by Ian Mann
October 30, 2020
Vocalist Debs Hancock discusses the History of Jazz with jazz journalists John Hellings and Nigel Jarrett.
“Jass to Jazz” : A three video discussion on the History of Jazz
Wall2Wall Virtual Jazz Festival 2020, Abergavenny
Videos first livestreamed on three consecutive evenings, 13th, 14th, 15th October 2020
Available by ticket only until 28th November 2020
Back in 2017 Black Mountain Jazz celebrated the centenary of what is generally considered to be the first jazz recording, “Livery Stable Blues” by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band.
That year’s Wall2Wall Jazz Festival opened with a show celebrating that release, and also the centenary of the birth of three of the acknowledged giants of the music, trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, vocalist Ella Fitzgerald and pianist Thelonious Monk.
Titled “1917 and All That” the show traced the history of jazz with a commentary written and spoken by locally based jazz journalist Nigel Jarrett, with musical performances centred around a trio of visiting London based musicians, pianist Liam Dunachie, bassist Misha Mullov-Abbado and drummer David Ingamells. The event also included appearances by vocalists Debs Hancock and Megan Thomas, trumpeter Jonny Bruce, saxophonist Ben Waghorn.
The “1917” show, the brainchild of Debs Hancock proved to be a hugely successful event and helped to inspire BMJ’s “Jazz Through The Ages Exhibition”, which was unveiled as part of Abergavenny Arts Festival in June 2019.
The following paragraph, extracted from the Club’s website at the time explains something about it;
“Here at BMJ we have created a dazzling series of ‘pop-up-posters’ telling the story of jazz. The thirteen posters – each around 3ft wide and 7ft high- can be easily unfurled and transported, so will feature at other events to signal BMJ’s presence. Jazz is an ongoing and developing music, but like all creative endeavours, its history is important, not least for those who are new to it and wish to learn more.”
The exhibition was the brainchild of BMJ founder and promoter Mike Skilton, who sourced much of the material. The banners were created by Abergavenny based graphic designer Jayne Goodwin and her company Art Matters, and the text written by former newspaper journalist and current Jazz Journal contributor Nigel Jarrett, who lives locally to Abergavenny and is a regular attender of BMJ events.
The new exhibition made for impressive viewing. The panels trace the history of jazz from its late 19th century roots in New Orleans and in the blues to the present day. Skilton’s archive material, Goodwin’s clean, economical graphic design, and Jarrett’s succinct text combine to chart the history of jazz. Each poster focusses on a specific musical style or geographical location and features a photograph and words singling out a particularly significant musician associated with that place or musical style.
Professionally produced to a very high standard of design the exhibition represents an excellent educational aid and the simplicity and portability of its design and manufacture have ensured that it is has been widely used. After first appearing as the backdrop for a performance by the South Wales based jazz/funk sextet Bunker in June 2019 the panels have featured behind many other acts since, both at BMJ’s regular Club nights and at Wall2Wall Festival events. All the concerts at this 2020 Wall2Wall Virtual Jazz Festival were performed with the panels as a backdrop. They have also been used as an excellent temporary exhibition in local schools and libraries.
With no live audiences permitted at the 2020 Virtual Wall2Wall Jazz Festival and with people therefore unable to read and study the physical panels it was decided to use the “Jazz Through The Ages” posters as a visual aid to a verbal discussion about the history of jazz dubbed “Jass to Jazz”.
Hosted by Debs Hancock the discussion also features contributions from Nigel Jarrett, who had provided the original text, and from jazz journalist and broadcaster John Hellings, presenter of the specialist Sunday evening jazz programme on BBC Hereford & Worcester and other BBC local radio stations.
Screened over the course of three consecutive evenings the discussions take the thirteen “Jazz Through The Ages” ‘pop ups’ as the cues for interesting, informative and spirited debates about the history, and the future of jazz.
Each video begins (as do all the Festival streams) with a short feature advertising the virtues and attractions of Abergavenny, the montage of evocative still photographs sound-tracked by a performance of the Charlie Parker tune “Bloomdido”, performed by saxophonist Martha Skilton.
