Jazz is (not) boring.
Jazz is (not) overrated.
Jazz is (not) washed up.
Anytime I see these words, without the added parentheses, starting off an opinion editorial, immediately I am reminded that our forefathers/mothers fought for the freedom of speech. It is also my opinion that in there fighting, they would hope the generations that followed them would strive with even more ferver to have responsibility with this right. Alas, I read the words chosen by Mr. Moyers as he begins a diatribe against a genre of music drenched in self expression…and I drop my head in shame.
The first Jazz album I heard came by accident. While rummaging through some records at the home of my Grandparents, I stumbled upon a record that seemed different from the others. It was thicker, visibly older, worn, and on one side simply read, “Gut Bucket Blues” Little did I know, the sounds that I heard would evoke such emotion 70 years after it was first recorded, and leave such an impression on a 12 year old boy.
Since then my love of Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Jelly Roll Morton, Eubie Blake, Jack Teagrden has not only evolved, but aided me in my appreciation of musicians like Wynton Marsalis, Esperanza Spalding, Kris Bowers and Allyn Johnson. Each person represents a snapshot of an era, and through their individual expression, a timeless, ageless story is told that transcends words and in some moments, demands change.
- Jazz allows a story to be told in different forms
As a southerner, I appreciate a good story. Some of the greatest stories I remember hearing were told over the Sunday dinner table. Waiting in anticipation of a punch-line or a climax in a tale I had heard countless times from my Grandparents is still one of my fondest memories. With that said, some of my soberest memories come from hearing the same tales, told by a family friend, my mother, or even when passing on the tale to other family members and friends for the first time. Humans are unique, and even reading stories from a printed text, our voices, inflections, and tones differ adding a different flavor to the text. Thus is Jazz.
How awesome it is to have heard Louis Armstrong’s version of “Stardust”! You hear as he takes his trumpet and paints a picture for you with only tones from his instrument. How equally touching is it to hear Mel Torme sing the lyrics of Stardust, in his twilight years, written by Hoagy Carmichael, some 60 years earlier. Jazz gave freedom to artists of all genres to not be afraid to add their “flavor” to a song, not taking away any substance or meaning from the composer/lyricist. If you don’t believe me, ask Aretha Franklin about her cover of “Respect” or Nikki Minaj about the work she put into her mixtapes.
2. Improvisation encourages musicians to evolve
I am so thankful that the history of man did not stop with the discovery of fire. With each generation, this concept was built upon. Likewise it is with music. When improvisation is captured, it allows other musicians to take one persons’ improvised expression, and to build upon it.
With improvisation, a new voice is given to the musician/composer to share his/her expression.
3. Jazz Continues to Evolve
In the legal definition of “evolve” one finds that it also includes “preserving the good characteristics” and that change can be “random, generationally slow, good, bad or deadly.” Evolution takes on different tones, in different times, to different people.
The expression of Jazz at one time was only regulated to speakeasies, gin joints, and back rooms. Then, only in Dance Halls. Festivals captured Jazz for a while, and then it stayed in school auditoriums or during special performances by Jazz originators. Now you find Jazz, again, in small clubs and intimate venues, but this time with the invention of new instruments and tools to, again, express Jazz in a different or an “evolved” manor.
4. Jazz is Radical
There were 8 recorded lynchings, not sure if there were others undocumented, in 1937 when the poem “Strange Fruit” was written. When Billie Holiday recorded this with added music to the poem, the number of lynches had decreased to 3, but this terrible act was now introduced through the expression of Jazz to the world. The honesty of the pain, disappointment and fear Holiday felt towards her country due to its lack of inaction and the continuation of the practice of lynching was, and is, overwhelming. Her 1939 recording of this, in time, became her biggest selling record.
This courage has been adopted by other artists to use Jazz to speak up, out, and against injustice of people throughout the world. “Mushy” is not the first or last word that comes to mind when I, and many others, try to describe Jazz.
5. Jazz is Re-emerging and Local
When I moved to Washington DC in 2008 I was surprised at the classic venues located here in the district that offered Jazz. More venues have now opened their doors to Jazz. The Capitol Jazz Festival now offers “Jazz in the Hood” showcasing the hundreds of local Jazz musicians in the District of Columbia. You will find new festivals starting up every year across the country, and globe, to also showcase the growing number of jazz musicians, that bring with them the influence of their time along with new technology.
Trends have been adopted and thrown away. In the future we will view the fads and technology of today as we now view leisure suits, hoop-skirts, and the “View-Master”. Jazz has not and shows no sign of being dead or on life support. To borrow from Mark Twain, Rumors of its demise has been greatly exaggerated!
If you do not believe me, walk into a local restaurant or small venue and ask for their live music schedule. You will be surprised just how “alive” Jazz is, and will continue to be!