“Sound of Surprise”
Over the years I’ve heard many folks proclaim that they don’t like Jazz. They never say why, and I’m always tempted to ask what they know about Jazz. Of course no way in polite conversation can I administer a lesson. But it remains that many who say they are not fans tend to view Jazz in such a narrow manner like it is only the one particular style they once heard and rejected.
Au contraire, mon ami, as they say in France … Here’s bits of what I wrote in “The First Book of Oregon Jazz, Rock & All Sorts of Music” …
Jazz music — what it is and what it is not — has been debated by both aficionados and critics ever since it became a recognized name. After the shouting, most reasonable souls will agree that there is virtually no short, simple definition of this art form.
And art it is, having invented itself from a combination of the travail and the exultation of African-Americans of a century ago. And art it remains as it grows, alters, develops, amalgamates from its beginnings as simple blues, or ragtime or gospel.
The continuing synthesis of diverse elements first began in New Orleans at the turn of the 20th century. The place had a rich culture and a heady texture, with descendants from the Spanish, French, Acadian and African. At the time there was much mingling of the races, and Creoles and Cajuns inherited a wealth of ethnicity. More recent West African Blacks brought their distinctive heritage and customs. “Traditional” or Dixieland jazz plus Ragtime were radical departures from the kinds of music that went before and direct reflections of this multicultural city, lusty and energizing.
From there jazz developed into varied styles that in the ‘80s included these:
Big band swing
Fusion (with electronics and other aspects of rock and soul fused with the
latitudes of jazz expression)
Here is “Pygmy,” a wondrous sound hit upon in Portland in the ’60s by drummer Mel Brown, guitarist Hank Swarn and Hammond B3 organist Billy Larkin. It originally came out on a 45 (remember those?) and later was covered by Booker T and the MGs. Now here’s Mel live with current personnel including the trumpet of Thara Memory.
Whatever the variety, jazz has color and rhythm and movement and excitement. Improvisation and solos are characteristic. Most of all, jazz delivers the unexpected and requires a certain risk-taking on the part of the player and the listener as well. As critic Whitney Balliett once said, “It is the sound of surprise.”
Len Lyons wrote in 101 Best Jazz Albums, “Jazz cannot be defined adequately because it is not just a conceptual entity — it needs to be experienced.” Yes, jazz engages both the mind and emotions. Focusing together on the experience of the music, on the purely personal response it elicits.
Jazz music is as varied as the people who create it, and it can’t be understood by reading about it. It must be tried out, in its many forms. If one sort of jazz sound does not please, please try another from a veritable banquet for sampling, tasting, savoring and coming back for more.