“ Musicians in the fifties were the very epitome of everything cool. Just the presence of Miles Davis and John Coltrane lowered the earth's average temperature by 2.4 degrees... ”
I love jazz. I love everything about jazz. I love listening to jazz. I love reading about jazz, hearing people talk about jazz, pictures of jazz musicians. I love pictures of people listening to people talk about jazz. I love reading about hearing people listening to jazz. I love talking about reading about listening to people take pictures of'wait, I've completely lost track of this article already. Or, better yet, maybe I was riffing. This being an article about jazz, I could very well claim that I was wasn't just prattling on, I was actually building on an established motive to create an atmospheric sense of space within the confines of the traditional boundaries of the written word. Or maybe I'm just full of crap. The very same debate has been raging around Cecil Taylor for years, so I'm in good company.
At any rate.
We've established two things already. First is the fact that I like jazz, and second is the fact that I'm either pretty damned clever or completely full of a substance known in the jazz vernacular as "Kenny G CD's." Either way, we're too far into it to turn back now so we might as well just hang on and enjoy the rest of the piece.
Any discussion of jazz must first begin with the fundamental question, "What is jazz?" One might define jazz as a form of musical self-expression that transcends the established limits of the European classical tradition and emphasizes both an exceptional level of technical ability and an intimate personal revelation of the individual musicians within a variety of ensemble settings, but that sort of talk isn't likely to get you invited to too many parties. It is easier to define jazz in a similar fashion to the way pornography was defined by Chief Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes (32-1-1, 26 KO's), you know it when you see it. Or rather, when you hear it. Jazz, that is, not pornography (although, jazz is sometimes used as background music for porno flicks. I have no personal knowledge of this).
Having thus wriggled off the hook, we can now move past the question of what is jazz and get on to the larger issues of just how the hell I managed to get my own spot on this website. Or, we could explore the vast, rich legacy of jazz and maybe find a few ways to help make our music relevant to a new generation. Either way, I'm easy.
Let's begin with a brief, yet largely incorrect, history of the music we all love so much.
The history of jazz begins in New Orleans, where an influx of disparate but oddly complementary cultures combine not only to create the framework on which jazz would be built, but also an atmosphere where one day, drunken college coeds would bare their breasts in exchange for plastic beads. It is for these contributions to society that New Orleans can be forgiven for the NFL's Saints (but not, however, for that whole "Cajun-blackened everything" craze that still lingers in many full-service restaurants to this day). It is still a matter of debate as to whether jazz began as a natural progression from blues and field chants, or whether it was simply a way to discourage people from playing the banjo. Early pioneers of the form include the great coronetist Buddy Bolden, and impresario and composer "Jelly Roll" Morton who claimed not only to have single-handedly invented jazz, but also took credit for discovering elements 92-104 on the periodic table. Experts today doubt the veracity of these claims, but are at a loss to explain the element jellyrollium.
As jazz spread from New Orleans, gradually reaching the metropolitan centers of the industrial North as well as the most remote areas of the South and Midwest, it attracted both musicians and listeners to its unique and exciting sound. It also produced its first legitimate giant, the great Louis "Satchmo" Armstrong. A natural musician with a virtuoso talent for improvisation and a sound as big as Ted Kennedy and Oprah Winfrey at an all-you-can-eat buffet (an early contender for cheapest gag of the piece), Armstrong quickly became a marquis name with his work with the King Oliver band in Chicago. It wasn't long before Armstrong struck out on his own, beginning a solo career that would span almost six decades and leave an immense legacy as one of the greatest musicians of all time. And no, I'm not going to end this paragraph with a gag; Armstrong was that great.