What is Jazz?

Educator resources

What is Jazz?

By Carl Dershem
JEN Member (San Diego, CA)

So the first day of class, the professor looked at us and asked “Just what is jazz? We have all heard it, and like many things, you know it when you hear it, but just what is it?”
Many hands went up, but he waved them all away.
“Part of what I intend to teach you in this class is just what jazz is – it’s roots, its history, its development, who the seminal players were, and what they did to change the music, but first I need you to understand just what it is that you’ll be studying, not just at the superficial level of notes and scales and patterns, but at the root.”
He looked around the room. “Everyone get out a piece of paper and a pencil.”
There was a great rustling of notebooks, and the unprepared borrowed from the prepared. The professor was nonplused, and had certainly seen it all before. He at least took it all in stride.
When everyone was ready, he looked around and said, “here’s the assignment: Draw me a daisy.”
This caused not a little bit of muttering and consternation. What in hell did he mean “draw a daisy”? This was not an art class! We were not there to do silly art projects – we were there to learn about America’s Music!
One of the students actually made that point. “Draw? I’m not here to draw! I’m here to learn, and to learn about music!”
The professor took it all in stride. “You’re here to learn and I’m here to teach. And as the teacher, I get decide how to teach the subject matter. Sit down and draw a daisy or leave – I could not care less either way. But I want each of you to draw a daisy. Don’t sign your name – this isn’t a competition, it’s a thought experiment.”
The student sat down and grumbled, but he put pencil to paper.
“One of the interesting things about jazz” said the professor, walking up and down the aisles of the room, looking at the flowers taking form “is that it is an open form. Every musician starts with the same basic materials, and then creates something of his own from them. You can take something as simple as a twelve-bar blues… yes, we will define that, or something as complex as ‘Lush Life’ and make it into something of your own. You take a set, defined melody and harmonic underpinning, and add your own ideas, your own feelings, your own life experience to it, and transform it into a reflection of yourself. And there are infinite variations. Changing just one chord can change an entire song. Changing the drum pattern or the bass line can remake the whole concept. Things that nobody but other musicians listens to, like the voicings of the chords played by the piano or whether the players are on the beat, pushing ahead of it a little bit or laying back behind it, can change the feel of a piece completely. Whether a soloist plays simple patterns or complex ones. How much the musicians listen to each other and communicate with each other or just each do their own thing changes everything about the music you hear.
“You don’t get that in other kinds of music. Classical music is about recreating the original composer’s ideas faithfully. Rock is about recreating the original recording. Country is about losing your car and your dog and your girl.” This caused a few snorts of laughter, and at least one snort of anger in the room, but most of the students just kept drawing, only listening with part of their minds.
“Folk music, the root of all music, has some elements in common with jazz, but it has elements in common with all music. But even then, it lacks the improvisational elements of jazz. Yes, there are some kinds of rock that have roots in jazz, and include a lot of improvisation, like Ska, but they tend to be pretty narrow in focus, and simple in execution. Only jazz is broad enough to include Louis Armstrong’s hot five, George Gershwin’s rhapsodies, Stan Kenton’s wall of sound, and Henry Mancini’s soundtracks.”
He stopped at the front of the room, turned on an overhead projector, and then turned to face the class.
“Everyone, pass your drawings to the front of the row, and we’ll all look them over.”
As the papers came to the front of the room, the professor took them all and shuffled them, and then turned them all facing the same way. Once he’d sorted them all out, he put the top sheet onto the projector. Without comment, he put each drawing on the projector for a few seconds, and then went on to the next, sorting the drawings as he went. The reactions from the class went from silence to giggles of nervous laughter to a few moments of applause or outrage. Mostly outrage at the last sheet of paper, which merely said, in a hasty scrawl, “I don’t draw!”
“Do you see what I mean yet?” asked the professor. “They are all, well almost all daisies. They are all expressions of someone’s thoughts and feelings – even the last one.”
“So … that is jazz?” Asked one of the students from the back of the classroom.
The professor laughed, a short chuckle. “No – it’s a bunch of drawings of daisies. Let’s look at them individually, and you tell me what kind of music each one is.”
The first drawing he put up was a surprisingly detailed depiction of a daisy. Its petals were crisp and clear, and were shaded to give a sense of depth. The center was stippled and textured, and you could almost feel the bumps in the … whatever it is you call the center of a daisy. It was very clean and accurate.
“This”, said the professor “is classical music at its best. A delightful string quartet or piano etude. Faithfully reproduced – you could use it as a reference picture of a daisy.”
One of the girls at the back of the room beamed, making it very clear that she had drawn the picture, and was proud of the praise she had gotten.
“But it isn’t jazz” said the professor.
The next picture was a simple line drawing, with looping petals and a scribbled center, very reminiscent of what a talented child might draw.
“What do you think?” asked the professor, but he got no takers – none of the students in the class were willing to risk being wrong.
“This is folk music. The root of all music. It is clearly a daisy, but not any specific daisy – it is simple and pure and drawn from the heart without any thought of praise or criticism. A few touches in any way could easily transform it into high art or low scribbling. The art of the people. I like it.”
The next drawing was a spiky, jagged, stylized rendition that looked like something from an ad for World of Warcraft. The petals looked like a cross between saw blades and cannabis leaves. The center leered a deaths-head grin. The drawing was incomplete, but you could easily see what it would have been like, and it was disturbing.
“Heavy Metal!” roared a voice from the back of the room, drawing laughter from the class and the professor.
“There’s one in every class” he chortled. “Yes, this is definitely a rocking daisy, and not jazz.”
The majority of the rest of the drawings were the kind of simple drawings generally done by children, some with more skill, some done by people who had apparently not picked up a pencil since grade school. Shouts of “folk!” And “rock” and “Sesame Street!” Rang out in the room, but most were very easy to decide, given the examples set by the professor.
Until the last few.
The third to last got a lot of laughter, but no one said anything about music.
“That’s not a daisy – that’s a sunflower!” Was the first comment.
“Does that count as jazz?” Asked another student. “It certainly is a … different interpretation.”
“Freddie Hubbard!” Exclaimed another voice – one that the professor recognized as being one of the actual musicians in the class.
“Is it jazz?” Asked the professor.
“It might be” said the professor, finally. One of the old standards, perhaps, or a popular tune reinterpreted as jazz. Not wild and crazy like Monk or Mingus, or technically amazing like Tatum or Parker, or even improvisational, like Gillespie or Coltrane, but … yes. It could be jazz. I’d like to hear more of it.”
Then he took the picture off of the projector, and put on the one that said ‘I don’t draw!’
The class roared with laughter, except for the student who had objected to the exercise in the first place, who just sat, stone faced, with his arms crossed over his chest.
“And what would this be, I wonder” asked the professor.
Murmurs went through the room, but no one volunteered a guess, until the Hubbard fan held up his hand. “John Cage?” He asked.
The professor let out a snort of laughter, which confused the class even more.
“John Cage” he explained “was a ‘post-modern’ musician best known for a piece that features musicians sitting on stage and not playing for about four and a half minutes. A pretty good guess, if I do say so myself.
“But no – I would say this is … a music critic. He has the potential to become more, but until he opens up his mind, he will remain half-informed, and that by his own prejudices.”
This bald statement silenced the class, and the critic started to stand, but then visibly changed his mind and leaned forward in his chair, uncrossing his arms and leaning them on his desk.
“But there is always hope” said the professor, smiling slightly at the student, and putting the last picture on the projector.
It was almost a scribble. The lines were bold and heavy, and instead of depicting a flower face-on, as most of the others had, but gave an impression of a plant as seen from the side. The stems were crooked and branched, and the leaves small and bunched toward the base. The flowers faced every direction except toward the viewer, and those that could be seen were erratic and irregular. But the life in them was evident, each reaching toward the top of the page as though searching for the sun. The drawing was not detailed, and instead had a feeling of being rushed into being, but you could see what it could become given time, and you could see that it could never be duplicated, even by the same hand.
“This” said the professor “is jazz.”
“Next week – Bix Beiderbecke, King Oliver and New Orleans. See you all then.”

