Ontdef2. Arguments for the impossibility of defining jazz
Generally speaking, in the history of both — jazz in general, and jazz scholarship in particular, — mostly one finds an extreme pessimism regarding the possibility of coming up with an acceptable definition of or for jazz.
- 1 Pessimism About Defining Jazz
- 2 Critique of Complexity, Multiple Styles and Challenge Arguments For the Impossibilty of Defining Jazz
- 3 Vehicle Counter-Example
- 4 Is the Definition of Jazz Subjective?
- 5 Robert Kraut on Problems With Defining Jazz
- 6 What is the Data of Jazz?
- 7 NOTES
Pessimism About Defining Jazz
Here's a brief survey of some of the naysayers:
- When Fats Waller was asked to define jazz, he allegedly warned, "If you have to ask, don’t mess with it." as quoted in How To Listen To Jazz by Ted Gioia.
- Cartoon panel by R. Crumb
- Loius Armstrong's response to the question of defining jazz was "If you have to ask, you'll never know."
- Scott Deveaux argued that one should avoid defining jazz “in musical terms" because:
“Defining jazz is a notoriously difficult proposition, but the task is easier if one bypasses the usual inventory of musical qualities or techniques, like improvisation or swing (since the more specific or comprehensive such a list attempts to be, the more likely it is that exceptions will overwhelm the rule).”
- Thomas E. Larson points out that "jazz is difficult to define, especially today, because it is performed in so many styles and its influence can be heard in so many other types of music [making] it nearly impossible to come up with a set of hard and fast rules.” 
Of course this sounds like the Multiple Styles argument which gets refuted below.
- In the Encyclopedia Brittanica on jazz Gunther Schiller writes of the futility of trying to define jazz because of its constant evolution:
"Any attempt to arrive at a precise, all-encompassing definition of jazz is probably futile. Jazz has been, from its very beginnings at the turn of the 20th century, a constantly evolving, expanding, changing music, passing through several distinctive phases of development; a definition that might apply to one [genre might not apply to another]."
As a potential argument, Schuller's remarks are a combination of the Multiple Styles argument ("jazz has evolved different styles") and the Challenge Argument ("no one could find a definition that applies to all jazz styles"). Both of these arguments are refuted below.
Even such stalwart defenders of the metaphysics of jazz as James O. Young and Carl Matheson are reluctant to take on trying to define jazz. They put it this way:
"We have no intention of definining a phenomenon as complex and multifarious as jazz. It would be difficult, indeed, to come up with a definition that embraces dixieland, ragtime, bebop, cool jazz, free jazz, and the many other styles. We will simply assume that readers have a rough-and-ready conception of jazz: they know jazz when they hear it."
If we turn these remarks into an argument, what is that argument? Apparently from the pessissism exuded, if a phenomea is "complex and multifarious" then one should not bother to try to define it. Furthermore, the task of defining something will be "difficult" if the thing being defined has a "lot of styles."
Critique of Complexity, Multiple Styles and Challenge Arguments For the Impossibilty of Defining Jazz
What does this amount to as an argument?
- (CMJ: Complexity Argument)
- (CMJ1) Anything complex and multifarious cannot be easily defined.
- (CMJ2) Jazz is complex and multifarious.
- (CMJ3) Therefore, jazz cannot be easily defined.
- (CMJ: Complexity Argument)
That jazz is not easy to define seems correct so, so far so good.
- (Multiple Styles Argument)
- (S1) Anything with many styles cannot be successfully defined.
- (S2) Jazz has many styles (dixieland, ragtime, bebop, cool jazz, free jazz, and others).
- (S3) Therefore, jazz cannot be successfully defined.
- (Multiple Styles Argument)
- (Challenge Argument)
- (C1) There currently is no definition of jazz that has been found (or could be found) that embraces all of the different styles of jazz.
- (C2) Jazz cannot be defined.
- (Challenge Argument)
Putting these claims so boldly into premises helps to remove the rhetorical power the claims have and we can just consider the truth of the principles involved. Start with (CMJ1)
and ask if it is true. It is quite obviously false if one believes ANY definitions at all are both possible and actual. Virtually any definition defines a phenomena that is likely to be "complex and multifarious."
If you think one can define the word "vehicle" as a thing used to transport people or goods, especially on land, such as a car, truck, or cart, then since this was, in fact, easy to define (however that is measured), yet vehicles are both complex and multifarious with many different styles, this refutes both (CMJ1) and (S1).
