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A Brief and Personal History of Jazz
Posted By Joe Weil On March 14, 2012 @ 5:30 am In Arts & Society | 7 Comments
I don’t make any claims to be an authority on Jazz. This is my personal take from what I’ve been listening to and hearing for my entire life. My definition of Jazz is pretty wide. Any syncopated or swung music that likes brass and uses blue notes as well as sampling from many sources fits this category for me. Jazz is another word for stew–cool or hot.
In all cultures that are oppressed, forced to go underground, made to wear two faces, there is a mythology of night and day–the day world and the night world divided. This division exists as a projection of the divided soul, that which is enslaved, and that which is free. It was true of the early Christians. This was true in Ireland after the British occupation. It is true in all Creole and African diaspora cultures–the soul divided which can find genuine release and a modicum of dignity through a union of music, story, art and folk ways in which the tension between day and night, good and evil, the spirit and the letter is ongoing. This meets commodity when it enters the urban sprawl and is patronized by a ruling elite who have never thrown off two tendencies that both sustain and often distort the folk: the myth of the genuine (what fed the romantics and continues to feed both pop and so called art cultures) and the need for novelty, for slumming, for the “primal.”
We make a mistake if we believe the primal is simple. In terms of form, nothing is more contrived than the primal, more tied to the idea of showing off, strutting chops, because it is a release of power and ferocity, of spirituality and sex/death; true power and ferocity calls for the ecstasy of precision–never sloppiness. Such forms become simplified only when they are turned toward the marketplace: blues, for example, was heavily chromatic, and based on line rather than chord changes. If you listen to early blues, it is not only chromatic, but micro-tonal, falls into the I/IV/V chord patterns only as it is being re-interpreted for mass consumption. It is not inexactitude, or inferior tunings, though the instruments may be home made: it is a sound come from traditions in which communal call and response and the counter-point of that call and response is poly-rhythmic.
At the same time, these musicians pick up sounds on the fly, and they took as much from so called sophisticated (actually simpler) European ideas of melody and structure, especially marching bands, and certain forms of choral singing. No truly musical ear is ever pure. It steals freely and often, and this is where blues, jazz, and, later, rap comes into conflict with middle class ideas of property values. Musicians rip each other off constantly, and their ears are whores. If their ears are not whores, I don’t trust them. Someone truly musical listens and hears whatever moves him or her. Lester Young liked good polka tunes. He loved the sweet, decidedly un-Lester clarinet of Dorsey. He also cried shamelessly when he watched the 1939 movie version of Wuthering Heights. He didn’t sit around saying, “I’m Lester Young; I’m inventing cool as we know it. I can’t listen to polka and I can’t like Puccini.” That’s the bullshit of gatekeepers, snob asses–not musicians.
If you’re going to get into jazz, do some research and listen to marching bands–New Orleans and Sousa. Listen to the cut time of Jazz dance music because it’s a little like syncopated polka. Listen to early black gospel, but also the innovations made on Catholic traditions in New Orleans. Showing off, bragging, gangster styling, spiritual lament and celebration does not begin with rock and roll or rap.
Jelly Roll Morton worked as a bouncer, a gambler, and a pimp. He was also a 15 year old boy who played his first professional gigs in a New Orleans brothel. When his grandmother found out (he told her he was working nights in a warehouse), she threw him out of her house for playing “devil’s music.” The spiritual terrain of the outcast, the slave, the bonded lives on intimate terms with both God and the devil. But one must not begin therel; instead, begin with two different versions of faith–the faith of priest/genteel, and the faith of prophet/outsider. Both are equally important to Jazz and both could be found mixing it up in New Orleans for over a hundred years before Jazz was known. The dynamic between the spirit and the letter, the spiritual release of the night, and the longing for respectable life during the day is an ancient mystery. The two fuel each other as often as they fight. Not only is the divide between good and evil, night and day, but it is also between respectability and the raw dignity of that which must find its fortunes through a gravitas the world cannot bend to normative standards. There is a centuries-long dynamic between the whore house and the church.
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