It’s been a while since I posted and I’m back with some thoughts about jazz inspired by recent conversations with some good friends of mine.
Everyone has something different pop into their head when they think about jazz. For the majority of people I imagine it’s a band featuring trumpet, saxophone, double bass etc. playing in a smoky bar with all the musicians wearing suits. This is what jazz was from approximately the 1930s-60s. It’s a huge part of what most people call ‘The Jazz Tradition’, but it only tells part of the story.
Being a student on a jazz music course this ‘straight-ahead jazz’ makes up a large part of what I do and learn about on a daily basis and there is so much to learn from it. An endless amount in fact. But it seems to me that it is very easy to get caught up in ‘The Tradition’ and forget about what it actually means to be a jazz musician/composer. Now of course it means something slightly different to everyone. To me jazz represents a freedom to express thoughts/stories/emotions through music in any way you choose, with a big emphasis on improvisation. Jazz musicians have consistently broken through boundaries against the odds to lead us to a time now where there are no boundaries. So it seems strange to me when I see people who claim to be jazz musicians creating boundaries and restrictions for themselves by trying to re-create the 1940s jazz tradition for example, rather than taking advantage of the freedom those musicians have afforded us and creating something truly unique.
Now I’m not in any way saying people shouldn’t play straight-ahead jazz anymore. I play it, I love it and I learn a lot from it. Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue was what got me into jazz in the first place and I still listen to it and learn from it today. Miles was ferociously creative and would record an album and then forget about it, never listen to it again and move on to the next thing, the next innovation. His later albums such as Tutu and Amandla (released mid-late 1980s) were heavily criticised by a lot of people because it didn’t sound like his earlier work. But why would it? Everyone evolves on a daily basis and the world around us changes rapidly. Miles wasn’t the same person in 1986 when he recorded Tutu as he was in 1959 when he recorded Kind of Blue so why would his music be the same?
When we create music we are setting out to tell a story or portray an emotion. Our stories and emotions can only be based on our own experiences, no-one else’s. My life experiences are going to have been very very different to those of a black American man born in the 1920s. So again, how can I expect to create what they created? I can’t. I can only create what I can create based on my experiences. I might be able to get close to imitating how those musicians sounded on my instrument and that is an incredibly beneficial thing to do, but I’ll never BE them.
As I said at the beginning jazz means something slightly different to everyone but I believe the so-called ‘Traditionalists’ are missing the point of the music they cling to so unremittingly. They would argue that Snarky Puppy isn’t jazz, that Weather Report isn’t jazz, some would even say that the music of Miles Davis and John Coltrane isn’t true jazz. But ultimately I don’t think it matters what label we attach to it. Everything has artistic validity if it is created with honesty and stems from one’s own experiences.
Again I want to re-iterate that I’m not saying people shouldn’t play or listen to any particular type of music. You should listen to everything! In terms of straight-ahead jazz, it is such an incredible resource of information that it would be remiss of any jazz musician to neglect it. However if we are aspiring to follow in the footsteps of all these great musicians that we listen to and learn from and become a part of what future generations might call ‘The Jazz Tradition’ then I don’t think we’ll get anywhere by trying to be them. We have to use them as the inspiration to be ourselves.