Tuesday, January 15, 2013

An Introduction to Jazz

For now, here's a column I wrote a while back for a student newspaper. It's more or less an introduction to jazz, an art form I am fiercely passionate about. It's not the best written thing, but it sums up pretty well my opinions on the genre! The above photo, for anyone interested, is of Miles Davis in Rotterdam, 1967.


Jazz is an art form riddled with misplaced assumptions. Some people may have you believe that jazz is a 'black' music, when in fact it sprung from the cultural meeting of blacks and whites in the 20s. Jazz fans may try and complain that jazz was the pop music of the 50s and its popularity has declined, when in truth jazz has always been the concern of the minority. You may even be under the impression that jazz is simply too complex or challenging a sound to listen to. These assumptions, while not rotten to the core, are sadly misleading. It is true that having an understanding of the history of jazz, and taking the time to comprehend its development help you appreciate the music, but at a fundamental level jazz is not the property of intellectuals, and one does not need to know about time signatures or chords to fully and truly enjoy it.

You will have undoubtedly heard of Louis Armstrong, though probably through his gravelly rendition of 'What a Wonderful World' rather than through his virtuoso as a trumpeter. Although you won't know it, you will have heard of Dave Brubeck's song 'Time Out', and probably of Nina Simone's 'Feeling Good' too. You're most likely comfortable with vocal jazz, and might even liken instrumental jazz to the most stereotypically boring of genres; classical. However, the line between jazz and classical music is a defined one. Classical compositions are exactly that. Composed. Jazz is underpinned by improvisation, an element as important to jazz as Freddie Mercury was to Queen. Yes, there are rules to which most of jazz conforms, yet from these restraints it manages to swing and evolve and remain, intrinsically, free.  

And what other genre of music can boast as many sub-genres as jazz? Dixieland sprung from the loins of New Orleans ragtime blues in the 20s. The nervous tension of bebop and hard-bop in the 30s was eventually calmed under Miles Davis’ haunting trumpeting. Cool and modal jazz lead to jazz fusion, while free jazz took the scope of big band and tripled the intensity. Bill Evans’ piano and Dave Brubeck’s tinkering with beat. Art Blakey’s drumming and John Coltrane’s avant-garde explorations. Jazz is too grand and great and beautiful a genre to truly define, but Louis Armstrong famously said "If you have to ask what jazz is, you'll never know." Trying to confine jazz to words is too belittling and unreasonable a task. Listen and dance and you'll understand.