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All About Jazz: The web's most comprehensive jazz resource

Genius Guide to Jazz

How to Listen to Jazz, Part II

By Published: October 11, 2010
The popularity of Hot Jazz brought it to the attention of American popular culture. The Swing (or, Big Band) era saw jazz repurposed as a dance music for larger venues and, in the days before electric amplification, the only way to increase the volume was the increase the number of musicians. Unfortunately, this also meant that much of the freedom and spontaneity from the smaller combo days had to be curtailed. You can't have a large group of musicians just playing whatever the hell they feel like; just hang around a high school band room before a rehearsal.

Though it is not held in as high of a regard by jazz aficionados now, because it was the top-forty of its day and is seen as lacking the artistic integrity of the jazz before and after it, Swing is still pivotal to the jazz that comes after.

Newton stated in his Third Law of Motion that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Whether or not this had anything to do with the invention of those appalling Raspberry Newtons as a reaction to the perfectly acceptable Fig Newton is for you to decide.

What I'm saying is.

Musicians who found their only lucrative outlets playing in the dumbed-down confines of the predominant big bands of the day would often meet for after-hours jam sessions. Home canning was still considered a worthwhile pastime in those days, and the resultant preserves were often used for the good of down-on-their-luck musicians.

For anyone who has ever made their own jam, you know what a time-consuming, labor-intensive process it can be. For that reason, these sessions attracted large numbers of musicians who, naturally enough, would pass the time while waiting for the various processes to complete by playing their instruments.

Unfortunately, these jam sessions drew all sorts of musicians of varying skill levels. For the musicians who were using these sessions as a cathartic to release their frustrations, dealing with lesser-talented players only enhanced their frustration. In response, musicians like Dizzy Gillespie
Dizzy Gillespie
Dizzy Gillespie
1917 - 1993
and Charlie Parker
Charlie Parker
Charlie Parker
1920 - 1955
sax, alto
began devising breakneck chord changes and blistering solo runs to weed out all but the most hale and hearty of the bunch. Not only did this result directly in the creation of a new type of jazz called Bebop (or Bop, to its friends), the boldness inherent in its approach also led to such exotic jam flavors as Blueberry Habañero and Red Pepper Papaya.

As much as Bebop was a reaction to Swing, there came in its wake a variety of reactions to Bop itself. Miles Davis invented cool jazz while trying to make a classic mint jelly as an answer to the increasingly complex jams of the Bop set (and also, to go with his famous butterflied leg of lamb). Art Blakey developed Hard Bop as a more accessible, melodic answer to the daredevil displays of pure technique that had come to dominate the jazz scene (Scene 5, near the end of Act II).

Moving forward.

The Sixties brought a seismic change in American culture, and jazz reflected that shift in a variety of ways. Besides the ridiculous clothing and circus-clown-on-peyote hairstyles, there was the rise in prevalence of both Free jazz and Fusion. Free jazz ushered in the decade with a promise of abstract, unrestrained expression. Fusion, invented by Miles Davis to get himself in on the staggering amount of leg being scored by lesser-talented pop stars, merged jazz sensibilities with rock instrumentation.

Fusion ruled the Seventies, a fact which should not be held against it. While the decade is primarily remembered as a time without quality control, one of the most embarrassing eras in America's history, Fusion was in no way responsible for the ridiculous polyester clothing or goofy white-guy Afros.

The Eighties is where things start to get complicated. Besides all the skinny ties and that whole New Coke debacle, jazz found itself at a crossroads. Fusion had given birth to a bland, inoffensive genre known as Smooth Jazz which found popularity among people who think that Taco Bell is authentic Mexican cuisine. Neo-traditionalists resurrected Bebop and its subgenres. Electronic instruments, pasty white British people, a new breed of recreational pharmaceuticals and modern urban influences combined to create Acid Jazz.

Things have only grown more complicated as the decades have rolled on. The boundaries of jazz have spread beyond the established schools, expanding to include the possibility of unwashed quasi-hippie jam bands. And the disruptive effect of the digital revolution have changed the rules of both content creation and delivery.

By which I mean.

Back in the old days, before the Internet, before the iPod, music was purchased from a bricks-and-mortar store on some form of physical media and your choices were limited by the arbitrary decisions of monolithic recording companies. Now, individual artists can record and distribute their own work without an intermediary.

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