Saturday, March 22, 2014

What is Jazz?

Terri Lyne Carrrington (Photo by Tracy Love)

Here's another excerpt from the introduction to my forthcoming book Freedom of Expression: Interviews With Women in Jazz. The book includes Q&A interviews with 37 female jazz musicians of all ages and ethnic backgrounds and representing just about every style of jazz one can imagine.

I don’t doubt my connection with [jazz], because I don’t look at it as a certain thing. It’s creative music. Duke Ellington said, “Jazz means freedom of expression.” And I think that everything that I do, for the most part, feels like jazz. —Terri Lyne Carrington to the author, 2012 

Jazz emerged in New Orleans at the beginning of the 20th century as an amalgam of blues, ragtime, gospel, military brass marching music, and key elements of European classical music. From its earliest beginnings, a heavily syncopated, almost visceral rhythmic feel that emphasized the second and fourth beat in 4/4 time helped to define this sometimes slow, sometimes fast, yet always danceable new music. It was played by both ensembles and soloists, in bars, brothels, dance halls, and on the street, perhaps most famously as accompaniment to New Orleans’ “jazz funeral” processions. Though it was originated by and for African Americans, almost immediately, musicians of European descent began playing the music as well.

The word “jazz” was not used in New Orleans to describe this music. The word—a slang term that originally meant “energy and liveliness”—first appeared in writing about baseball. Dr. Lewis Porter, pianist and professor of music at Rutgers University in Newark, writes: “Whites started to call the new music ‘jazz’ in Chicago and possibly California in 1915. Because it was a new word, and because it was slang, spellings varied at first ( jazz, jas, jaz, jass, jasz), but since 1918 it has been ‘jazz.’ ” Despite its use in cringe-inducing racist lyrics of minstrel songs (e.g., Gus Kahn and Henry Marshall’s 1917 recording “That Funny Jas Band from Dixieland”), the word began to be used, by people of all colors, to refer to what was then a new and exciting musical form.

Musical improvisation, including collective improvisation, solo improvisation with the melodies of popular songs (also known as “standards”), and improvised accompaniment (or “comping”) is an essential component of this music, although the same can be said for several other musical genres, including European classical music before 1900.

Though labeled by some as “America’s classical music,” jazz has never stopped developing, and from the beginning embraced and incorporated new technologies and concepts. For example, its earliest practitioners saw the potential for a range of sophisticated musical expression on instruments that at the time were relatively utilitarian in their use, such as the drum kit and the saxophone. This spirit of exploration in jazz continues to this day. As guitarist and composer Pat Metheny writes in the liner notes to his 2010 album, Orchestrion: “One of the inspiring hallmarks of the jazz tradition through the decades has been the way that the form has willfully ushered in fresh musical contexts. . . . This pursuit of change, and the way that various restless souls along the way have bridged the roots of the form with the new possibilities of their own time, has been a major defining element . . . in the music’s evolution.”