To be entirely clear, vehicle styles can include: SUV (sport utility vehicle), truck, sedan, van, coupe/compact, wagon, convertible, sports car, diesel, crossover, electric/hybrid, luxury car, certified pre-owned, and hatchback, to name a few. Each of these diverse and varied styles all still fall within the definition for vehicle. (See Wikipedia on Car Classification.)
Regarding next, different types of vehicles because most of the above styles were just automobiles, it is somewhat astonishing how many varied and different vehicle 🚗 types exist. There are certainly more types of vehicles than there are types of jazz. As proof, Wikipedia lists well over a hundred types of vehicles. One would be hard pressed to come up with over a hundred different types and styles of jazz.
Just to give some idea of the diversity possible of vehicle types consider these: motorcycle, eighteen-wheeler, tricycle, moped, scooter, solar-powered vehicle, pogo stick, iceberg, airplane, amphibious all-terrain vehicle, balloon, bicycle, blimp, cable car, and ninety plus more to go. Yet vehicle can still be defined successfully thereby refuting the Multiple Styles argument to defining jazz.
Super surprisingly, Young and Matheson, in their "The Metaphysics of Jazz," while espousing the virtual or practical impossibility of defining jazz as a music, nevertheless continue to claim that "readers will still know jazz when they hear it."
Isn't this last claim impossible? If listeners know jazz, then they can recognize it. If they can recognize it, then there must ALREADY be something that CAN be recognized. Whatever that IS is the content of the definition of jazz!
Even the great music critic Ralph J. Gleason, while writing the liner notes to Miles Davis's "Bitches Brew" appears to accept some form of the Multiple Styles argument and a few other intuitions when he writes:
“So be it with the music we have called jazz and which I never knew what it was because it was so many different things to so many different people each apparently contradicting the other and one day I flashed that it was music.”
So, when Gleason says he "never knew" what jazz was because "jazz was so many different things" he appears to be accepting some form of the Multiple Styles argument, but with a twist--subjectivity.
Notice that if we ignore the subjectivity component, and just focus on the "jazz is so many different things," that this has already been refuted as a good argument by the Vehicle counter-example. Vehicles are "so many different styles and types of things," yet "vehicle" can still be successfully defined.
For what is required for a successful definition see Ontdef1. What is a definition?
Is the Definition of Jazz Subjective?
“Certainly, the question is a highly subjective one. Ask 100 different people "What is jazz?" and you're likely to get 100 different answers. The debate becomes even more confusing given the fact that the history of jazz is relatively well documented. . . . . Why then, less than half a century later, can't we agree on a working definition? Part of the reason is because jazz has always been and remains today a living art form, ever changing and ever growing. . . . [Since the '50's jazz has birthed bebop, modal jazz, free jazz, incorporated rock, electric instruments, and classical music, and John Coltranes's "sheets of sound" so jazz] exploded and suddenly jazz was all over the place. . . . . At present, it seems that there are almost as many names for jazz as there are jazz groups. Still puzzled? Me too. . . . Once again, each one of us is left with our own purely subjective views on jazz. My guess is that, if asked, even musicians—the men and women who are currently dedicating their life to creating this music—would likely disagree on the meaning of jazz.”
Let's analyze these remarks. Is the question itself subjective? "Subjective" means based on or influenced by personal feelings, tastes, or opinions; dependent on the mind or on an individual's perceptions for its existence.
Merriam-Webster's dictionary on the meaning of "subjective" has this as some of the relevant definitions:
(1) peculiar to a particular individual : personal, e.g., subjective judgments. (2) modified or affected by personal views, experience, or background, e.g., a subjective account of the incident. (3) arising from conditions within the brain or sense organs and not directly caused by external stimuli, e.g., subjective sensations. (4) arising out of or identified by means of one's perception of one's own states and processes.
The question "What is Jazz?" cannot be subjective
Applying these usages of the concept of subjectivity, it is obvious that it isn't the question that is subjective. The question "What is jazz?" is neither peculiar to a single individual, nor arising from only internal (brain) resources or stimuli, nor identified by one's own perceptions, any more than any other question. Would Jason West have claimed "What is an electron?" to be any of these types of subjective things? Hardly.
Presumably, what Jason West really had more in mind, and apparently also Ralph J. Gleason, is that the answer to the question is subjective. This is false as well. The answer to the question what is jazz is no more subjective than is the answer to "What is an electron?" Neither question's answer in any way depends on any individual conscious mental experiences or judgments. Hence, neither the question nor the possible answers to the question are subjective.
