A Peek Into Jazz

For years I’ve often left the room or walked away whenever I overheard or became involved in an intellectual discussion about Jazz – something just never felt right about it!  The spontaneity of the art and in-the-moment recordings that are now readily available at the click of a mouse left me with a feeling that music labeled as Jazz needs no intellectual discussion.  Perhaps it was from listening to professionals talk about it (which has a certain casualty about it) or reading about it (like in the Miles autobiography), but I have never been able to quite put my finger on why I have such disdain for intellectual conversation about Jazz.  Even the word “Jazz” instills a certain commercialism that is absent in the true spirit of the art form.  I do tend to avoid over-intellectualizing all music, as music is more than words can possibly describe, but Jazz music especially is an avoided topic.  So I am going to write some impressions about Jazz that I got from reading “Art Ensemble of Chicago” in All American Music.  Here’s hoping…

The author defined jazz as concretely as was fit: “Jazz is a music movement that originated around the turn of the century among black musicians in the American South, gravitated north to Chicago, and then spread out into the world” and followed it up with: “Jazz plays its own club and concert circuit, has its own record labels or subdivisions, and its own scholarly and critical apparatus.  But if you try further to pin down what it is, it disappears like a mist” (164).  This definition is interestingly vague and appropriately so, as defining jazz inherently contradicts the spirit of jazz itself – it is life and is living – it has evolved and matured with its performers and continues to do so with each new generation.  Why we continue to generalize all music into one of four categories (Classical, Jazz, Popular, and Ethnic) is beyond me… but if you’ve been reading this blog a lot, you know I hate labels because nothing actually fits any general definition.

In discussing the music of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, it was interesting that it was compared to the Guarneri String Quartet’s repertory as it “spans the centuries of Western art music” (171).  Playing lots of various styles of jazz, or (another interesting choice of words): “black classical music” (171), the Art Ensemble of Chicago has an extensive repertoire.  The history of jazz is pocketed with movements and sub-genres just as the history of Western art music has its own periods and styles.  Keeping in discussion with our topic here, jazz in its early days was avant garde – it was a new thing – but now many performers have taken a more 1960s definition of avant garde approach to jazz, leaving behind rhythmic consistency and tonal cadence to a freer, less “classical” style – the music has an even more random feel than its early structured improvisations.  The Art Ensemble, for example, breaks even the boundaries of instrumental restrictions, as each of their members plays over a dozen instruments and may play any one (or three) of them at a time.

Composers such as Gunther Schuller have also taken the elements of the jazz idiom and fused them into “classical” music to create a very structured, but free, sound.  The fusion of genres is not new – Bartok and Kodaly fused his nation’s popular music (or at least folk music) into their orchestral and other Western art music works – however the result of blending two very opposed aesthetics (jazz and “classical”) creates, in my opinion, and unappealing sound.  This music teeters on the edge of over-commercialized and lacking depth.  Perhaps it’s the lack of spontaneity within a performance of this type of jazz, perhaps it’s the strange effect of a 100-piece orchestra playing the music that originated and thrived on a small ensemble, but, like oil and water, some things are better left separate from each other.

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