Skilton was part of the Festival’s “Remembering Charlie Parker” production, so I assume that her accompanists are pianist Dave Jones, bassist Ashley John Long and drummer Alex Goodyear.
The short promotional film extols Abergavenny as “The Gateway To Wales”, a place offering a warm welcome where the visitor can rest and relax, explore its history and enjoy its natural beauty. It’s a town where there is plenty to do and it’s also the “home of great jazz”, as photographs of previous Festival visitors including bassist Shez Raja, trombonist Dennis Rollins, saxophonist Gilad Atzmon, pianist Frank Harrison, and BMJ’s own Martha Skilton attest.
First streamed 13/10/2020.
Following the Abergavenny promotional sequence host Debs Hancock introduced her guests and explained something of the history of the “Jass to Jazz” project i.e. its roots in the “1917 and All That Jazz” show, with reference also being made to the Original Dixieland Jazz Band recording. With much of this already having been recounted above I won’t repeat it here.
BEGINNINGS and THE BLUES
For their first discussion the panellists took their cue from the first ‘pop up’ in the series, “Beginnings and The Blues”, illustrated by a photograph of blues singer Bessie Smith. Matters discussed included the ragged nature of early blues, the result of the way in which the form was used as a vehicle for story telling, the veracity of the tale being more important than the theoretical niceties of the music.
In the deprived areas of New Orleans and the Mississippi Delta musicians either deployed military instruments, particularly trumpets, cornets and trombones, left over from the American Civil War or fashioned their own from other resources, hence the popularity of ‘jug bands’ in the early jazz era.
African rhythms, the gospel music of the Black church, and the ‘call and response’ of field songs and hollers were among the elements that fed their way into the development of this early jazz, which ran parallel with the blues, the two musics inextricably intertwined. Another characteristic was the distinctive syncopated rhythm, a development of the earlier ragtime, a name literally derived from its syncopated or ‘ragged time’
During the first twenty years of the 20th century jazz developed in New Orleans in houses of ill repute in New Orleans’ infamous, government sanctioned red light district, Storyville. Although it was played at a dances and in street parades early was also the musical soundtrack to prostitution and gangsterism, with even the word ‘jass’ or ‘jazz’ probably sexual in origin.
The panellists discussed some of the early characters of the music, among them the legendary trumpeter Buddy Bolden, who never actually got to record, and cornettist / trumpeter Joe ‘King’ Oliver, a major figure of 1920s New Orleans jazz, a pioneer of jazz trumpet techniques and a mentor to the young Louis Armstrong.
The clarinet came to jazz from the Creole tradition of Vaudeville and helped to give the music a degree of respectability, with the pioneering black jazz bands beginning to inspire white imitators, such as the Original Dixieland Jazz Band.
The development of jazz ran parallel to that of the recording industry and the music became increasingly fashionable in the 1920s in other parts of the US and beyond. The blues singer Bessie Smith, often dubbed “The Empress of the Blues” became the first artist to sell a million records. She often worked with leading jazz musicians of the day and represented another close link between these two complementary strands of Afro-American music.
The second ‘pop up’ features the migration of the music up the Mississippi river and Highway 61 to the north of the US with many of the musicians settling in Chicago, where they continued to develop the music, with a distinctive ‘Chicago’ jazz style eventually emerging.
The excesses of Storyville had resulted in its closure by order of the government, with many musicians suddenly finding themselves out of work. The movement of the musicians was part of a wider economic migration that saw thousands of poor blacks fleeing the economic deprivations of the South to work in the steel mills, stock yards and factories of Chicago, Detroit and other cities in the North.
The 1920s was the era of Prohibition and the gangster culture was also a feature of 1920s Chicago, with the jazz life still inescapably linked to criminality.
Among the musicians who moved north were the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, Joe Oliver and Louis Armstrong. Armstrong, the illustrated figure on this second pop up, was arguably the first great jazz soloist and his emergence saw the focus shift from the tightly knit ensemble playing of the New Orleans style to the more expansive Chicago style, which placed a greater emphasis on individual soloists.