What then did these people have in mind when referring to subjectivity with respect to jazz? Certainly it is clear in West's case that he believes people have differing beliefs about jazz and then what is supposed to follow from that? Again, just because people disagree does not entail that there is not a correct answer. Suppose some people believe the Earth is flat and others believe it is not flat as a whole object. Does it follow the answer to the question "What is the shape of the Earth?" doesn't have a correct answer. Of course not. Similarly for jazz. Differing opinions about anything does not alter whatever ontological status something actually has nor its identity conditions (if it exists at all).
Furthermore, it is somewhat doubtful that there is as much disagreement over the features of jazz that could be used in a definition. It is not so much that people have differing opinions on the musical features of jazz as they disagree over which styles of music using the word "jazz" qualify as such. Many would claim that what is called acid jazz is not actually jazz. Others believe free jazz is not jazz, or jazz-rock fusion isn't jazz, or Bebop isn't jazz, only Dixieland is the only true jazz, and so forth. The history of jazz is replete with these kinds of conversations and positions.
Why the definition of jazz could be subjective
What if it were true that jazz has no essential features that all jazz performances exemplify, then perhaps the concept of jazz is an open concept with only family resemblances between member types that fall within the concept, but without there being any essential or central features that all and only games or jazz must contain. This is what Wittgenstein appears to be talking about when discussing language games.
If there are no central, or essential features, that every jazz performance exhibits or exemplifies, then this failure to have an independent ontological status opens the door to arbitrary or idiosyncratic and subjective opinions about what constitutes jazz or which genres are or are not jazz to flourish. Since the concept would be open ended, the reference can be fluid and change over time with different genres and performances qualifying and disqualifying as jazz depending upon which subjectively arbitrary conception of jazz is being used at the time.
Why jazz cannot be defined as black music?
At the Oxford Bibliographies website, "Introduction to Jazz," they make these remarks:
Defining jazz has been central to delineating the disciplinary purview of jazz scholarship, but this has never been easy. As a body of more or less “popular” music disseminated in recorded form, the music has undergone rapid development over the course of its history, and each transformation in style has prompted debate among jazz musicians, critics, and fans as to whether or not the new style was in fact jazz. Such debates have often revolved around the role of improvisation and its relative emphasis in any given style, the degree to which each new form of the music could be understood to “swing”—i.e., to exhibit a valued rhythmic quality thought to be essential to good jazz—and the extent to which each new style manifested certain core African or African American musical concepts and principles. The latter consideration has prompted many scholars to eschew parochial considerations of style altogether and situate jazz not as a distinctive form of music in its own right but as one expression among many within the very broad category of “black music.”
But this last suggestion is exceedingly useless and unhelpful. There is no such thing as "black music." Even if there were it would need to include music that wasn't jazz like the Blues. Any legitimate use of the term "black music" would certainly need to include the genre of the blues, but blues by itself, is not jazz, period.
So, we cannot ignore the musical features of jazz (this includes "style" mentioned above). We need to know "what form of music" it is contrary to the above contrary suggestions. Otherwise, blues and jazz would be the same type since each is black music. Since blues and jazz are not the same kind of music, this is a reductio ad absurdum argument against the above suggestions.
The reductio is this:
Either jazz is best defined as black music or not. Assume black music is the definition of jazz.
- 1. Blues music is not jazz (ask anyone), but
- 2. Blues is American "black music" because it, like jazz, was predominantly originally developed by people of color, especially African Americans.
- 3. If black music were used to characterize jazz, then jazz would be the same type of music as the blues (both are black music in the sense specified).
- 4. Therefore, jazz cannot be merely black music.
We were led to a contradiction (jazz is and is not the blues), therefore this assumption that jazz can be defined as "black music" is a false claim since it led to a contradiction. Therefore, jazz is not best defined, characterized, or conceptualized as equivalent to black music.
To what shall we turn to next to determine a definition for jazz?
Robert Kraut on Problems With Defining Jazz
Robert Kraut raises concerns for the enterprise of defining jazz in his "Why Does Jazz Matter To Aesthetic Theory?. He seems mildly sympathetic and in favoring of pinning jazz down musically, as well as in favor of theorists capturing jazz and explaining what thing it is.
