Jazz: an American Story

When we think about music today, popular music has been on the decline. The market has become a lot more segmented; rarely you will find artists’ fan bases as large as The Beatles anymore.

Miles Davis continues to be one of the biggest legends of Jazz.

Miles Davis continues to be one of the biggest legends of Jazz.

People have more freedom to choose. With the iTunes revolution, you can now download individual songs from various artists and group it into a playlist – or the so called mixed albums. Unless you are a die hard fan of a band, chances are that you won’t download the full album. Music producers have been struggling to put out strong albums that will sell in its entirety (and the vast majority is illegally downloaded online anyways). Marketing has more than ever become a crucial tool in the industry.

But let’s rewind a bit. Let’s discuss the origins of most of the music we listen to today… I am not talking about African music (the actual root of things), I am talking about Jazz.

Early days

By mid-1800s enslaved American people, who were extremely religious, were widely known for playing spiritual music. This genre was a major driver in the African-American community’s involvement with music. In turn, by the end of the 19th century another genre began to appear: the ragtime.

Some might argue that ragtime isn’t jazz, others would argue otherwise. So let’s put it this way, the genre was the embryo of jazzScott Joplin – a Texan born in 1867 – was widely known for it and played it in the red-district streets of St. Louis. The sound was very simple, yet extremely happy. Joplin liked to describe ragtime as something “that’s not to be played fast”:

In the transition to jazz, another artist had a great impact in the birth of the genre: Jelly Roll Morton. He likes to call himself the inventor of jazz. Born in New Orleans, the pianist had a foot in ragtime and a foot in jazz. His music was also very happy and people loved to dance to it. And he was the major influencer of the first type of jazz, known as Dixieland jazz.

Dixieland Jazz

Also referred to as Hot Jazz or Early Jazz, dixieland was originated in the beginning of the 20th century in New Orleans. The musicians were often very poor, since most of them were African-American. But this humility gave dixieland a distinguishable touch to its sound.

Artists strived to help each other rather than to steal the spotlight. It was a very easygoing sound, and often played in the streets. The standard band composed of  a banjo, a trumpet, a clarinet, a tube, and a piano or drums. There were also lyrics and it quickly became very popular in Louisiana. Musicians, such as the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, like to describe dixieland as a style of playing rather than a style of music:

Kid Ory, another great dixieland musician, took the genre to Chicago where it developed a different variation. Since there were richer people in the Windy City, most of them white, dixieland was being played by people who had better quality instruments – which is evident when you listen to it. Ory brought with him a student by the name of Louis Armstrong, who eventually took the genre to New York. And that is how the early days of jazz began spreading.

With more sophisticated people jumping into the jazz scene, by the mid-1930s a new style was being born: Swing Jazz.

Swing Jazz

Swing had a Manhattan air to it. It was more sophisticated and the music was no longer improvisation. Great artists were born from Swing, such as Frank Sinatra, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Bobby Short and more.

Duke Ellington was an African-American academic from NYC who played the piano. His music was a little slower, and if you try closing your eyes as you listen to it you will be able picture the elite dressed up in suits dancing to it. It sounded “very NYC”.

Benny Goodman was another legend who played swing. He was a white man from New York who played the clarinet, and his sound was even finer. The transition of jazz from New Orleans to Chicago and New York began attracting richer and more academically inclined people, what highly influenced the genre.

Since the elite had money, they were often traveling to Europe, and with them they brought Jazz to France. A notorious artist from Paris who went by the name of Django Reihardt made the American swing jazz sound very French. The man had only three functioning fingers and that’s how he played his guitar (alongside his good friend Stephane Grappelli):

As the the African-Americans began losing their “market share” in jazz to the white people, they grew mad and that is when a new style was born in the 40s: the Bebop Jazz.

Bebop Jazz

This was a more modern style of jazz, which was extremely hard to play because it was a very broken-up sound that only specialists could manage the chords. Due to its level of difficulty there were not many musicians in the scene – some artists hated the style, claiming that it took away the romance from jazz, and often boycotting the bebop musicians. With that, bebop didn’t last very long, but it was a very important phase in the history of jazz.

