Considering how many articles I’ve written and how many times I’ve alluded to it, it’s strange that I am just now writing on my favorite topic of all time: jazz.
Jazz is my favorite genre of music. It is incredibly diverse and dynamic and showcases some of the best musicianship in history. From Oscar Peterson’s smoking ivories to Maynard Ferguson’s dizzying triple C’s, jazz has been a canvas for some of the world’s most technically advanced players.
The technical prowess displayed throughout jazz’s timeline isn’t what gets me, though. While Gordon Goodwin’s sax line tears through runs, while Lenny Pickett climbs through octaves, while Snarky Puppy grooves through impossible rhythms, what really gets to me is the raw emotion behind the playing. Jazz is, and always has been, the genre for emotional expression, and for good reason.
The roots of jazz can be traced to America’s favorite part of history to overlook: slavery. In the fields, slaves would often call back and forth both as a mean to remain entertained and to remain sane. This “call and response” served almost as an escape, even if only slightly, from the terrors of everyday life. This sort of musical communication became known as “labor songs” or “work songs.” Eventually, the slave trade in New Orleans would bring some of these callers and their responders into contact with European brass—wind instruments that is. From there, a collaboration between European brass and enslaved passion in Congo Square, jazz was born.
It isn’t a pleasant origin story, but it does well to explain why it is an art form of raw emotion. Listen to Charles Mingus’ “Work Song,” Maynard Ferguson’s “Gospel John,” or Stan Kenton’s “Stairway to the Stars” and surely you’ll feel those roots permeate. For me then, as I would imagine for anyone, jazz has been not only a means through which to experience emotions, but a means by which to express them as well. I can listen to a track and feel every ounce of pain that was behind the mouthpiece, and likewise, I can pick up my sax play for an hour, afterwards feeling as though I’ve talked through my feelings—it’s as therapeutic as it is powerful.
There are very popular schools of thought that put technique and theory above all else when learning and playing an instrument and, in some facet, they’re correct. However, if the purpose of one’s music is simply to convey a feeling and to express one’s self, look no further than Maceo Parker for a perfect example on how simple notes and rhythms, with a little syncopation, can be just as expressive as complicated lines. In fact, at least for me, it’s often the simpler, more straight-forward lines that feel more moving.
While more intensive training is certainly recommended, the ability to be expressive and moving in a more simplistic style makes the genre very accessible to me (assuming you can either sing, or get your hands on equipment). While there is certainly a sense of rivalry among talented individuals in any field, I find that it is not so much in jazz. In my experience with talented classical musicians, the rivalries were intense. With jazz musicians however, more often than not I found that just the shared interest spawned a close relationship, often even a friendship, between two musicians, even if they were competing in some manner.
Because of this, I’ve found jazz to be not only music of raw emotion, but one of community as well. I’ve never been to a jazz festival where there hasn’t been mingling among strangers with similar musical tastes, and almost without fault I’ve witnessed groups be entirely in support of one another, even if they were competing against one another; this is a dynamic I haven’t seen often in either classical ensembles or marching bands.
For me then, jazz has always been a safe place to express myself. From the incredibly supportive program where I started to the loving group of musicians I am with now, my voice through my horn has always been accepted.
La La Land claimed that jazz was dying, but I think that the world will cease to exist before jazz makes its departure and I, for one, am thankful for its presence.