Roger Blows His Horn – The Squeaky “X” Syndrome

It’s Saturday morning and while doing some chores around the house I turn on the TV and select the Music Choice Jazz Station. Soon, a solo erupts from the speakers that garners the comment “oh boy, another squeaky sax solo.” Another descriptive phrase I have heard likens the sound to “strangling a goose.” Sometimes it is followed by the equally popular extended drum solo, but that’s for another article. 

Although saxophones are particularly well suited to squeaking, honking, rapid fingering maneuvers, and other discordant sounds, the idea and similar effects can be done on any instrument whether it be the piano (the forearm smash), clarinet (max blow above high C), violin (screech bowing), guitar (max distortion) or even trumpet (real high and loud). Therefore, to partially mitigate the anger and resentment of all those saxophonists out there, I will simply label it the squeaky “X” syndrome, and you can fill in the “X” with the instrument of your choice. So, how does this squeaky “X” syndrome fit into the world of jazz we all love and promote. Where did it come from? Why does it happen? What can we do about it?

First, jazz musicians did not originate the squeaky “X” syndrome. Classical musicians really got into this around 1910, continuing to the present day, with practices like increased dissonance, atonality, serial/twelve tone composition, use of not-usually-considered-musical sounds, free/spontaneous performance and many other innovative techniques. Such methods can produce a squeaky orchestra, opera, or other classical ensemble. This was good because music was art and artists were supposed to express themselves and create art and pleasing the audience became a lesser consideration. The same phenomenon happened in modern visual art and sculpture. Jazz didn’t get far out until the late 1940s and early 1950s, about the time that jazz also decided to become “art” music. Jazz coincidentally also became more of a concert music rather than dancing and social music.

Another source of more strident sounds in jazz comes from some musical practices by tribal Africans, which then of course became part of the mix of ingredients to form the musical gumbo we call jazz.

Therefore, the squeaky “X” syndrome happens in jazz because, in the context of contemporary music practices and principles of music making in general, it is a justifiable tool in the performer’s arsenal – especially when it comes time to kick it up a notch. Emotional contrast or contour – excitement versus tranquility, tension versus release, storm versus calm – is what makes music interesting and captivating. Honks and squeaks can definitely increase tension and excitement. Five to ten minutes of honks and squeaks will kick it way on up there. Could it be that it comes down to considerations like how much for how long and who is listening and where.

So, in your jazz listening experience you perceive an instance of the squeaky “X” syndrome— what can you do? First, you most quickly conclude that this performance was not meant to be background or easy listening music. If you are at home or in your car and wish for background or easy listening music, you can take appropriate action, such as manipulation of the on-off switch, channel selector, or other audio control device. In a conversational club environment, legs can take you to a different place. If seated in a huge auditorium having paid big money for the tickets, keep in mind that the performer is attempting to elevate the excitement level and express emotion and produce an art jazz listening experience. I say give the performer a chance to make his musical point and then decide whether the overall show gets a thumbs up or thumbs down. Remember that John Coltrane did great ballads and lots of accessible jazz in addition to his more far out renderings.

So, there you have it, a totally scientific treatise dealing with the squeaky “X” syndrome. You may now consider these thoughts on the matter as you chose your level of acceptance of the squeaky “X” syndrome in your world of jazz. See you at Jazz Jam and Jazz Gumbo.

Roger Blows His Horn – The Future of Jazz

What is the future of jazz? Will there be more, less, new styles? Defining jazz as a music characterized by a motivating beat, improvisation, and jazz-like sounds and styles, let me make a few predictions based on my experience and observations.

 

Jazz will certainly live on and thrive. I very much doubt it will be the popular music of tomorrow, with multi-platinum recordings and people making big bucks for sold out mega events. But there will be many jazz festivals and concerts in a variety of settings. I have attended numerous annual conventions hosted by the Jazz Education Network. Mingling with 7,000 jazz fans through four days of non-stop performances and clinics leaves the impression that jazz is alive and well.

 

The many styles of jazz will all be happening to enthusiastic audiences. This has been a long running trend going back to the early 50s. Out of traditional and swing came bebop, cool, soul, hard bop, Latin variants, fusion, free, smooth, and on and on. They are all happening today, and if something new comes up, it will simply be added to the mix. In today’s global village, one can find a million or so people interested in just about anything you can imagine, including any kind of jazz.

 

Jazz musicians of the future are coming from the school music programs. A friend and professor at University of North Texas co-authored The Essential Elements for Jazz Ensemble, a music text designed for use in middle school jazz bands. It seems to be in all the music stores and most middle school band rooms. Young people are learning how to play jazz and improvise solos. They think it is fun. Many will want to do it for the rest of their lives. There are awesome jazz musicians out there in the schools and universities of America. And did I mention the rest of the world.

