Classical Musician and Jazz Musician – What’s The Difference?

My Observations


Photo Credit: oberazzi on Flickr

You might think that this is a joke, something like- “There is no difference, neither one can make a living”. But that would be silly. My discussion is geared more towards the intellectuals among us. Those who ponder the real meaning of questions such as “How am I supposed to finger that trill?” or “How long does that idiot think I can play that last note without breathing”? Let me assure you, this is a serious question and I will try to illustrate the interesting relationship between the two contrasting styles of music.

In the history of trumpet playing there has always been a separation between the classical musician and the jazz musician. Seldom do we find individuals who are equally gifted in both areas. There are exceptions but few are so gifted. Two musicians fortunate to be members of this chosen ensemble would be Allen Vizzutt and Wynton Marsalis, the two poster children for this ensemble. Both are not only able to perform in both styles but they do it in the most professional way. They, as well as a limited number of others across the trumpet world, can swing and legit at will.

I will try to point out a few interesting contrasts between the two styles and hopefully come to an intelligent conclusion as to why bridging the gap is unique and not common place for musicians.

If I were to ask a Classically trained musician what time of the day it was, his/her answer, after quickly checking his/her Rolex watch would be, “It is precisely fourteen minutes, twenty-three seconds past two o’clock….PM, Central Standard Time”. If, on the other hand, you ask a jazz musician the same question, hs/her answer would be more like, “…..(long pause for thought)…..Tuesday”.

If you were to compare the living quarters of a Classical musician and that of a jazz musician you would again see a great contrast. The Classical musician lives in Split level home within a gated community in the suburbs. The classical musician also has a wife, two children and a sheep dog named rover (not the kids, the dog). The jazz musician lives in a third floor apartment (facing the alley), he/she is divorced and has a cat named BIRD. Please excuse my obvious generalizations but there are some truths in what I have described. Classical musicians have a different view of what’s important than does a true jazz musician. In the following material I will try to describe why I think these differences occur.

Generalizations of Classical Musicians

  1. Highly disciplined and tend to lean toward perfectionism.
  2. Their playing skills are rehearsed to the highest level and the slightest error will weigh heavily on their pride of musicianship.
  3. Musicians in the Classical field tend to be punctual, polite while still showing signs of fierce competitiveness and self confidence.
  4. Many Classical musicians are turned off by practical jokes, thinking them to be childish and most of the time, they are not able to even understand the joke.
  5. heir liquid refreshment usually includes a bottle of the best wine each evening
  6. They own or would like to own a SAAB
  7. They also own a station wagon (for the kids and the sheep dog)
  8. The local dry cleaners stop at their home once a week for pickup and deliveries
  9. They have complete confidence in their investment broker as well as their retirement program
  10. The Classical musician begins each morning with either a jog or a bicycle ride before 6 in the morning
  11. Lunch always includes a visit to the local Starbucks
  12. Annual family vacations include time at the beach
  13. Life insurance is around 3 Million which equals about half the mortgage on their home
  14. Both children have braces and at the ages of 12 and 14, are pre-enrolled in the most prestigious university in the Eastern Coastline

Generalizations of Jazz Musicians

  1. His approach to discipline- Doesn’t care
  2. His approach to mistakes- If it fits, it’s good jazz, if it doesn’t fit, move up or down a half step.
  3. Jazz musicians are late, boisterous and rude (but only to players on their own instrument or sax players and never to their face)
  4. Jazz musicians love practical jokes especially those which include spilled blood and beer
  5. Jazz musicians will only consume beverages offered to them for free and with any label
  6. They own a station wagon which will hold a string bass and four other musicians
  7. Same as above
  8. Jazz musicians have two outfits and both are black pants, white shirt and a used, black tux jacket that comes close to matching the pants. He doesn’t own a bow tie for the leader always has an extra
  9. The jazz musician never owes more than one thousand dollars to his/her best friend at one time
  10. Jazz musicians end their day at 6 in the morning
  11. Out of town jobs always require two six packs
  12. Annual vacations always include a cruise, if you can pass the audition
  13. Life insurance policy? Who would get the money?
  14. Children? I don’t know what she’s talking about!!

My Reasoning for the Difference

The left side of the brain is the seat of language and processes in a logical and sequential order (Classical musician). The right side is more visual and processes intuitively, holistically, and randomly (Jazz musician).

