CAPÍTULO 17 -- JAZZ
Any precise documentation for the earliest types of jazz is quite sparse, as few bothered (or were able) to notate any of it and the recording machine was decades away from being of any practical help--the first recordings of it were made around 1917. From written and verbal accounts we do know that many of these slaves would often engage in "field hollers" and "ring shouts" (a kind of call and response of a musical phrase going on between several workers), "work songs" (often a very simple song, very repetitive, sung during tedious tasks the slaves had to perform), and "spirituals" (hymn-like songs such as "Swing-Low Sweet Chariot" that gave some hope for justice in the after-life).
This body of musical practice, as well as the intense emotion displayed and released in the music became the foundations for jazz. Now performed and espoused by members of all races, it was almost universally associated with African-Americans in its first few decades and even today, is still the subject of a certain amount of racial discrimination--quite a sad commentary on modern society.
Jazz, like the country which spawned it, is also a musical melting pot, picking up many influences over its evolution. It gets much of its rhythmic complexity from its African roots. European "Classical" music provided its basis for harmony, in addition to march rhythms and forms found in a lot of early jazz. Over the remainder of the 1900s, jazz has absorbed elements from many different sources, including rock, and Indian music. It has heavily influenced the genres of rock, funk, rap, and disco, among others.
Of the musical contributions the United States has made to the world, jazz is easily the most far-reaching and influential of them all. Jazz and its many stylistic elements has permeated film music, Broadway, and television music. It has always had a very devoted following in many foreign countries, especially the Soviet Union in the Cold War era. Many jazz fanatics behind the Iron Curtain went through personal hardships and even endangered themselves to listen to it.
Czech composer Antonin Dvorak recognized the roots of jazz as something that had a lot of musical potential, recommending it to our own musicians as a source of a distinct American sound. A few decades later French composers Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel were among the first "classical" composers to be personally influenced by it and incorporate it into their own compositions. "Golliwog's Cakewalk" from Debussy's piano suite "The Children's Corner is a perfect example of ragtime. The slow movement of Ravel's violin sonata is entitled "Blues". Aaron Copland composed a piano concerto subtitled "Jazz Concerto". Stravinsky composed his "Ebony Concerto" for band leader and jazz clarinetist Woody Herman.
What most people lump under the single heading of jazz is really an amazing amount of diverse styles. Like any "living" medium it has constantly evolved and changed to reflect its surroundings which recently have included extensive use of electronics. Unlike classical concerts, live jazz performances will often have the musicians tailoring a performance to the individual situation or their mood.
As far as music historians can tell, the first jazz ensembles consisted of small performing groups performing in a style very similar to what we now would call Dixieland. Having little use for the symphony orchestra and its polished and detailed sound, jazz grew into a more informal, more spontaneous style of music--audience participation in the form of applause after solos, included. Instruments that are commonly used in jazz include the trumpet, the trombone, clarinet, piano, bass, drums, guitar, and tuba. Perhaps the single-most important jazz instrument, though, is the saxophone with its ability to bend pitches, growl, wail, and produce a wide variety of vibrato effects.
Many listeners have observed that behind the exuberance of much folk music they can hear the sadness of hard times and a need to find refuge in the common communication of music. Somehow it's often comforting to join one's voice with others sharing the same troubles. If this is indeed true, it becomes immediately clear why jazz is often very dissonant, often profoundly sad, and almost always highly emotionally charged. In the "classical" music of the early 20th century, there were many musical experiments that were performed. Most of these are very hard for the average listener to identify with and absorb. One of these new musical styles is an exception. George Gershwin's serious music is an almost singlehanded new style, as radical as anything that came along--and extraordinarily easy (and even enjoyable) to listen to. It borrows heavily from. . . jazz.
It has taken a long time for many "serious" musicians to acknowledge and understand the influences of jazz on modern music, but it is there--it has been a fresh musical voice that deserves to be considered the national treasure that it is as well as the first uniquely different American musical style.