Ignoring disputes about controversial cases, Kraut suggests we look at uncontroversial central paradigms of jazz performances as legitimate data for theorizing about jazz.
"It is difficult to specify what qualifies as pure jazz; nor is such specification necessary. Like other art forms and genres, jazz offers various central paradigms about which there is little if any controversy (but even Miles, in later stages, was occasionally said to have abandoned jazz; and Coltrane, when playing with Rashid Ali and Pharoah Saunders, was sometimes said to have evolved out of jazz and into some other form). Clearly, various standards of similarity and difference are deployed when determining whether a musical event lies sufficiently close to paradigm cases to qualify as jazz. Often there is room for dispute; such disputes about style and genre categorizations are familiar (and perhaps essential) throughout the artworld."
Kraut actually supplies two lines of thought for philosopher's interest in philosophy of jazz — one about theory, the other about the need for data collection.
THEORY LINE OF THOUGHT: Any genuine theory must be about data.
Aesthetic theory must be about aesthetic objects. Art works are aesthetic objects. Jazz is an art work form. Therefore, aesthetic theory qua aesthetics must be concerned with jazz.
DATA LINE OF THOUGHT: All genuine theories are about data. Since aesthetic theories must concern themselves with jazz they must pin down what jazz is, what does it consist of, what is it like musically.
He explains that because any "genuine aesthetic theory" must be theorizing about (empirical?) data, well-played jazz is an art form and aesthetic theories theorize about art forms it follows that "Jazz performances are part of the data, and thus part of the tribunal by which aesthetic theories must be tested and evaluated." 
So aesthetic theories about jazz need to look at jazz's data. But which data?
What is the Data of Jazz?
Of the several possible candidates for relevant data to mine for in jazz none seems more central than the actual music that jazz musicians have already played. There is sufficient data that books are published containing three hundred jazz standards.
Let's not over-think this right here and ask instead is there anything that the vast majority during the playing of these three hundred songs have in common. There will be many things in common, but none by itself can uniquely individuate (or distinguish between) jazz as a musical genre from other musical genres since non-jazz music uses the same musical feature specified (swing is done by rockabilly; blues does all of HSI: hybridization of two scales, syncopation, and improvisation).
- Hybridization is synthesizing the two musical scales of European diatonic (seven note) system with the pentatonic (five note) pentatonic (blues) system.
- Syncopation is emphasis on weak beats or off the beat. See Onttech6. What is syncopation?
- Improvisation is done in many genres besides jazz including Indian ragas, the blues, rock, and even classical (Bach & Mozart were stupendous improvisers). See Ontimpr1. What is improvisation?
What are paradigm examples of past jazz performances? What do all past jazz performances have in common?
Answer: very little in common if required by every possibly qualified jazz performance. But it need not be all or nothing.
We can use fuzzy logic and degrees of inclusion so the question as jazz data now becomes what do the vast majority of agreed paradigm performances of jazz have in common or share?
Here the answer is HSI (Hybridization, Syncopation, and Improvisation).
DATA Argument: Aesthetic Theory strives to be a genuine theory. All genuine theories must be about (empirical?) data. Jazz is under the purview of aesthetic theory since it is an art form. Therefore, aesthetic theory must know what jazz is. A way to investigate what jazz is is to investigate past jazz performances and use them as DATA for theorizing. Therefore, philosophy must study jazz, including actual past performances.
Which Jazz Performances Should Philosophy of Jazz Study?
An immediate recommendation that would limit controversy is to include those past performances that all parties concerned would agree were jazz performances. Everyone would agree that Miles Davis playing "On Green Dolphin Street" was a jazz performance, but might balk at some song from Miles's later catalog as being a good example of a jazz song.
Fine, for the moment we exclude that song from what everyone agrees should be included in the jazz canon used for analysis. Call this resulting musical grouping of past jazz performances as the indisputable jazz canon. Anything contentious has been excluded. However, if any of the evaluators were to argue that the jazz canon is exceedingly small, say in the history of jazz there have really only been a total of three real jazz songs performed, then this theorist and theory would be laughed out of the room.
What is the maximum number of jazz performances given on Earth?
What is the maximum number of jazz performances there could have been on the planet Earth since the beginning of jazz in 1890?
It turns out these estimates are difficult to determine for numerous reasons. It is easier to gather data about professional jazz musicians in the United States. Given these limitations and limiting the domain of the chosen universe from which to draw data to United States registered professional jazz players, how many jazz performances could have been given over 127 years (1890 - 2017)?
