Defining Genre in Jazz
Histories present the music as if it is fundamentally linear in its evolution. This, at best, tells only half of the story because musical evolution is also circular.
Genres are categories used to identify creative works characterized by similarities in form, style, and subject matter. At the same time, their use in the history of music—for example, bebop, cool, R&B, rock ‘n’ roll, neo-soul, etc.—are of questionable validity. Journalists employ these and other terms to orient consumers to music. Although journalists and consumers find these categorizations useful, musicians often reject them due to the limitations they impose. Musicians perform in multiple styles and cross genre boundaries as they explore new ideas, experiment with advanced technologies, and engage with current trends. Duke Ellington said that music was far too varied and complex to be encapsulated by one term. Musicians simply call it “the music.”
Invariably, histories present the music as if it is fundamentally linear in its evolution. This, at best, tells only half of the story because musical evolution is also circular. Artists regularly return to the blues and gospel roots to revitalize the music, just as Thelonious Monk (“Blue Monk”), Charles Parker (“K.C. Blues”), and Miles Davis (“Kind of Blue”) were bluesmen extraordinaire as well as beboppers. Another example is the “funk” and “soul” of the 1950s (“Moanin’,” “Dat Dere,” and “Sister Sadie”), the decade when hard bop and cool received so much publicity. From the 1960s through the early 1980s, avant-garde jazz and the contemporary sounds of fusion are dominant. As an alternative, Wynton Marsalis returns to the basic values and performance styles of the pre-1960s era—drawing from New Orleans and the traditions that evolve through hard bop.