47 The Rhetoric of Jazz

Emily LaFar

My chapter is dedicated to my mother who has inspired me to do everything I have done in life. She is the strongest woman I have ever known and has the biggest heart. She is my biggest cheerleader and has supported me in every endeavor. Thank you, Mom, for believing in me even when I did not believe in myself. I am beyond lucky to have experienced your grace and selflessness.



Keywords: Improvisation, Dissonance, Boundaries, Autonomy, Freedom

My grandmother always told me “music is what feelings sound like.” I did not know what she meant by this until I played the piano myself and really listened to music. What seems to be chords and notes strung together to create melodies is actually a unique language that tells stories, struggles, and experiences. My grandmother sparked this distinction between listening to music versus hearing what music had to offer. Instead of jazz filling the background of coffee shops, dinner parties, or stores, it cultivates a conversation between its participants and the audience. Anyone can listen to music, but individuals who choose to hear the messages behind lyrics and chords can participate in the dialogue musicians seek to create. I argue that jazz communicates stories and elicits emotional responses from its audience. First, I explore the language of jazz, in particular improvisation, next the ways in which jazz engages an audience through conversation, and finally its emotional expressions.

Jazz is a language of its own. It is different from any other genre of music I have ever known when learning how to play it on the piano. The 7th chords are uniquely assembled sounds consisting of four notes rather than the traditional three note triads. Stylistically, jazz has wildly different rhythms from other genres with its syncopation and swing but nevertheless maintains a beautiful cohesion. Early jazz originated in the 1920’s in New Orleans and Chicago to tell and share the migration experiences and urban assimilation process. Musicians also used jazz to cope with the difficulties of racism and slave culture and to maintain their cultural beliefs and identities. Gennari in their article further argues the emergence of jazz stemming from a melting pot of cultures and customs allowed for the diffusion of values and communication required for a modern nation (Gennari, 1998).

Jazz’s rhetoric of emotional stories, experiences, and its historic narratives promote authentic communication and sharing which at times can count for more than authority or expertise. Jazz allows musicians to share stories and capture emotions that seem intangible presenting a vulnerability and authenticity that words alone fail to do. Take for example a clip with music versus without music. Imagine you are watching a video of the Titanic ship sink with a voice over of the history and engineer failures of the boat. You might learn some new information or historical context. Now imagine you are watching the same video but instead alongside an orchestrated ballad or a somber piano melody. For me, the second of the two would evoke an emotion response. I might sympathize more with the passengers, I might remember a scary or sad experience of my own, or cry from the gravity of the situation. I believe that music makes the themes and messages of an event more sentient and meaningful.

When listening to music, an audience participates in a conversation that composers try to create, in order to share what the song has done for them and what it can do for listeners. Hearing music not only enables the audience to understand more about the composer or the stories told but something more provocative about themselves. I maintain that jazz musicians want to show listeners something within, a story or meaning of their own. Rhetorically, when we say to someone “I hear you,” we imply we understand them or their situation. This language perpetuates the identification of a mutual connection and vulnerability between musicians and their respective audience. Understanding jazz in this way shapes the relationship between the musicians and their audience, between say the subgenre of “blues” and the experience of loss and pain. James Baldwin provides a distinction between merely listening to and hearing music in his story “Sonny’s Blues.” This story captures the hardships of racial discrimination and drug addiction through the outside perspective of an unnamed brother. Reflective of the title, this story is told through the music of the protagonist, Sonny. Baldwin urges the narrator not only to listen to Sonny’s music but to hear and engage with the message told, or in some cases played. Baldwin reminds readers that a conversation must be reciprocated both ways, and argues music too is an experience between the listener and the musician. Sonny’s brother gains access to an empathetic exchange only after he faces a life changing experience of his own when his daughter dies. This loss is the brother’s own “blues” when he first recognizes the struggles and injustices in life that Sonny captures in his music. Pain, an emotion we often deny, allows the two brothers to connect through the blues of jazz which share stories of suffering and hardship. Although this conversation may seem to concern only a small group of those who have suffered, it should in fact concern anyone who considers music as a means of connection and communication.

