Wow! Thank you!
Amber Lisa

it has no words!

My oh my, what a wonderful journey of discovery awaits you on the very meaning of jazz. You must not realize that one of the very mainstays of the jazz form, that vast and most “inclusive” and “diverse” form of all the performing arts, is the re-working of songs, from folk songs and spirituals and hymns, to show tunes, to pop songs and any other kind of lyrical music.

One of the oddities of the distribution of gender in jazz, is that most female jazz artists, are singers: Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald, just as two examples, might be turning in their graves to hear a young lady claim their art has no words. If you were ever to listen, for instance, to Ella and the great Louis Armstrong perform the entire score to “Porgy and Bess”, it might well give a whole new dimension to what you measure as the significance to your own history as a human being jazz can represent.

I hope you’ll take note, that though almost all the performers I recommended so far to you are or were black, that I made no mention of this. One of the things that struck me at that very first concert of Pass, Brown and Bellson, after a childhood spent largely in the post-Jim Crow south, was that two white men and a black man on that stage didn’t seem to take any notice of each other’s race at all. Then over the years when I began to realize just how deep and broad were the associations among colleagues, not just with those three players but with jazz musicians as a whole, it was and remains continually inescapable, that jazz offers a format for both the most, and the least, racially-inspired forms of expression.

And the histories and cultures of nations have long been a source for endless distinct forms and styles in jazz. The jazz of Cuba hardly resembles the jazz of France, for example, and both are inescapably both nationalistic and utterly accessible to international audiences. The impact that jazz and swing had on the peoples of Nazi Germany or of Soviet Russia as symbols of liberty are among the more under-evaluated of its contributions to the history of civilization.

Jazz tends to become dry and boring when it is presented in overtly political terms, which is why an outfit like the US Air Force’s “Airmen of Note” big band just comes off silly and pretentious when held up against genuine jazz as opposed to a uniformed facsimile of it. But in its way, jazz is the most “political” of art forms too. Was it not a revolution of its own kind, did you notice, to see African-American men so highly prized in their tuxes and suits and ties, on the stages of lily-white Scandinavia in the 60s?

The history of the jazz of the 50s-60s, what I consider its golden age, is inextricably linked to the civil-rights struggles of the same years. But in jazz’ case, simply not spoken in a way that was alienating or overtly political, just a way of saying that the content of someone’s character might well be revealed in the sophistication of their art, and that the color of their skin need not be a factor at all. Which in its way, makes a Miles Davis or a Charles Mingus or an Oscar Peterson even more a symbol of black men’s achievements, than they were ever trying to be.

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