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Jazz
A Reader with an Ear Chimes in on Music


"I've arrived. I made it. My internet career has peaked. There is nowhere but down now."

-Polymachus, after seeing his post at jameslafond.com!

I was just checking out one of your interviews - I disavow all your views, of course - do you still need someone to explain jazz to you? I don't know if an art form can be explained, but that's what I studied in school. I can certainly shed light on the topic if it still interests you.

What are you really asking?

Polymachus

James LaFond <jameslafond.com@gmail.com> Thu, Mar 28, 4:38 PM

I was wondering how Jazz relates to other forms of music.

I don't understand music at all and was kicked out of music class in 7th grade for refusing to sing.

Thanks,

I am also thrilled that you disavow all of my views!

"This email off the top of my head and I didn't recheck sources, so please provide a disclaimer," is something like what Ploymachus emailed me when he realized he didn't have the time to write a dissertation that would be academically full-proof. I really appreciate this. -JL

In 5th grade I told the chorus teacher she was wasting too much time gossiping. Still friends.

Jazz has a lot sources. I think the figure of Louis Armstrong is a good person to check out because his influences mirror the genre of a whole. While you're at it, read Miles Davis' autobiography (partially plagiarized) because he was also a boxer. He was never a professional fighter but he claims his trainer said he could have been if he wasn't a trumpeter. The commonality is rhythm / timing / strategy.

African Sources

-Spirituals

-Work Song

European Sources

-Brass bands

-French Opera

-American Songbook

Work song and spirituals lead into the blues which is also a tributary of jazz. People will say these influences contribute "African retentions." What are these?

Pentatonic mode: this scale is a near universal folk scale that in Europe seems to be remain in certain strains of Gaelic music. It also happens to be the the scale the vocalist in the opening to your podcast sings in, by the way. This leads to a question of whether the Blues was more Scots-Irish than historians would admit - kind of a Thomas Sowell kind of view. Either way, the minor pentatonic scale is common enough in West Africa, but really the world over (North American Natives, Japan, Bali, etc.). The pentatonic scale is what you get if you play only the black notes on a keyboard. Western European scales in concert music kinda sorta come from Church modes which comes from Pythagoran notions of proportional harmonics. It seems (wild guess) the pentatonic scale was lost as Europe Christianized, except in parts of Britain. I'm not sure. Anyway, the African Diaspora seems to have contributed the element back to jazz.

Blue Notes: Blue notes are notes that are bent, usually down, so they sit "in between" the 12 chromatic notes of the even tempered scale. Of course, no one thinks of them this way. What they are is the musical equivalent of a tonal language inflection. Think of the way a Southerner or a black person can get 2 or 3 opposite meanings out of the same word just by how its spoken. So, there's a lot of colloquial mannerisms sort of built in to black american music. (And curiously, Scots-Irish music.)

Deep, layered Rhythm. There's something particularly infectious about West African rhythm that is basically embeds itself into any culture it goes. It's basically a universal language now. It tends to be based on complex cycles. It's not really my specialty, but instead of even patterns of 4, you might have patterns of 5 and 7 that only line up every 35 beats or something like that. As it turns out the deep rhythmic complexity is stronger in places like Brazil or Cuba, than say, New Orleans. Presumably because they has a higher population of African slaves, and their cultures were less diluted.

When talking about deep rhythm you're talking about a drum circle where the drum master plays a rhythm and one guy does that, and he slowly gets everybody playing a different part and you get this aesthetic where there's the crazy pattern that plays out over the course of 6, 8, 10 hours and by the end people are practically levitating off the ground.

Anyway, something close to that occurs in the South American musics that are more Black and less Indian. In America you don't get the super deep rhythm (at first, because that sensibility never goes away and later it gets rediscovered) at first, so much as a certain way incorporating that rhythmic sensibility into European song forms. So instead of a hyper complex 7 against 13 cycle... you get a less complex 3 against 4 cycle.

Sort of... because there's also the swing feel, which developed in North American but not South America. Part of it is a tendency to play on the back side of the beat, meaning, a little late, in the melodic instruments. This creates a sense of layered rhythm without requiring a huge drum circle. Also, the swing feel makes use of syncopation, which is a way of playing some notes against the beat to create tension, which resolves when they are played on the beat later. Syncopation has always existed in European art music but it's taken to a different level with American Blacks. But it seems to be an effect of blacks trying to squeeze their rhythmic sensibility into European forms. The other component of the swing feel is the unevenness of rhythmic values. The downbeat notes are played longer than the upbeat values, and, all these being equal (which they never are in music) the upbeats have the emphasis. The net effect of these rhythmic contrivances is a certain kind of propulsive energy that exists independently of harmony.

