Jazz and other classical musics

From Other Classical Musics: Fifteen Great Traditions, on what the book means by “classical musics” and why jazz is one of them:

The term ‘art music’ is too broad… ‘Court music’ would have worked for some traditions, but not for all; ‘classical’ is the adjective best capable of covering what every society regards as its own Great Tradition…

According to our rule-of-thumb, a classical music will have evolved in a political-economic environment with built-in continuity… where a wealthy class of connoisseurs has stimulated its creation by a quasi-priesthood of professionals; it will have enjoyed high social esteem. It will also have had the time and space to develop rules of composition and performance, and to allow the evolution of a canon of works, or forms… almost all classical music has vernacular roots, and periodically renews itself from them;

…As a newish nation whose dominant culture is essentially European, America has – like Australasia – imported Europe’s classical music, but in jazz it has its own indigenous classical form. Those in doubt as to whether jazz belongs in this book should bear in mind that its controlled-improvisatory nature aligns it with almost all other classical musics. Doubters might also consider how closely jazz’s historical trajectory mirrors that of European music, if telescoped into a much shorter time. It too has vernacular roots, and was raised by a series of master-musicians to the status of an art-music; it too has evolved via a ‘classical’ period through a succession of modernist phases, and has become every bit as esoteric as European classical modernism. Since the 1950s jazz has had its own early-music revivalists (from trad bands to Wynton Marsalis) and, again like Western classical music, it too seems unsure where to go next. And now that it’s gone native on every continent, jazz is as global as Beethoven.


  1. Village Idoit says


    Unfortunately, I am far to dense to understand precisely what the author is saying.
    Can I ask for a concise summation of the author’s point? Perhaps in a form that would be easy to quickly preform a ‘is it classical’ test?
    The main qualities I get from your quote are:

    – is seen as ‘art music’ by the general populace
    – currently has esoteric and avante-garde strains
    – originated as ‘common’ music (?)
    – is global
    – followed a sped up version of classical history (?)

    My main problem is these don’t seem sufficient to define a ‘classical’ music, since arguably metal (and rock in general) is batting 3/5 on that list (maybe 4 or even 5, because I don’t know how much the average person knows about the progg-y-er and and artsy strains of rock, and I don’t know about the history of rock nor classical). And harsh noise music pretty esoteric and a global phenomena, though 2/5 isn’t that impressive, even if the music is.

    Thanks in advance,
    ~Village Idoit

    • Luke says

      Doesn’t seem like you’re being dense. Probably you’re trying to achieve more precision in the definition of ‘classical’ than the author is. I don’t have much of an opinion on this yet, myself — I haven’t tried very hard to think through the definitional possibilities.

      One additional thing the author mentions is “where a wealthy class of connoisseurs has stimulated its creation by a quasi-priesthood of professionals,” but that doesn’t seem particularly true of jazz music, either.

      I’m also not sure that all the classical musics in the book have avant-garde strains or are global. If Southeast Asian classical music has an avant-garde strain, I haven’t learned of it yet. According to the author of that chapter, Southeast Asian classical music is extremely conservative and doesn’t innovate much.

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