Wednesday, August 24, 2016

The Tuning Slide: Jazz 8- What It's All About

There are two kinds of music.
Good music, and the other kind.
-Duke Ellington

Back in week one I wondered where to begin with this series on jazz. I am still wondering and asking that question. Eight weeks is nothing in the great flow of this music. In it’s past century, jazz has transformed American life and been transformed by it. Yet its power has never diminished. Hearing a Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, or Buddy Bolden recording today is just as transformative as ever. The music lives! I could explore all the ideas and sidelights of jazz for the rest of my life and probably only scratch the surface.

I turned to Wynton Marsalis for some insight, then, as I came to this incomplete ending to the series. I have mentioned his book, written with Geoffrey Ward, Moving to Higher Ground: How Jazz Can Change Your Life (2008, Random House). It is a good introduction to jazz on a popular level. In his opening chapter he describes his experience in learning and experiencing jazz:
This is some of what I found:
The most prized possession in this music is your own unique sound. Through sound, jazz leads you to the core of yourself and says “Express that.” Through jazz, we learn that people are never all one way. Each musician has strengths and weaknesses.

Jazz also reminds you that you can work things out with other people. It’s hard, but it can be done. … Jazz urges you to accept the decisions of others. Sometimes you lead, sometimes you follow- but you can’t give up, no matter what….

On a basic level, this music led me to a deeper respect for myself. In order to improvise something meaningful, I had to find and express whatever I had inside me worth sharing with other people. But at the same time it led me to a new awareness of others, because my freedom of expression was directly linked to the freedom of others on the bandstand.
—pp. 11-12.
Marsalis clearly understands the inner power of music to make each of us who play it more than we are without it. Each of those paragraphs speaks to us as musicians. First he talks about us finding our “sound.” On one level this means he skills and development of our technique. Because it is “jazz” we find a freedom to develop and express that. While there may be variations, it is very difficult for a musician to express those sounds in a “classical” piece.

Second Marsalis sees the interpersonal musical interactions in jazz as a great paradigm for getting along with others. You can’t take your horn and go home in the middle of a gig because you didn’t like the way the tenor player took the theme. Instead you have to pay attention to the tenor’s message and expressions and see where it fits into your experience. Maybe that will mean developing a contrasting style or building the theme on a different chord. But you can’t deny the tenor player the right to his freedom of expression. It could start an interesting dialogue- musically on the bandstand, afterward while relaxing, or as a metaphor for how you can learn to interact with others day in and day out.

Third, Marsalis makes the obvious- and essential connection. In order for these first two to happen, we have to dig into ourselves. And we must respect ourselves. We must believe that in our solos, duets, or even just section work, we have something worth sharing. Maybe my section work as a fourth trumpet doesn’t get out into the crowd like the solos do. But how can I make that chord sound out when I have the one “blue note” in the section? How do I play that note so it enhances the sound of the section and the band? Do I believe I have a right to make that simple statement in that single note? Next it leads me to pay attention to the rest of the section and the group and give them the same freedom I want for myself and the same respect I would hope to get from them.

Marsalis then adds:
The value of jazz is the same for listeners and players alike because the music, in its connection to feelings, personal uniqueness, and improvising together, provides solutions to basic problems of living. -p. 13
Couldn’t say it any better! So I won’t.

One more thought comes out of Marsalis’s reflections. First, though, to introduce it, here is a quote, again, from Duke Ellington:

Put it this way: Jazz is a good barometer of freedom…
In its beginnings, the United States of America spawned certain ideals of freedom
and independence through which, eventually, jazz was evolved,
and the music is so free that many people say it is the only
unhampered, unhindered expression of complete freedom
yet produced in this country.
-Duke Ellington

Here’s where Marsalis takes the same thought. He puts jazz into the flow of American life, not just in the past 115 years, but representative of the flow of our overall evolution as a nation:
Knowing jazz music adds another dimension to your historical perspective…. Jazz music is America’s past and its potential, summed up and sanctified and accessible to anybody who learns to listen to, feel, and understand it. The music can connect us to our earlier selves and to our better selves to come. It can remind us of where we fit on the time line of human achievement, an ultimate value of art.
The melding of musical styles, melodies, and history may be nowhere more clear than in jazz’s development. European folk styles from the colonies and songs from Africa laid foundations of rhythm and emotion. The Black Church added the preaching style of call and response. Ethnic roots of Irish music and New Orleans parades gave movement to the musicians. Listen closely to jazz and these will echo from the past and into our collective subconscious imagination. Feel it move YOU.

But even more to the point may be the role jazz itself played in the 20th Century in creating a revolution in racial acceptance. When the music began, and for decades after that, it was impossible for white and black musicians to play together. Even when they could it was impossible for the black musicians to stay in the hotels where white musicians did. Movies were edited so they could edit OUT for southern audiences of the black musicians scenes showed them playing with their white colleagues. Jazz music’s influence on the civil rights movement is an essential part of its long-term success. Miles Davis saw this when he said:
Jazz is the big brother of Revolution. Revolution follows it around.

We have covered a lot of ground very superficially in these eight posts. Any one of them could be the start of a series on its own connecting music as a whole and jazz in particular, musicians and listeners, and finally, music and life. Jazz plays an important part in my life and will continue to do so. I keep learning and experimenting. It is a never-ending joy and experience. There will be more jazz posts as part of the regular weekly writing here on The Tuning Slide. I hope it will continue to open new paths for you as it has for me.

It’s taken me all my life to learn what not to play.
-Dizzy Gillespie

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