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In contrast to the efforts of commentators and enthusiasts of certain types of jazz, who have argued for narrower definitions that exclude other types, the musicians themselves are often reluctant to define the music they play.As Duke Ellington, one of jazz's most famous figures, said: "It's all music".A broader definition that encompasses all of the radically different eras of jazz has been proposed by Travis Jackson: "it is music that includes qualities such as swing, improvising, group interaction, developing an 'individual voice', and being open to different musical possibilities".Krin Gibbard has provided an overview of the discussion on definitions, arguing that "jazz is a construct" that, while artificial, still is useful to designate "a number of musics with enough in common to be understood as part of a coherent tradition".These performers provide accompaniment by playing chords and rhythms that outline the song structure and complement the soloist.In avant-garde and free jazz idioms, the separation of soloist and band is reduced, and there is license, or even a requirement, for the abandoning of chords, scales and rhythmic meters.The approach to improvisation has developed enormously over the history of the music.In early New Orleans and Dixieland jazz, performers took turns playing the melody, while others improvised countermelodies.

Jazz has roots in West African cultural and musical expression, and in African-American music traditions including blues and ragtime, as well as European military band music.It was spelled 'J-A-S-S.' That was dirty, and if you knew what it was, you wouldn't say it in front of ladies." The American Dialect Society named it the Word of the Twentieth Century.Jazz has proved to be very difficult to define, since it encompasses a wide range of music spanning a period of over 100 years, from ragtime to the 2010-era rock-infused fusion.Attempts have been made to define jazz from the perspective of other musical traditions, such as European music history or African music.But critic Joachim-Ernst Berendt argues that its terms of reference and its definition should be broader, and arguing that it differs from European music in that jazz has a "special relationship to time defined as 'swing'", involves "a spontaneity and vitality of musical production in which improvisation plays a role" and contains a "sonority and manner of phrasing which mirror the individuality of the performing jazz musician".By the swing era, big bands were coming to rely more on arranged music: arrangements were either written or learned by ear and memorized, while individual soloists would improvise within these arrangements.

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