Charlie “Bird” Parker played the saxophone and was a major player in the scene. His music had a lot of improvisation – like usual bebop sound – and consisted of a very complex melody. Parker had a lot of problems with drug addiction and died at 34, but his footprint in the history of jazz inspired many others who came after him:

Another great artist who played bebop was the one and only Dizzie Gillespie. Although Dizzie started in swing jazz, the trumpet genius had many talents and his great friend Parker eased him into bebop.

As mentioned earlier, bebop didn’t last very long, specially because of a popular jazz style that was about to take over in the late 40s: Cool Jazz.

Cool Jazz

With the intention to take out the “excess” from bebopMiles Davis gave birth to Cool Jazz with the release of his historical album “Birth of Cool” (1957 – but recorded in 1949).

This was a slower jazz and in it you could really listen the notoriously known “walking bass”. It was a radical movement that incorporated elements from classical music. It was popular in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York – it was exactly what people needed after the war:

By the 1960s, the African-American jazz musicians began a new movement: Free Jazz.

Free Jazz

This style did not have a fixed harmony anymore, it was free improvisation. Geniuses like John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman led the way with its often criticized style of play.

Coleman drew a lot of attention and generated some controversy due to the lack of harmony in his music – even more than Parker and Gillespie did with Bebop Jazz. Not anyone could follow because it was so free and open:

Alongside Free Jazz in the 60s, another movement was occurring: Fusion Jazz.

Fusion Jazz

That is when jazz players decided to join forces with Rock n’ Roll. Although rock musicians often lacked instrumental skills at that time, they were taking jazz’s audience away. So Miles Davis decided to take the leap.

Miles Davis’ “Bitches Brew” (1969) was the first fusion jazz album of all time. If you listen to it you might ask yourself: where is the rock? That is because only a few elements of rock were incorporated into the jazz genre, such as the beat and the electric guitar. Although there aren’t any heavy rock and roll solos, you can listen to some guitar “attacks” here and there.

Now, in Chuck Corea’sReturn to Forever” album (1972) you can feel the rock a little more. And with that, most of the jazz after the 70s was a style of fusion. This is V.S.O.P. (with Herbie Hancock) – another great fusion band:

You can really see how jazz influenced rock after this phase, when bands like YES and Pink Floyd – which played with a higher level of complexity than others in the past – began to run the progressive rock scene. The superior instrumental skills from jazz musicians had been transferred over.

A parallel movement that began in the 50s was also unfolding: the Third Stream.

Third Stream

This was a mix of jazz with classical music. Extremely complex which also had some improvisation involved. Bands like The Dave Brubeck Quartet released a really good album named “Time Out” (1959). This was very classical, with a little bit of jazz here and there:

And here it “ends” the main jazz styles that really took off over the years past. But this isn’t all, as jazz has an amazing way to adapt with any genre of music…

Jazz Nowadays

Nowadays a lot of music is considered jazz – what makes jazzists really mad. But sometimes it is hard to classify what kind of jazz certain sounds are, as the art is so easily adaptable with any other music genre. And this is what makes jazz so dynamic and interesting.

It is important to note that all the styles discussed above continue to be played today, some more than others, but overall the spirt has not died for any of them. However, with so many cultures being affected by the “jazz contamination”, I have selected a few really good jazz adaptations seen today worth listening to:

  • Jazz + Bossa Nova: Stan Getz Quartet
  • Jazz + Samba: Pat Metheny Group – “The Road to You”
  • Jazz + Spiritual: Take 6
  • Jazz + Pagode: Dizzie Gillespie featuring Trio Mocoto
  • Jazz + Latin Music: Machito (Cuba) featuring Cannonball Adderley (USA)

Enjoy!

Note: I must give credit where credit is due: Paulo Porto Alegre (my father, acclaimed musician and professor) who gave me a compressed Jazz course one afternoon. He’s a Jazz specialist and the reason why I began listening to this great genre.

 

PA

 

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