This calculation is made through 2017. 127 years is the number of years included. At the start of jazz there would be annually a smaller total number of performances per year than in later years of jazz history. First we calculate the maximum. Assume 7 billion people, but much less in the past hundred years, so average over 127 years is 4 billion. Percent of jazz musicians amongst this population performing ten songs that day is .00001% of population. Number of days in year 365 x 127 years = 46,355. On any one day in the United States how many jazz songs are played live?
One estimate had between 50,000 and 300,000 musicians in the US. What percentage of these are jazz musicians? It is unclear.
A reasonable estimate is 100,000 to maximum of 200,00 professional jazz musicians currently in the United States in 2014.
What is the average number of jazz musicians over the past 127 years in the United States? If there are currently 100,000 jazz musicians, then in the past there were fewer. For purposes of calculation make the average over 127 years be 35,000. On an average day how many of these musicians are working or practicing? If practicing is included then a large percent of professional musicians are either gigging or practicing on any given day. Assume that half of the total on any given day over 127 years play at least ten songs. Half of 35,000 is 17,500. Over such a large span of time individual musicians over the course of his or her life don't play when young or very old. Because of this cut our total into half once again. Half of 17,500 is 8,750. 8,750 x 46,355 equals 405,606,250. That times ten songs is 4,056,062,500. Conclusion: This are four billion jazz song performances total played on the Earth.
If someone had told you over the course of jazz's history from 1890 until today there have been a billion jazz performances you might have reacted by finding this a reasonable number. A reasonable estimate then is one to ten billion jazz song performances over the history of jazz.
- More than 33,003 musicians only in New York 2001.
- 19,000 jazz musicians in San Francisco in 2001.
- 1,723 musicians in New Orleans in 2001.
Difficulties With Determining the Number of Jazz Musicians in the United States
Ignoring the problem of who judges who qualifies as a jazz musician, one could use self categorization to start with. Let the musicians label themselves and go from there.
It is exceedingly hard to estimate the number of musicians in the United States as explained at "How Many Musicians Are There In the United States?". They cite three major factors making the problem challenging:
There are three particular challenges in estimating the size of the musician population in the United States:
- 1. There is no agreed-upon definition for “musician”, nor certifications or qualifying tests.
- 2. There is no one organization that represents all musicians.
- 3. The government’s statistics excludes a huge chunk of the musician population by their own accounting standards.
First, who exactly is included in the category of musician: "what do we mean when we use the word “musician”? Are we just talking about performers and recording artists, or does the definition also include composers and songwriters? How about music teachers?"
Second, what is the system for determining musician inclusion, "those who are making a living from music. The question is, should it be based on workweek hours, career lifespan, music degrees, a certain number of recording or composing credits, education, income, label affiliation, union membership, or a combination of these things? Or, organizational affiliations, or governmental census data, or private data from Nielsen SoundScan and Nielsen BDS, or Pollstar, etc."
According to TheJazzLine in 2014 jazz sales have decreased to 2% of sales of jazz albums in any of four formats totaling just over 5 million units (albums):
"In 2011, a total of 11 million jazz albums (CD, cassette, vinyl, & digital) were sold, according to BusinessWeek. This represents 2.8% of all music sold in that year. However, just a year later, in 2012, that percentage fell to 2.2%. It rose slightly to 2.3% in 2013 before falling once again to just 2% in 2014." "That 2% represents just 5.2 million albums sold by all jazz artists in 2014. In comparison, the best-selling artist of 2014, Taylor Swift, sold 3.7 million copies of her latest album ‘1989’ in the last 2 months of 2014 alone.""
- "Constructing the Jazz Tradition: Jazz Historiography,” Black American Literature Forum 25, no. 3 (Autumn 1991), pp. 528-529.
- History & Tradition of Jazz, Iowa: Kendall Hunt Publishing Co., 2002, p. 2.
- "The Metaphysics of Jazz," James O. Young and Carl Matheson, The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 58:2, Spring 2000, p. 125.
- "The Metaphysics of Jazz," James O. Young and Carl Matheson, The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 58:2, Spring 2000, p. 125. (Bold italics not theirs)
- "Why Does Jazz Matter To Aesthetic Theory?," Robert Kraut, Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 63:1, p. 4. (bold not author's)
- "Why Does Jazz Matter To Aesthetic Theory?," Robert Kraut, Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 63:1, p. 3.