The True Language Of Jazz

The True Language Of Jazz
David Arivett By

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Recently, there has been an upsurge in sales and interest in jazz recordings from the past—especially the 1970s. In a recent Jazz Times magazine article, "1970 Is Happening (Again)," Lee Mergner points out that "at the time rock and funk were, depending on your perspective, destroying or invigorating jazz." Trumpeter Miles Davis, pianists Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea, groups including Weather Report, Jeff Lorber Fusion, Return to Forever...the list goes on and on of the extremely gifted and talented jazz musicians who were committing "blasphemy," according to the jazz purists, by stepping outside the boundaries of swing and embracing funk, rock, R&B and soul beats to create new music.

Downbeat Magazine also recently posited the question: is now the time to reclaim Ray Charles for jazz? The article goes on to state that the pianist/singer's "role, impact and methods as a jazz musician remain underappreciated. Yet ironically, jazz critic Nate Hentoff often related that Charles was a favorite of jazz musicians. Producer Jerry Wexler shares that Charles influenced the shape of jazz..."[pianist] Horace Silver, [saxophonist] Julian "Cannonball" Adderley, [organist] Jimmy Smith, even [bassist Charles] Charles Mingus—they all dug Ray and got caught up in his spirit." Other well-respected jazz musicians such as [trumpeters] Clark Terry, Blue Mitchell, and Thad Jones all played on Charles' big band recordings. And so the search continues on defining just what the true language of jazz is. Is there even such a thing as "pure jazz'?

Michael Fagien of Jazziz Magazine observes that "for saxophonist Kirk Whalum, it's not about living up to jazz standards; it's about soul music and something even deeper." Whalum goes on to share, in that article/interview, that "when the music gets put on a pedestal, it gets sterile. And that's what's happening to jazz. I'm just not hung up about what's jazz and what's not. I think when people hear me, they say, 'Oh, wow, I thought you said something.' And that's what some of the old jazz cats had. Arnett Cobb would say to me, 'You know what? You ain't saying nothing.' Just like that! 'You ain't saying nothing. You're playing too many damn notes and you ain't saying nothing!'" Whalum goes on to say "I needed somebody like him to help me get that."

Jazz music is the ecstatic, spontaneous, syncopated creation of music that comes from a divine spark. It flows from responding to the musical moment and expressing what an artist feels at that moment. There's way too much jazz music/language today that is basically just "jazz insider" language—C#9b5 with 6 modal scales thrown in, for example. This overly studied, academic approach is what has hurt jazz for the average listener. How much musical dissonance being played is a direct expression of a musician's life and soul? Are you just playing scales or are you really saying something?

Trumpeter Nat Adderley shares an experience that his brother Cannonball taught him, recounted in Rickey Minor's book, There's No Traffic On The Extra Mile (Gotham, 2008). Cannonball told him, "This cat's coming down from Kansas City. They call him "Bird." This cat can put down some sounds." So Nat met up with Cannonball and together attend a [saxophonist] Charlie Parker concert. We arrived at the club and sat down. Bird was playing. A short time later I walked out! I caught up with Cannonball later at a jam session. Cannonball said 'man, where'd you go?' I said 'man, that was nothing but noise...that ain't music!' Cannonball said 'You know the problem with you? You don't like it because you don't understand it! You don't know enough about this style to understand and appreciate it. I'm not saying that it has to be your favorite style of music. But you're ignorant...you're ignorant to what he's doing.'"


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