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What is Jazz?





VII. Rhythm

A. The Beat


Most styles of jazz keep a steady beat. That is, if you’re tapping your foot along to the beat of the music, it stays constant, not slowing down or speeding up. 

B. Tempo


Tempo is the speed of the beat. Jazz tunes can be played at any tempo from extremely slow (ballads) to extremely fast (“burning”). 

C. Swing


Swing is important to jazz and, like so many words in the English language, has several definitions (context determines how the word is being used).

  1. The two most common uses of the word are:
    1. When everyone in the band is in sync, playing together and really grooving along with a nice buoyancy, they are said to be “swinging.” Swing is integral to a good jazz performance (jazz great Duke Ellington said: “it don’t mean a thing if it ain't got that swing” and wrote a famous jazz tune with that title).
    2. Swing is also a way of playing eighth notes (consecutive notes played on each down and up beat): swing means that while keeping the beat (foot tapping) steady, rather than each note being held for the exact same length of time, the notes falling on the downbeats are held twice as long as those falling on the upbeats, making a long-short, long-short, long-short, long-short pattern and giving the music a kind of lilt. When jazz is played this way, it is said to have a swing feel (for an aural example of swing eighth notes, click below).
  2. Like so many things about jazz, swing is hard to describe in words, but when you hear it, you know it.
  3. For an excellent example of jazz played with a swing feel, listen to Count Basie’s "One O’clock Jump" on The Instrumental History of Jazz (IHJ) or "Jumpin' at the Woodside" by clicking below.
  4. For an example of jazz that doesn’t swing (in the sense of the second definition above) but is still great jazz, listen to Herbie Hancock's "Chameleon" by clicking below. Rather than having a swing feel, this style of jazz has a straight eighth note feel (i.e., the eighth notes are equal value in length, not having the long-short long-short lilt of the swing feel).

Audio Snippets

speakerspacer Swing Eighth Notes - Mark Gridley
speakerspacer Jumpin' At The Woodside - Count Basie
speakerspacer Chameleon - Herbie Hancock

D. The Swing Era


Most jazz is played with a swing feel. In fact, since this way of playing dominated the style of jazz that was performed by the big bands in the 1930s and early 1940s, the period is often referred to as the “Swing Era” (for an example of tunes from the Swing Era, listen to Count Basie's "One O'clock Jump" and/or Fletcher Henderson's "Wrappin' it Up" on IHJ or click below.) 

Audio Snippets

speakerspacer Sing Sing Sing - Benny Goodman
speakerspacer Jumpin' At The Woodside - Count Basie
speakerspacer Main Stem - Duke Ellington
the Herbie Hancock institute of jazz
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