Introduction | Jazz

Like a great river that runs endlessly, forming numerous tributary streams as it flows, jazz continues to evolve over time. And no matter how far the River Jazz may flow from its source – whether through stylistic evolution or technological innovation – the essential spirit of the music remains intact.

Granted, the more academic and esoteric extrapolations of avant-gardists such as Anthony Braxton and Cecil Taylor may, on the surface of it, appear to be light years away from the early innovations and earthy expressions of Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet. In essence, however, both widely divergent approaches are imbued with that spirit of spontaneous creativity, risk-taking and discovery that is at the core of all jazz. Regardless of what instruments are being used; whether the general tone is harshly electric or purely acoustic; and whether the form is defined by straight 4/4 time, or more intricate rhythmic variations, or no time at all; jazz is, in all of its manifestations, fundamentally about improvising and the art of playing without premeditation – or, in the parlance of Louis Armstrong, ‘taking a scale and making it wail’.

Cool jazz or fusion, swing-era big bands or bebop quintets, Dixieland or the avant-garde: the music thrives on a collective spirit of interplay and the daring chances taken by the participants individually or as a group, and strictly in the moment. Jazz is, as the noted critic Whitney Balliett once called it, ‘the sound of surprise’. The phrase could be applied as accurately to Armstrong’s 1928 duets with Earl Hines as it could to Charlie Parker’s pyrotechnic excursions in 1945 with kindred spirit Dizzy Gillespie; or to Eric Dolphy’s 1960 opus Out There, The Art Ensemble of Chicago’s 1973 classic Fanfare For The Warriors, alto-saxophonist Steve Coleman’s radical M-Base experiments of the mid-1980s, or trumpeter Dave Douglas’s compelling, Middle Eastern-flavored offering from 2001, Witness.

Jazz has been called the quintessential American music, the ultimate in rugged individualism and the creative process incarnate. In its infancy, it was dismissed by one pointed newspaper editorial as ‘a manifestation of a low streak in man’s taste that has not yet come out in civilization’s wash’. In more modern times, it has been hailed as one of the noblest forms of human expression, with a deep and direct connection to the soul. It is about individuals filling space with invention while negotiating their agendas within a group; an improvisational art that thrives on freedom of expression yet demands selfless collaboration.

New Orleans was the nexus for its genesis. A cultural melting pot where people of all nationalities lived side by side, New Orleans was one of the richest, most cosmopolitan cities in America during the early 1800s. It was in this integrated society that strains of melodies from the West Indies began to mingle with traces of African polyrhythms, carried over by slaves and European classical music played by Creoles...

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Source: The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Music, general editor Paul Du Noyer


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