NEW YORK, 1920s
Many of the musicians who had migrated to Chicago later made the move to New York, where a parallel jazz scene was emerging. In part this was engendered by a crackdown on ‘The Mob’ by the Chicago authorities, which again forced musicians to look for work elsewhere,
This was also the period when jazz began to be broadcast regularly on the radio and the panel discussed some of the personalities that emerged during what came to be known as “The Jazz Age”.
Radio helped to encourage the cult of the bandleader and this period saw the rise to prominence of the jazz big band.
The sanitised arrangements of the white bandleader Paul Whiteman achieved great popularity and helped to bring the music to a wider constituency. Whiteman’s band also helped to spawn the career of one of the first great white jazz soloists, cornettist Leon ‘Bix’ Beiderbecke.
Louis Armstrong also made the move to New York where he joined Fletcher Henderson’s Orchestra, working alongside clarinettist and arranger Don Redman.
To jazz aficionados the music of the all black Henderson band has stood the test of time far better than Whiteman’s, but the most significant cultural figure to emerge from this period is undoubtedly pianist and composer Duke Ellington, whose image illustrates this pop up. His band first came to prominence at the Cotton Club in Harlem and formed part of the “Harlem Renaissance”, a general flowering of Afro-American culture in that part of New York.
Ellington filled his band with some of the best soloists around (the panel singled out trumpeter Bubber Miley) and was a gifted and highly prolific composer who wrote some of the best loved and most enduring pieces in the jazz repertoire. He remained a hugely popular and influential figure throughout his fifty year career, eventually passing away in 1974.
One Ellington piece that was singled out for discussion was “Black and Tan Fantasy”, which satirised white ideas of the “Noble Savage”.
First streamed 14/10/2020
The second video is subtitled “Genres” and takes a look at the styles of jazz that emerged in the 1930s, 40s and 50s as the music continued to develop relentlessly.
The ‘Swing Era’ of the 1930s is illustrated by an image of the white clarinettist and bandleader Benny Goodman, aka “The King of Swing”. Encouraged by the emergence of the jazz big band / orchestra during the 1920s Goodman assembled a ‘hot band’ to play for dancers in the ballrooms of New York City, actively courting a young audience.
Later he took swing onto the concert stage, including a famous performance at New York’s Carnegie Hall.
Goodman built on the ideas of Fletcher Henderson and Don Redman and in 1935 had a hit with Henderson’s arrangement of “King Porter Stomp”, a tune originally written by Jelly Roll Morton.
He was the first white bandleader to employ black musicians in his band, among them guitarist Charlie Christian, pianist Teddy Wilson and vibraphonist Lionel Hampton, the latter subsequently becoming a bandleader in his own right.
But in general the ‘30s were a hard time for black jazz musicians, with many of them finding themselves out of work after the 1929 Wall Street Crash. Saxophonist Sidney Bechet resorted to shining shoes for a living while trumpeter Tommy Ladnier, a New Orleans and Chicago veteran, went back to tailoring.
The ‘30s was a period where bandleaders became major personalities, attracting more attention than the instrumentalists, or even the singers, that they employed. White bandleaders such as Goodman, Artie Shaw and the brothers Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey all became major stars as radio helped their music to become the “pop music of the 1930s”.
The Second World War helped to spread the music around the world and was utilised by the US government to boost morale with the issue of ‘Victory Discs’ to service personnel, many of them featuring jazz and swing artists.
Hellings and Jarrett were agreed that Goodman was worthy of his title of “King of Swing” and that he had played an important role in “bringing jazz to the masses”. However they were less sanguine about Glenn Miller, whose music they regarded as “too commercial and sedate”, and not really jazz at all.
By the 1940s swing was becoming stale and predictable and the sheer economics of running a big band were beginning to bite.
The almost inevitable reaction / backlash came in Harlem, where a group of young black musicians centred at Minton’s Playhouse began to experiment with a new style of jazz, a kind of rebellion against the increasingly musical staidness and wanton commercialism of swing.
