Jazz...It's Definitions

No discussion of jazz would be complete without some knowledge of just where the word "jazz" came from. One of the most gifted musicians in New Orleans was saxophonist, Sidney Bechet, who played in the Noble Sissle's orchestra along with Charlie Parker in the late twenties. In his autobiography, Bechet insisted that the word jazz, in it's original form of "jass," was local slang for sexual activities. The evidence in favor of Bechet's assertion seems overwhelming; Becket's declaration is substantiated by the existence of the towns bordello district; brothels and sporting houses of Storyville.

As we approach the new millennium and look back over the last one-hundred years, we find that, due to it's idiosyncratic nature, jazz has succumbed to various ideologies; it means something different to different people. To enhance our understanding of this rather controversial mode of music, we should first, take a look at it's origin, two major events that took place in the year 1917, and the perennial 12-bar blues-vital to the cause for jazz.

We can safely say that, the birth of jazz took place around the turn of the century in Storyville, the free and easy sector of New Orleans; the red-light district. The early jazz musicians thrived here, gigs-ville, making their living. The underlying roots of this American form of music came from African-American work songs, spirituals, and other forms whose harmonic, melodic, and rhythmic elements were primarily African; flowing over into the 1920's and was adopted or imitated by white musicians.

However, in the year 1917, an edict came down from the Navel Department in Washington D.C. ordering the closure of all brothels in Storyville. The musicians were forced to migrate north; some went to Kansas City, but the masses went to Chicago, and the Big Apple. In Chicago, the style of jazz was called, and rightly so, Chicago Jazz. This mode of jazz is, as of 1985, still being played in the "French Quarter" in New Orleans; like at "Maison Bourbon," corner of St. Peter and Bourbon Street; the front line was that of tenor and trumpet; I was there to experience it!

The second significant event in the history of early jazz was that of the first jazz recording ever made; February, 1917. The band, The Original Dixieland Jazz Band (ODJB); the chart, "Livery Stable Blues." The ODJB was made up of young white musicians from New Orleans; they played in the "reggae," syncopated style that set the white New Orleans jazz at that time apart from the smoother, more lyrical Negro flavor. The ODJB was the band that first made the word "jazz" popular when it become an overnight sensation at Reisenweber's in New York in 1917. Even though there were no solos as we know them today, the ODJB used the cornet, trombone, and clarinet, to produce barn yard sounds to fill in the breaks, which sold this hitherto little known music to a big metropolitan audience; it was "jazz!"

Now if we look back from whence we came, we have the origin of jazz emanating from African-American roots; the mainstay of jazz, within it's early years, was that of Dixieland; jazz received a tremendous boon as it's popularity exploded when the ODJB performed at Reisenweber's in New York in 1917; the mass migratory when all the then- gig-houses, were closed, forcing the brothel musicians to seek work in the north. And yet, no where, have we come across what might be considered a definition of jazz?

There are probably as many definitions of jazz as there are musicians who play it! Rather than make you ponder and delve into subjectivity, alluding to a repository of definitions, we will look at several definitions of jazz; some bland, and some simple- straight forward. Then we will journey into the realm of the soulistic and driving force that every creative jazz artist/performer actually experiences when actualizing this prestigious art form.

We have not touched upon the twelve-bar blues; the essence and underlying foundation of all that jazz stands for! Here we have the 12-bar blues progression from the original lead sheet of that jazz classic, "How To Play Marbles In A Square Circle." When I scored the tune for a 20 piece jazz orchestra, the chords were embellished somewhat to accommodate the 15 horns; it was recorded on April 20, 1972, in Manhattan Beach, Ca.; here is the basic blues from that chart in it's simple form-the key of C:

||C / / / | Cmi / / / | C / / / | C7 / / / | |F7 / / / | F7 / / / | C / / / | C7 / / / | |Dmi / / / | G7 / F7 / |C /Ab7 C#7 | C6 / G7 / ||

Here's another 12-bar blues progression with added hormones: || Cmaj7/ / / | F7 / / / | Cmaj7 / / / | Gmi7 Gmi7-5 C7 C7+ | | F9 / / / | F#dim / / / | Cmaj7 / Dmi7 / | Emi7 / Eb mi7 / | | Dmi9 / / / | G7 / / / | Cmaj7 / Ami7 / | Dmi7 / G7 / ||

For those of you who do not understand chord progressions, and the value of same, trust me; without blues chord progressions, there would be no jazz! Ever since the turn of the century, bands have been playing to chord progressions of one sort or another; possibly a little less complicated, but as jazz grew, so did the modernization of chords. And here we are, a hundred years after the 'birth' of the blues, and the trend continues as composers, arrangers, and musicians, continue to explore other avenues within the existing musical mechanics of chord progressions. What is the value of blues progressions as they apply to a creative artist within the realm of improvisation?...they're used as a vehicle for the artist to consummate the tune and bring to fulfillment, a new melodic line while at the same time...sending the audience into musical orbit!

