When Jazz burst onto the scene in the early 20th century there was outcry and elation. For the first time music became truly expressive for all classes and races. Cat Tsang speaks to three authoritative voices on the most vibrant and enthralling manifestation of sound.
From its beginnings as the music of slaves and the underground speakeasies of the prohibition, to its many, many contemporary experimental sub-divisions, time has done nothing to quieten the living, pulsating energy of jazz. As the first musical genre to integrate black and white musicians, the social ramifications of jazz are immeasurable; audiences were racially integrated for the first time, modes of dress and dance were transformed – skirts became shorter and bloomers were scandalously exposed during the energetic dance moves – and the relationship between listener and performer grew more intimate.
Jazz produced some of the most celebrated performers of the 20th Century: Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Miles Davis, Etta James, Louis Armstrong and Nina Simone are still referred to as the inspirations behind many of today’s greats.
But with society’s increasing dependence on digital music, can the contemporary scene maintain the genre’s renowned intimate connection with its audience? Will it continue to stand the test of time, or has its intrinsic life and soul been diminished? Glass asks the modern luminaries of jazz, who provide an unique insight into their craft.
John Cummings Director of the London Jazz festival.
Jazz has a fascinating history. What can you tell us about the genre’s roots?
The roots stretch back into the various cultures that merged in America during the 18th and 19th centuries – the enforced system of slavery combined with mass immigration from Europe, especially Jewish and northern European, but also Italian. Jazz came out of a mix of folk traditions from both Africa and Europe, hymns and religious music, Vaudeville (a theatrical variety show popular in America) and European classical music as the 19th century turned into the 20th. A crucial melting pot was New Orleans, of course – the complex social structure of the city and its Creole and European communities interacting with vernacular and church music from the post-slavery black population. But the evidence is that early forms of jazz were finding their way all over the States as people themselves travelled.
The problem is that we only get to hear jazz of any form when recording technology became available from 1917 – but we only have to read the racy and evocative reminiscences of [jazz artist] Jelly Roll Morton to get a sense of the way the music was evolving before then. Morton grew up in New Orleans and travelled across the South as a working pianist – Duke Ellington grew up at much the same time in Washington, much further north – clearly absorbing the essentials of early jazz, but from a very different social and musical perspective.
What do you think it is about jazz music that people connect and respond to?
The writer Whitney Balliett coined perhaps the most telling soundbite on jazz way back in the ’50s, calling it the “sound of surprise”. I think that’s the key – the music takes the audience on a journey that is fresh each time round. That and the fact that the essence of jazz is a fascinating combination of individual expression and communication – the great jazz artists speak directly to their audience in a very personal way. You just have to see the veteran saxophonist Sonny Rollins in action to see what I mean, and you can experience the same excitement seeing a raw young trumpeter in a club in downtown New York or in a pub in Hackney or in the townships of South Africa.
Jazz began as a niche genre. How can it be made appealing to a new generation that may perceive it to be esoteric or elite?
Actually, it emerged as the music of a massive community of disenfranchised people, rapidly becoming a key influence in the evolution of popular music – check out the impact of jazz on the Broadway musical and Hollywood, and even 20th century classical music. In the ‘30s, the big bands provided the dance music of the day, attracting mass adulation through huge audiences and record sales. As it evolved in the second half of the last century it’s taken many different directions and touched many different generations.
It may not be pop music, but it remains a crucial part of a changing musical landscape. Jazz festivals around the world attract very large audiences – our London Jazz Festival reaches over 100,000 people in ten days in its concert programme and millions more worldwide through its association with BBC Radio 3. It’s also worth looking at the way that the major figures in jazz have changed the way we listen to music. One of our headliners this year, Herbie Hancock, changed the direction of dance music back in the ‘80s with his album Rockit – and, going back down the decades, where would we be without Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis to name but a very few. Or Ella Fitzgerald – there’s barely a singer of any quality on the planet that hasn’t learnt from Ella.
It would be wrong to pretend there aren’t challenges. It’s true to say that there can be a cliquishness that turns people off jazz, and many of us working within the music are concerned to change these perceptions. The fact that jazz has changed so rapidly over a relatively short time is also a factor. Quite often you’ll hear someone say, “Jazz … not for me …” But that’s often because they’ve heard something they don’t respond to, and when they hear another style, or musician, the reaction can be, “I didn’t know that was jazz …”
There’s also a myth that the audience for jazz is getting older. Well, of course it is, we all have to deal with the ageing process … but it doesn’t mean that young people don’t find their way into jazz – we see a very wide age range at our concerts and tours, and you’ll see audiences build around artists from their own generation. As long as there are young musicians coming to the music with a fresh vision and fresh ideas, new generations of listeners will find them. Check out artists like Christian Scott, Soweto Kinch or Robert Glasper, who all bring a very 21st century attitude to their music.
Do you predict many changes in the jazz scene in the next 10 years?
Jazz will continue to change and evolve. I think we’ll see a re-evaluation of the history of jazz from a generation that won’t just copy previous styles, but find new inspiration, bringing their own ideas and interpretation to the tradition. In part, this is because role models shift as generations pass on, and we’re losing direct contact with many of the great figures of the past. Of course, they can still be heard on record, but the experience of hearing past heroes playing live is not there in the way it might have been a decade ago – and jazz is essentially a live art form. There’s nothing on record that matches the power of seeing a jazz maestro in full flight.
I can see more musicians making creative use of new technology, and I can see musicians combining the language of the jazz mainstream with their own cultural and musical roots – whether from the streets of a revitalised New Orleans, the favelas of Rio, the mountains and fjords of Norway, or the cities of India and China – and creating something completely fresh and invigorating that will move jazz into new landscapes.