After reading this definition, we can clearly understand why there are differences between the Classical and the Jazz musician’s affinity to each  style of music. A Classical musician is logical and Jazz musicians are more random in his/her musical discipline.

When comparing the expectations of the two styles, no one can argue that a Classical musician is expected to execute every note exactly as the composer had intended. There is little latitude given to Classical instrumentalist. If an Ab is written in the music, you are expected to play that note. If you are playing a cadenza at the end of the first movement of a concerto, you are given freedom to improvise as long as it is consistent with the style of the piece. In other words, “Classical musicians recreate what the composer dictates”.

When a Jazz musician begins to perform, the last thing in his/her mind is the need to play the piece exactly the way the composer wrote it. If he /she did, it would not be jazz. Due to the fact that Jazz is based on spontaneous improvisation, ridged execution is not required or even encouraged. “Jazz musicians create their own variations on what the composer has suggested”.

Along with the freedom of re-creating music in the Jazz idiom, comes the responsibility of style correctness. Recreating music, for the Classical musician, comes from a schooled and well executed delivery. Each area has its own criterion for perfection and the ability to perform successfully in both areas is amazing. As stated at the beginning of this entry, few are capable of performing successfully in both areas and we, as mere commoners, view at a distance this marvelous talent.

Now that we have discussed the differences and the reason for the differences, it is time to check the accuracy of these assumptions. I invite you to participate in a simple activity which is supposed to identify which side of your brain is your dominant side. I have taken both of these tests as well as others and my conclusion is this- THESE ARE NOT SCIENTIFICALLY ACCURATE CONCLUSIONS. Every test I took came up with a different weighting but they did confirm that my left and right hemispheres are more closely matched than were my wife’s. I am the musician, artist in the family and she is the practical one. Most of my criticisms of the tests are directed towards the ambiguity of some of the questions. If you take the test and it indicates that you are more dominant in one side of the brain than the other, I would not suggest that this information should be used to make a career change. In other words, take the tests, see what it concludes and see if there is any accuracy to the tests at all.

Test #1

Test #2

Let me know if you find any similarity in the two results. There are many other tests on the Net if you would like to continue with this entertainment but what you will find is that many of the tests use the same questions which should require the same answers and similar results.

Bruce was a member of the faculty at the University of Northern Iowa, School of Music in Cedar Falls from 1969 until his retirement in 1999. He has performed with many well-known entertainers such as Bob Hope, Jim Nabors, Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme, Anita Bryant, Carman Cavalara, Victor Borgie, the Four Freshman, Blackstone the Magician, Bobby Vinton and John Davidson.

5 thoughts on “Classical Musician and Jazz Musician – What’s The Difference?

  1. David Wilken

    Amusing and profound at the same time!

    I got opposite results from both tests, but I think the second test had some glitch because I answered the similar questions the same and it ranked me as completely left brained, while I’m fairly certain that I have a slight right brain dominance.

    Oh, and I’m a primarily a jazz trombonist who also performs a lot of classical.

  2. Bruce

    Thanks for your comments.

    Every site I visited seemed to have a slightly different outcome. These are not scientific tests but I found them interesting. I was wondering if you are also a composer/arranger. This is another indication of the creative side of your brain being dominant.


  3. Jason

    I scored left on the first test but only as it made me answer all the questions. I never sit on the right or left for example. I like to be smack dab in the middle. The survey would make me a classical musician. It’s the music I enjoy listening to but not playing. When I play I want to play Jazz.

  4. Classically Trained Singer

    Jazz is a distinctively American form of music, and its history occupies a much smaller span of time. A comparison of classical and Jazz music will yield some interesting results and could also lead to an appreciation of the abilities needed to perform or compose these kinds of music. In Classical music, both large orchestras and small ensembles are used. Early Jazz music was played in small ensembles making use of clarinet, tuba, cornet, baritone, drums, and piano. In classical music the composer strives for control; he uses printed music to guide and direct the musicians through the conductor. In Jazz music, the songs are loosely composed, thus forming a basis for individual expression within an ensemble.

    • Bruce Chidester

      Thank you for your observation on differences between the two. Some of your comments are a little oversimplifications of the facts. True, early jazz used smaller ensembles but later ensembles were much larger. Also jazz as in the third stream movement had all of the characteristics you mentioned for Classical music; ” In classical music the composer strives for control; he uses printed music to guide and direct the musicians through the conductor”.

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