Wednesday, April 12, 2017

The Tuning Slide: What About Jazz?

Weekly Reflections on Life and Music

Eight weeks on jazz. Ah, where to begin?

I could start with a dictionary definition, but that would be almost antithetical to the whole idea of jazz. I could find a quote from some famous jazz musician and place it at the top of this page as an introduction. I could find a video of someone explaining the basics of jazz. But jazz is much more than any of those and far beyond any ability to explain it easily, quickly, or purposefully.

So instead I will do what jazz might encourage. I will riff on the theme. I will answer my own question: What do I want to say about jazz? Here goes:

1. It moves me- just like many forms of music. It moves me internally- I feel good when it hits me. It moves me externally- I physically cannot sit still when listening to jazz. My family will tell you that I direct music when listening to it. Jazz inhabits me and makes me move like no other music.

2. It is a dialogue in sound that occurs through the interaction of different instruments- just like many forms of music. I’m not even talking about improvising at this point. Just the sonic mix of instruments does it. Again, all music requires some sense of interaction in sound, but jazz has taken it and made it into a musical art and craft.

3. It is alive. Even when it is a studio recording there is a sense of a living form that most other types of music may only get through a live concert performance. This is where improvised solos play an important part, but because the music of jazz has grown out of live experiences, it seems to capture that in ways other genres do not.

4. It is almost infinitely adaptable. That is another aspect of jazz being “alive.” Jazz - combo or big band - can play an arrangement of Jim Croce or Lennon-McCartney as easily as it can play the music of the Great American Songbook or the classic music of jazz and Dixieland. On top of that, composers can write music that is new and exciting and it will be jazz.

5. It can stand up with other genres and styles as well as anything. There is Preservation Hall Jazz Band recording with Bluegrass icon, Del McCoury. You can hear Wynton Marsalis in concert with Eric Clapton or Willie Nelson.

6. It is our American music. It is part of the very roots of our American heritage. It describes so much of who we are and the potential of who we can be.

I have been enthralled by jazz for well over 50 years. Jazz has been involved in all of my adult life, moving me, challenging me, inspiring me. It started with Al Hirt’s Java. Herbie Mann’s Memphis Underground kicked me up the side of the head. Les McCann and Eddie Harris with Compared to What gave me more insights. Doc Severinsen, Buddy Rich, Maynard Ferguson, and, above all, Louis Armstrong all contributed even before I graduated from college! I want to share what this has done and why.

You see, above all else, I think jazz is the best musical paradigm for how to live day in and day out. Life is an improvisational exercise. Life is finding the rhythms, harmonies, dialogues, hopes, fears, and emotions to make it through another day. All of that is what jazz does in ways that no other single genre of music can- at least for me.

Sadly it was reported last year that, as far as music sales go, jazz has become the least popular musical style. That is a long way down from the heights of the big band era when some would argue that Glenn Miller’s In the Mood helped us win World War II. It is a sad departure from the incredible all-time best-selling Miles Davis and Kind of Blue. There are no doubt many cultural factors involved in that, but it still is depressing to think that this rich musical heritage is an endangered species.

So what I will do in the installments of this Tuning Slide series is talk about jazz as I see it. I will explore how it has enlivened me, what it can teach us, and how it can give us all a sense of movement and unity.

Let me close this with a You Tube video of what many consider the greatest jazz solo Louis Armstrong ever made. Way back in the mists of jazz history, Satchmo and His Hot Five recorded West End Blues. It set the standard on which just about everything else is built.

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