 

Jazz is and will continue to be a ”world” music. Jazz roots are in America, but the branches are everywhere. Europe has a thriving jazz scene. We export many of our master jazz musicians to Europe—has been happening since the early days of jazz. It’s also big in Japan, Thailand, Canada, Australia, South Africa—I think it is spreading.

 

Jazz will be mostly about performing and listening. The shift from dance music to concert music began back in the 1940s when the bebop players in the clubs of New York started playing jazz that was too fast and complex for dancing. Still had a swing and beat, but 240 beats per minute is too fast for the foxtrot. Moreover, while some jazz is good for dancing, jazz is certainly not necessary for dancing.

 

Jazz will be a cultivated musical art form on the same level as classic music. Jazz has traveled from the nightclubs and dance halls to the universities and concert halls. The explosion of books on jazz, the advanced degrees offered in jazz studies, the historical database, the growing body of works/composers, and the proliferation of jazz in the general world of academia points to a very cultured art form.

 

Lastly, jazz will be a lifetime pursuit for adult musicians. Once learned, one tends to want to keep on doing it. In addition to school programs, more adults are learning and playing jazz. Technology makes it feasible to play along with a recorded band in your own home. An explosion of books and tutorials are available to help learning. Two or more musicians who know the language of jazz can get together and play—often referred to as a combo or band.

 

So there you have it, a totally scientific treatise outlining the future of jazz. I hope you plan to be a part of it.

Roger Blows His Horn – The Jazz Listening Spectrum

Jazz Listening Spectrum

 

Early in the semester of my Music Appreciation classes at Pensacola State College I would present what could be called a Passive-Active Music Listening Spectrum—ranging from very passive to very active. The spectrum depicted below describes the participation or engagement level of the listener with regard to the music/performers. Passive is detached; active is engaged or involved in the process. Since the concept applies to music in general, it also applies to jazz listening. Therefore, lets examine this listening spectrum with jazz in mind.

 

Passive-Active Music Listening Spectrum

Oblivious   —   Somewhat Aware   —   Attention Engaged   —   Highly Attentive   —   Analytical

 

Oblivious—On the far left passive side we find the listener unaware or maybe even asleep. Believe me this can happen even when listening to very nice jazz, as I have proven on some past occasions when perhaps the grove was a bit too smooth and restful. Although one could suggest that some listening is still going on, subconscious musical influences are beyond the scope of this article.

 

Somewhat Aware—Moving right on the spectrum we soon arrive at background music jazz. Whether in the elevator or at a cocktail party having conversation with friends, we recognized that some jazz is going on but don’t really pay close attention. This is also a typical car radio mode, or listening to some recordings while we do some activity around the house. TV or movie incidental music and dinner music with conversation are other examples.

 

Attention Engaged—Next comes the situation where the music has our attention. It can be by choice, or it can be because the music has compelled attention. This is the typical concert situation. We may sing along or dance with that significant other. We may notice elements of the form of the piece. We may make note of a nice melody, solo or other quality of the music. Volume is higher. This is where jazz can really be an enjoyable musical experience.

 

Highly Attentive—Now we are really paying attention. Envision being part of the band—the stakes and motivation to listen are higher when we are part of the music. When the band intends to restate the melody at the end of the drum solo, one has to really follow that drum solo. The audience can also attain this level, but it demands more than just paying attention. Knowledge of the music and performance practices is very important at this level. In the case of live jazz, the listener can in essence become a partner in the jazz process, engaging in the conversation with the performers. This is where live jazz is at its best.

 

Analytical—This is where you are transcribing a Charlie Parker solo note for note. Or maybe you are transcribing / “lifting” an entire big-band arrangement from a favorite jazz recording so you can make music for a learning situation or the Joe Occhipinti Big Band to play. This level requires deep concentration and lots of time and seems a lot like work. This is also where one really gets to know the music. A music teacher I knew said that transcribing a jazz solo was like getting a private lesson with the artist—and it’s all available in the recordings if one has sufficient skills and is willing to make the effort.

 

So there you have it—the listening attentiveness spectrum all the way from nocturnal bliss to head pounding concentration. Notice I didn’t apply labels of good or bad to the various listening levels. Each has its time and place. For recorded music, the decision is totally up to the listener. For live music, the performance environment, be it Phineas Phogg or Carnegie Hall, set’s the playing field wherein the listeners and performers then share responsibility for how much listening goes on. I encourage all jazz fans to resolve to “kick it up a notch” on the listening spectrum because this is where the best jazz fun takes place. See you at Jazz Gumbo.