Despite the cult of the bandleaders a number of instrumental soloists had come to prominence in the ranks of the swing bands. The early be-bop musicians, among them saxophonist Charlie Parker, trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, pianist Thelonious Monk and drummer Kenny ‘Klook’ Clarke developed a music based around complex unison themes and virtuoso solos. Technical accomplishment and a mastery of the player’s chosen instrument were much prized, this was music that was both angry and self confident. The origin of the name is unclear, possibly an onomatopoeic reference to the complex melody lines, or even from “areba”, the Spanish word for go (as in the “Go man, Go!” exhortation to individual soloists).
Jarrett and Hellings discussed the characteristics of the music, how it was less predictable than swing, which had become increasingly metronomic. Be-bop took tin pan alley tunes but filled them with extra notes to create new compositions, or ‘contrafacts’, a clever way of both enlivening overly familiar material and avoiding copyright payments! Bridge sections would introduce elements appropriated from other tunes. Be-bop was complex, fidgety, unpredictable, a music in which the players delighted in their own virtuosity, so a joyous music in this respect, but also an angry music, an energetic and fiery response to the prevailing musical and social constructs of the time, the be-boppers ideas and their uncompromising attitude also feeding into the burgeoning Civil Rights movement.
It was a music that provoked extreme reactions and Jarrett and Hellings recalled the ‘war’ between the traditional and the modernist factions of jazz – the “mouldy old figs” versus the “dirty be-boppers”, even Humphrey Lyttleton found himself involved!
Jarrett remarked on just how far jazz had progressed since 1917 and suggested that the music could be clearly delineated as being pre or post Charlie Parker, such was enormity of his influence, an influence that is still being felt to this day. Jazz became factionalised after Parker and there was even a trad jazz revival in the US, spearheaded by Bunk Johnson and others. A similar revival in the UK came in the early 1960s.
Meanwhile Hancock recalled seeing Dizzy Gillespie play at a jazz club in Washington D.C. in 1991, an occasion that was still a hugely exciting experience, with a then elderly Diz, cheeks bulging, still playing with skill, fire and passion.
A counterpart to bebop, centred on the West Coast of the US emerged in the 1950s.
Nevertheless the movement had its roots in 1948 in New York, where trumpeter Miles Davis recorded the landmark “Birth Of The Cool” album in conjunction with a mixed race nine piece band and the white composer and arranger Gil Evans.
Jarrett opined that the album was a consequence of the fact that Davis, another of the be-bop pioneers, couldn’t compete on a technical level with Gillespie and hence was obliged to adopt another approach to playing the trumpet. Instead of speed and fire Davis emphasised lyricism and elegance, with “Birth Of The Cool” representing the first example of ‘chamber jazz’.
Among those involved with the “Birth Of The Cool” project was the white baritone saxophonist, composer and arranger Gerry Mulligan, whose photograph illustrates this particular pop up. Mulligan formed a distinctive ‘piano-less’ quartet with trumpeter Chet Baker, arguably the first ‘chordless’ group in jazz since its early days in New Orleans.
The Mulligan group was based in California and something of the more relaxed lifestyle of the West Coast fed itself into the music, which deployed simpler rhythms than be-bop. The latter had been an unmistakably urban music, mirroring the teeming activity of New York City.
Another hugely influential figure of the ‘Cool School’ was the pianist, composer and educator Lennie Tristano, who encouraged improvisers to focus on melody rather than emotion or instrumental virtuosity. Tristano nurtured the career of alto saxophonist Lee Konitz, another white musician who had been involved with the “Birth Of The Cool Sessions”.
Also associated with the ‘Cool Jazz’ movement were the Modern Jazz Quartet (MJQ), led by pianist and composer John Lewis, who added classical elements to the music and took the ‘chamber jazz’ approach to a whole new level. This long running ensemble, which also included vibraphonist Milt Jackson, was hugely popular and the MJQ habitually performed in concert halls rather than jazz clubs.
Also gathered loosely under the “Cool” umbrella were pianist Dave Brubeck’s quartet, another hugely popular act, whose unflappable alto saxophonist Paul Desmond brought that ‘cool’ mentality to the band, contrasting nicely with the playing its more animated drummer, Joe Morello.
