July 21, 2010

Jazz Language Primer

Jazz has its own language. Some of these words were invented by the musicians, while others were coined by critics and historians to describe what the players do:

Axe — a musical instrument.

Break — a spot in the tune where everyone stops except for one player. This player will fill in this hole in the tune and it is usually two or four measures long.

Blue note — a note that is purposely played a half step lower than usual, typically the third, fifth or seventh note of the eight-note scale. Blues singers first did this, later they were copied by instrumentalists.

Bridge — not all songs have a bridge but most standards do (see Standards). Jazz musicians for years have adapted popular songs from the 30’s and 40’s and they often are written in an A-A-B-A form. The music to each A is the same or similar; the B section (the bridge) offers something new.

Changes — the chords to a particular song. The changes provide the blueprint for the improvisations. The term “rhythm changes” is shorthand for the chords to the song “I Got Rhythm” and new melodies have been written over these changes.

Chart — a written piece of music (the whole arrangement or an individual part).

Chorus — usually refers to the part of the song that has the title. Jazz players also use the term to describe improvising once through the whole song (i.e. each player takes one chorus).

Comp — the guitar, or piano and bass play the changes behind the soloist(s), improvising the rhythm to fit the feel of a particular performance. Freddie Green, long time guitarist with the Count Basie Orchestra, had a comping style named after him, a steady chunking strum on each beat.

Cutting contest — two like instruments “battling” each other by trading improvised choruses. It’s more competitive than a jam session, and sometimes is used to establish a reputation.

Gig — any musical job. The word has now entered the mainstream, often irking musicians, especially when a DJ refers to their “gigs.”

Head arrangement — a band arrangement that has been created in rehearsals or on-the-spot by the players. It is committed to memory and may later be written down on paper if it is a keeper.

Inside/outside — when an improviser uses notes that correspond to the change (chord) they are playing inside. Going outside is experimenting with notes that may sound wrong, especially to traditionalists or new listeners.

Jam session — An informal gathering of jazz players playing standards and blues. This is a valuable tool for aspiring musicians and used to be the accepted way to learn jazz.

Laying out — refers to a player in the rhythm section who purposely does not play at all for a length of time (also called “strolling”). The bassist rarely lays out.

Rhythm section — bass, drums, piano and/or guitar. They provide the background for the soloists and set up the groove. The rhythm section instruments can also solo, or a rhythm section can be a band by itself.

Standards — songs that jazz musicians are expected to have memorized. These tunes are typically from the 30’s and 40’s and were written by the great songwriters (George Gershwin, Duke Ellington, Jerome Kern, etc). Knowing standards allows musicians who have never previously met to play a whole night together without written music. Newer tunes are constantly added to this list.

Tag — adding a phrase at the end of the song. The tag is usually cued by the group leader when it’s time to go “home” (i.e. to end the piece). The tag is usually the last four measures played extra times.

Taste — a now out-of-date term (which replaced bread) referring to the monetary compensation for a gig.

Walking — when the bass player plays one note for every beat of the music. Essential in swing music.