There are four things that stand out to me in characterizing jazz as a unique musical form.
1. Jazz is deeply connected to time, a kind of “holiness of the moment.” In plain terms, jazz is a performance. Mozart’s “Jupiter” Symphony can be performed for better or worse, but we feel that the symphony exists beyond the performances. Kind of Blue, on the other hand, exists in the moment that it was recorded; to have recorded it a year later, even with the same musicians, would have yielded a different record.
2. The improvisation of jazz is artistic; it isn’t simply a fusion with time. Sometimes in rock concerts, everybody fuses into one big energetic organism. I remember flinging myself around in a mosh pit to the aptly named Nirvana. The goal of that music seems to be to get everybody to release themselves into Nature. Often at rock concerts the singer stops singing and directs the microphone to the audience who then sing the song as one. This is obviously unthinkable with jazz. First, only the jazz artist is capable of singing or playing his or her improvisation. Second, the audience never fully loses its identity in the music. A swing dance, as joyful and participatory as it is, isn’t a mosh pit.
3. Jazz isn’t by nature stiff. You can both talk while jazz is playing, as well as listen with all your attention to it. There is something gauche about putting on Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion at a dinner party—even worse, chatting while it’s being performed. But there’s nothing odd about putting on Lennie Tristano at a dinner party, or clinking glasses while the most beautiful solo is being blown. Despite how complex pop tunes can sometimes be, there’s something a bit pretentious in analyzing them; but there’s nothing untoward about taking an intellectual delight in Don Byas.
4. Jazz is the deepest expression of the style of American democracy. As it’s usually said, jazz is a distinctly American form of music. It is individualistic in the sense that soloists are judged on what they and they alone put on the line. At the same time, it isn’t radically individualistic; the players almost always form into bands and sometimes have quite intricate musical relationships. Likewise, jazz embodies the concept of freedom at its best. There is the looseness to play what note one pleases, but the discipline that in order to play well requires serious work. On the one hand, jazz is a popular art, one that arises from the people to please the people. On the other hand, jazz is not just an entertainment: it is worthy of expressing our spiritual aspirations, of being deep. One view of American democracy is that it is a leveling of beauty, truth, and goodness. Jazz shows that there can be an aristocratic expression of democracy, one that upholds those values, albeit in a new way. It’s not inappropriate that some of its greatest practitioners were Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and King Oliver: they’re capable of wearing the names of royalty, even if they do so with a smile.