Jazz For Lovers

Not writing as much personal stuff now as Winter Quarter has started, but here is a little essay I wrote for my history of Rock and Roll class:

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When I picture jazz music, I see snapping fingers, berets, and goatee sporting beatniks. It’s a romantic image, one that rings false but excites. I first heard real jazz (not watered down Muzak) when I was fourteen. Tuning my clock radio late at night, I came across KJZZ, K-Jazz out of Cal State Long Beach. Through the hazy static, I heard a swooping saxophone, slick brushwork, and a loose bass-line going boop-boop-boop. I was intrigued and I stayed up all night until the station signed off, listening.

I went to the library and checked out a book on the history of jazz in America and discovered a history completely different than the whitewashed tripe taught by my private school. Growing from the piano rags of the 1890s and 1900s written by the likes of Jelly Roll Morton and Scott Joplin, the early stirrings of New Orleans bands (for example Louis Armstrong and the Dixieland Jazz Band), playing with unconventional time signatures, blowing brass and out of tune pianos; created a lusty and provocative music unlike anything heard before. Improvisation is necessary in jazz, allowing for a musician to play a melody in many different keys, constantly evolving each performance into something unique yet familiar.

By the 1930s jazz had caught on to the mainstream, aka “white” audience, most of them in the thralls of the end of Prohibition and a more permissive society where the social mores of the Victorian period were finally dying off. Swing, jump jazz, loose dance crazes like the Jitterbug and the Lindy Hop, saw young Americans jumping, literally into the jazz world. Benny Goodman’s band helped to push jazz into the realm of musical acceptance, showing critics and classicists that it held its own compared to other more established genres of music.

All throughout World War II and up to its mushroom-clouded end, Big Band inspired jazz furnished the soundtrack of an entire generation of what would be called “baby boomers.” By the late 40s these big bands saw the rise of crooners, Frank Sinatra peak among them, who took the once instrumental based music and converted it into backing tracks for love songs and sock hops.

Fortunately the 1950s brought jazz to the forefront of popular culture as “art.” My favorite period here includes such masters as John Coltrane, a sax genius who melded jazz with high concepts and religiosity, Miles Davis, who’s nuanced and heartbreaking virtuoso trumpet playing changed perceptions of jazz as ‘just’ music, Dave Brubeck, who’s piano playing and wild time signatures gave music nerds a beachhead that led all the way to the invention of Prog rock and Charlie Parker, who singlehandedly created bebop and proved how impressive live performance can be with a master in control.

Jazz has evolved continuously since its inception over a hundred years ago; constantly reinventing itself and proving that the pioneering spirit of the African-Americans who invented it still remains. From the 1950s to the present even more radical and expressive forms of jazz have come into existence, many of them blending with rock and roll, proving a marriage between the old guard and new could work; snapping fingers all the way to the future.

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