Louis Armstrong's Hot Five - the real Jazz Age
I was recently reading all the hype about the new Gatsby film, and reading so much rubbish, (at least in the Irish papers), being written by journalists about the ‘Jazz Age’ - journalists who have NO idea what they’re talking about, bar what they read in Wikipedia. And this got me thinking about how while there's all this fuss and hyperbole being written about the ‘Jazz Age’, the music itself struggles so hard to be heard and to survive. A very good point was made by a friend of mine (thank you Billy!), in which he observed that the people who actually created jazz would never have been allowed into the hotels and residences of Gatsby and his pampered idiotic ilk, unless as entertainers, in which case they would have been treated as servants.
And this got me thinking about the REAL value of this music – a music of honesty and beauty, with an incredible history – a music that is in a different universe from the one inhabited and illustrated by the vapid shenanigans of a bunch of rich airheads from the 20s. I began to think about the reasons why I love this music so much, and here are some of them…………
1) It’s The Product Of An Amazing Human Story
There are three universal musical languages, music that is played and listened to everywhere: European classical music, rock music, and jazz. Classical music evolved through the church and later through an aristocratic elite, rock music by Post WWII, (mostly middle class), English and American baby boomers, and jazz emanated from a people who were an underclass, descended from slaves, and often existing in conditions that were not much better than slavery.
Afro-Americans were despised and abused by the majority population, denied basic human rights and were deprived economically. Yet this oppressed underclass gave mankind one of its greatest musical gifts. A music that was democratic, inclusive, powerfully emotional, a music whose message spread around the world with extraordinary speed, and spoke to people of all races and nationalities. In the history of human art, there has never been a story like this – a music that rose out of the worst social conditions, yet which was joyful, progressive, celebratory, and participatory, with a universal message.
Jazz is a unique human, artistic triumph, created in an environment of incredible adversity.
2) Jazz music celebrates both the individual and the collective
Jazz is both a group music and an individualist’s music. To be able to play for the greater good of, and contribute to the ensemble, is an indispensible quality for any good jazz musician. To describe a player as someone who ‘doesn’t listen’, is the worst criticism one musician can give to another. To act as one is the ultimate aim of any band.
Yet at the same time individualism is not only highly prized, but expected, and celebrated. Jazz is a music that has evolved both through the work of great bands, and great soloists. To express yourself in an individual way is the sine qua non of all jazz musicians, and the history of the music is illuminated by great soloists on every instrument.
Jazz is both a collective music and a virtuoso music. To work for the collective, yet be yourself – what a wonderful combination of qualities, and, as a human being, what a wonderful esthetic to be involved in.
3) Jazz is a Meritocracy
Playing jazz at the highest level is hard, and demands a lifetime of dedication practice and commitment. In such an environment only the best players survive and get to play the music – at least in the long term. Yes, like all music, jazz does have its fair share of bullshitters and charlatans – guys who know a little and can sound competent for a minute, as long as it’s in a certain musical environment that they can control. They then depend on various non-musical qualities to keep themselves in the limelight, (they’re usually good hustlers and self-promoters), but ultimately they will always fall away. Because jazz is about being a great player all the time, over a long period of time, in any situation. You can only control the situations you are in for so long, and ultimately if in the end, if you can’t really play, then you can’t sustain a career at the top table of the music.
And I really like that, because then ultimately the people who do the work and have the talent, get the careers. I’m not talking about amateur or part-time musicians here – I love when people play the music for pleasure alone. It’s the guys who can’t really play but pretend they can, and that they are worthy to play with the greatest musicians, that bother me. But happily, the charlatan thing where a musician who hasn’t done the work, but hires and uses great players to give themselves a patina of competence, doesn’t succeed in the long term. In the end the music will find you out (the real musicians will find you out on the first tune……), and that’s a good thing, because ultimately the music will be created and evolved by people who really care about it.
4) Jazz is the broadest of broad churches, yet retains its traditions
Another seeming contradiction. Jazz music is omnivorous, and always has been. It is accepting of all material as being grist to the creative mill. It is a music that grew from the combining of many elements to create a new music, and a new approach to making music. From the outset it has been relentlessly modernistic – the new thing being prized, both instrumentally and in the overall music. Armstrong, Ellington, Parker, Coltrane, Miles – those five names alone embody a huge reservoir of innovation and dedication to the idea of change. The inclusion of new elements has been in jazz since the outset, and here, in the first part of the 21st century, jazz can cater for the widest possible tastes, yet still remain true to itself.
If you like swing, Brazilian music, Afro-Cuban music, electronica, extended form composition, instrumental virtuosity, lyrical simplicity, seriousness, playfulness, depth, bluesiness, mystery, orchestral writing, solo playing, funk, minimalism, density, sparseness, sad music, happy music, celebratory music, intense music – then there is something for you somewhere in the jazz tradition of the past 100 years.
There is no other music that encompasses the range of musical influences that jazz does, yet retains its own identity through its history, rhythmic language, collective spirit, spontaneity, virtuosity, and improvisational traditions.
5) Jazz musicians love music……..
That may sound self evident, but not all professional musicians love music, surprising as that may seem to the lay person. There are many professional musicians who are not particularly invested in music for its own sake. They may find it a convenient way to earn a living and they may even enjoy what they do for social reasons. Many professional musicians are certainly interested in the craft of music, and interested in the social aspects of being around music (who got what gig, - and why they shouldn’t have, anecdote after anecdote, who screwed up on this or that gig etc.), but they’re often not terribly interested in music as an art form. And some, (though not all of course), orchestral musicians are clock punchers, working every week for their salary. Highly skilled of course, but ultimately not too invested in the music they play.
But I’ve yet to meet a serious jazz musician who was not ready to talk about music at the drop of a hat. If there’s one thing jazz musicians love, it’s talking about music – great recordings, the differences between one musician and another, their own philosophy of what they do, what they’re working on musically, asking what you’re working on musically, a great musician or recording they’ve recently discovered etc.
If you choose jazz as a means of earning a living, and are prepared for the long haul and hard graft that is required to make a living doing so, you have to love music! Love of the music is the reason people get into jazz in the first place, and the ones who remain in the profession of jazz musician have a passion for the music that is infectious. If you want to see a jazz musician’s eyes light up, start talking to him or her about music…..
6) Jazz has produced some of the greatest music of all time
‘Hot Fives’, ‘Black Brown and Beige’, ‘The Savoy Sessions’, ‘Miles Ahead‘, ‘Shape of Jazz To Come’, ‘Blues and Roots’, ‘Five By Monk By Five’, ‘The Bridge’, 'A Love Supreme', ‘ESP’, ‘Bitches Brew’, ‘Facing You’, ‘Birds of Fire’, ‘Mysterious Traveler’……………. etc. etc.
Armstrong, Ellington, Basie, Tatum, Parker, Dizzy, Mingus, Miles, Ella, Monk, Rollins, Trane, Ornette, Evans, Konitz, Jarrett, McCoy, Corea, Shorter, Hancock, Steve Coleman, Liebman, DeJohnette, Bill Frisell….. etc. etc.
Nothing more to say really.