Introducing … Jazz

Mari Shibata 5 November 2009

Mari Shibata reminds music lovers that jazz is about a lot more than romance

Being a musician, a conversation on music tastes is almost inevitable when I meet new faces. From the relaxed discussions I have encountered, there is a particular trend when people talk about jazz.

It is the genre of music that is most mentioned, yet many tend to fail at naming specific genres or bands within jazz that they like; most just “chill out” to jazz. That’s all well and good, but perhaps these pleasurable experiences may reach another level if you know just what to pick from the golden age of jazz history.

You may have heard of the ‘blues’, a name given to both a musical form and genre created by African-Americans in the Deep South at the end of the 19th century. Specific lyrics, bass lines and instruments from the blues have contributed to the development of jazz, but it’s notably the 12 or 16-bar blues structure that has formed some of the most popular jazz standards of today, such as Herbie Hancock’s Watermelon Man.

As African-American musicians became frustrated with “white imitations of Fletcher Henderson “swing and dance bands of the 1920s, ‘bebop’ developed under a black aesthetic during the 1930s. The desire for socio-economic equality was symbolised through a smaller ensemble of Afro-American musicians who all had a spotlight to improvise long, speedy and virtuosic solos, which developed in jam sessions.

The saxophone achieved its status as a solo instrument, as demonstrated by the likes of Charlie Parker in Jazz at the Philharmonic and bebop piano was established by Thelonius Monk, as heard in The Best of the Blue Note Years. Miles Davis’ Birth of Bebop went beyond the racial borders which had been associated with the genre, reflecting the essence of his following albums Kind of Blue and Milestones, which flourished into another genre, ‘modal’ jazz.

The debate between the racial divisions of jazz was not going to eliminate from the 1940s through to the 50s, during which two genres – “cool” and “hard bop” – had developed. “Cool” was a genre distinctly associated with the sophisticated listeners; bands like the Modern Jazz Quartet dressed up in formal wear. Their self-titled album MJQ is a good example where classical composition techniques and African-American grooves are well balanced. MJQ’s sophistication meant that the genre appealed to white audiences and therefore represented by white classically trained jazz musicians along the likes of Dave Brubeck – who wrote the classic “Take Five” – and Lennie Tristano. By listening to their Very Best collections, you can already hear a different vibe from hard bop, which was characterised by short rhythmic yet riffing chords called vamps, accompanied by hard-hitting drums in African style. Art Blakely and Horace Silver’s Jazz Messengers was an attempt to revisit their African roots musically.

From the late 1950s through to the 60s, Jazz developed further in the arena of musical liberalism. This tied in with the Civil Rights movement during this period, leading up to the murder of John F. Kennedy in 1964; jazz was used as a tool of political protest through direct and, at times, extreme vocal delivery. Two famous albums include Charles Mingus’ Mingus Ah Um and Max Roach’s We Insist! Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite, actually has a front cover that references to the sit-in movement. Free’ jazz also became associated with John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, where modal jazz became freer and faster than before.

Finally, from the late 60s onwards, jazz became a catalyst for fusion-style sub-genres. For example, Miles Davis moved away from traditional jazz in the 70s with Bitches Brew, which used a rock-style backbeat. Bossa-nova and Serialism have also become popular elements of jazz fusion.

Now you know, it’s now time to log on to Spotify; type in these names and hopefully jazz will now become more than just background music to you.

Mari Shibata