Aesthetics of Music

Outline of Ted Gioia's The Imperfect Art

Chapter 1

How jazz contrasts with trends in other music in the 20th century. Jazz as reactionary (as an attempt to turn back the clock on artistic modernism).

Chapter 2

Improvisation mistakenly interpreted as a case of primitivism (the jazz musician as noble savage).

Chapter 3

Improvisation (spontaneous composition) is an essential element of jazz. Jazz employs a sense a retrospective method. As a result, we must allow for "errors," haphazard elements, and some "formlessness." Therefore, the object (the musical object) is of less interest than the human activity that is presented.

Based on the above, Romanticism is the best model for understanding mainstream jazz. (Another definition of romanticism is here.)

Chapter 4

There are two major responses to Romanticism within jazz (one more radical, one more conservative).


An emphasis on experimentation as a means to progress. Artist should always move forward. Rejection of entertainment.

Our primary interest is the creative activity (the composing) with glorification of the passing moment and expressive intensity.

Emphasis on musical beauty (Hanslick!). Display of balance, restraint, control, and economy. 
Goal: doing justice to a composition.


(Charlie Parker), 

free jazz (Ornette Coleman)


The solo improvisation within a well-defined composition
(Louis Armstrong, 
Coleman Hawkins)


Dave Brubeck; 
Keith Jarrett; 
Billie Holiday with Lester Young

Gives way to: Postmodernism and avant-garde fragmentation (free jazz, fusion) or minimal content (new age jazz).

Found at all stages in jazz history

Found at all stages in jazz history, including the polyphonic early jazz of New Orleans that nurtured Armstrong.
Danger: audience incomprehension and boredom,
See chapter 6.
Danger: "too much content" and audience boredom.

See chapter 6.

Danger: reification makes us ignore the fact of improvisation.

See chapter 5.

Chapter 5: What Has Jazz to Do With Aesthetics? 

As audience, we risk boredom in order to have an experience in which we "confront the creative act." Jazz is not so much about the THING created in that act of creation as it is about establishing a RELATIONSHIP between audience and artists through the music.

Here is a puzzle about what Gioia says. Everything he says about our interest in the creative act is compatible with the position that Peter Kivy calls enhanced formalism. (See chapter 6 of Gioia and the discussion of why good jazz is sometimes boring.) Why, then, does Chapter 5 insist that the relationship between listener and musician involves display of the "expressiveness of the musician"? Why can't we simply take an interest in the musical creativity being displayed? On what basis does Gioia privilege the musician's expressive display?

Chapter 7: Jazz as Song 

Here we find an answer to the question that I raised about chapter 5. Jazz musicians are "singers of songs."

The best jazz improvisations aspire to "the musical coherence that one expects in a song," and "In the context of a song, musical virtuosity exists only as a means of expression and not as an end in itself." This is almost a syllogistic argument!  Jazz soloists model their art on the human voice when singing songs. Human voices are emotionally expressive when singing songs. So all jazz soloists aspire to express themselves when improvising a solo (and the improvised solo, we learned in chapter 1, is the thing that made jazz into an art form in the first place).


2002, 2004 Theodore Gracyk

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Last updated October 24, 2004