For this reason, it is sometimes said that "Jazz is America's classical music." Jazz holds a place in our own national tradition similar to the way the music of Mozart, Schubert, Strauss, etc. is embedded in Viennese tradition.
There are several characteristics that bind the disparate musical styles of jazz together. Instruments such as the string bass (usually plucked not bowed), the clarinet, the saxophone, the trumpet, the trombone, etc. are used in many types of jazz, but these alone do not make jazz. In addition, note that the following technical descriptors are more or less representative of the jazz style but not universal. A composition could have all of these characteristics and not be considered a jazz piece. By the same token, a composition could contain only one or two of these and very distinctly fall into the category of jazz. Perhaps that's why one musician, when asked to describe jazz, merely answered, "Jazz is a feeling".
I. IMPROVISATION describes spontaneity in the performance of music. This can include composing a piece of music on-the-spot or just an on-the-spot arrangement of a previously written one. Improvisation is a talent that has been around for centuries. Jazz heavily uses improvisation. Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven were legendary for their improvisational ability and it will probably be a useful talent for as long as music is around. Some feel that if they were alive today, the composers named above would have become jazz musicians.
An improvised melody will not usually sound structured or 'worked out' in the sense of a motivically derived melody, but will have a lot of creative rhythmic twists and changes. Jazz musicians will spend a great deal of time practicing little melodic phrases so that in an inspired performing situation, they will be able to spontaneously produce ornate runs, countermelodies, etc. that will contribute to a creative performance (and a memorable one).
Total improvisation can be a rewarding challenge for a small group of musicians and an unqualified disaster for large groups, even good ones. Big band music is often the result of an elaborate arrangement--allowing all the members of a particular instrumental section to play the same musical lines. In the spirit of jazz, there will still usually be room for an improvised solo in each arrangement.
II. SYNCOPATION is a common characteristic of jazz. Syncopation is when important notes of a melody (or rhythm) emphasize a weak beat.
Music will generally have a clearly defined set of strong beats and weak beats. In a meter of four, the first and the third beats of a measure will usually be emphasized (ONE two THREE four, etc.) through the use of rhythmic, melodic, and harmonic elements. Some types of music will emphasize the weak patterns, or even emphasize notes between the beats. You've heard the term "off beat" describing something unusual--this is probably the source of the saying.
III. Jazz will make use of STRUCTURAL DISSONANCE sometimes called UNRESOLVED DISSONANCE. As discussed earlier, a dissonant harmony tends to sound unstable and will usually move (resolve) to a consonant harmony, which sounds stable. Much of jazz's emotional impact comes from the pattern of using dissonance as a strong structural point in the harmonic progression. You probably have heard the English expression of a "sour note in the occasion", suggesting that all was not right.
That's very similar to what happens when dissonance is used creatively. It helps to make jazz very expressive, and as mentioned earlier, gives away its historical background. Jazz melody lines will often have a "wailing" quality. Much of that comes from dissonance created by the melody against the accompaniment.
Often when we talk about jazz, we use the term blues. In normal conversation, "blues" is used to describe a melancholy feeling and in the musical context, means much the same thing. In a technical sense, a bluesy song will often have a lot of dissonance (the melody will frequently clash with the rest of the harmony) and it will usually be at a slow tempo. A bluesy melody will quite often have a "wailing" or almost crying quality and be quite rhythmically free.
The word "blue" also has another meaning with relation to jazz music. Without getting too technical or theoretical, the usual scale (set of notes in a composition) contains seven different notes and this set is used to get the melody and the predominant harmonies. If you take the set of notes that belong in a major scale (which usually sounds positive, happy, etc.), drop three of them down a half step, you will get a minor scale (which usually sounds somber or depressing). The term "blue notes" describes those notes that make the difference between a major scale and a minor scale.
