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

Opinion/Editorial

Why Is Jazz A Dirty Word?

By Published: February 26, 2011
Then there's those 10 minute solos, where a jazz musician plays every dissonant scale he's ever been taught, and then he plays them backwards in retrograde motion, and wonders why no one appreciates his soloing except for a few other jazz comrades. This can come across as arrogant to many listeners, because they feel almost like the soloist is saying "Gee whiz, just listen to what I can do on my instrument"! This tends to take the focus off the music, and the emotional feel of the music and place more emphasis on the individual soloist as a performer. Usually, when jazz musicians go off on lengthy solos, the listening audience shifts back into more of a spectator role, and the technical expertise of the performer tends to overshadow everything else. Unfortunately it is only other jazz musicians who really know how much work and dedication is involved developing technique that really can appreciate it.

There are, however, those times when a jazz musician plays a solo that lifts and transports both the performer and listeners to a sublime level. There is the perception—in the audience—that the soloist is genuinely expressing and responding to how he feels about the music he is playing, and that he has something deeply important to communicate and share with the listeners. Without allowing time and space for jazz musicians to have the opportunity to freely express themselves would only serve to take one of jazz's most precious elements away—the freedom to improvise.

Jazz musicians and jazz historians have always valued free improvisation as a unique element in their music. Allowing space for individual musicians to express themselves freely with on the spot improvisational soloing has always been the norm. Freedom to choose, freedom to play, and freedom to improvise...freedom is what jazz is all about. But the original roots of jazz language stems from the musicians collectively sharing an ecstatic experience, where they are lifted out of the ordinary state of mind and the music seems to just flow freely out of them. There are many examples. in the history of jazz, that document this ecstatic nature and its effects on jazzers and listeners. New Orleans old timer, Jim Robinson
Jim Robinson
Jim Robinson
b.1892
, once shared how the ecstasy used to flow on the bandstand on certain nights: "If everyone is frisky, the spirit gets to me and I can make my trombone sing!" Singer Ethel Waters
Ethel Waters
Ethel Waters
1896 - 1977
vocalist
testified that certain stride pianists ..."stirred you into joy and wild ecstasy," and drummer Billy Higgins
Billy Higgins
Billy Higgins
1936 - 2001
drums
once said, "Music doesn't come from you, it goes through you!"

Of course, we've all seen the old black and white movies picturing jazz musicians all strung out on drugs in a smoke filled club, with half-naked ladies, where the audience is stoned out of their minds as the music plays. A brief survey of jazz history easily reveals that many of the great jazz musicians used drugs and were in fact heavily addicted to them. Of course, drug use and addiction is unfortunately a fact of life in modern society, and for many musicians in every style of music...not just jazz musicians.

So far we have addressed, in detail, the main reasons why the average listener doesn't like jazz. But there are other reasons that go even deeper. Many people might hate jazz music because many of the jazz musicians who played it and wanted to preserve it changed its original context. Jazz music shifted from being music that was to be enjoyed and danced to, into music that was to be instead appreciated as an art form. Music for the brain, not for the soul—the implication being that a listener must acquire a taste for jazz music. You might not like hearing it at first but stick around...it will grow on you and you will begin to understand it!

Jazz pianist (and respected spokesman for jazz), Ben Sidran
Ben Sidran
Ben Sidran
b.1943
piano
sheds some brilliant light on the true roots of jazz music, when he said, in a recorded dialogue/narrative that ..."if you had been in a Harlem jazz club in 1927, you would've seen some people dancing! This music [jazz] was meant for dancing!" He goes on to point out that many of the pioneers in jazz., such as Louis Armstrong
Louis Armstrong
Louis Armstrong
1901 - 1971
trumpet
, Duke Ellington
Duke Ellington
Duke Ellington
1899 - 1974
piano
, Count Basie
Count Basie
Count Basie
1904 - 1984
piano
, all played their music for dancing. Even more profoundly, Sidran went on to make the case that, in our ancestral human history, rhythm proceeds even language. That hundreds of thousands of years ago, early humans would gather around a fire and dance to a groove before they even had a language they could speak.


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