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The Jazzification of Musical Terminology

In the modern period, now more than ever due to the spread of electronic media, popular culture seeps upward into high culture, whereas in the pre-modern period the reverse was true. In particular, this (invidious) movement from below has come to affect the terminology of classical music, as follows.

Forty or fifty years ago, no classical musician would have been caught dead referring to an engagement as a “gig,” a word which applied strictly to jazz but is now routinely uttered by young and old alike when referring to classical music. Nor would the syntactic means to designate performing on an instrument in classical music have omitted the direct article, as is routine in jazz. Thus whereas one says “on the saxophone” in naming the soloist in the Glazunov Saxophone Concerto in E flat major (Opus 109A), a jazz musician’s role is designated as “on sax,” e. g., “John Coltrane on sax.” Note also the typical abbreviation of the instrument’s full name in referring to jazz instruments, a usage  not to be found in the language of classical music (except for words canonized by tradition such as “cello” for violoncello and “bass” for contrabass).

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

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