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Progressive rock has been mythologized in to some sort of musical statue since the 60s and 70s. It’s now seen as something it never was, and that’s not helping modern musicians progress.
Be warned –This is avery long blog, for which there will be no apologies. Music is a very personal subject to me, so excuse a few catty-but-sincere remarks. I’ve included some videos to ensure a healthy sense of being browbeaten. Continue reading →
This thing is written as a sort of primer for a modern generation deprived of real music and musical creativity. Jazz is usually misunderstood by Sitcom Land. It has a strange image of incomprehensibility, outside the mainstream throwaways.
Most people know that it has a highly technical side, and a sort of Big Band image from the past. They know improvisation is part of it, even if they don’t know what the improvisation is all about.
So people listen to jazz and pick up bits of it, occasionally. The divide is when hooks go beyond hooks and musical lines get blurred. This is actually part of the jazz tradition, ironically, in a musicscape where traditions are contested on a routine basis and new musical forms are created in a particularly vague way which only the musicians themselves have much insight in to how and why things happen.
Excuse a slightly potted, generalized history; the history of jazz is so vast it’d take a few books to do justice to it. Check out Ken Burns’ Jazz series for a good historical narrative.
Jazz is arguably the successful, often ultra-classy, ultra-feral, grandchild of the blues. It’s not blues, but their musical genomes are often pretty close. Jazz is core black music, made of sweat, years of playing, ideas and dreams from America’s heartlands. In its early days, white musicians loved it, and picked it up, giving it exposure to a much wider audience in still-segregated 20th century America.
Their contribution did help, however indirectly. Eventually, people like Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Count Basie, with quite a bit of help from Cole Porter teaching people how to listen to modern music, got recognition. They were so good, so much fun to listen to, and so inventive, they broke through in a truly whiter than white environment.
They basically blew everything else away. In the 1940s, Swing and Boogie, dancing cousins of jazz, added to the mainstream acceptance, sold lots of records, and basically rewrote the script for commercial black music. That was the start of what’s now considered “jazz” in its current rather pixelated mainstream image. For white musicians, it was an ongoing revelation; they didn’t know people could play like that.
Types of jazz
Trad jazz is usually a sort of generic form. It was the earliest form of popular jazz. It’s instantly recognizable and still going, over a century later. The top is where things are happening.
Modern jazz is the advanced, eclectic form; this is where the big ideas get a run to see how they go. Modern jazz and trad are pretty different, but you can hear the roots if you compare them. Modern jazz made the point that it didn’t need to be returned to the wild. It never left.
Free form jazz is the truly experimental form. This is real avant-garde; ignore the recycling attempts and listen to the original ideas. It’s a truly progressive form, and anything happens on a regular basis.
Experimentation includes new instruments, new mindsets, and, critically, the joy of playing, in all genres and sub-sets of the jazz universe.
Jazz aesthetics are also very different and extremely diverse. Jazz is very tonal; every note contributes. The word “vibe” comes from jazz. There are no real rules. Nobody needs them. It’s about the music. You get the oceans of Ellington and Basie, Armstrong’s show-stoppers, the mystic experience of Thelonious Monk, and/or the multi-layers of Ornette Coleman in the same basic musical genre. You get Billie Holiday’s extraordinary note by note epics, or the “to hell with it; let’s play” stuff of Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew. A little more digging will find Mingus’ expansive, marathon-running excursions in to anything and everything in his unique style.
Jazz genres – This is a sort of semi-slanderous, unreliable, descriptor mechanism which seems to come from some marketing culture than jazz itself. For example – Smooth jazz, in its truest form, is pure silk. It’s stunning. Smooth jazz in its much more commercial “we have to make a living somehow” form is a different species, usually lacking the maniacal genius of its more famous namesake.
Modern jazz was also the first real venue for musicians as a whole to start questioning and departing from the plodding, tiresome formatting of “standards” in musical forms. This almost bureaucratic approach to music almost killed classical music as a living thing. Since when is nitpicking an art form? It didn’t do other types of music many favors, either. It was boring, predictable, and pretty lifeless for those who actually play.
