The idea that jazz is a language can be quite confusing and ambiguous. We often make this statement, as do many teachers and professionals, but it takes time to understand what this phrase actually means and what it doesn’t mean…
We’re used to a language being something like English; a body of words, phrases, grammar rules…And in jazz, the same is true, however it’s not as cut and dry.
How jazz is a language
Jazz has a vocabulary that’s been built upon since its inception. It’s an always evolving entity, passed down aurally from generation to generation. At any point during the history of the music, performers looked to what came before them to develop what they were creating; they learn this vocabulary, this language, of their predecessors and then expand it based upon their own preferences, experiences, and ideas.
For example, Charlie Parker revolutionized the music, but to do it, he absorbed the phrases, the sound, the articulation, the vibe, and the feel…of Lester Young. This “stuff” he focused on was the language of Lester Young, the language of jazz at the time.
Similarly, Lester Young built upon the language of the players that came before him. In effect, each generation passes down their language aurally to the next generation, so the language of jazz is a living entity, constantly being passed down.
Why are chords and scales not the language of jazz? Chords and scales are used in all western music. Moreover, the same chords, scales, and progressions are used throughout western music.
I remember an article in a prestigious jazz magazine claiming that what makes “jazz” is the seventh chord. It went on to explain that pop music always uses triads (chords without 7ths) and jazz distinguishes itself from pop music because it adds another chord tone, the 7th, to each chord of the progression.
Yeah, not so much. You hear tons of seventh chords in pop music. Check out John Mayer jamming below. Nearly this whole tune is composed of major seventh chords.
So, chords and scales could be included as building blocks in the language of western music, but not exclusively as elements that make up the jazz language.
The language is: the phrases people play and the way they play them.
How the jazz language differs from our normal concept of language
If jazz is a language, is there a dictionary of jazz? Are there set grammar type rules?
This is a place where much of jazz education has led people astray. It has led them to think that there are a set of licks they need to know, specific ways they need to play them, and particular rules they need to follow when speaking the jazz language.
This is wrong. There are no licks that you absolutely must play to play jazz. There is no one way you need to play lines. There are no cemented-in-stone rules you need to follow. These licks and rules were created to help people get a feel for jazz, but unfortunately, in the long run, they cripple the serious student of jazz.
An example of one of these rules: in regard to melodic lines, the 7th on a dominant chord always resolves to the 3rd of the major chord. Yes, this is a common tendency, but that’s all it is. It’s a great detail to observe within the lines you transcribe, however, it’s not a rule. That’s where learning the jazz langugae differs from learning something like English.
In learning the jazz language, you get to develop your own phrases as well as the “rules” you use to govern these phrases and these rules are not rules at all, they’re really tendencies you’ve observed. The way a chord tone resolves. The way one type of phrase leads to another. You develop these things based on what you learn from immersing yourself in the language of jazz: the music of your heroes.
You get to choose what language you want to build upon. There’s no dictionary. No set vocabulary or rules. This is a major difference in our typical understanding of a language. Essentially you create your own dictionary of vocabulary (phrases/lines that you love) and determine your own grammar rules, (concepts you’ve gleamed or created) from studying your favorite musicians.
So, this language you develop does not come from nothing. It comes from the jazz language as defined previously. In this way, you learn to speak the jazz language and add your own imprint on it as well.
Learning to think of jazz as a language
You don’t have to think of jazz as a language. You can, by all means, choose to believe that it is nothing of the sort. After-all, it’s not a cold hard fact that jazz is a language, whereas it is a fact that something like English is a language.
Calling jazz a language is more of a useful analogy than a cold-hard-fact. If you take it this way, and choose to think of jazz as a language, you’ll gain a perspective towards the music that greatly benefits the learning of this music.
How is a language best learned? By total immersion with the culture of the people that speak that language. All theoretical knowledge supports your understanding of what you learn in the “real world.”
By looking at jazz through this window, rather than ascribing to the commonly accepted way of learning to improvise–theory, rules, and handed down licks–you’ll immerse yourself in the culture of jazz. You’ll surround yourself with the most affluent speakers of the language and imitate every nuance you hear. By truly understanding what it means to say “Jazz is a language,” many of the answers to your questions about how to learn jazz improvisation will naturally fall into place.