In addition to its communicative aspects, jazz as a genre requires skill and confidence due to its improvisational components. The improvisational component distinguishes jazz as a genre and demands that musicians embrace the unexpected and uncontrollable. How often have you had to think on your feet or perform without preparation? Improvisation, an essential feature of jazz, is a combination of knowing the composed sections of a song and creating new material between the lines. Jazz in this sense is spontaneous, impulsive, and innovative (Read, 2014). Zack presents improvisation as a metaphor for the flexibility of human behavior when acting in an unexpected way but still bound by societal and cultural norms (Zack, 2000). But what does improvisation mean then if behavior is always confined or guided by something? Breaking the improvisational rules or constrictions in jazz is called “playing outside” the fixed harmonic structure, or the preset chords. This allows for jazz tunes to still be precomposed but with new notes and harmonies spontaneously emerging during improvisation. Each musician has the artistic license to determine to what extent they want to improvise or break the rules. Jazz artists pose a new, distinct autonomy of composing in which they choose which parts of their story or emotions they want to share and in what way (Zack, 2000).

Jazz does not necessarily engage in conversation with listeners since not all musicians know who their audience is. Composers have their own interpretations of the music they create which makes the subjective nature of conversation and dialogue uncertain. Various audiences can receive a message or story differently or might not enter the conversation at all which destabilizes my claim that music shares and evokes emotions. Jazz for some might be background music with no meaning or symbolic value and the idea of nonverbal or implicit communication is arbitrary to some. Jazz just like conversations has its limits and risks of miscommunication and misinterpretation. Because jazz is so improvisational, it is also continuously evolving and chaotic which can lead to mean different things for different audiences. There is a risk of sharing meaningful messages or personal stories for this reason because musicians do not know how the audience will respond nor how the conversation will end. Nevertheless, composers try to find new ways to share and tell stories and emotions by starting the conversation through the authentic expression of jazz. There is no right or wrong way to internalize the music nor its meaning. Emotional responses and experiences are subjective and will vary depending on both the musician and the audience.


Jazz praises and encourages dissonance and instability, two things many people avoid in life. The use of crunchy 7th chords and dissonance between notes also poses challenges for jazz musicians to step outside their comfort zones and take risks. Duke Ellington, an acclaimed jazz musician and pianist, once said that jazz is “so free that many people say it is the only unhampered, unhindered expression of complete freedom” (Gilbreath, 2020). Most people find comfort in structure and like to be prepared, but even some plans leave room to deviate. Jazz compositions are the same in nature. They lay out a road map of chords to follow, but musicians can improvise within the plan or outside the chords. Day to day, jazz musicians are not the only ones freestyling and improvising, we all are. Amidst the uncertainty with the COVID-19 pandemic, we have discovered the importance of being more flexible and forgiving while accepting the variability and unpredictable nature of life. The flexibility of improvisation in jazz embraces destabilization and provides the musicians with distinctive autonomy and artistic freedom to connect with their audience.


Reflecting on when I first learned how to play jazz on the piano, I was forced outside my comfort zone in trying new rhythms and clashing sounds. I discovered the dissonance between notes and the funky 7th chords that did not always sound pleasant or good to the ear, but nonetheless fit the piece. I now create unique music I did not know was possible and continuously practice the art of improvising between the lines. Jazz gives me artistic autonomy and freedom that at first terrified and overwhelmed me, but now entices me. I choose how fast I want to play a piece, or how to rhythmically alter the melodies, both of which influence the sound and meaning of the song. In doing so, I find new ways to share and express myself through music and also see the benefits of taking risks. The flexibility and endless possibilities of jazz allow listeners and musicians to connect despite different backgrounds or ages and instills a sense of belonging. Jazz is like a conversation where musicians share emotions and stories through song and listeners interpret and extrapolate symbolic meaning of their own. Music in this way connects people in a deeper way than dialogue or personal interactions and captures “what feelings sound like.”

Work Cited


Gennari, J. R. (1998). Gale In Context: Biography—Document—Recovering the “noisy lostness”: History in the age of jazz. Journal of Urban History, 24. https://go.gale.com/ps/i.do?p=BIC&u=nclivewfuy&id=GALE%7CA20412750&v=2.1&it=r

Gilbreath, A. (2020, July 22). A Genre of Myths: A Jazz Reading List. Longreads. https://longreads.com/2020/07/22/a-genre-of-myths-a-jazz-reading-list/

Josh, J. (2018). What Makes John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” So Groundbreaking and Radical? https://www.openculture.com/2018/11/jazz-deconstructed-makes-john-coltranes-giant-steps-groundbreaking-radical.html

Read, M. (2014). What coaches can learn from the history of jazz-based improvisation: A conceptual analysis. Oxford Brookes University, 12.2 (2014)(International journal of evidence based coaching and mentoring), 10–23.

Zack, M. H. (2000). Jazz Improvisation and Organizing: Once More from the Top. Organization Science, 11(2), 227–234.


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Rhetoric in Everyday Life by Emily LaFar is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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