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Salient. An Organ of Student Opinion at Victoria College Wellington, N.Z. Vol. 6, No. 4 April 14, 1943

In Defence of Jazz

In Defence of Jazz

Hot Jazz, both in British countries and America, has suffered insults, patronage and distortion at the hands of classical musicians, but rarely an intelligent study. Classical critics, in considering it tolerable, ephemeral, or just holiday music, according to temperament, ignore the fact that genuine "Hot Jazz" is based on the blues and is expressive of the agony of an oppressed people. Against such critics we defends the view that jazz is a type of folk art, unusual in that it is a city creation, drawing heavily upon the primitive music of the American negro.

Commercial Jazz

Firstly we must draw the line against a diluted form of the authentic art, "commercial swing," an exploitation of jazz in the most profitable and usually the most insipid channels. Paul Whiteman has much to do with the vogue for refined and devitalised jazsz, as has Tommy Dorsey.


The first characteristic of genuine hot jazz is improvisation. To understand this we must first dislodge the prejudice that fine music can only be created by that extreme division of labour, the composer, the performer, and the passive listener. Here the performers are themselves the authors, as amply demonstrated in the spontaneous ensemble playing that many bands have achieved. The outcome of group improvisation by the performers ("jamming") is often a thick counterpoint, in which each instrument follows its own line with continual movement and without cashing. The music is so much a part of the players that they listen with one ear and play with the other, so to speak, and impart a peculiar musical tension which gives tremendous vitality. Associated with this is the novel element of "swing," a kind of rhythmic momentum or carryover from one phrase to another, more compulsive than anything we know in Western music.

Instrumental Technique

The third characteristic lies in the "hot intonation" of jazz instruments, a feature inadmissible in classical music but imparting to jazz its special character. It is produced by a sharp attack, sustained vibrato, with constant use of the glissando, and lends a tone rougher and more uniformly intense than that attained in classical music. Sustained emotional intensity is produced not only by the above but also by the "blue" note, the fourth characteristic. The third and seventh in all Negro music from spirituals to hot jazz are not pitched steady. They are "worried" wavering between flat and natural, and contributing an especially poignant quality.

Classical Form?

Lastly there is some resemblance to classical "theme and variation form, although the theme is usually so familiar that it is assumed rather than set out in full. The variations are played by three or four hot "soloists" and the piece ends with an "all-out" ensemble. These are the foci of musical intensity in jazz, and when used in this, the most flexible of musical forms, may well serve as one of the musical expressions of our age.