Jazzing it up

Photo of Ron Carter at The Blue Note in New York City (August 2010) by Mark Bergin

Photo of Ron Carter at The Blue Note in New York City (August 2010) by Mark Bergin

One of my recent Enchanté columns

Jazzing it up

By Mark Bergin

As America became the melting pot of cultures, jazz became a melting pot of music.

Jazz and blues are different but related genres. Both grew out the American South and were largely created by African-Americans but became distinct musical art forms.

The blues arose in the delta region of the South, especially Mississippi. Early blues recordings featured a solo singer and guitar. There were no large ensembles.

Jazz developed in New Orleans. The music is heavily brass and piano-based. African American music mixed with European influences. Scott Joplin was one of the first to combine the two forms into ragtime, recognized as early jazz. Ragtime is best described as having an emPHAsis on the wrong sylLAble. That syncopation is typical of early jazz. Jazz also has deep roots in the brass band culture of New Orleans of the late 19th century.

While blues remained a largely black genre for many years; jazz became a blend of black and white from its early days.

Writing for the Ken Burns PBS documentary, Jazz, famed jazz musician Wynton Marsalis, Artistic Director of Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York, said: “Whites found black musical performances on the plantation fascinating and often went to the slave quarters to watch slaves sing and dance. There are many such accounts in books by whites who visited or lived on plantations, from Fanny Kemble to Frederick Law Olmsted, architect of New York City’s Central Park….These forms of music had similar features, although they did not appear in every single instance: use of call and response; improvisation as an essential part of the creative process; extensive use of slurs, moans, cries, and bends in both the vocal and instrumental performance; and, in the secular music, poly-rhythms.”

These characteristics describe what we now know as jazz.

“New Orleans had a great tradition of celebration,” wrote Marsalis. “Opera, military marching bands, folk music, the blues, different types of church music, ragtime, echoes of traditional African drumming, and all of the dance styles that went with this music could be heard and seen throughout the city. When all of these kinds of music blended into one, jazz was born.”

The etymology of the word jazz is often debated. Typically listed as “source unknown,” the word can be traced to New Orleans. The early spelling of jazz was jass. In its early usage, it meant passion, heat, or something hot or exciting.

The first band known to use the word was the Original Dixieland Jass Band, which comprised Irish and other working-class lads from New Orleans. The word “jass,” to describe a certain style of music, traveled from New Orleans to the red-light districts of San Francisco, Chicago and New York.

This hot, passionate new music took on the label of jass music, and it wasn’t long before it was relabeled as jazz (“z” seeming more exotic). But its first use was back in New Orleans by the Jass Band with the Irish musicians saying the Irish word teas, which is pronounced “jass/jazz”. This early band in New Orleans was simply using an Irish word of the streets, jass, to describe their music: passionate, hot, exciting. Little did they know that they could be labeling a new genre of music.

Jazz bands became popular in New York City and Chicago. Radio stations picked up jazz and helped its spread.
Blues had more of a word-of-mouth growth on the streets as it spread town by town to places in Tennessee, Texas and California, before moving north to Chicago. Musicians like Robert Johnson, Son House and Howlin’ Wolf wailed as their guitars carried the rhythm.

Blues relies heavily on vocals, a guitar and the 12-bar form. In jazz, you’ll hear lots of keyboard and horns and a more instrumental style.

As jazz grew, new styles like Dixieland developed, with musicians like trumpeter Louis Armstrong and pianist Jelly Roll Morton leading the way. Big Band music rose to prominence in the 1920s–1940s with artists like Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman. Dizzy Gillespie gave us Bebop, with its smaller ensembles and complex melodies and chord progressions.

Wynton Marsalis describes Louis Armstrong as one of the greats who transcends every era. “Through his clear, warm sound, unbelievable sense of swing, perfect grasp of harmony, and supremely intelligent and melodic improvisations, he taught us all to play jazz.”

The Swing Era of the mid-1930s to mid-1940s brought an optimistic sound. From a sociological perspective, the Swing Era countered the negative mood of The Great Depression. Benny Goodman, Duke Ellingston and Count Basie are good examples.

Although I’ve never heard of a genre called sexy/sensual jazz, Stan Getz and John Coltrane could certainly fit there. The sub-genre is typically referred to as cool jazz and had a lot of its mellow influence from California. Coltrane also gained fame for bebop and the less-listener friendly avant-garde jazz.

Jazz is really still a music of the clubs, of the night. The same person, like famed bassist Ron Carter, may play a small New York club like The Blue Note, which only holds about 200 people, one night and be on stage in front of ten thousand at a jazz festival the next week. Jazz is a genre based on skill and dedication, not marketing and facades.

Although I like jazz in most settings, nothing matches sitting in a small club, close to the stage, nursing a Manhattan.

If you want to hear some of the finest music in a small, informal setting, head for The Garage Restaurant and Cafe in New York. And if you want to travel farther afield, The Jim Cullum Jazz Band (Jim Sr. passed the torch to his son, also Jim, along the way) has performed on Tuesday through Saturday since 1963 at the Landing Jazz Club, now located in the Hyatt Regency on the Riverwalk in San Antonio. That might sound like a long way to travel to hear music, but you won’t be disappointed. The music there is teas, jass in its original meaning: hot, passionate and exciting. If you can’t get to Texas, you can hear the Jim Cullum Jazz Band on the weekly NPR show called Riverwalk Jazz. They’ve been featured weekly since the 1980s. But it’s so much more exciting in person at the small San Antonio jazz club.

Women have had a huge influence on jazz, and are often glossed over by historians of the genre. Women have held their own since the birth of the sound. Billie Holiday, despite the movie called The Lady Sings the Blues, was a great jazz musician. Modern jazz artists include saxophonist Ada Ravotti, pianist Champian Fulton, and singers like Madeleine Peyroux, Simona de Rosa (keep your ears open for this newcomer) and Diana Krall. Peyroux will perform at Kingston’s Grand Theatre on December 11.

Listen to Madeleine Peyroux and you’ll think this white American, who used to busk on the streets of Paris, is Billie Holiday. Her sultry, edgy and powerful, yet soothing vocals will take you back to the early roots of jazz and the likes of Lady Day (Billie Holiday) and at the same time show you how far jazz has advanced. The simple sounds of her music mask the complex chord structures and subtle vocal inflections. I first heard her in The Blue Note in New York’s Greenwich Village. I came out of the performance shocked at just how talented she is. Who else could play La Vie en Rose followed by Leonard Cohen’s Dance Me to the End of Love, which Peyroux turned into a jazz classic?

Next: Part 2 – women of the jazz scene, past and present.

Check out the Jim Cullum Jazz band at http://www.riverwalkjazz.org. You’ll find the Garage Restaurant and Cafe at http://www.garagerest.com

Mark Bergin on Twitter @markaidanbergin

About Mark Aidan Bergin

Writer, editor, photographic artist specializing in dance, theater, concert, fashion and street photography....sometimes musician. Explorer of arts, culture and world, and all things Celtic and Gotham. On a good day, or perhaps a bad day, simply a mad (FOOBAR, not angry) scientist.
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