Mention was also made of trumpeter Shorty Rogers, who was strongly influenced by “Birth of The Cool” and who brought something of that aesthetic to his own groups.
Cool was a highly influential development that still informs much contemporary jazz, with European jazz musicians having absorbed much of the philosophy and aesthetics of the music, particularly its focus on melody and lyricism.
HARD BOP, 1950s
Hard bop represented a counter reaction as former be-boppers reacted in turn to the development of cool jazz.
This was the Afro-American response to the primarily white ‘Cool School’ and saw musicians such as drummer Art Blakey and pianist Horace Silver bringing energy back to the music by introducing blues and gospel elements, some of these harking back to the early days of jazz. When combined with the energy of be-bop the result was a powerful new music that remains both hugely popular and highly influential.
The music was still strong on melody, and in this respect the music was simpler and more accessible than be-bop had been. It sought to combine the earthier styles of early jazz with the sophistication of be-bop and frequently succeeded. Again this was in some respects an angry music, with its roots in the Afro-American experience
Hard Bop saw musicians such as saxophonists Sonny Rollins and Dexter Gordon come to prominence, in addition to the brilliant young trumpeter Clifford Brown, who died in an automobile accident in 1956 aged just twenty six.
It was Blakey’s Jazz Messengers group that was perhaps the most important of the Hard Bop era, acting as a ‘finishing school’ for a host of brilliant young musicians who would go on to be bandleaders in their own right, among them trumpeters Lee Morgan and Freddie Hubbard and saxophonist Wayne Shorter. Shorter was also a prolific composer who went on to work with Miles Davis, as well as leading his own groups.
Both Jarrett and Hellings declared themselves to be huge fans of the Hard Bop style and other musicians to be discussed were alto saxophonists Cannonball Adderley and Sonny Stitt, organist Jimmy Smith and pianist Horace Silver.
Silver, who co-founded the Jazz Messengers with Blakey before striking out on his own was a prolific composer who wrote some of the most memorable tunes of the Hard Bop era, compositions that are still played to this day.
Reference was also made to the 1980s Hard Bop resurgence which saw a slew of re-issues, mostly on the Blue Note label, an imprint that will be forever associated with Hard Bop. These records were played in London clubs for the young dancers of the time and sparked a renewed interest in the music. In many respects Hard Bop is the one jazz genre that has never really gone away.
First streamed 15/10/2020
The third video of the series found Hancock, Hellings and Jarrett still debating the various sub genres of jazz.
Subtitled “Floating Free” the first discussion tackled the thorny subject of ‘Free Jazz’, personified on the accompanying pop up by a picture of Ornette Coleman.
The first steps on the road to “freeing up the form of the music” had come in 1959 with the release of the biggest selling album in jazz history, Miles Davis’ “Kind of Blue”, itself a development out of the ‘Cool School’.
Here Davis encouraged his sextet, featuring saxophonists John Coltrane (tenor) and Cannonball Adderley (alto), pianist Bill Evans, bassist Paul Chambers and drummer Jimmy Cobb, to improvise over scales rather than chords.
Alto saxophonist Coleman took this a stage further, dispensing with harmonic, rhythmic and melodic boundaries on an album boldly titled “The Shape of Jazz to Come”, recorded with a chordless quartet featuring trumpeter Don Cherry, bassist Charlie Haden and drummer Billy Higgins.
Coleman’s music divided opinion, some listeners regarding it as a “din”, but closer listening revealed that for all its boundary stretching it was still essentially melodic and still rooted firmly in the blues.
Nevertheless Jarrett felt that this too was an “angry music”, but that far from being ‘indisciplined’, as some have alleged, Coleman’s music, and free jazz in general, represented “an idea, or discipline in itself”. It’s a point of view borne out by Val Wilmer’s excellent account of free jazz in her book “As Serious As Your Life”.
Jarrett argued that Coleman was wilfully making music that offered little commercial potential and that this was a political statement in itself, particularly during the Civil Rights era. This was music being made during a time of extreme racial tension and represented a declaration of independence and defiance. Wilmer’s book also sets the music in this context.
