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A Definition of Jazz? It's Still a Judgment Call

March 20, 1993|ZAN STEWART | SPECIAL TO THE Times

The question "What is jazz?" has never been one that's easy to answer.

Fifty years ago, you might have been able to come up with a quick response, saying, "It's music that feels good, that swings, that contains instrumental improvisation and that makes you want to tap your foot."

But since the '40s, a simple, precise definition of what exactly is jazz has been elusive. Jazz, a hybrid music in its origins, has become even more so through the years.

Today, the definition of "jazz" continues to expand--and to confuse. A quick glance at the "jazz" charts in this week's Billboard magazine reflects this fact.

Billboard has two charts. The first, called Top Jazz Albums, lists primarily traditional jazz albums, and this week the No. 1 album is Tony Bennett's tribute to Frank Sinatra, "Perfectly Frank." The second chart, called Top Contemporary Jazz Albums, lists albums that are non-traditional. This week's No. 1 is saxophonist Kenny G's "Breathless," a collection that has a heavy pop emphasis.

But are either of these packages jazz recordings? Most jazz purists would say, "Absolutely not."

It apparently doesn't matter that Bennett--though he has long personally embraced jazz--has always described himself as a pop singer or that Kenny G often employs such pop singers as Smokey Robinson and Aaron Neville on his recordings. But according to Billboard, these are jazz recordings. Officials of the publication say that their chartmakers, ferreting out responses from record-label marketing personnel, retailers and jazz album buyers themselves, make judgment calls. If a record has even a smidgen of jazz, well, it is jazz.

"When we do our jazz charts, each album is listened to, and classified by Suzanne Baptiste, our jazz chart manager, with consultation from people in the jazz industry, including jazz buyers and people at jazz labels," said Michael Ellis, associate publisher of Billboard and the magazine's director of charts, in a telephone interview.

"We also survey jazz specialty stores and the jazz departments of full-service stores, and that isolates the jazz buyers from the average buyer," Ellis added.

The reason that Kenny G is on the contemporary jazz charts, Ellis maintains, is that everyone from experts to consumers are putting him there. "Kenny G is accepted as a jazz musician by the jazz community," Ellis added. "The fact that he's been No. 1 on our Contemporary Jazz Chart for three months proves that he's been accepted."

Bennett's album, Ellis said, falls into a grayer area. "We attempt to classify these albums fairly, but there are always questions marks, like records that cover standards," said Ellis. "Natalie Cole's 'Unforgettable,' which was eventually placed on the jazz charts," was one of these question marks. Bennett's album is another.

Still confused? There may be solace for listeners who are trying to figure out just what is jazz: Each of the albums on the Top 5 accentuate melody, so even if it's not obvious what type of music these albums offer, it is, at least, tuneful.

Sidran Stopover: Pianist-composer-author Ben Sidran will be in town on Tuesday, both to perform and to sign copies of his new book, "Talking Jazz," a series of interviews with such greats as Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins and George Benson. Sidran's appearance will be at Rhino Records, 1720 Westwood Blvd. Showtime: 7 p.m. Information: (310) 474-8685.

Critic's Choice: Kenny Burrell, the mainstream stylist of impeccable taste, plays today at the Jazz Bakery. Not only does this guitar giant have a silken sound, he plays blues-tinged lines that swing like John Henry's hammer. Information: (310) 271-9039.

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