Can you pick one jazz performance you’ve seen that has stuck with you more than any other?
No, but I can pick three: one of the first – Gerry Mulligan’s Quartet and the John Dankworth Big Band, Festival Hall, 1963. Ella Fitzgerald at Ronnie Scott’s in the ‘70s – a real privilege to see a consummate artist at very close quarters. And the most recent, an English pianist, John Escreet, playing in a tiny club in New York, one glimpse of the music’s future.
Roanne Dods: Director of the Jerwood Charitable Foundation, responsible for more than a decade of major jazz and arts commissions.
What does jazz offer to its audience that other genres don’t?
It offers a different way of listening to interesting music; it offers a range of collaborations and instruments that you don’t see elsewhere; it has a breadth of easy to complex to funny and entertaining while all the time being truly crafted musicianship that no other genre can offer.
How can jazz be made appealing to a new generation that may perceive it to be elitist?
The perception thing is a tough one. We have some of the most fantastic jazz musicians in the UK today. The current mid-career and emerging generation are stunning – look at the Take Five musicians that Jerwood, PRSF and Serious are putting on at the London Jazz Festival this year – they are incredible. I refuse to believe that we just need a celebrity endorsement of some kind to make jazz fashionable – but the music is too good and the musicians deserve more than to be left to niche.
Do you predict many changes in the jazz scene in the next 10 years?
I think it is hard to predict anything beyond a week with any certainty these days, never mind 10 years. What I hope though is that there is much broader recognition within the wider music industry of the totally cool, riveting, accessible, awesome music and musicians from all walks of life and background to be found in jazz, and that more of it should be put in front of the public to enable them to appreciate it.
Do you think contemporary jazz has been watered down through time, or does it have the soul the genre began with?
I get that there are a few folk who think that jazz isn’t what it was, but I don’t buy it. Jazz is about interesting music; the really brilliant contemporary jazz musicians don’t all sound like the originals and they don’t even sound like each other, but they bring a force of nature and truth to jazz that has as much soul as where it all started.
Sally Greene: Owner of legendary London jazz club, Ronnie Scott’s.
What draws you personally to jazz as opposed to other contemporary genres?
Again, I feel it’s to do with the direct connection you get with the performer. Like all live performance, jazz is ephemeral and therefore, in my view, inherently poignant and magical. As an audience you’re never going to hear exactly the same rendition twice, so it’s rather like seeing a play on stage instead of a film – you witness the physical and emotional effort of the performer at close quarters. It’s sexy and a bit dangerous. In the contemporary jazz scene there has been a surge in attractive female performers, which is quite a difference from how the genre started out.
Would you say that is a symptom of the age we live in, of jazz or of music as a whole?
A little bit of each. Originally it was harder for females to be accepted as “jazz musicians”, but then the same goes for classical music and pop as well, although at different times. I think the difference with jazz in general is that in the current looks-obsessed culture we live in, it’s about musicianship first, looks a firm second. It’s a genre that is really about the music and actually I find that all performers often seem attractive because talent is the greatest aphrodisiac of all. You can be truly blown away by a performance and the looks of the performer really have no bearing on how sexy they are on stage. I’ve seen women of all shapes and sizes perform in the club, but what marks them out as ‘attractive’ is the fact that they are so clearly comfortable in their own skin – whether tall or short, fat or thin. I love that about the medium.
If you had to name one artist, living or dead, as the most important to and influential on the contemporary jazz scene, who would it be and why?
Miles Davis. Need I say more? You just have to listen to the crisp, pared down purity of his sound. He really created a new sound, tempo and vibe in jazz: an edgy, cool, sexy, slowed down groove that suddenly made jazz the hottest thing and crossed it into the mainstream. He was a true pioneer and his influence is clear on so much music today: be it Hip Hop, Funk, Pop, whatever.
Can you pick one jazz performance you have seen that has stuck with you more than any other?
It’s very, very hard to pick one single moment as there have been many spine tingling performances (in Ronnie’s). But to cite a few: I will always remember seeing the raw, untamed talent of Amy Winehouse here back in 2006 and being pretty struck by her. Anytime the great Carleen Anderson sings, you feel touched by something really extraordinary: this fragile, beautiful woman with a vocal control and range that is really quite unbelievable. The wonderful Liane Carroll singing Tom Waits’ classic “Picture in a Frame” at Chris Dagley’s [Ronnie Scott’s house drummer] memorial gig – it was a moment where time seemed to stand still and all eyes and ears in the room were focused completely on her incredible voice. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.
Ronnie Scott’s has an enormous wealth of history behind it. Is that history important in understanding and really getting involved in jazz music?
In some ways Ronnie’s is a bit of an institution but it doesn’t feel like an institution. It clearly has a wonderful weight of history behind it, a bit like the Old Vic, but it’s alive, not an archive! In some respects, as an audience member, it can be equally rewarding to come at it without knowing too much about the genre or history.
On the other hand, performers love the history of the club and the idea that they are playing in the same spot as some of their heroes, and actually the history of the club is an intrinsic part of what makes it so unique. There is a sort of dual history – firstly of the great musicians that performed here, and secondly of the behind-the-scenes stories: the struggle that Ronnie Scott and [co-founder] Pete King had, to keep it going for 45 years; Sonny Rollins writing the score for Alfie by candlelight there; Ronnie playing chess with Dizzy Gillespie; Miles Davis filming there; The Who premiering Tommy there. The walls have many secrets.
Archive taken from Glass Issue 4 - Winter 2010 – Secret