Hellings noted that it was ironic that at the same time the US government were sending Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie out on overseas tours as ‘Jazz Ambassadors’, promoting America as the “Land of the Free”, while all manner of racial atrocities were taking place at home.
Coleman’s ideas influenced other American musicians such as fellow saxophonists Albert Ayler and Archie Shepp but his theories also took root in the UK, firstly through Joe Harriott and later through Evan Parker and a whole sub genre of British and European free jazz has developed, largely under the radar, but still followed by an enthusiastic and not insignificant audience.
A compulsive experimenter Coleman eventually achieved a level of cultural acceptance and was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2007. He curated the Meltdown Festival at London’s Southbank Centre, but even after his death in 2015 at the age of eighty five his extraordinary music still divides listeners.
I’ll admit that it took me a long time to get into Coleman’s music, I just wasn’t ready for it when I first heard it, although I both appreciate it and enjoy it now. I got the feeling that Jarrett and Hellings, whilst appreciating his importance, weren’t necessarily Coleman fans.
For her part Hancock drew parallels between Coleman’s boundary breaking and the visual art of Pablo Picasso and Jackson Pollock, which opened a fresh area of debate.
Even from beyond the grave Coleman’s music continues to polarise opinion.
EUROPE – 1930s – 2020
A break from the genre theme as the panel discussed the development of jazz in Europe.
Nigel Jarrett delved deep into jazz pre-history when referencing the visit of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, a black a capella choir from Nashville, to Swansea in 1874.
Subsequently conversation turned to the 1930s, when the Great Depression in the US was at its most severe and many jazz musicians came to Europe to ply their trade, among them Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Coleman Hawkins and Sidney Bechet, the last named still greatly revered in France to this day.
Many musicians stayed on in Europe, enjoying the greater racial tolerance and the clear respect that white Europeans had for their music. Denmark and France were particularly popular places to settle, with Paris becoming the jazz centre of Europe. John Hellings recalled that his love of jazz was first kindled by hearing the music played on French radio stations.
Influenced by the American stars European musicians began to play jazz, and began putting their own stamp on the music. The most notable of these was Django Reinhardt, whose image justifiably illustrates this pop up.
The brilliant gypsy guitarist fused jazz with flamenco and the manouche music of the Roma culture as European musicians began to feed off their own traditions when playing jazz. Reinhardt’s music, and the ‘gypsy jazz’ genre in general, remains hugely popular in the 21st century.
The panel discussed the fact that in mainland Europe jazz receives generous financial support from governments and Arts authorities, something that doesn’t always happen in the UK. The continent now hosts some of the world’s biggest and most prestigious jazz festivals, such as Ystad in Sweden, North Sea in the Netherlands and Umbria in Italy. The current stars of American jazz clamour to play at such events, evidence that jazz truly has become a global music.
Closer to home the panel discussed a couple of UK jazz musicians who could be considered ‘world class’ , Tubby Hayes and Victor Feldman, both talented multi-instrumentalists, although Hayes is best remembered as a saxophonist. Jarrett introduced an element of local interest by including the Welsh born pianist Dill Jones.
Also forming part of this discussion was the accessibility of jazz musicians to audiences, particularly at intimate venues such as the Melville Theatre, a quality that sets jazz apart from other forms of music and entertainment.
FUSION and MODAL
Hancock made the observation that despite numerous mentions throughout these debates an image of the hugely influential Miles Davis had still not found its way onto one of the pop ups.
This was addressed on the poster titled “Fusion and Modal”. Again this was a strand with its roots in “Kind of Blue”, the success of the album prompting Davis and others to continue improvising over scales and modes.
Modal Jazz thus became a sub genre in itself with Davis’ 1960s bands, featuring musicians such as saxophonist Wayne Shorter and pianist Herbie Hancock, beginning to free things up even more, albeit not in quite such a challenging manner as Coleman.
Meanwhile John Coltrane was creating his own distinctive brand of modal or ‘spiritual’ jazz on albums such as “A Love Supreme”, arguably the second most famous jazz album, after “Kind of Blue”.
Nevertheless by the late 1960s jazz was facing its own ‘existential crisis’ as it began to be commercially eclipsed by jazz and rock. Columbia Records encouraged Davis to introduce elements of these genres to his own music, but one suspects that the perennially curious Davis would have been thinking about this anyway.
