There is a lot of great music in the world, some of which I have never
heard, but I am willing to say that jazz is the pinnacle of musical
expression. Playing jazz well involves the synthesis of several high level
skills: careful listening, good reflexes, highly developed rhythmic skills,
knowledge of one's instrument, a strong theory base, and well developed
technique. I assert that no other music requires all of these skills in as
high a level of development.
It is imperative that you listen when you play jazz, and listen very
closely. Jazz is based on the interplay that occurs between musicians, and
the reactions to the musical decisions of others. While soloing (or
comping), a jazz musician will often repeat phrases and ideas played by
other band members. If they are comping, jazz musicians will alter the
notes in the chords they play, and even play entirely different chords
because the situation calls for it. If that were attempted in a rock, or
blues band, chaos would inevitably follow (although in a Techno band, it
is likely that no one would notice). This also requires good musical
reflexes: the ability to react quickly and correctly to various musical
Rhythmic skills are a given for any type of music. All types of music have
characteristic rhythmic phrases (cliches), and some types of music even have
extremely complicated polyrhythmic aspects. Because jazz is a musical
synthesis of many cultures, many of the characteristics of different types
of music occur in jazz. As an analogy, think about a particular kind of music as a volume in a large
encyclopedia set. Jazz is the encyclopedia set.
Technique and knowledge of one's instrument are related aspects, and are also
key in many types of music. The rigors of the classical tradition (as well
as some folk music such as bluegrass) demand a virtuoso level of
technical expertise to perform the passages correctly, and any music with
improvisational aspects involves an extensive knowledge of one's instrument.
Most other improvised musics involve much simpler chord and melody progressions, focusing primarily on tonic, dominant, and subdominant chords.
Jeremy Cotton is the guitar faculty at the Dallas School of Music; his girlfriend thinks he's a jazz elitist.