One note about the blues, then we'll take a look at a few definitions of this rather diverse form of music called...jazz. Another important personality trait of the blues is, it presents to the performing artist, an acid test to the artist's improvising ability; the accuracy of this statement is related to, and intimately connected with, the harmonic structure of the blues.

As with many things in life, you can't learn the blues in school, or from a book; nor can you learn it from another musician; either it lies abode within you, you feel it, or you just don't have it! From his album, "American-Classics," Dexter Gordon, in an interview, had this to say about the blues..."Darlin...if you can't play the blues...you might as well hang it up!" There are many "giants" of jazz who would agree with Dexter!...The state rests!

Before we define this broad term with it's multiple definitions, allow me to set the stage and provide a visionary realization of the instrumentation that dominated the jazz of the 50's. This quintet is comprised of: Acoustic bass, acoustic piano (baby grand, why not), and in the front line, tenor saxophone and trumpet; these two horns consistently provide a very mellow sound-playing in unison with double density (octaves); unfortunately, this unique sound is not heard much anymore...too bad, as it does have a formidable excellence, providing sonorities that can not compare with the alleged jazz of today...!

For openers, here is a simple but bland statement about jazz; it is essentially the musical experience of a passing moment, which cannot be repeated in the same way. A more common definition is: Jazz is a music where the a performer plays melodic variations on a given harmonic base against a regular rhythmic pulse. However, the most important figure in all it's history was, Thomas A. Edison who invented the phonograph; what is the value of cutting a disc if there's nothing to play it on? Edison deserves some credit!

Jazz is a journey into the unknown; to another world; to the outer limits of creativity. On this journey, there are a sequence of events occurring at the same time. The rhythmic pulse from the bass and drums, and a rendezvous with the prevailing harmonics, both provide a stimulus to the performing artist, who in turn, transforms the stimuli into a flamboyant execution of a new melodic line never to be heard again; unless of course, the music is being recorded; studio or otherwise.

What about a definition of jazz with three or four horns constituting the front line; typically, trumpet, trombone, and clarinet-Dixieland; some critics prefer to divide Dixieland into two categories...classical and pre-classical jazz; it doesn't matter, the definition is the same for either. In this ensemble, the trumpet carries the lead line of the melody, while the clarinet and trombone provide a lyrical backdrop...filling in and supporting the lead horn. Here, we have a similar derivation of jazz; each horn will, in turn, take a solo; it is here that musicians in the front line (also the rhythm section) speaketh; they exercise their interpretation of the melody line supported by the harmonic and rhythm ensemble; the end result is the same. The soloists are relying on the harmonic and rhythmic structure of the tune to exercise their free spirited version of the composition!

About Dixieland jazz which was modified, to some extent, by white New Orleans musicians, there are some who labor under the theme that, it is a free form music; the musicians seem to be going in different directions! This is partly true. However, the underlying current of harmonic and rhythmic structure is there supporting the soloists.

Unique unto itself, jazz is a form of musical expression; a rendezvous within the shadows of creativity. The executant actualizes a free spirited attitude as he/she provides a new rendition of the composer's original theme; improvising in and around the prevailing harmonic structure of the melody. To put it another way, the executant is fundamentally expressing his/her findings of the creative mind of the composer; he is usually his own composer!

I think it should be noted at this time that some chord progressions are simple- straight-forward; as an example, "September In The Rain." Then there are those progressions adorned with chord complexities; an example, Johnny Green's great classic, "Body and Soul." In 1939, the late Coleman Hawkins laid down a tract on Green's classic; Hawkins introduced the saxophone to jazz, and was one of the most gifted musicians in jazz history. Then, in 1978, the late Dexter "LTD" Gordon laid down his tract on the same piece. Both of these "giants of jazz" made musical history with their phenomenal rendition of Body and Soul; emotionally commanded, astounding exhibition of their inimitable saxophone prowess. More details about these "monsters of jazz" will be provided in another text.

As a prelude to the real, all encompassing, definition of jazz, we will begin here: Within the essence of jazz, it is the soul that embraces the executant, as he/she becomes captivated with passion and executes new harmonic and melodic avenues of musical expression beyond the limits of improvisation.

We are all part of the cosmic enterprise; therefore giving birth to cosmic energy, which lies abode within us. With our intellect, we have the capacity to perceive and conceptualize the existence of the soul-be it a necessary human element when producing the music called-jazz! We may not be aware of it's presence, but the soul is there!

Now why did I interject a bit of philosophy? Well, lets take a look at the "real" definition of jazz, and the value of the above philosophy as it relates to jazz.

On May 20th, 1994 A.D., the following definition of jazz was born; as it sanctified the underlying need to substantiate an all encompassing definition of jazz which can not be disputed; it applies to any form of jazz, from the early days of Dixieland, to the many forms of music today that use the term jazz in an attempt to solidify the music as belonging to the idiom of jazz!

"Jazz is a form of cosmic energy which surfaces when the executant hears, and feels...harmonic and rymthmic stimuli...and the soul consecrates the execution of a new melodic line...not to be heard again...and the executant reaches out in search of other souls tuned in on the same...Universal wavelength."

In the next chorus of Jazz Review, we'll look at..."Be-bop."

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