Unlike classical music, jazz has always been a forward-looking music. We can rightly speak of a classical tradition but the term “jazz tradition” is a contradiction. The very idea of jazz seemingly from its earliest days has been one of no tradition. While classical music worked slavishly from the written page, jazz relied ever-so slightly on this convention and, in many cases, discarded it altogether in order to “speak from the heart.” This is not to say that classical music doesn’t speak from the heart but a piece speaks from only the heart of its composer, the conductor becomes the interpreter of that feeling and his musicians merely participants assisting the conductor in bringing this feeling to the audience. The reason he is called a conductor instead of, say, time-keeper or metronome is that he conducts the composer’s feelings and intentions to the listeners through the musicians. He is actually a medium. With jazz, each musician is in himself a composer telling a story straight from his heart in so personal a way that the story can never be told the same way twice. A classical musician strives to make each performance identical while a jazz musician is frowned on by his fellows for playing identically at each performance. In classical, the composer’s feeling is mapped on the written page beforehand, in jazz the feeling is spontaneous and must be expressed and captured in that instant for afterwards that instant, having past, will never be again. For this reason, we say that jazz is very existentialist.
The sheet music score of a classical piece is the complete set of instructions for recreating the feeling that the composer wishes to arouse in the listener—page after page of drama, tragedy, comedy, romance, bellows of war, crashes of thunder leaping off the page in rich, startling, impressively ornate notation. By contrast, a jazz musician’s sheet music usually occupies no more than a single page with only the bare melody written on the staff, the chords written above each bar of music. From this minimalist skeleton on a musical idea will arise some of the richest interpretations ever heard—what would have taken dozens of written pages to capture note-for-note—but nearly all of it supplied from the musician’s heart as he was feeling it at that moment. He might play the song again an hour later and play it entirely differently using the same piece of sheet music.
Some jazz sheet music contains no musical notes only the beats and chords. The rest will be improvised. Although this piece is listed as a guitar chart, it will work with almost any instrument.
In this jazz chart for Gershwin’s “Summertime,” notes are provided that give the basic melody. Each musician in the ensemble will use those notes to build a solo around. The other musicians will simply play the chords listed above each bar of music until his turn to solo comes up. This is not an excerpt of the total piece of sheet music for this number, it is the entire number. This is all experienced jazz musicians need to make music and they can stretch it out for as long as they please. This piece of music could last five minutes or five hours, could be fast or slow, happy or sad, could be played hot or cool—whatever the musicians are feeling at that moment.
One page of a Johann Pachelbel piece. The emotion is contained in the notation as well as certain instructions such as “andante” or “poco moto” etc. (although no such instructions are given here). While different musicians would play it somewhat differently, the overall effect on the listener would be the same because each musician wants to stay true to the original feeling Pachelbel was trying to invoke, they would differ only in how they thought the piece should be played to invoke that feeling. Jazz musicians would strip it down so that they could play it with any feeling they want to.
Because jazz has been so progressive, so forward-looking, it has evolved with astonishing quickness. The progression of jazz from Buddy Bolden and Kid Ory to Ornette Coleman and Charles Mingus was so godawful quick that it would be like classical music going from Bach to Stravinsky in the space of 50 years!