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Why Jazz?

By Rob Brethouwer

     When we are asked why we like the music we listen to, the most obvious answer is, “I love the way it sounds?” This is a fine answer, but one that may not give the music full credit. This answer is part of my answer, “Why Jazz?”, but it is but only one part of a larger answer to a simple question. I listen to Jazz because it is the music of America. I find this musical history to be not only fascinating, but I study this history with a sense of pride and accomplishment. From George Gershwin piano rolls during the tin pan alley era, to the early trumpet work of Bix Beiderbecke, the ragtime syncopated rhythms from Scott Joplin, the big bands of the World War II years, to the basic makeup of a rhythm section backing a soloist, to the experimental work of Miles Davis and the power and precision of the Maynard Ferguson Orchestra, the history of jazz spans more than a century and offers a soundtrack for our country. Jazz is not the only genre that possesses a historical landscape portrayed through music. Pick any genre of music, overlap a historic timeline, and you have a similar story. What is unique about Jazz is the story is uniquely American. It is difficult to look at any part of our history in the last century and not be forced to confront the music of Jazz as an integral part of that history.

Running parallel to Jazz music as part of our history and culture, the varieties which the genre offers is a soundtrack to not only time, but to geography. As mentioned above, the piano rolls composed by George Gershwin offer us the sounds of New York City during the second and third decades of the twentieth. Century. Blues music has different tastes depending on where the style originated. St. Louis blues has a distinct sound from that of Chicago blues. New Orleans blues offers something completely different to the ear. With a little time, we as listeners can learn to recognize geography within the notes, chords, and improvisations of Jazz. A particular style of Jazz known as cool Jazz originated in California. This “west coast sound” is something that can be an acquired taste. A big question that will not be addressed here, but is offered as something to ponder, is this: why do some prefer the sounds of west coast jazz over the sounds of Dixieland from New Orleans? It is this variety in sound that helps to make Jazz so interesting to our ears.

     When listening to music, most of us have images in our minds eye produced from the music. The images we see when we close our eyes could be connected to the first time we heard a song; who we were with or where we were when we had this first experience; the music, for sometimes unknown reasons, produce images that are personal to us and may not even take a shape that can be described. For me, hearing Jazz music is aesthetically pleasing not for the mere sounds I am hearing, but for the vivid images that form in my head as I listen. A USO dance at an airfield in England during World War II. The Glenn Miller or Tommy Dorsey Orchestra on stage providing entertainment for those who have no idea what the next weeks, months, or even days may bring. A smoky and sultry club in New York City where the spotlights are on a small stage with a quartet beginning the second set of the evening. An intersection in the French Quarter in New Orleans where three musicians sit on milk crates and produce the most amazing sounds you have ever heard. That is, until you reach the next intersection or go into the next bar where the new sounds somehow top those you just heard. Another part of Jazz aesthetics that enthusiasts find irresistible are the covers of classic albums and the posters advertising upcoming performances. For some, this is simple nostalgia; fortunate others have memories of when these album covers, and posters were brand new. This artform and artwork is a part of their personal history.

     Finally, my answer to the question, “Why Jazz?” is that the complexity of Jazz is truly never ending, and this complexity is enhanced by the art of improvisation that is so unique to this style of music. A listener can hear the tune “Cherokee” eighty different ways in the course of the day. The basic melody is always quite similar, but the fun and excitement begins once the melody has been introduced and the musicians begin to improvise over chords offered in the chart. This improvisation is free flowing and open, yet structured to an extent that is mathematical and analytical. So many things in Jazz are never the same and in turn, the genre rarely becomes tiresome to the ear.

     Next time, we’ll cover some basic music theory that will then be applied to Jazz improvisation.  Make sure and check it out!

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About the Author

Coming into existence on a dark winter evening, Rob Brethouwer was born to have a book in his hands and a sarcastic remark on the tip of his tongue. A first career is in its late stages and a second short career as a librarian is in the early stages of training. A former classical music columnist with 151 articles out in the world, Rob now turns his pen towards the world of jazz. Obsessed with big cities and subway systems, Rob does what he can to cope with living in small-town America.

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