THIS WEEK’S GREATEST HITS:
Wow. Wow. Wow.
(Want to learn how to dance like that? Good luck.)
— Watch Miles Davis and John Coltrane perform modal jazz masterpiece, “So What.”
FUN LINKS TO SHARE WITH THE KIDS:
Before we get started, here’s an overview of some of the jazz legends we’re going to visit this week with links to some of their greatest live performances online:
COOL JAZZ: Miles Davis and Gil Evans
FREE JAZZ: Ornette Coleman
ACID JAZZ: Digable Planets
SMOOTH JAZZ: Kenny G.
PUNK/EXPERIMENTAL JAZZ: John Zorn
NU-JAZZ…?: Esperanza Spalding
Is there any more “American” of an American art form than jazz? True, the roots of jazz, like the roots of all forms of music we explore in All Around This World, are global, and there are also many. You have the millennia-old African-American traditions of call and response, of intertwining rhythms, of improvisation in drumming and singing and dance. You have the European “Western Classical” traditions of melody and harmony, of rich musical theory, of a multi-instrumental approach to arranging and performing music. You also have the Latin
tradition of syncopation, taking a straightforward rhythm and twisting it until it feels just right.
“Jazz” has its roots in humanity’s past, but it’s a form of musical art that is unique to America and especially to the American 20th century. When “jazz” emerged from that mix and match of global musics toward the beginning of the 20th century, it had so many identifiable flavors in it, but it somehow tasted completely new.
One element of jazz that sets it apart from many other forms of music, especially from the Western classical art music that gives it much of its form, is its reliance on improvisation. Competent jazz musicians should be able to keep up with an arrangement instrumentally and, because the musical theory behind it is sometimes complex, intellectually, but the best jazz musicians rise above the mechanical nature of music to reach a higher plane by improvising as a form of communication with each other and the audience. The best jazz musicians don’t just seem like they’ve practiced enough to know how to perform a song; they sound like they’re sharing their soul.
Maybe that’s why the most dedicated jazz fans refer to their beloved music not just as a musical pursuit but as an an actual higher calling. When a jazz fan says, “Jazz is my religion…” believe it.