Wednesday, September 3, 2008

File Under Jazz

Years ago I was asked to write an article explaining jazz to the novice listener. Below is the result, formerly posted on an e-zine, then on my website before I decided to scrap that section. Enjoy, and please add your thoughts and perspectives as comments:

The largest hurdle for this discussion is to define jazz. To classify any genre of music, certain common qualities must be present. What qualities do we find in jazz? Improvisation and syncopated rhythm seem like obvious answers. Some definitions characterize jazz as having polyphonic ensembles (several instruments playing in harmony) and “deliberate distortions of pitch and timbre” (Merriam-Webster). But the umbrella of jazz now covers many different kinds of music with virtually nothing in common except the jazz section of a record store. Listen to any Glen Miller greatest hits album followed by Miles Davis’ On the Corner. Miller, a popular big band leader in the 1930s and 1940s, wrote some of the most memorable big band charts from the Swing Era, including “In the Mood.” On the other hand, Miles Davis, known as one of the most influential and experimental musicians of the 20th Century, recorded On the Corner in 1972 when his musical influences included Jimi Hendrix, Sly and the Family Stone, and James Brown. These two albums, if not for the two artists themselves, differ in a myriad of ways but are still filed under jazz. There is an explanation for this, both in the way the music is played and its history.

Pianist Bill Evans said it best when he described jazz as no longer being a style but a process. In other words, it is a way to play and treat existing music. For example, Cole Porter wrote many great American songs in the 1920s and 1930s such as Night and Day, What is this Thing Called Love, and All of You. These were popular songs of the day, many from Broadway musicals. In the 1940s and 1950s, jazz musicians began playing the tunes in jam sessions, using only the chorus and repeating them over and over again taking turns improvising the melody. (Today, these tunes are part of the standard jazz repertoire.) This process has been part of black music ever since slaves were brought to America, when spirituals were sung in plantation fields. The words might have been taken from the Bible, but the way they were sung came from the African traditions of call and response, vocal style, tone quality, and pitch flexibility. As blacks moved north and into urban areas, they kept these aesthetics and applied them to other types of music. In rural areas black musicians had little access to instruments, but in the cities they could play pianos, saxophones, trumpets, and other white or European instruments and played those using rhythms and tonal qualities from African music. For instance, boogie woogie was a blues based piano style popular from roughly 1920 through 1945. Jazz historian LeRoi Jones wrote about the piano in Blues People as “one of the last instruments to be mastered by Negro performers” and boogie woogie “succeeded in creating a piano music that was within the emotional tradition of Negro Music” (90). And unlike European classical traditions, this music making process has no formal rules. The only rule is to make music that gets your foot tapping, makes you cry, or evoke some kind of emotional response from the audience. This is the essence of jazz, and as far as the listener is concerned, the only quality that matters.

If jazz is more easily explained as a process to make music as opposed to a defined style of music, then we have to understand how the process differed through history. Then we can justify the Glen Miller and Miles Davis albums being filed under the same category.

Early jazz, prior to 1928, was a spin off of the New Orleans style brass bands, now known as Dixieland. These bands played tunes from ragtime, the blues, military and religious music, and the popular tunes of the day. In the 1920s trumpeter Louis Armstrong emerged as the first great soloist and entertainer in jazz. He was the first to play with a modern swing feel.

During the Swing Era (1935-1945) big band jazz and popular music were one and the same. From big bands, smaller groups formed consisting of one or two horn players and a rhythm section (piano, bass, and drums). With a smaller band more emphasis was put on the soloist and musicians could improvise longer. Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie’s small group began playing bebop in the 1940s and removed jazz from the mainstream. Bebop musicians considered their music to be art, not entertainment. The music was still based on popular tunes, but the melodies were rewritten and played at faster tempos.

The 1950s saw the beginning of cool jazz, modal jazz and hard-bop. One style of jazz did not stop when a newer one began, they all existed together. The 1960s saw free jazz, post bop, latin jazz and the bossa nova craze, plus the beginnings of jazz-rock fusion that persisted through the 1970s. Also during this time, contemporary or smooth jazz gained popularity, mixing easy listening and R&B with jazz improvisation. Many artists played many different styles as they developed. Miles Davis, for example, began playing at a young age in big bands around St. Louis, then played bebop with Charlie Parker in New York, created the cool school, pioneered modal jazz, led some of the greatest post bop groups, recorded the first major fusion album (Bitches Brew in 1969), and played pop jazz in the 1980s. His last album, released after his death in 1991, was a collaboration with rapper Easy Mo Dee. In many ways, Miles Davis’ career outlines the history and process of jazz from the 40s to the 90s.

Jazz intimidates a lot of people because it appears so complex. Yet it is not an exclusive club reserved for intellectuals and beatniks. Jazz is a language, an unspoken line of communication between the musicians and the audience. It is an active process that requires the listener’s participation. If you avoid listening to jazz because you think it is all the same, I beg you to reconsider. There are many styles of music called jazz, and there is at least one everybody likes. Once you stop trying to define it and really listen, you will realize that nothing I have written in this essay is required to enjoy jazz; the music will speak for itself.


Rob Mizell said...

That picture of Miles is by Anton Corbijn. Awesome picture...

Theron said...

Great article. Yes, jazz used to be dance music. That changed when Bird and Dizz got ahold of it.