In Response to Mark Eisenman and the Definition of Jazz

An interesting tidbit of information:  The word ‘literally,’ meaning “in a literal sense,” has been recently redefined to also mean: “in a figurative sense.”

For example, my head literally exploded when I read Mark Eisenman’s post about Jazz: the black hole of music.

I can’t think of a better example of the “bastardization” of a word, when its meaning evolves to also include the contrary.  Logicians please correct me, but if this is true, do they cancel each other out?  Should we stop using the word ‘literally?”

Of course not.  The word is far from meaningless.  A second definition adds depth and richness.  In the case of the word ‘literally,’ its redefinition now includes shades of humor and irony.

But who cares what I think.  Like it or not, this is how people use the word ‘literally.’  Definitions are changing to reflect this.  I take no offence.

I once argued with a friend about what makes a word.  The focus of our argument were the words ‘hopefully’ and ‘disorganized.’  I used them incorrectly, so in that regard, they’re not words.

She said: “If it’s not in the dictionary, it’s not a word.”

Being the brat contrarian, I disagreed.  “If you understand the meaning and context surrounding it, it IS a word. The day before “google” was added to the dictionary, was it not a word?” 

Apparently not.  Meh.

After two minutes of googling and (ahem) wiki-ing, I learned that we were engaged in the prescriptivism vs. descriptivism debate – an argument that’s been around since attempts at standardization.  In a nutshell, for prescriptivists, the rules governing a language are set in stone.  For descriptivists, they’re organic and constantly evolving.

Seeing that I’m an expert now, I’m compelled to take the typical, balanced view.  Both sides have good points.  Standardization is important.  Common ground.  But words naturally evolve.  We need balance.  Blah blah blah.


It would be clever to compare jazz festivals to descriptivists, and all the angry musicians to prescriptivists.  But I don’t want to get too academic about this.  Nor do I prescribe a simple, dualistic outlook.  I wonder if there’s a bit of prescriptivism and descriptivism in all of us.

Personally, if you called me “Christopher,” I’d probably welcome the change.  If you called me “Asshole,” I’d likely resist the change (though I’ve had my moments).  If you called a particular table a “chair” because you sat on it, I’d probably correct you.  If you booked Steve Martin’s banjo show at a jazz festival, I probably wouldn’t care.

So then, what’s my definition of jazz?

Well, that’s it:  I don’t care.  I don’t ask the question.  I don’t particularly like answering it either.  As I heard Christopher Hitchens say playfully: “I don’t accept the grammar of the question.”

I much prefer someone else to define it first.  If your jazz festival exclusively books banjo-strumming comedians, I’ll first consider learning the banjo and refining my delivery.  Then I’ll ask, “Will I fit?

Is Myriad3 jazz?  I don’t care.  Will it fit?

Is the Wolak-Donnelly Duo jazz?  I don’t care.  Will it fit?

Is my electronic, chiptune, video game project jazz?  Definitely not.  But will it fit!?

Sometimes it fits.  Sometimes it doesn’t.  Sometimes it takes selling, networking, communication and business skills to find and work out a match.  And just because it fits one jazz festival, doesn’t mean it would fit another.

For me, as a performer, artist and perhaps, a businessman, this question overrules all.  After all, I’m in the business of fitting.  Connecting.

If you’re like me, you cringe twice a year when this question about the definition of jazz inevitably appears on your news feed.  First is when jazz festivals announce their line-ups and second when the jazz festival is underway.

Actually, it’s three times a year.  That’s when a colleague complains about not playing at the jazz festival.

I once asked my jazz bassist pal Dan Fortin what he was up to the following week.  He said, in the funny way, not in the bitter way:  “Well, it’s the jazz festival, so I’m free all week.”  This is the joke.

We often hear this joke told in the bitter way though.  Within all the bitterness and woe-is-me’ing, there’s the definition of jazz intermingled with the issue of employing local musicians in their hometown.  I sympathize with local musicians on the latter.  But I wonder how liberal their definition of jazz would become should a classical music or chamber music festival hire them.  These things happen more frequently than Mark Eisenman would admit.  I’ve done it.

Then again, in such a situation, maybe they’d become more liberal in defining classical music and chamber music.  Maybe they have a tendency to be prescriptivist when discussing ‘jazz,’ but a tendency to be descriptivist when discussing ‘classical.’  Then again, maybe they’re hard-core prescriptivists, in which case jazz music has no place in a classical music festival.

This is all clearly ridiculous.  It’s wonderful to escape from the absurdities and paradoxes of these arguments (though I feel I’ve peeked my head out too much).  I take refuge in working to connect and perform my music whenever and wherever I fit.

Case in point, since last October, on behalf of Myriad3, I’ve submitted twenty applications to jazz festivals across Canada.  These include twelve physical packages and eight electronic submissions with cover letters, photos, EPKs, music and documents galore.  We’re really proud of our press kit.  We put a lot of work into it.  Those physical packages looked pretty slick.  We’re also proud that we’ll be touring six jazz festivals this summer.  This is what it takes to connect.

(FYI, I was recently in touch with a folk festival in Western Canada that was considering jazz programming.  Timing was an issue, so it wasn’t going to work out.  But they’re out there.)

I’ll leave you with one more thing – one of my favourite sentences in the English language.  I first read this in Steven Pinker’s book The Language Instinct.  Please, have a laugh:

“Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo.”


  1. Joe Auty says: | Reply

    I definitely agree that it doesn’t really matter what we call music, and that the real question is whether it will fit, but the reason why this is an important issue to me is not really about some sort of academic agreement about the word, it’s addressing public preconceptions.

    In my opinion, public preconceptions of what jazz is all about are largely negative. How should we musicians combat this so that people might be inclined to give our music a chance?

    We can kind of dance around not defining our music, but people seem to want to know what the music “is” – what then? Is calling it something other than jazz if it is pretty traditional (“traditional” meaning, say, early up to 1960s or so) deceptive? Are people that want to stick with traditional-ish jazz kind of stuck? Should we ignore traditional jazz?

    These aren’t leading questions, I honestly waffle about this all the time, but I love to have these discussions because I think we all benefit from looking at these sorts of questions from a marketing perspective, but also a “shake things up” perspective. Robert Glasper has said that jazz musicians need a “big ol’ slap on their face”, to paraphrase him. I believe his comments involved the content of the music more than its marketing/presentation, but I tend to believe that we shouldn’t try so hard to separate these things, because I think sometimes the marketing/presentation can impact how the actual content is perceived and digested too – this is why the liner notes used to be sort of part of the experience of listening to a record back in the day.

      • Kaj Genell says: | Reply

        You should definitely start with his early book Tractatus Logico Philosophicus. It is a nice little volume and gives us his early views on the nature of language and on the possibilities for knowledge and on the future of philosophy as well as some logical disvoveries. This book became widely known and his later wreitings deviate from the views in this book in an intersting way. W. here tried to write in a condensed form, aphoristic and artistic, á la Kraus. W. was very interested in art and music: he was an excellent whistler. In his later writings he sometimes writes on music too. He was as a philosopher mainly a sceptic and a mystic, as far as I can see. He is often thrilling to read. He was very serious about the whole thing. He seldom wrote any unnecessary lines in his many manuscripts. /// All the best! I think u are a great pianist!

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