The jazz canon: how important is it?


Trinity Laban Jazz Ensemble performed a set entitled From Swing to Bop recently. The music included classics by Duke Ellington, Thad Jones, Woody Herman as well as others. Familiar names all, and it makes me wonder: why is there such a big focus on them? Trinity Laban students are encouraged to find their own contemporary voice within jazz, but there’s also an emphasis in grounding students in the jazz tradition. Why is this?

Being the annoying and uptight person that I am (“Why can’t you just let it go, Heather?”), I wanted to understand why we hold certain musicians in such high esteem. Are Ellington and co the equivalent of the western classical canon, for example? If so, is that important to jazz musicians?

Let’s start with the canon. What exactly is a canon? In broad terms, a canon is a body of musical works that society has accepted as influential. If you want to be super geeky, the canon has religious connotations, with the Oxford English Dictionary defining it as a “collection or list of sacred books accepted as genuine.” In other words, a canon is a group of works deemed timeless and universal.

There are many reasons why and how canons are formed. Sadly, I don’t have enough time, words or IQ points to write about the intricacies of this broad subject. One example in western classical music though, is the Imitatio method composers used in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Imitatio being the practice of imitating past styles in order to learn the rules of counterpoint.

Strangely, this method seems similar to how jazz musicians learn. A common word bandied around when talking about improvising is language. An old jazz teacher once explained to me that jazz is a language, and we need to get to grips with its vocabulary and grammar to enable us to add intricate levels of stylistic, harmonic and rhythmic detail. Jazzers listen, they imitate and they analyse in the hope that they will one day be fluent enough to truly express themselves. From this viewpoint alone, it makes sense to learn about other jazz musicians in order to develop your own musicianship.

One big difference between the classical and jazz canons is how they are approached by academics. Musicologists have been questioning the classical canon for decades. Does it paint a true picture of music? Or does it skew it? Is the music really timeless? Or are there external reasons as to why it has become popular?

The jazz canon has been treated differently. In fact, canonisation of jazz appears to have stimulated jazz scholars, many of whom have demanded jazz musicians to have the same legitimacy as classical composers. Perhaps this drive to institutionalise jazz has been to challenge the ideas of ‘high’ and ‘low’ art.

Should we be questioning this? Should we pull Ellington, Charlie Parker and Miles Davis off their pedestals?

Well one issue to face is that jazz styles are hard to define. For example, Grove Music Online defines swing as:

“A quality attributed to jazz performance. Though basic to the perception and performance of jazz, swing has resisted concise definition or description. Most attempts at such refer to it as primarily a rhythmic phenomenon, resulting from the conflict between a fixed pulse and the wide variety of accent and rubato that a jazz performer plays against it. However, such a conflict alone does not necessarily produce swing, and a rhythm section may even play a simple fixed pulse with varied amounts or types of swing.”

The English language finds it too hard to define jazz styles, so “canonic” musicians are used instead as points of reference. Duke Ellington and Count Basie are both are pioneers of swing, yet their approaches differ. So surely it’s important to listen and learn from both styles. It would be practically impossible to learn the jazz language without studying specific musicians. Just as I wouldn’t understand sonata form without studying Beethoven piano sonatas (over and over again…), I wouldn’t understand swing if I didn’t listen to the Duke.

During the Gunnersbury gig, I was privileged enough to listen to trumpet student Magnus Pickering perform Duke Ellington’s Concerto for Cootie. The attention to detail gave him such a classy and authentic sound, it transported every audience member back to that time instantly. He wouldn’t have been able to achieve that if it wasn’t for him listening to musicians of that time. Listening is integral to jazz, it’s what the jazz community is built on. And this knowledge is key to forming jazz’s identity.

Wynton Marsalis was recently asked about teaching the history of jazz. And with the risk of sounding a bit pretentious (just be glad I didn’t quote Nietzsche), I’ll leave you with what he had to say:

“We want students to be able to play with the same type of emotional impact and intelligence as the musicians who established jazz as a great art form.”

Heather Stephenson

Marketing and PR Intern

Trinity Laban Jazz Ensemble will be performing Swing to Bop at Blackheath Halls on 6 March. The evening is a programme of compositions and arrangements from the 1940s by Duke Ellington, Claude Thornhill, Woody Herman, Dizzy Gillespie and others. For more information and to book tickets, visit the Trinity Laban website.

2 thoughts on “The jazz canon: how important is it?

  1. A canon is a musical form and compositional technique based on the principle of strict imitation, in which an initial melody is imitated at a specified time interval by one or more parts, either at the unison (the same pitch) or at some other pitch.

    Are you talking about some other kind of Canon?

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