Music appreciation [...] my personal attraction to jazz music and some of its composers and performers. Jazz music has been called a particularly American invention, and the many forms of jazz epitomize a successful and exciting country on the move. Jazz encompasses many facets of music, from be-bop to swing, and one testament to jazz's endurance is its continued popularity today. Jazz breathes life into the listener, and embodies life in America.
Jazz, a state of mind! " (Osgood 7)
Jazz is a uniquely American creation, and perhaps that is one reason I enjoy it so much. In the early part of the 20th century, the music we call jazz and blues were beginning to develop into popular songs people enjoyed. One critic writes, "Unquestionably, the most significant contribution made to music by the United States in the period under discussion lay in the field of popular music" (Hansen 84). Jazz used atypical syncopation and "blues notes," which included a complex variation on the major scale. Most music experts believe jazz and the blues developed from black spirituals and folk music of the South, and stretched from New Orleans to Chicago and then the East. In due course, jazz would influence later styles of music, such and be-bop and swing. In fact, jazz helped generate a popular music rage that seized the country. That passion for jazz continues today. Jazz also influenced other styles of music, as the uniquely American compositions of George Gershwin and Aaron Copland clearly illustrate. Nowhere is that influence more evident than in "Rhapsody in Blue," which deftly switches from bawdy all out jazz, to classical piano solo, and lush, romantic string orchestration in just a few bars. An early jazz writer attempts to define this music, "That word jazz is ambitious. [...] The origin of the word is uncertain. The term has been applied also to noisy proceedings, to loud writing, to eccentric and discordant coloring'" (Osgood 10). Jazz is loud, jazz is fine, and jazz has influenced much music that has come after. However, jazz lives on, which makes it an enduring American legend, and a darned fine listen on a Saturday night.
Jazz had humble beginnings in the "Harlem Renaissance," a creative group in New York's Harlem district. It was here such legendary musicians as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, "Jelly Roll" Morton, Earl "Fatha" Hines, James P. Johnson, Benny Moten, Leon Beiderbecke, and many others would become some of the most popular bands playing in nightclubs and on records. One of the most legendary Harlem nightclubs was the Cotton Club, immortalized in film, and the stage where Duke Ellington's band played for countless years. Ellington's sound, beat, and arrangements were all novel and unusual, and this music changed the way Americans listened and danced. Early jazz writer Osgood continues, "Jazz, in brief, is a compound of (a) the fox-trot rhythm (a four measure, alla breve, with a double accent), and (b) a syncopated melody over this rhythm'" (Osgood 20). Thus, jazz, while it might sound loud and brash, is really based on rhythm, rhythm, rhythm. One your toe starts tapping, it is hard to stop it, and even the blues induced jazz has a rhythmic quality that keeps me snapping my fingers and tapping my foot long after the music is over.
A legend in jazz, Duke Ellington's first band came together in 1923. Ellington became interested in the piano when he was young. At first, he tried to emulate local Washington D.C. ragtime piano players, but he soon developed his own style. His first band started in New York. He called it the "Washingtonians," and they performed in small clubs around Times Square. Growing in popularity, the orchestra soon moved to the celebrated Cotton Club. Ellington and his band played there almost consistently until 1931. It was during this time that Ellington truly began to explore composing. His music transported the "early jazz" of New Orleans in a far different direction, varying the beat and syncopation. Later, much of his work would advance into the "swing" style of jazz trendy with the Big Bands of popular bandleaders like Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, and Benny Goodman. Ellington also heavily contributed to be-bop, the jazz form some musicians scorned as "Chinese music." Be-bop really was a combination of swing, jazz, and blues, and it seized a life of its own in the 1940s.
Ellington's music is still alive and viable today. Two of my favorite pieces by Ellington and his band are "Don't Get Around Much Anymore," a jazz ballad that still haunts listeners today, and "Mood Indigo," a piece that starts slowly and builds to a continual rhythm that is at once contemplative and soothing. These two pieces seem to have little in common, but underneath the melody, I always find the same attention to detail that Ellington gave to all his orchestrations. There are instruments layered below the surface, and that is one thing I love about Ellington's mastery of the form. He knows his instruments and he knows how to use them. These two diverse pieces show how much he loved music, and how he understood how to blend, master, and mix his band to take advantage of every note.
Louis Armstrong was probably the most lasting and renowned of the early jazz musicians. He continued to record and sing until his death in 1971, and as his career persisted, complete new generations came to value his engaging trumpet and rasping tunes always sung with a massive smile and a handkerchief ready to mop his brow. Armstrong's career got its start in New Orleans -- the birthplace of jazz. He learned to play the trumpet early, and performed with several local jazz and brass bands before he traveled to Chicago to play in the "King Oliver Creole Jazz Band." Armstrong polished his talents in Chicago. Jazz historian Ted Gioia writes, "Armstrong would soon emerge as the first great soloist in the history of jazz, yet he refined his talents in an ensemble that featured virtually no solos" (Gioia 51). Armstrong gently evolved into one of the premier soloists of the time, and a legendary trumpeter who could coax the most amazing sounds out of his smiling face. "As Richard Hadlock describes it, Armstrong 'regardless of tempo, always completed each phrase and carried each sustained tone out to its fullest value, creating the illusion of unhurried ease, even in the most turbulent arrangement'" (Gioia 61). Armstrong was a master, but more than that, he seemed like a sweet soul who simply loved what he did. His signature song, "What a Wonderful World" seems to epitomize his thoughts on life, and it has been re-recorded so many times, everyone still seems to know it today. A raunchy version by rocker Joey Ramone ended the controversial film "Bowling for Colombine" by Michael Moore, which only goes to show how music can be interpreted so many ways.
These are just a few of the myriad jazz musicians who influenced decades of American music. All of their contributions are special, but what really makes jazz so special is how it belongs uniquely to America. Its' historical context is limitless, just as the sounds that can come out of a jazz orchestra are limitless. America was not known for her musical contributions in the world, but jazz changed that. It traveled around the world, and is still recognized as a uniquely American institution, for where else could Negro spirituals and gospel blend with Spanish and African rhythms to create a form of music now known as American?
Jazz is one of my favorite musical forms because when you listen to it, you can always find something different, and something to fit your mood. I can listen to the classic Duke Ellington "Don't Mean a Thing if it Ain't Got That Swing" when I want to dance until I drop. I can listen to "Mood Indigo" and "Rhapsody in Blue" when I'm feeling down, or even in need of comforting. Then I can listen to "It's a Wonderful World," and begin to feel better about things again. These classic jazz pieces keep me going in times of trouble, but I love modern jazz too. Kenny G. made the jazz sax a household word again, and created a whole new generation of listeners and fans. The jazz of the 1950s, which blossomed from swing into something smooth and mellow is also easy on the ears at just about anytime. Perhaps that is one reason I enjoy jazz so much. It has evolved so much over the years that there is always a type of jazz that will fit my mood, whatever it is. I listen to rock and classical music too, but I always come back to jazz, because it is always interesting, effective, and matches whatever listening mood I'm in. Jazz makes me feel better, but jazz also just makes me feel, and I think that is another one of its great strengths. This music is…