This was a revolution that like most things in jazz spread wider than jazz. Other types of music got the message soon enough, and agreed with it. Progressive rock, for example, basically re-quoted all the arguments by modern jazz for experimentation. Modern blues, with a few winces, did the same.
The big deal in jazz at all levels is talent. You get respect for individuality, not parroting. You are what you play. BS doesn’t survive long in this environment. Jazz is a combination of fun and interest. It’s also very practical – Technicalities aren’t admired for being technical, unlike the constipated forms of musical theory – They’re admired if they work and deliver a good sound.
The other big deal about jazz culture is that it also permeated all of popular music. Jazz lines can be found in movie soundtracks, ditties, jingles, Broadway, Motown, Atlantic, and a lot of the epic music on YouTube. It’s not hard to see how completely it’s entered the world’s musical thinking.
Just as well. Music would be very tame if it hadn’t.
Jazz is a language for both fans and musicians. It’s mental shorthand for aficionados, with references built in, with or without words; the music becomes the words in a conversation.
Jazz audiences are also very much part of the culture. Many jazz fans play themselves, and none of them, to my knowledge, will come up with statements like “too many augmented fifths”, unless at gunpoint. Criticism is more likely to be “didn’t quite bring it off”, not some mere squeaking, shallow technical argument. Jazz audiences love jazz and are a part of it; they’re not there to create an obstacle course for it.
The vast scope of jazz produces an equally vast list of people. To do justice to these guys and ladies would require a modern, obsessive Shakespeare with a lot of time on his hands. The most important thing from this perspective is the sheer uniqueness of each musician. I’m going to stick to the people I know enough about to comment on here.
Thelonious Monk – I swear; I’d never seen anyone look at a piano like that until I saw him on YouTube. This is some sort of relationship which has to be seen, if not necessarily understood. Do not expect to be able to predict where this guy goes, song by song.
Louis Armstrong – The most visible front man of jazz for decades, vocal gravel and horn player extraordinaire. Armstrong was just too good and too much fun to avoid, and nobody tried too hard to avoid him, even in the bleached, boring, deserts of so much mainstream white muzak of those times.
Duke Ellington – The MC of big bands, the ultra-musician, a genuinely loved guy, and one of the Mozarts of jazz. No hype here; all real music, and the major generator of future generations of jazz.
Count Basie – Put it this way; he could be on the same planet as Ellington, in that format, and be seen as an equal. Another nest for the fledglings, his band produced Mingus, among others.
Charlie Parker – The Bird, and he knew how to fly. He was a sort of heretic, but he got his respect for pioneering a form of jazz that didn’t previously exist with Dizzy Gillespie.
Dizzy Gillespie – A “more organized” Charlie Parker, with a hell of a lot of musical ideas. A true modernist, he had a famous public dispute with Louis Armstrong about his music. For the record, at a technical level, his multi-perspective approach probably reprogrammed modern jazz, consciously and otherwise, to its subsequent evolutions.
Charles Mingus – I’m listening to him now. This guy is a sort of musical Magellan. He can do any or all of the familiar forms, then go off on his own multiple tangents in any single piece. There never was a big enough box for Mingus. Listen and learn. I’ve been listening to him for years, and I’m still learning.
Billie Holiday – Patron saint of all female singers since, Holiday has a voice that could give lessons to anyone. Each song has a sort of life in it which you may not get; but you can’t miss it.
Ella Fitzgerald – The class act of class acts, with pitch that could cut a diamond or perform surgery. A case of the human being as a musical instrument. A lot of her songs are now “standards”, but when they came out, they were mindblowing and still are. Listen to the originals.
Ray Charles – One of the greatest of all time in any kind of music, Charles is another escapee at birth from categorization; that said, he’s also a great example of the modernized form of jazz. He shows the sheer range and flexibility of core jazz in so many ways.
Miles Davis – The prolific range of his recordings tends to obscure the very basic fact that Davis was a fantastically creative musician. I think he’s at his best when he’s in full flight, not making any musical compromises.
OK, we’re up to over 1500 words, and I could, and will, go on forever. If I were to give a simple description of jazz, it’d be “For people who haven’t stopped thinking, living and loving”. Check out the videos and enjoy.