Jazz: breaking down boundaries and forever innovative – a personal journey

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Kamasi Washington

With jazz on a seemingly unstoppable rise Getintothis’ Jonathan Butters takes us on a personal journey through the music that inspries.

Jazz is back centre stage, in cities and at festivals.

Sons of Kemet, Kamasi Washington, Ezra Collective, Nubya Garcia, Snarky Puppy, The Comet is Coming, FORQ and Liverpool’s The Weave. Lots of talented new artists and bands.

Again, we are hearing the time-word statement; ‘I don’t like Jazz, but I liked that!’

How to explain that jazz isn’t a type of music, it’s a way of approaching music with lots of resulting styles.

There’s a lot of it, so how can you make sense of it as a newcomer? The best advice I ever had was just to use your ears.

If someone from another planet asked you about water, what could you say?

It’s complicated. You can swim in it, drink it and make it by combining elements. 60 per cent of your body is water, 71 per cent of the surface of the earth is water.

Another question. What are the top 10 things about water?

Tears of joy? Deep sea diving? Making beer? Paddling pools? Sweating to keep cool? Snow? Clouds? Surfing? Bathtime?

When I’m asked about jazz, I feel the same. It’s just as complicated as water. Where would you start?

It’s been around well over 100 years, so there is no living person on the planet that was alive when jazz was first played.

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The first jazz recording was on February 26, 1917.

So, how would you give someone an introduction to jazz music if they haven’t had much connection in the past? To answer this, I went back into my past to understand how it happened to me.

Take a deep breath and just jump in!

That’s exactly what Jazz musicians are doing. I play jazz regularly, I’m a musician. Half the time I don’t know what tune we are playing until I hear the opening bars.

As Spinal Tap’s Nigel Tufnel said, “Jazz is just an accident waiting…to have happened!”

My first jazz experience was probably hearing what the grandparents were playing on their gramophone and glimpses of jazz on Saturday night TV “variety” shows,

In fact, many TV shows and nearly all films in the 1960s and 1970s had jazz in them at some point but the history of jazz in cinema goes much further back than that.

The first feature film with sound was The Jazz Singer, released in 1927.

Jazz was well established by then.

To hear what early jazz sounded like – and quite a bit wasn’t even called jazz – you’ve got to check out the first recordings and see the movies.

However, as with lot of art originated by people of colour, you will find it was initially presented (hijacked) by white people, sometimes, shockingly, wearing black face paint.

Films are a great start and will take you through many jazz genres (even Disney’s The Jungle Book and The Aristocats have strong jazz influences throughout).

The films are sometimes not very good, even exploitative, but you can experience what the audiences were presented with at the time.

There are many to avoid, but some films featuring jazz worth checking out include The King of Jazz from 1930 and the documentary Jazz on a Summer’s Day from 1959.

Clint Eastwood’s Bird (the biopic of the great Charlie Parker) from 1988 is a good watch as is Spike Lee’s 1990 drama Mo’ Better Blues. A more recent addition is the much-lauded Whiplash from 2014.

As a piece of cinema Hellzapoppin’ (1941) is dreadful, but it contains the best ever and wildest Lindy Hop Jazz dance routine in the middle of it, kicked off by the genius Slim Gaillard on piano at the 48- minute mark. Catch the film just for that moment alone.

Many films have great jazz soundtracks but as a start you can’t go wrong with Ascenseur pour l’échafaud (Miles Davis) from 1958; Alfie (Sonny Rollins) from 1966; Blow-Up (Herbie Hancock) also 1966 and, of course the supercool Bullitt (Lalo Schifrin) from 1970.

If you’re looking to pick up some jazz on television, go for David Simon’s (The Wire) series, Treme.

Set in a post-Katrina New Orleans, Treme is a multi-layered drama equally as nuanced and complex as The Wire with political intrigue, police corruption, investigative journalism and race issues running through it- but placed against the background of the home of jazz, it has that musical heartbeat at its very core. Unmissable.

As for things a bit closer to home, Liverpool’s Cavern Club opened in 1957, and it was a jazz club. Merseybeat and The Beatles happened in the next decade.

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On a personal level, the first live jazz I experienced was during the punk era when Liverpool’s bisexual Good Time George Melly toured with John Chiltern’s Feet Warmers, dishing out British Trad Jazz in the same clubs as The Clash, The Damned and The Sex Pistols! In 1978 he even recorded a song with The Stranglers called Old Codger.

Melly was arguably Britain’s original punk, and as a teenager at the end of the Second World War he came perilously close to being court-martialled by His Majesty’s Royal Navy on a charge of ‘distributing anarchist literature’ among his fellow conscripts.

Scroll backwards from 1977 and the era of safety pins etc and the late 1960s and early 1970s saw many rock bands taking inspiration from jazz. There are deep roots in jazz through a lot of British music.

It was a strong theme through many of the proto-Prog Rock bands from the Canterbury scene: Camel, Caravan, Soft Machine, Henry Cow, Matching Mole, Hatfield and the North and Gong.

Out of this grew bands like Colosseum, Cream, King Crimson, Deep Purple and ELP.

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There were also parallel scenes in continental Europe with Holland’s Focus and Italy’s PFM (Premiata Forneria Marconi) being great examples.

Fast forward from the early 20th century to today and you’ll pass a dizzying array of jazz styles and originators.

For ragtime we’ve got Scott Joplin and for New Orleans there’s King Oliver and Jelly Roll Morton.

There’s the great exponent of swing in Duke Ellington, Chicago Jazz with Bud Freeman and crooners such as Bing Crosby and Sinatra.

You’ve got gyspy jazz with the still incredible Django Reinhardt, British Trad Jazz from Kenny Ball and one of the forerunners of modern jazz in Art Blakey.

Needless to say, all of these are more than worthy of your time.

Yet once you hit the 1950s, jazz becomes more than just entertainment or mass dance music. It becomes art and spectacle and challenging.

This is the phase that is still driving contemporary jazz innovators through to today.

Look no further than Be Bop with the likes of Thelonius Monk and Miles Davis and Latin Jazz with Tito Puete. For experimental, fusion, progressive and free jazz you can throw in Henry Cow, Herbie Hancock, Stan Kenton and Sun Ra respectively.

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There’s Afro Jazz with Fela Kuti and it’s impossible to ignore the jazz threads within the music of Prince and James Brown.

For Acid Jazz and Jazz rock try James Taylor and Camel. There’s even jazz within the ska work of Prince Buster.

Jazz runs so deep within hip hop it’s difficult to know where to start (or end) to be honest. Three artists at random: Guru, A Tribe Called Quest and Kendrick Lamar.

What links all these genres and artists are the common ground of a sense of musical history, musicianship, technical skill, improvisation, divergent thinking, collaboration, alchemy and a desire to break down boundaries and step outside the box.

Truly Post-Modern.

Like a river bursting its banks or seeping through cracks underground, jazz is ever-changing and can have unfathomable depths or a bright, welcoming surface.

Jazz has spent over a a century getting everywhere and always throws up inspiring new music. It’s endless and all we have to do is open our ears.

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