Music for the Weekend #002 — All that Jazz
If suddenly asked to choose a single contribution that each country in the world has brought to our well-being from Brazil I would opt for cachaça from Minas Gerais, to France I would send a merci for the demoiselles d’Avignon, the United Kingdom that gifted us with Monty Python would have to receive another small pat on the back just for their awkward sense of being always on top of things. But if I had to give preference to a single contribution from the USA it would undoubtedly be it’s greatest: Jazz.
Born out of African-American culture, blues and ragtime tinges tainted the more European concept of marching bands and around the end of the last decade of the 19th century a sound would appear that would paint many towns in deep red throughout this Earth. “Devilish” music, maybe because it was made of celebration and suffering, a sound by the people brought from Africa to the New World so they could preserve their ancestral traditions of single-line melody in a style of call and response over rhythms developed in a counter-metric structure and that reflected the origin of the oral communication patterns of these slaves deported from the Congo river to the Mississippi delta.
Maybe because in certain states of the American Southeast they were denied the right to use drums (how racist is that concept?), other percussive means had to be “invented”: jugs, barrels and washboards, bottles and boxes beaten with sticks or bones set tone and rhythm.
Only the end of the Civil War would bring an excess of of bass and snare drums as well as fifes that would suddenly exponentiate these new and syncopated cross-rhythms that could only have been created by a culture with an enormous polyrhythmic sophistication.
The origin of the word Jazz is believed as being related to jasm, slang for pep and the term can be read for the first time in a musical context on November 14, 1916 in an article published in the Times-Picayune describing the “jas bands” of New Orleans.
In an interview, pianist and composer Eubie Blake said that “when Broadway picked it up, they called it ‘J-A-Z-Z’. But it wasn’t called that. It was spelled ‘J-A-S-S’. That was dirty, and if you knew what it was, you wouldn’t say it in front of ladies”.
Jazz remained, music that covers a myriad of facets, from funk to rock, based on the rhythms of Beguine or Bossa, free, modal or bebop, played by a big band for hundreds of people or by a lonely alley cat in a deserted urban corner. Jazz has no squabbles when it comes to instruments: vibraphone, harp, electric guitar or banjo, everything fits, everything can make sense. Bagpipe? No problem. Show us a rendition of Fly me to the Moon on a theremin or Summer Wind played with conch shells and I assure you that we’ll be here listening.
Jazz is dismissed by many as an intellectual sort of music while others would like to carry the flag of said status, an elitist artistic expression far removed from its very popular beginnings. However one of the greats, Duke Ellington, once said that “it’s just music”.
Have a swingy weekend.