Jazz & the American Century


A brief chronology

It took America more than 100 years to offer its first unique contribution to world art. That first and some say our best gift to the world was music.  It came in the form of two closely related cousins.  The Blues (on guitar) wailed of sorrow and love on dusty back roads.  And Jazz amazed with its sophisticated, finger-poppin’ sound of les bon temp.  It is ironic and yet so American that these two styles of music w It ere born of the most disenfranchised of the country’s people and that Jazz was born in New Orleans, the most “foreign” of all American cities.  

Like all living things, Jazz began with sex.  Whether hot or cool, Jazz is grounded in sexual energy, the word itself comes from “jism” according to most scholars.

First heard in the Storyville bordellos of New Orleans, Jazz was the theme music to the particular energy which became the soundtrack of the American Century. But as wide open as the music and the new century would soon be, it was less than two generations removed from the corseted restrictions of the Victorian era and the shackles of slavery.  At first, Jazz was whispered about in double entendres and never mentioned in polite society.  One of the first great Jazz men, Jellyroll Morton, did not pick up his moniker from the pastry....

Based on the syncopated rhythms of Ragtime, Jazz was performed primarily on brass instruments (the only kind to survive the Civil War) and mostly by boys who snuck into the bordellos.  The first known Jazz band was the Razzy Dazzy Spams Band in 1895, comprised of seven boys aged 12 to 15.  Jazz was linked (“officially” in print) with sports in California around this time, but it was the city of Chicago that connected the word plus the meaning plus the music and made it stick.

Of course, all things happen at the time they need to.  Jazz with its rebellious attitude of breaking the rules, breaking the forms, improvising, solos, every new composition a chance for something--defined wonderful and newly matched America’s exact spirit.  The 20th would be the American Century and Jazz would be the only music that could keep up.   Then came the war to end all wars which called everything into question.  All the standards, structures and forms that had defined the west for centuries were suddenly not so solid:  class systems were shattered, “divine right” was a lie.  Men went to war idealists and returned home a lost generation.  They were angry and they wanted their share.  Jazz with its rough edges became the embodiment of the dawn of a new era that vaulted young over old, new over established.  Everybody was going to be rich!  As rich as Jay Gatsby!  Jazz served up the force and urgency needed to make the 20’s roar.  Jazz and its testosterone tour de force talent outshone the tunes and climbed the heights just like the Dow.
But before Jazz could join the mainstream… it had to become mainstream.  In the 20s, the music might have been three generations removed from slavery, but that was still not enough.  We were a nation so divided that we denied the divide.  However, Jazz found a friend in another group of disenfranchised Americans--the Eastern European Jews embraced the new upbeat, syncopated rhythms and added their own melancholy romantic melodies. In 1924, George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue (originally written for piano and Jazz band) premiered and proved the shortest distance between the brothels of Storyville and conservative American suburbia was via a place called Tin Pan Alley.  That union opened the door to the Jazz Age.

Stylistically, Jazz came into its own in the presence of one man:  Louis Armstrong. Armstrong’s hot Jazz was a rare gift from America to the world…and the world loved it...drawn by the rhythm, the beat.  It spoke to emotion, not thought.  American Jazz was coming into its own (and like so many things we love, it was first loved abroad, before we knew we liked it and finally owned it).  The stock market crash brought an end to flaming youthfulness yet the exuberance of Jazz provided a counterpoint to  the Depression.  Jazz buoyed its country up with lush, opulent and sentimental big bands and swing music. 

By the end of  the 30s, Jazz had already begun to look forward past the Depression and WWII to come. While riffing on the swing classic, Cherokee, Charlie Parker worked out the beginning of a more intricate harmony and rhythmic style that would become bebop.  Over the next decade, bebop matured and married that child of the blues--rhythm and blues--and brought forth rock ‘n’ rock (which would become the soundtrack of the second half of the American century).

In the 50s, after the upheaval of another war, it was time to rebel again.  Jazz outlived “hot” and became “cool.”  Jam sessions lasted all night and created totally free improv  while once again the revolution was a full decade away.  Jazz clubs like the Latin Quarter, Birdland and the haunts on West 52nd Street blossomed in New York City.  Meanwhile, the “cool school” flourished on the west coast led by Miles Davis, Gerry Mulligan and Chet Baker. It was the flipside of hot jazz--introspective, cerebral.  To fully enjoy it, you had to use your mind, not just your heart.  It was not easy for some…but this Jazz was inclusive enough to say, “That’s cool. Dig it if you dig it; don’t if you don’t.”  Jazz had grown up.  It was less eager to please than it had been in its youth.
But at the same time, Jazz looked outward as well. George Wein in Newport, RI, the summer bastion of the “bluebloods,” started a jazz festival that would become as synonymous with his town as the name Vanderbilt ever was. Jimmy Lyons in Monterey, CA wanted his west coast festival to be set in a sylvan glen--the last home of the druids.  The place and the sounds that came from it were indeed enchanted.
As bucolic as the memories might be, to the astute observer, the 50’s planted the seed of the revolution that the 60’s fomented.  
While Rosa Parks would not give up her seat, the red witch hunt quietly snuffed out bright lights all over the entertainment firmament.  Musically and socially there were four competing groups now.  Pop:  a sentimental, smaller four-part harmony throwback to before the war.  Crew cuts, poodle skirt pastels and pink carnations--it was fervently anti-political.  The Beats:  loved cool Jazz, leaned left, wore black and discovered the buzz of coffee and reefer in their quest for self-realization.  Their angry Howls set the intellectual stage for revolution  Folk music:  resurrected to connect us to the earth and its sanctity, the song of worker protest in the 30s joined to modern-day injustice spawns a master poet for a generation, Bob Dylan. Kumbaya.  The Rockers:  brooding,  non-intellectual  rebels with a foot in both worlds.  Four chords and a backbeat--anybody could do it.  New and fresh, Elvis and Buddy Holly and white groups performing covers of Black music.  Blue jeans and sex.  Open the door of equality further than any parent wished.
As the homogenization of America continued, we gravitated to groups not defined by race or class, but by “interests.” 
Musically, we moved from classical and popular music to old pop, new pop, rock, jazz, classical and country, adding folk and then rock ‘n’ roll.  And there in the forefront, as always, is Jazz--exploding in new forms, confident that it is a living thing, a way of life.  Jazz also knows that the  rock ‘n’ roll monster has a Jazz underbelly, i.e., Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew, the ultimate rock-fusion-jazz composition.
To conclude, it is true that mature art forms tend to fade or to become self-referential.  Few outlive the memory of their first generation.  The great arts of the past reside in museums--pieces cherished, but alive no more.  Opera?  Ballet?  Yes, there are new ones born but the majority of any season is redos and rethinks of the classics.  Jazz, however, because it is based on solo improvisation, discovery and composition, has not hit the wall.  Bebop, hard bop, post-bop, Bossa Nova, west coast Jazz, Modal, free Jazz, soul Jazz, groove, funk, fusion, Afro-Cuban Jazz, acid Jazz....  
Jazz is 100 years old and still treated as a rebellious child.  As long as it can keep discovering itself, pushing forward with innovation while revering it past, Jazz can access what is coming and be ahead of it.  Jazz will never rest on its name or its popularity.  Like America--Jazz lives strong and stays vital.



All About Jazz http://www.allaboutjazz.com/
a passion 4 jazzhttp://www.apassion4jazz.net/
down beathttp://www.downbeat.com/
PBS JAZZhttp://www.pbs.org/jazz/
jazz timeshttp://jazztimes.com/
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