Jazz has played an important part in shaping American musical identity, serving as a communication between players and listeners and delving into the heart and soul of improvisation. It is difficult to write about jazz, as the music is self expressive and one can only understand the beauty of it by listening.
Buddy Bolden, named the ‘inventor of jazz’ was never heard on radios: “no one knew
what he sounded like, since he ceased musical activity before the first jazz recording was made.” (Tilden, Guardian)
Jazz was initially formed in the style of Dixieland and made famous by Jelly Roll Morton, and the Original Dixieland Jazz band from New Orleans, who made the first jazz recording in 1917. The music would inspire a variety of scores and one of the most famous jazz composers of the early 20th Century; George Gershwin. His ‘Rhapsody in Blue‘ composed in 1924 was the first significant connection between jazz and classical music.
Art Tatum revolutionised bebop in jazz with his fast improvisatory style of playing, and in 1927 Duke Ellington and his orchestra opened Harlem’s Cotton Club in front of a white high society audience. A significant event and landmark in the progression of jazz to commercial audiences.
Charlie Parker nicknamed ‘Bird’ was one of the most talented jazz artists of the 20th century. His uprising marked a significant step in playing jazz as art, soloing away from set chords with complex, intricate rhythms and melodies. ‘Billie’s Bounce‘, ‘The Yardbird Suite‘ and ‘KoKo’ were just a few of the masterpieces he created.
Historically, jazz is hugely significant in the way it reached out to audiences and to the world. In terms of civil rights and values expressed in the music, Billie Holiday’s vocal in Lewis Allen’s ‘Strange Fruit’ was monumental in addressing these changing attitudes, depicting the lynching of two black men in the Deep South.
Once bebop emerged as a signifying influence in jazz, artists such as Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, Gerry Mulligan and Miles Davis, came to the fore with their own and varying style of playing. Each possessing a sublime quality in their instrument and going on to be major names in the jazz scene.
Gerry Mulligan was a famous baritone saxophone player; a clean cut white man who was arrested for heroin abuse. His quartet played a version of ‘Moonlight in Vermont’ along with Chet Baker, a classic rendition known for its floating counterpoint between horns.
As soon as Thelonious Monk would put on his hat, dissonant chords and harmonies would follow, forming the benchmark to many improvised jazz in the late 20th century.
Bill Evans was a gifted pianist whose smooth sounds in contrast to Monk, were a joy to the ear. He and Stan Getz embodied the cool of jazz, the tone as the focal point of producing eloquent modal sounds.
Miles Davis honed his skills initially in ‘cool’ jazz, creating the classic album ‘A Kind of Blue’. Upon discovering rock and psychedelic music, he sought a new direction in ‘Bitches Brew’ which he performed at the Isle of Wight festival in 1970, introducing the electric guitar and stadium friendly sounds that encapsulated his audiences.
John Coltrane became a spiritual icon for jazz and his album ‘A Love Supreme’ (1964) is considered to be one of the greatest jazz albums of all time, blending hard bop with free jazz. His funeral remains iconic in jazz history with the Ornette Coleman quartet giving the suitable send off for the legend.
Today, Jazz FM forms the platform for voicing jazz commercially, providing listeners with an outlet to enjoy the music they love. Artists such as Dee Dee Bridgewater and Jamie Cullum, are active producers in popularising this sound as it emerges into the YouTube era.
In 2011, Esperanza Spalding won the Grammy award for best newcomer, (beating the likes of Justin Bieber) which was a great moment for jazz music. Spalding has released four albums in total, with her third release mixing Brazilian rhythms to soothing vocals. She has also played ‘Overjoyed’ at the White House in front of the President in 2012.
Traditional jazz musicians such as Wynton Marsalis and Walter Blanding are brilliant ambassadors of the great jazz records gone by. They provide proof that the Duke’s influence in jazz still lives on, and that many enjoy traditional jazz in its simplest forms, but done with effortless expertise.