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Column: Jazz

Posted: February 8, 2018 2:58 p.m.
Updated: February 9, 2018 1:00 a.m.

In 1903, when historian and sociologist W.E.B. DuBois heralded the Negro spiritual as the most beautiful expression of human experience born this side of the seas, the singular spiritual heritage of the nation, he had little idea of the cultural hurricane and the resulting tsunami that heritage would engender. Spirituals proved to be the bedrock beginnings of jazz, the most transformative music of the last hundred years. Jazz, originally “jass” from the Irish word “teas” -- pronounced “chass” or “jass” -- meaning heat, passion, excitement, has marked the world we live in with its ever evolving intellectual and emotional charge.

Jazz, a generic term for blues, ragtime; honkey tonk, embodying African, European, and Native American musical culture, came from black Americans, mostly from the American South, notably New Orleans. Think Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Buddy Bolden, Dizzy Gillespie, Earl “Fatha” Hines, Carmen McRae, Thelonious Monk, Sidney Bechet, Erroll Garner, Lil Hardin, Fats Waller, Coleman Hawkins, Branford Marsalis, Max Roach, Jelly Roll Morton, Art Tatum, and a thousand others.

In its beginnings, American intellectuals, socialized to believe that the European classical compositions represented the highest expression of the form, had a hard time with jazz. As Ken Burns pointed out in his PBS series, JAZZ, in the 1920s Harvard musicologists were famously asking, “Where are the great American composers?” presumably waiting on Charles Ives and Aaron Copeland, altogether incapable of hearing arguably the greatest American composer of the 20th century, Duke Ellington (1899-1974), a consideration that might have irked those who would have nominated others for that honor, raising the question of identity politics and its ensuing cultural wars, as much African American art, both visual and aural, pointed American expression in a new direction away from inherited European models.

W.C. Handy (1873-1958) was the first artist to perform blues music at Carnegie Hall in 1928. In his autobiography, he wrote: There was no piano or organ in our school, but we learned to sing in all keys, measures and movements.  We advanced to the point where we could sing excerpts from Wagner, Bizet, Verdi and other masters, all without instrumental accompaniment.  When I was no more than ten, I could catalogue almost any sound that came to my ears, using the tonic sol-fa system.

Miles Davis (1926-1991) commented, I never thought Jazz was meant to be a museum piece like other dead things once considered artistic. Jazz is the big brother of Revolution. Revolution follows it around. Critic John Szwed on Miles Davis: His was music that polarized audiences, provoking boos and walk-outs amid the ecstasy of others. The length, density, and unforgiving nature of it mocked those who said that Miles was interested only in being trendy and popular. Some have heard in this music the feel and shape of a musician’s late work, an egoless music that precedes its creator’s death. It was as if Miles were testifying to all that he had been witness to for the past thirty years, both terrifying and joyful.

Composer and pianist Mary Lou Williams, (1910-1981) deserves some overdue recognition. In addition to forming her own record label and publishing companies, she founded the Pittsburgh Jazz Festival. Converting to Catholicism in 1956, her energies were devoted mainly to the Bel Canto Foundation to help addicted musicians. Williams also performed at the Monterey Jazz Festival, the Newport Jazz Festival, Carnegie Hall and the White House. The Alvin Ailey Dance Theater famously performed one of her Masses, Music for Peace. As a 1964 Time article explained, “Mary Lou thinks of herself as a ‘soul’ player:  I am praying through my fingers when I play.

Some people say the world started with a bang. Some believe, “In the beginning was the Word.” In both cases sound created the universe.  Assuming they’re right, America’s greatest gift to the world just might be jazz: startling; improvisational; dangerous; edgy, encompassing all the music that has gone before. 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.

Louis Armstrong (1901-1971) said it straight: Hot can be cool & cool can be hot & each can be both. But hot or cool, Man, jazz is jazz.

In Black History Month we celebrate the best of who we are.


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