), Beethoven (1770-1829), and Franz Liszt (1811-1886). Yet, as time went on, improvising gave way to the composer’s desire to exert complete control over his music. By the late 19th century, improvising was rare and not used at all in public performances of classical music. In summation, we can say that Jazz and Classical music represent two approaches to Art Music. The Classical composer or performer has a long and rich body of music in written form that he uses to learn from while the Jazz musician uses a body of recorded music to learn. Because of its small size, the modern Jazz ensemble allows loose interaction while the symphony orchestra’s large size and diversity of instruments provides many different sounds and wide dynamic range. In classical music the composer strives for control; he uses printed music to guide and direct the musicians through the conductor. In Jazz music, the songs are loosely composed, thus forming a basis for individual expression within an ensemble. When you go to hear a symphony, you hear an orchestra conducted by the conductor playing a composition. When you go to a Jazz club you hear a small jazz ensemble interacting and improvising a song. Both of these kinds of music provide rich expression and detail to the serious listener. They take different paths to reach their final form but give a person equal opportunities to appreciate the creative output of each.