The music we know today as “Jazz” has always defied any easy mode of description. Just as the term “classical” in music has come to creak and groan under its myriad associations, “jazz” has become a linguistic Atlas, groaning and straining to support the many strains of world music that are allegedly included in its syntactic kingdom. Even the world itself is slippery in meaning and in origins. In 19th-century New Orleans the verb “jaser” or “jasser” may have meant to add spice or flavor to something, but it most certainly had strongly sexual connotations as well. Naturally the mostly African-American musicians who were creating this music at the time had differing reactions to being associated with the term.
“Jelly Roll” Morton, who considered himself the inventor of jazz itself, did not despise the term. He was one of the first people to define the music, saying it must have at least three main elements to be considered jazz: syncopation, improvisation, and what he called “the Spanish tinge.” Other greats of the music, like Duke Ellington, abhorred the term, and preferred instead terminology like American Classical Music to describe what he was making.
Regardless of what you call it, jazz certainly is many things to many people, and in many respects it is easier to define the art form by what it is not. We are already nearly a decade into the 21st century, and jazz now commands a position of respect throughout the world. It is featured as a course of study in the elite music conservatories of the world, from Juilliard in New York to institutions around the globe. And yet even within these schools you will find vastly different takes on what a serious course of jazz study entails. Musicians graduating with jazz degrees in California and Finland, for example, might both receive diplomas, but they will be producing vastly different styles of music, all considered jazz under today’s very inclusive and almost politically correct terminology.
In many respects, when most people who are not intimately involved with contemporary music use the term “classical,” they are in a sense referring to music created from the Baroque period until possibly the 1930s; any kind of serious-sounding opera sung in Italian or German; and anything composed for or played by an orchestra. Of course we know that every day serious “classical” works are being composed by contemporary composers like Yiannis Xenakis and John Adams and hundreds of others, but yet many of their works have yet to be stamped with what the vox populi consider to be the requisite imprimatur of historicity to be considered sufficiently “classical.” Put simply, if it hasn’t been dead long enough, or if the composer hasn’t been dead long enough, it isn’t classical music.
Nothing could be further from the truth, however, and one of the greatest propaganda cons ever perpetrated on man – outside of the religious and political realms – is that classical musicians of yore, including Bach and Beethoven and the other greats, wrote their music as so many notes etched in stone. Once inscribed, these weighty musical steles were never to be altered, breathed upon or so much as scratched. As if they were the Ten Commandments themselves, etched by the hand of god.
But we know from serious historical accounts and the diaries and anecdotes of students and audiences of many of these greats that the opposite is true. In fact, much of what the great composers wrote was in part or in majority improvised, played in and of the moment and captured, perhaps accurately, using the conventional musical notation of the time (which is of course the standard still employed today). Mozart was known to be able to sit at the keyboard and produce endless variations on a theme; Beethoven was a renowned improviser well before he was a renowned composer; and Chopin was rumored to have rarely performed his own compositions the same way twice. How in keeping with the true spirit of the Muses this is, and how very much in contrast it is to the today’s fashion, especially in the music schools of Asia, I must aver, which spits out legions of automatons, musical typists who diligently interpret every word of the source music as if it were gospel and forget that real music must come out the other end of the machine they are manipulating.
Ask any young classical musician to play the piece they are currently studying in a different key and you will know what I mean. You will hear the sound of silence. In many senses classical music training, and therefore the appreciation of it, is connected to its strict adherence to the Scripture on the page. We have forgotten, to a large degree, that our ears hear and our eyes only see. Unless one is truly synesthetic, these senses are separate.
In encountering jazz for the first time, or in trying really to appreciate the art form, some people have difficulty understanding what is happening in the music because they are listening with a “classical” ear, in the current and worse possible sense described above. When listening to jazz one should discard the armor of the pedant and self-important music aficionado and listen instead, at first, for things primeval. This is not to say jazz is not an intellectual music. There are ongoing neuro-scientific studies that are showing that jazz musicians playing and improvising at very high levels show special brain activity that compares to the trance states of Tibetan monks, for example, exhibiting an almost immeasurable intellectual and spiritual function. Put another way, it is one thing to spend seven days composing a piece of music, but it is quite another to create and improvise and successfully perform a piece of music of similar quality on the spot. But jazz has its most fundamental, innermost space, the beat, the rhythm, the pulse, the swing, the heartbeat of a continent, of a people enslaved, displaced, uprooted, slaughtered, taught that they would never be equal to their masters, taught they were less than men. If we forget this root of the tree we are not talking about jazz: plain and simple. We don’t need to have lived through that suffering to perform or appreciate this music any more than a Korean pianist would have to grow up in Austria in order to play Mozart. But we should have some minimal level of awareness of the sociological origins of an art form if we are curious to understand it on a deeper level.
So congratulations to Musiclover for introducing jazz to its reportage. This column in particular will seek a dialogue between past and present, between the giants of old and the today’s modern masters, to open for the reader a small window into the vast current of jazz, America’s Classical Music. In starting this trip we will dip our toes lightly in the water and begin at the beginning in next month’s column with a discussion of the progenitors of the music: Scott Joplin, Buddy Bolden, Louis Armstrong and other giants. We will touch on matters sociological, philosophical and epistemological, but always strive to keep music as the focus of our discussion. But for the moment let’s try to put away the rulebook and listen to music, any music, with our ears and our hearts as well as our minds. As Duke Ellington once said, “There are only two kinds of music, good and bad.”
By Nicholas Bouloukos
Originally published in the March 2009 edition of Music Lover magazine, which is available in many music and book stores near the Shanghai Conservatory, near the intersection of Fuxing Lu and Fenyang Lu, and in other fine magazine shops.
“Jenny Roll” Morton自恃为爵士乐的发明者，他温和地接受了“爵士”这个名称。Morton是少数几个最先为爵士定义的人之一，他认为爵士乐必须具备三个特点：切分音，即兴演奏，以及他所说的“一点西班牙风情”。而当年另一些音乐巨匠，比如Duke Ellington，却对“爵士”这种说法嗤之以鼻。在他看来，他所在做的音乐被称为“美洲的古典乐”才更加合适。
从很多方面来说，大部分听众对当代音乐的发展并不曾给予密切的关注。当他们言及“古典乐”，大多是指从巴洛克时期直到上世纪30年代，用意大利语或德语演唱的听起来颇严肃的歌剧，或就是所有为交响乐团谱写并由其演奏的作品。我们当然知道，当代的古典音乐家从未曾停止过创作新的“古典乐”作品，他们中包括Iannis Xenakis，John Adams，以及不计其数的同道者。然而，许多这样的作品仍需被贴上“人民的认同”这样的标签，才算是得到了必须的认可，才能被定论为“古典”。换言之，如果一种音乐，或是创作这种音乐的作曲家还没有入土为安并经历足够长的等待，就不能被归结为“古典”。