This is my favorite column I’ve written and also the one I put the most work into.
When someone not predisposed to jazz considers the century-old genre, they might imagine smooth, melodramatic horns and a percussive double-bass plodding along a repetitive progression. It might all sound the same to them or might seem too intricate or instrumental or dated to be enjoyed for more than five minutes of studying.
However, like the lives of the men and women who pioneered its music, jazz music goes a lot deeper than just its surface.
Jazz is an amazing form of musical expression birthed in the United States by the spontaneity of back alley musicians playing the choruses of ragtime-based vaudeville songs in accompaniment with early 20th century musical ideas such as syncopation and tresillos.
Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton stand out as two early jazz musicians who incorporated the styles of the time in ways that would give the genre a signature sound that would later spawn many unique subgenres including swing, bebop, cool, hard bop, free, modal and eventually smooth.
And following its modest origins, jazz, like its players’ melodies, adopted many of these forms under a few, uniform rules. Dizzy Gillespie, Clifford Brown and John Coltrane sped up their tunes for impressive feats of speed and rhythm while others like Duke Ellington played with stronger grooves and larger bands that allowed more timbres to come in and out of the sonic spotlight.
Yet no matter how many people were performing or how much soloing commenced within a tune, these musicians not only shared chord progressions, but also a common culture, one with a rich history of unique lingo, racial struggle, substance abuse and musical genius. To anyone who thinks jazz is a squeaky-clean genre vacant of contextual obscenity, the underside of the music would stand in contradiction.
Throughout the 20th century, many jazz musicians succumbed to the influence of the culture’s drugs of choice, heroin and barbiturates. Greats like Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and Chet Baker have been reported to have chased the dragon at one point in their careers, according to Davis’ autobiography, and those are just the publicly confirmed examples. One popular jazz standard is even called “Groovin High,” originally composed by Gillespie in 1945, which leaves listeners asking the bleeding question, “On what?”
Fortunately, this characteristic so heavily ingrained in the culture has widely disappeared over more recent times and modern musicians progressing the genre like Chris Potter, Kamasi Washington, BadBadNotGood and Rudresh Mahanthappa now focus more on the music itself.
In addition to this problem of high-risk substance abuse, early black jazz musicians also faced the task of overcoming widespread racism simply to have their music, which had been labeled as immoral by a close-minded white society, to be heard.
Yet these struggles and pains, addictions and otherwise, have always shown through the emotional playing in some of the music’s peak examples: The Black Saint And the Sinner Lady by Charles Mingus, A Study In Brown by Clifford Brown and Max Roach, Out to Lunch by Eric Dolphy and Kind of Blue by Miles Davis. All of these compositions are devoid of words yet express non-verbal sentiments so deep and passionately raw that it’s hard not to feel moved at their conclusions.
Jazz is America’s greatest musical contribution to the world and to many other music forms. Without it, acts like Steely Dan, A Tribe Called Quest, Frank Zappa and Kendrick Lamar might sound completely different or not exist at all.
It’s a genre that, like the American Dream, sprouted from nothingness, nothing but a humanly desire to make beautiful music. From one of the most basic origins, it became one of the most complex musical theories. And today, it continues to evolve in an unpredictable yet fascinating way, slowly creeping back into the mainstream or at least embodying a strong, understated presence.
Albeit I have been admittedly facetious or wrong about claims made over the course of writing these columns, but one thing that I can be certain will not come back to haunt me is saying this: jazz is great, give it a chance.
Luke Furman is a sophomore studying journalism and a reporter for The Post. Tweet him @LukeFurmanOU or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.