The album “In A Silent Way” introduced the electric keyboards of Chick Corea and Joe Zawinul and the electric guitar of the English born John McLaughlin. Davis subsequently upped the wattage further on the double set “Bitches Brew” as jazz improvisation met with rock power and volume to produce “Fusion”.
Davis’ sidemen later left to form their own bands, Wayne Shorter and Joe Zawinul combining in Weather Report, Corea leading Return To Forever and McLaughlin fronting his Mahavishnu Orchestra. McLaughlin had also been part of Lifetime, led by drummer Tony Williams and featuring organist Larry Young. Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters later introduced a funk element, but this was to become increasingly formulaic.
All of these groups produced good work, with Weather Report the most consistently interesting, but as the 70s wore on Fusion as a genre became stale and predictable as the improvised content gradually decreased. They had spawned many copyists, but even Davis and his former acolytes weren’t immune to this process.
Hellings recalled interviewing the notoriously cantankerous Ginger Baker, drummer with Cream, who grumpily declared “I’ve always played jazz, I’ve never played anything else!”
THE FUTURE – 2000 Onwards
Illustrated by an image of the American bassist / vocalist Esperanza Spalding this was a brief look at recent developments in jazz and the role of the music in contemporary society.
Hancock posited that from its outsider origins jazz has now achieved respectability, with vintage jazz now (Ella Fitzgerald, ‘Kind of Blue’ etc.) chosen as a soundtrack to represent sophistication and elegance.
Jarrett was less happy with this view of jazz as ‘muzak’, conceding that the music can be effective when used in this way, but feeling that it really deserves closer listening and more serious attention.
Moving on the panel discussed the ways in which 21st century jazz has borrowed from other strands of modern music, among them neo soul, electronic dance music and hip hop and rap. Hancock also cited BMJ favourite Fergus McCreadie and his adaptation of traditional Scottish folk elements within an improvised framework.
Hellings acknowledged that jazz has always borrowed from the contemporary music of the time, be it ‘Tin Pan Alley’ or Broadway show tunes, modern rock and pop and just about everything else. He also referenced the way in which ‘classic’ jazz has influenced young, contemporary jazz musicians such as the Kansas Smitty’s gang, who also run their own London venue. Also with a formal education now available in the subject of jazz the standard of the playing of young jazz musicians has never been better.
Jarrett, however, seemed somewhat pessimistic about the relevance of jazz in the contemporary musical climate. Nevertheless given the ability of jazz to adapt and survive it will doubtless continue to change and develop.
These three video discussions covered an impressively broad range of subjects and provoked plenty of lively debate. Hosted by Hancock with her customary charm this trawl through the history of jazz saw Hellings and Jarrett displaying an impressive level of jazz knowledge and a very obvious love of the music, with Jarrett in particular not afraid to introduce a little controversy every now again.
Obviously my written summary can’t cover every element that these extensive verbal discussions touched upon. I’d therefore recommend that you tune in and watch for yourselves in order to get the full picture.
My only cavil would be that this history of jazz pretty much stops in 1980 and that there wasn’t a great deal of coverage concerning the last forty years, particularly with regard to the emergence of European jazz. Reinhardt was the only European jazz musician to be discussed at any length, surely innovators such as Jan Garbarek and the late Esbjorn Svensson should have received a mention, not to mention ECM record label founder and producer Manfred Eicher, who has done so much to foster a distinctive European jazz sensibility.
Similarly contemporary American stars such as Pat Metheny and Keith Jarrett also went unconsidered.
A greater focus on UK jazz would also have been welcome, from Humphrey Lyttleton through Ronnie Scott and Tubby Hayes to the 80s jazz boom of Courtney Pine, Andy Sheppard, Tommy Smith, Loose Tubes and Jazz Warriors, the ‘punk jazz’ explosion of the noughties, to the current London scene with Kansas Smitty’s, Steamdown etc. In 2020 we should be proud of the UK’s jazz heritage and not still be feeling inferior to the Americans.
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