The Joy of Jazz This Notoriously Elusive Style of Music Accommodates a Great Variety of Listeners

Article excerpt

It's been called the classical music of the 21st century,

America's gift to the musical world, even the democratic

principle put into action.

Still, after nearly a century, with adherents that include some

of the most accomplished musicians on Earth, with a body of work

that has influenced a dizzying array of cultural expressions,

the essence of jazz is about as easy to define as to capture as

a thimbleful of sunlight.

Does it reside in the ebullient styles of King Oliver, Jelly

Roll Morton and Louis Armstrong, the urbane sophistication of

Duke Ellington, the reckless careen of Charlie Parker? The WJCT

Jacksonville Jazz Festival lineup next weekend doesn't make the

picture any clearer for the uninitiated. It includes styles that

range from the hard-bop of Roy Hargrove to the breezy fusion of

Spyro Gyra.

So where does one start when trying to define jazz? Pretty much

anywhere, said Lee Mergner, associate publisher of JazzTimes

Magazine. Jazz is like a 100-foot-long buffet; dig in wherever

you please. At the beginning is preferable, but the middle is

fine, too. You don't have to know about Miles Davis' tenure with

Charlie Parker to like Kind of Blue. And you don't have to know

the history of jazz piano to like Vince Guaraldi's Charlie Brown


"We get all snooty about what is and what is not authentic, but

the fact is that people will enter jazz where they feel

comfortable and not necessarily in the linear fashion that we in

the jazz community would like," Mergner said. "Not everybody at

a baseball game understands how to calculate a batting average

or the designated hitter rule, but they still like baseball. It

is something that can be taken at face value and still supports

detailed analysis. It's the same way with jazz."

The music lends itself to definition on some levels. The most

common, and most widely accepted, standard says that along with

the all-important element of improvisation (composing new

melodies and themes on the spot), jazz has to have elements that

link it to its roots in African and African-American music. That

is, a propulsive, heavily syncopated beat (swing), and

instrumental and vocal inflections that suggest bluesy roots.

Jazz's undeserved reputation as soporific background music is

largely due to the decreased emphasis of blues and swing in some


But that definition, while useful, is just a starting point,

said Bunky Green, the University of North Florida's director of

Jazz Studies. There are great jazz players who don't meet some

of the criteria.

Pianist Cecil Taylor, for example, is regarded as a virtuoso,

but doesn't swing, at least not in the classic sense. Blues and

swing are both fluid concepts: Basie swings, sure, but so does

James Brown or The Meters.

"When you start defining anything, you immediately limit it,"

Green said. "Jazz is forever . . . in the process of becoming."

It's important to know the basics, Green said: the music's

roots in New Orleans, the evolution into swing, the post-war

be-bop revolution, the rise of West Coast cool, hard bop and

avant garde.

But only as a starting point, he said. What is true today may

not be true tomorrow. Be-bop and its founders are revered by

present-day jazzers, yet, during their own time, they were

scorned by no less an authority than Louis Armstrong.

And folks are still arguing about Miles Davis' plugged-in

trumpet. And what of the latter forays into hip-hop, world music

and pop by artists like John McLaughlin, Cassandra Wilson and

Steve Coleman? …