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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.Later, in bebop, the focus shifted back toward small groups and minimal arrangements; the melody would be stated briefly at the start and end of a piece, but the core of the performance would be the series of improvisations.In contrast, jazz is often characterized as the product of group creativity, interaction, and collaboration, which places varying degrees of value on the contributions of the composer (if there is one) and performers.In jazz, the skilled performer will interpret a tune in very individual ways, never playing the same composition the same way twice; depending on the performer's mood and personal experience, interactions with other musicians, or even members of the audience, a jazz musician may alter melodies, harmonies or time signature at will.These were commonly structured around a repetitive call-and-response pattern, but early blues was also highly improvisational.

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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".

Subsequent styles such as modal jazz abandoned the strict notion of a chord progression, allowing the individual musicians to improvise even more freely within the context of a given scale or mode.

In many forms of jazz, a soloist is often supported by a rhythm section consisting of one or more chordal instruments (piano, guitar, etc.), double bass playing the basslines and drum kit.

Modal jazz developed in the late 1950s, using the mode, or musical scale, as the basis of musical structure and improvisation.

Jazz-rock fusion appeared in the late 1960s and early 1970s, combining jazz improvisation with rock music's rhythms, electric instruments, and highly amplified stage sound.

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