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

Opinion/Editorial

Bridges vs. Walls

By Published: April 17, 2012
Duke Ellington called it "American music" due to the divisions and limitations; while others argued for the label of "American Classical Music" rather than the much maligned and misunderstood "jazz."

Many have claimed that jazz and swing are indeed different due to the fact that swing is about melody, whereas jazz is about improvisation... but this is merely an issue of quality. Good jazz is built on melody—particularly a melody born of the blues—and good swing is built on syncopation and improvisation of the same melodies... if you lose any of those things, you may still be playing jazz and swing—but it's just not very good. Blues is to jazz as flour is to bread... and swing is to jazz as rock is to roll. Any separation is usually artificial and racially motivated.

At the beginning of the 1940's jazz had spread around the planet along with World War II, and had grown into the most popular music in the world. However, various factors forced the further evolution of jazz styles. World War II helped split up the bands that made it. Record labels didn't want to pay all the musicians that made the bands "big," which led to a Musician's Union strike lasting from 1942 to 1944.

The strike allowed solo singers to take the spotlight away from the musicians—and with the popularity of film, these performers quickly became movie stars with household names. Popular music moved away from composition, complexity, dexterity, and artistry in acquiescence to celebrity... and focused on how the performers looked rather than how they sounded.

Many African American musicians were tired of playing to all white audiences in locations where they were not even permitted to eat, sleep or use the restroom... not to mention the fact that most jazz musicians were bored to death with playing the same songs the same way over and over due to audience expectations—undermining the very essence of jazz improvisation—or merely serving as background sound in support of a celebrity solo singer.

Jazz was thus removed from the dance halls and relocated to small smoky bars where artists could explore and expand their craft. Swing styles evolved into be-bop... replacing the popular appeal of dance music, swing rhythms, and singers with intense improvisation. Bop tended to move too fast to allow for dancing or singing—which delighted musicians, while alienating audiences.

The 1950's saw a wide split in the jazz continuum. The music continued to expand; influencing other indigenous genres and allowing age-old folk styles around the world to evolve... and then coming back to America to redefine our own. At home racial divisions and bad memories of the depression and the war created entirely new styles and expressions of America's music.

Dance music (which was still essentially jazz and swing) began masquerading under new names—black communities called it "Rhythm & Blues," while white communities called the same music (and often the same songs) "Rock & Roll." Jazz musicians shunned both labels and became increasingly removed from popular culture.

After 30 years of defining popular music around the world, "jazz" was left to back rooms, dive bars, and underground establishments for the terminally hip. The structure, strains, and foundational influence of jazz was still to be found embedded in all forms of popular music—but it was no longer politically correct to call it "jazz." The word lost all cultural relevance when it began to define the music of the past.

Those that embraced the j-word and the styles of music associated with it throughout the 1950's became a sub-culture of cool... all the while becoming increasing disconnected from the masses. The singular "genre" which came to be identified with the word often demanded some kind of initiation or education to understand what was being played. It grew into a style played by and for other musicians—and the general public was rarely part of the process. The untrained ear had a hard time discerning melodic lines amidst the improvised chord changes, thus leaving a disenchanted pubic to proclaim that jazz was nothing more than noise and chaos... undefined songs in search of a melody.

There were also several minor stylistic derivations that went by different names (such as "straight ahead," "cool," "bop," "mainstream," "hard bop" and "post bop")—but it all sounded the same to the untrained ear, and few artists were willing to teach or draw the audience in to what they were doing. Miles Davis was well known for turning his back on white audiences. Thus, jazz was relegated to the stuff of snobbery.


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