Apr 6, 2016

Jazz and American popular music

by Kael Moffat

April has been declared Jazz Appreciation Month by the Smithsonian Institution, so in conjunction with that, I thought it might be helpful to write several posts this month about what many consider to be the US's only original art form--though the blues deservedly clears its throat and raises its hand, demanding recognition.

That being said, defining what jazz “is” may be somewhat like trying to describe green to a color blind chameleon.  Louis Armstrong, one of the early masters of jazz, supposedly responded to a question of what jazz is with, “Man, if you have to ask, you must not know what it is.”  

Louis Armstrong   (image by Herbert Behrens from Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA)

Roughly, jazz was birthed by the collision between African and European musical traditions, along with South American, Caribbean, and Native American elements in the violent and inhumane crucible of American slavery.  And now, I need to go to the confessional, “Forgive me padre for I have been simplistic.” 

Another way to think about jazz is in terms of dynamic equilibrium--a term from chemistry that describes how “reactants are converted to products and products are converted to reactants,” resulting in a state that is both stable and changing. (1)  Jazz balances defined form and improvisation, group playing and individual expression, focusing less on familiar/predictable reproduction of songs and more on the spirit of the moment.  Wayne Shorter, another giant in the form, pointed out that jazz is a kind of alchemy, an art that tries

...to change the negative thing to a positive thing, to make the most value out of it.  We call it changing poison to medicine.  Not avoiding the poison--you drink it--but you change it to medicine.  You face it.  (2) 

Wayne Shorter  (image by Mattia Luigi Nappi from Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA)

It’s not much of a stretch to say that almost all American popular music since the late 1800s stems from jazz and the blues to some degree or another.  Gunther Schuller, a French horn player for the Metropolitan Opera and composer of both classical and jazz music, observed, “The American popular song is inextricably and profoundly linked with jazz.” (3)   In a CNN.com column, Abigail Daniels wrote about a

...music of rebellion and youth. Artists traded witty improvisations onstage chronicling the pain and the promise of being black in America, inspiring inner-city and rural Southern audiences alike in nightclubs and on street corners.  (4)
That music, she pointed out, is jazz but acknowledges that the same description could very easily apply to hip-hop.  That is actually not a coincidence.  Without jazz, genres like rock and roll, country, funk, and hip-hop would not exist--even contemporary bluegrass has been influenced by jazz.  (5)

Below is an example of an early hip-hop track that openly pulls from jazz, Us3's "Cantaloop (Flip Fantasia):


"Cantaloop" is a play on "Cantaloupe Island," from contemporary jazz legend Herbie Hancock.  Below is a performance of this track by Hancock and his band at a music festival in Japan.  Hancock's band includes Wayne Shorter on saxophone, along with Stanley Clarke on bass and Omar Hakim on drums, both masters of their instruments:


In the weeks to come, I hope to introduce you to other aspects of a truly sublime and sometimes challenging art form from our own metaphorical backyard.  Ya dig?

2)  Breskin, D.  (1994).  24 Shorter solos.  In  M. Rowland & T. Scherman (Eds.) The jazz musician: 15 years of interviews: The best of Musician Magazine.  New York: St. Martin’s Press.  3-23; p. 16, italics in original.

3) Tanner, P. O. W, Megill, D. W., & Gerow, M.  (1997).  Jazz, eighth ed.  Madison, WI: Brown & Benchmark.  p. 3.

4) Daniels, A.  (2009).  Hip-hop and jazz: Sharing a similar destiny?  CNN.com  Retrieved from http://www.cnn.com/2008/SHOWBIZ/Music/08/15/hiphop.jazz/ 

5) Traditional bluegrass combines many different elements European folk music, relying heavily on Scottish and Irish forms, but more recent developments pull in elements that draw from jazz and jazz-influenced music.


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