Why all that jazz is truly blue

Over the span of a century, a bunch of musicians transcended conventions and set the music free, many in the face of social injustice.

Never has the human experience been depicted so vividly as it is in jazz. In the beginning, jazz was considered uncouth. Tracing its origins to the blues of the oppressed in North America at the turn of the last century, it took decades for this genre to be accepted.

That jazz, the true musicality of the blues, emerged from the tyranny of a people is quite something. Creativity couldn’t be enslaved.
Some musicians stayed melancholy, grappling with identity. Others experimented, gradually phasing out emotion while retaining the essence.

April 30 is UNESCO’s International Jazz Day, established in 2012, to ‘encourage dialogue, combat discrimination and promote human dignity’.

While freedom is increasingly imprisoned and hundreds massacred in the name of identity, reflecting on jazz is topical — given the cultural revival it spurred.

“I believe in jazz because the oneness of man can come through the rhythm of your heart. It’s the same any place,” Dave Brubeck once said.

As the musician explores the scale, the physicist solves equations. Theoretical physicist and jazz saxophonist, Stephon Alexander in his book, ‘The Jazz of Physics’, writes: “We often must embrace an irrational, illogical process, sometimes fraught with mistakes and improvisational thinking.” Einstein played violin to flesh out new ideas.

Acclaimed jazz pianist, Herbie Hancock, chair of International Jazz Day, wrote the standard, ‘Watermelon Man’, inspired by a black street vendor. Hancock now advocates children learning math and science through jazz to instill creativity.

And of course, Jazz wouldn’t be jazz without Louis Armstrong. As a trumpeter and a vivacious blues singer, his charisma is unparalleled. Along with mentor, cornetist King Oliver, Armstrong popularised early jazz like no other. There wouldn’t be a jazz musician not influenced by Armstrong, from Mary Lou Williams to Charlie Parker and Charles Mingus to Thelonius Monk.

As the world celebrates jazz tomorrow, it is important to speak of Birth of Cool and Kind of Blue. Both works of trumpeter Miles Davis, Kind of Blue is the best selling jazz album of all time. It kind of loosened up jazz from it’s inferiority complex, proving seminal in the turn the genre would take.

“If you jump on a horse and see he’s on the wrong foot, you keep checking him until he gets to the fence,” said Miles once.

Miles was for integration, drawing from pop stars like Cyndi Lauper (Time After Time) and Michael Jackson (Human Nature).

Differences between Davis and Wynton Marsalis is worth mentioning as the former was for openness and associations while the contemporary Marsalis, heavy on blues, struggles to shake off the identity politic. Marsalis can be heard in the upcoming movie, Bolden, on cornetist Buddy Bolden, considered one of the fathers of jazz.

There was Chet Baker too, widely regarded for his lyrical style. So were Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Nina Simone.

The arabesque French-Lebanese trumpeter Ibrahim Maalouf is unique.

India and jazz has had its connections from Pandit Ravi Shankar’s collaborations to riffs of R D Burman, rendered so beautifully in song by Rafi. Jazz always found affinity to Indian classical music. Bengaluru, supposedly a musically enlightened city, with its once-rich rock scene now eclipsed by EDM, could take a leaf out of the jazz story.

Jazz is still in its infancy, just over a century old, breaking traditions and laying a path ahead for great music to come.

10 eclectic jazz tracks

1. Blue in Green — Miles davis (1959)

2. Summertime — Charlie Parker (1949)

3. It Ain’t Necessarily So — Mary Lou Williams (1963)

4. St James Infirmary — Louis Armstrong (1928)

5. Timelessness — Wynton Marsalis (2019)

6. Almost Blue — Chet Baker (1987)

7. Goodbye Pork Pie Hat — Charles Mingus (1959)

8. Criss-Cross — Thelonius Monk (1963)

9. Watermelon Man — Herbie Hancock (1962)

10. Beirut — Ibrahim Maalouf (2011)

 

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