There have long been debates in the jazz community over the definition and the boundaries of “jazz”. Although alteration or transformation of jazz by new influences has often been initially criticized as a “debasement,” Andrew Gilbert argues that jazz has the “ability to absorb and transform influences” from diverse musical styles. While some enthusiasts of certain types of jazz have argued for narrower definitions which exclude many other types of music also commonly known as "jazz," jazz musicians themselves are often reluctant to define the music they play. Duke Ellington summed it up by saying, "It's all music." Some critics have even stated that Ellington's music was not jazz because it was arranged and orchestrated. On the other hand Ellington's friend Earl Hines's twenty solo "transformative versions" of Ellington compositions were described by Ben Ratliff, the New York Times jazz critic, as "as good an example of the jazz process as anything out there." Commercially oriented or popular music-influenced forms of jazz have both long been criticized, at least since the emergence of Bop.

Traditional jazz enthusiasts have dismissed Bop, the 1970s jazz fusion era [and much else] as a period of commercial debasement of the music. According to Bruce Johnson, jazz music has always had a "tension between jazz as a commercial music and an art form". Gilbert notes that as the notion of a canon of jazz is developing, the “achievements of the past” may become "...privileged over the idiosyncratic creativity...” and innovation of current artists. Village Voice jazz critic Gary Giddins argues that as the creation and dissemination of jazz is becoming increasingly institutionalized and dominated by major entertainment firms, jazz is facing a "...perilous future of respectability and disinterested acceptance." David Ake warns that the creation of “norms” in jazz and the establishment of a “jazz tradition” may exclude or sideline other newer, avant-garde forms of jazz.

Another debate that gained a lot of attention at the birth of Jazz was how it would affect the appearance of African Americans, in particular, who were a part of it. It's a dichotomy that extends from the word to the music as well. Jazz has been seen as a way to showcase contributions of African American to American society, to highlight black history and affirm black culture. But for some African American musicians, the music called jazz is a reminder of an oppressive and racist society and restrictions on their artistic visions.

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