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Jazz in a Changing World

Sammy Stein By

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In China, with the Cultural Revolution having long since opened up the country, jazz clubs are thriving. Musicians have been intrigued by the instruments and sounds of China. Reed pipes feature on many tracks and the country's traditional music bases much on pentatonic scales. Much of its music was written to relate stories, so Chinese musicians possess an innate sense of connection with their audience, which lends itself brilliantly to jazz. Beijing has even had its own jazz festival in 2006-9 and there are established venues where jazz musicians perform.

Indian music has long been a rich source for free-playing musicians, having developed in a completely different way from Western music. The instruments are often different and offer ranges outside that of more conventional western instruments. Much Indian music is not written down but created in the moment, as its players relate a story. Scales and set cadences are sometimes ignored in favor of emphasizing a point or creating a mood—something to which, once again, jazz players can easily relate.

Instruments in countries like India and China offer musicians new timbral ranges and, with microtonality, new notes to play. In China there are the two-stringed erhu fiddle, the 21- or 25-stringed plucked guzheng and the Chinese flute, while India has, amongst many others, the sitar and pakhawaj drum, on which musicians can experiment and exchange ideas.

Japan's exposure to jazz was, prior to the end of World War II. Limited because it was, for a time, banned; later, however, the influence of American and Eastern jazz musicians has led to the country hungering for jazz music of all kinds and it has a huge following. I worked with Japanese people for several years and jazz was one of their passions. Japan, they reminded me, was a closed society for a long time, which meant it developed music and arts in isolation with a distinctive style. Jazz music was new and exciting when it arrived. For awhile, Japanese players were considered imitators of the American jazz style, an identity they disliked. However, Japanese culture is very creative and soon influences from its own instruments—like the three-string, banjo-like sanshin the harp-like kugo—found their way into jazz tunes and Japanese musical styles infiltrated the music. Now, jazz clubs thrive with music which offers both a fusion of Japanese and American jazz and some very identifiable Japanese styles. Pianist Yosuke Yamashita, organist Akiko Tsuruga}} and young drummer Tiger Onitsuka are all received with enthusiasm by audiences across the world.

Straight-ahead jazz, of course, has its place and is a wonderful subgenre unto itself. However, things have moved on through free form, improvised, electro and many other variants which have developed over the past half century. Jazz is now offered to the wider world in many forms. It can be found with Latin beats, with Indian timbres and with throbbing drum 'n' bass. Markets are discerning, yet they are also more open to new ideas; more willing to try another way.

Jazz music is changing and yet it remains the same—variable, pliant and truly music of the people. Due to multicultural influences and the changing world in which we live and play, jazz is now offering many more things to far more people. People are finding the music youthful, energetic, global and open to change; above all, there is clearly something for everyone.

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