In the spirit of spontaneity, the performer will often make small changes in the music which can alter the entire emotional effect of the composition. Those changes are called 'blue notes'.
Rhythm and Blues, often called simply R & B, is a style of music that is essentially composed in two layers. The first part is played by the drums, bass, piano, rhythm guitars, etc. and contains a steady rhythm. This gives a very steady foundation.
The other layer is the melody--a very bluesy melody, giving the blues part of R & B. It will often be reminiscent of a line played by a saxophone. It is often sung or it can be played by a lead guitar, harmonica, etc.
In the history of rock, the importance of R & B cannot be overemphasized. Along with the early foundations of Rock and Roll, much of Chuck Berry's music is rhythm and blues, but this is only a beginning. Among the bands who took great pride in their R & B performances in the early 1960's were The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and The Who. Jimmy Page of the Yardbirds and later Led Zeppelin has been heavily influenced by blues and R & B.
One of the first popular styles associated with jazz is the piano music known as ragtime. One of ragtime's dominant characteristics is a metronome-like rhythm in the left hand accompanying a syncopated melody in the right hand. Most often associated with the composer Scott Joplin, its popularity was revived in the early 1970's, thanks in part to the movie The Sting. Ragtime's peak of popularity was around 1900. Shortly before he died, Johannes Brahms became intrigued with it.
Dixieland is a musical style associated with New Orleans, evolving in the 1920's. Still very popular, Dixieland music is usually played in a fast tempo. It will be performed by a small ensemble whose members will often improvise very complex polyphonic musical lines. Remarkably, they will sound well together. Louis Armstrong ("Satchmo") is its best known performer. Al Hirt and Pete Fountain are also known for their Dixieland music. Although not associated with the New Orleans style, pianist Fats Waller was a contemporary with the birth of Dixieland, representing a New York dialect to the jazz of that particular era. His music was the subject of the recent hit musical, "Ain't Misbehavin". Red Nichols was another one of the New York musicians of the era.
Around the same time, a slightly different dialect of jazz grew up around Chicago musicians, also being among the first of its kind to be recorded. Some of these musicians included Mezz Mezzrow, Gene Krupa, and Mugsy Spanier.
Swing, also called Big Band Music hit its peak of popularity during World War II and the rest of the decade. Distinguished from other types of jazz by its written-out arrangements, it still featured a substantial amount of improvisation (see below). Some of the groups were fairly large, numbering as many as two dozen. They would usually include sections of trumpets, trombones and saxophones along with a rhythm section (bass, piano, guitar, drums) and quite frequently a singer or two. Many Big Bands took advantage of the medium of recording and radio, getting across to millions of listeners. Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, Jimmy Dorsey, Tommy Dorsey, Charlie Barnett, Duke Ellington, Harry James, Artie Shaw, Stan Kenton, Count Basie, etc. are some of the more well known bandleaders.
Bop, also known as Bebop, or "cool jazz" comes to the mind many uninitiated listeners when they think of jazz. It's a little more restrained than other types of jazz, and represents more of an intellectual approach. It is often dissonant, complex, and harder or the average listener to understand. Contrary to one's initial impression, its aloof and sedate exterior hides a very impassioned musical message. More famous bop musicians include Charlie Parker ("Bird"), Thelonius Monk, Dizzie Gillespie, John Coltrane, Miles Davis and Dexter Gordon (who appeared in the 1986 movie "Round Midnight"). Bop's popularity peaked in the early 1940's and 1950's.
At the same time, another dialect of jazz was growing up on the West Coast, sometimes described as "West Coast Cool". Dave Brubeck is the most famous composer of this type.
The state of modern jazz is often called "fusion", being a distillation of the best of rock and jazz. Although it is often associated with jazz-rock bands such as Chicago or Blood Sweat and Tears, the music of Herbie Hancock, Spyro Gyra, Miles Davis, Chick Corea, Jeff Lorber Fusion, and John McLaughin is much more representative of true modern jazz.