Call and Response: field labor modified the drum master tradition in the form of the call and response. One person issues a call, every else responds. This idiom becomes a big part of the expectations in jazz.

European Sources

You can bet that blacks played European music the instant they landed, so all the music in America at the time would have been known. Even the "high art" stuff - it's not really that complicated.

Brass Bands: people say that freed slaves picked up Union instruments abandoned on the road after the war. It sounds like a nice piece of narrative to me, but America had a huge brass band tradition in the late 1800's. For whatever reasons, brass bands were more common in this country than string orchestras up until the 30's, we'll say. every town had one. Could be an English thing. Not sure. Anyway, the early jazz instruments were all brass band instruments (trombone, clarinet, trumpet, drums, etc.)

French Opera: And most broadly, romantic and french impressionist music. As black musicians played European instruments their African retention tended to show through. It just so happens that the harmonies of the French Impressionists sacrificed propulsion for color. This was a bit of a problem in Europe. It wasn't a problem for Black American musicians because their rhythmic sensibility generated all the propulsion on its own and had no use of the German "long line" from which traditional European harmony gets it's sense of propulsion.

American Songbook: In the teens and 20's most of the music that people heard was music they played themselves. So there were publishing companies largely out of New York which hired (largely Jewish) composers to write reams and reams of songs for people to play at home. This lasted until the 40's or so, and left America which a common tradition of popular songs that most people knew. (No longer.)

Louis Armstrong's earlier gigs were on Steam Ship Casinos and whore houses in New Orleans. You have to imagine all these influences coming together. Add to that very busy musicians rarely have time to rehearse, to the ability to improvise is a huge asset when you've got to entertain people for 4 or 5 hours a night. As it turns out the African rhythmic propulsion and the French harmonies are a simple and effective combination. Remember, no time to rehearse. So someone calls a tune, you play the melody, take turns improvising solos, and play the melody again. You can go all night like that with strangers you've never played music before with.

In the 30's the bands get bigger and (white) swing music takes over the American imagination. (But Duke Ellington's band was the best.)

In the 40's and 50's the solo improvisation aspect becomes the most emphasized things, bands get smaller, and you kind of have the basis for what we understand as jazz today, a virtuosic improviser's art. This is the era where people started getting scientific about how to improvise effectively. There is a lot of experimentation in the 60's and 70's, where the music gets both simpler and more complex. After the 70's jazz music mirrors America's own cultural decline and while there are plenty of great musicians it gets harder to craft a narrative the art form's development. It's very institutional now. I can't help but wonder if the newly fatherless black family is responsible for this stunted growth. Or if the low hanging fruit was already taken.

So that's my take on jazz. It's sort of at a college sophomore level, meaning that somebody who actually knows something is going to take issue. But it gets you into the ballpark. Hope this helps.

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Add Comment
Ruben ChandlerApril 13, 2019 6:45 AM UTC

Don't forget the klezmer influences but more particularly Hokum music. Hokum was played on jugs, kazoos, washboards etc. The phenomenon of jazz became huge when whites who could afford real instruments played it. New Orleans was a huge influence. I am down with the French Opera angle. Few know that many plantations had huge orchestras that toured all the great houses constantly. All these 'slaves' did was play music. Practice like mad. They had wonderful clothes. There was also the minstrel tradition. The Afro-Cuban influence with Chango, lord of the drum and the elemental forces of nature.Two good drummers could create the presence of a third drummer. Polyrhythms. Voodoo. There were brass bands on the plantation as well. I think jazz is deeper and older. I heard a 2 hour interview when Rahsaan Roland Kirk came to Columbus, Ohio round 69 or 70. He had some great notions on the origins of jazz. One can't omit the influence of drugs, junk and pot, on the music. Kirk said the only real musical gift of music from blacks was jazz. He said rock and everything else stemmed from it. I read Miles autobiography and many books about him. He said your jazz playing was how you interpreted the blues. I'm about free jazz alot and bop. Mingus, Kirk, eric dolphy etc, challenging stuff. Live-Evil, Bitches Brew.