charlotte lang

Swiss/Dutch saxophonist Charlotte Lang was born in 1996 in Basel and studied the bachelor and master program at the JAZZCAMPUS Basel under the guidance of Domenic Landolf and Daniel Blanc. She is currently studying the Master of Music in Global Jazz at the Berklee College of Music in Boston under the artistic direction of Danilo Pérez. In addition she is part of Terri Lyne Carrington’s Berklee Institute of Jazz and Gender Justice.


From 2015 to 2018, Charlotte she was a member of the Swiss National Youth Jazz Orchestra under the direction of Christian Muthspiel. Since 2020, she became a member of the German National Youth Jazz Orchestra (Bundesjazzorchester Deutschland), under the direction of Niels Klein and Ansgar Striepens. She also plays is the Austrian FJO (Frauen Jazz Orchester→Women Jazz Orchestra of Austria).


In 2021, Charlotte founded her own Quintet the „Charlotte Lang Group“, for what she is composing, arranging and booking. In the fall 2023, her first album will be recorded and hopefully released by a renowned label.


Charlotte plays in the “Swiss Jazz Orchestra” and the “Zurich Jazz Orchestra”, the two professional Big Bands of Switzerland.

Charlotte recently got the unique opportunity to write a monthly blog for the Swiss Jazz & Blues Magazine called JAZZTIME, to tell readers about her time at abroad and specifically her time at Berklee. Her graduate program lasts only until the summer of 2023. She hopes to stay in the United States to enlarge her network and build her musical career.