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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".

These were commonly structured around a repetitive call-and-response pattern, but early blues was also highly improvisational.

European classical music performance is evaluated by its fidelity to the musical score, with much less discretion over interpretation, ornamentation, and accompaniment: the classical performer's primary goal is to play a composition as it was written.

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.

The question of the origin of the word jazz has resulted in considerable research, and its history is well documented.

It is believed to be related to jasm, a slang term dating back to 1860 meaning "pep, energy." The earliest written record of the word is in a 1912 article in the Los Angeles Times in which a minor league baseball pitcher described a pitch which he called a jazz ball "because it wobbles and you simply can't do anything with it." In an interview with NPR, musician Eubie Blake offered his recollections of the original slang connotations of the term, saying: "When Broadway picked it up, they called it 'J-A-Z-Z.' It wasn't called that.

New Orleans jazz began in the early 1910s, combining earlier brass-band marches, French quadrilles, biguine, ragtime and blues with collective polyphonic improvisation.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.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.

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