In jazz the skilled performer will interpret a tune in very individual ways, never playing the same composition exactly the same way twice. Depending upon the performer's mood and personal experience, interactions with other musicians, or even members of the audience, a jazz musician/performer may alter melodies, harmonies or time signature at will. European classical music has been said to be a composer's medium. Jazz, on the other hand, is often characterized as the product of egalitarian creativity, interaction and collaboration, placing equal value on the contributions of composer (if there is one) and performer, 'adroitly weigh[ing] the respective claims of the composer and the improviser'.[8] The jazz soloist is often supported by a rhythm section who "comp" (accompany the soloist), by playing chords and rhythms that outline the song structure and complement the soloist.In New Orleans and Dixieland jazz, performers took turns playing the melody, while others improvised countermelodies.

By the swing era, big bands were coming to rely more on arranged music: arrangements were either written or learned by ear and memorized—many early jazz performers could not read music. Individual soloists would improvise within these arrangements. Later, in bebop the focus shifted back towards small groups and minimal arrangements; the melody (known as the "head") would be stated briefly at the start and end of a piece but the core of the performance would be the series of improvisations. Later styles of jazz 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. The avant-garde and free jazz idioms permit, even call for, abandoning chords, scales, and rhythmic meters. 

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