Roger Blows His Horn – A Few Notes About Jazz Styles

 

The Labels of Jazz

Big band, swing, Dixieland, Bop, smooth, contemporary, soul, latin—on and on go the labels we use to characterize different styles of jazz. What do the various terms mean to you? Can you hear in your mind what that jazz sounds like? Is there any scholarly consensus as to what they mean? Let me take a swing (pun intended) at a concise summary of commonly accepted descriptions of the main jazz styles and their respective labels. My source for “commonly accepted descriptions” is the allmusic.com website, http://www.allmusic.com/ (one of the links on JazzPensacola.com), a great source of information on any genre of recorded music. When you visit allmusic.com and punch the “Discover” and then “Jazz” button on the menu bar, you will get a nice paragraph describing jazz in general and a large group of categories (9) and subcategories (60) of Jazz Styles. Then you punch more buttons and the learning begins—lots of it. The 2 main authors of the individual write-ups are Scott Yanow and Mark C. Gridley, both widely respected writers of books and articles about jazz, and I borrow heavily from their words.

So, here we go—the main style labels are, in rough chronological order: New Orleans/Classic Jazz, Big Band/Swing, Bop, Latin Jazz/World Fusion, Cool, Hard Bob, Free Jazz, Soul Jazz/Groove and Fusion. Not too confusing so far. Lets see if we can briefly describe each one without getting mired in the quicksand of exact chronology, evolution, interrelatedness and other water-muddying factors.

New Orleans/Classic Jazz

New Orleans was the home of the first jazz style, and it took the form of small-band music that was first prominent at the beginning of the 1900s. Elements of ragtime, brass bands and blues coalesced into what they eventually called jazz. The quintessential combo became the front line—cornet/trumpet, clarinet and trombone—backed by various rhythm section combinations—drums, tuba, string bass, banjo, guitar, piano—to make jazzed up interpretations of tunes of the day with lots of countermelodies by the clarinet and trombone and a strong, motivating beat by the rhythm section. Improvised solos, at first mainly short breaks, became common practice as the style evolved. Stride and boogie woogie are two of the solo piano styles. Dixieland, Chicago, traditional and mainstream are more labels that fall under this style umbrella. If you hear one of these bands today, you might detect some similarities with the swing style…

Big Band/Swing

Big bands are generally measured over 10 musicians. Swing is the type of rhythmic motivation characteristic of the big bands of the ‘30s and ‘40s, the classic era of swing. This was largely about dancing and entertaining. Dance bands of this time, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey, were extraordinarily popular. This style can be a little confusing for two reasons. Swing style can also be played by combos (less than 10 musicians), as done prominently by Benny Goodman. Also, the big bands of today often play jazz that is not in the swing style; examples are latin and rock-like grooves. Therefore, I find it best to think of big bands as larger jazz ensembles and swing as a characteristic rhythmic feel, with the big band/swing label nonetheless rooted in the swing era of jazz history. A big band of today might even perform a bebop tune or two…

Bop

Also known as bebop, bop was a radical new music that developed gradually in the early 1940’s and seemed to explode in 1945. The main difference between bop and swing is that the soloists engaged in chordal (rather than melodic) improvisation, often discarding the melody altogether after the first chorus and using the chords as the basis for the solo. Mostly performed by combos, tempos were fast, melodies were complex and the audience in the night clubs were there to listen and not dance. Among its key innovators were alto saxophonist Charlie Parker, trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, pianist Bud Powell, drummer Max Roach and pianist-composer Thelonious Monk. Bop was probably the first jazz style that stretched the boundaries of popularity—leading to debates about what is real jazz and a movement known as the New Orleans Jazz Revival in the early ‘50s. Nonetheless, bop was firmly entrenched in the further evolution of jazz styles. Dizzy Gillespie’s big band, which played bop and swing, also introduced some Cuban musicians and did tunes like “Mantecca”…

Latin Jazz/World Fusion

Of all the post-swing styles, Latin Jazz has been the most consistently popular; the emphasis on percussion and Afro-Cuban/Brazilian rhythms make the style quite danceable and accessible. Essentially, it started as a mixture of bop-oriented jazz with Afro-Cuban percussion. Among the pioneers in the 1940’s were the big bands of Dizzy Gillespie and Machito. The 1950s saw the popularity of Bossa Nova and Samba jazz music from collaborations by Stan Getz and others with Brazilian artists such as Antonio Carlos Jobim. Latin jazz has not changed much during the past 50 years, but it still communicates to today’s listeners. A broader inclusion of music from other countries, such as India or the Middle East, in jazz is often called World Fusion.

Cool Jazz

In the late 1940’s and 1950’s cool jazz evolved directly from bop. Essentially it was a mixture of bop with certain aspects of swing that had been overlooked or temporarily discarded. Dissonances were smoothed out, tones were softened, arrangements became important again and the rhythm section’s accents were less jarring. Because some of the key pacesetters of the style (many of whom were studio musicians) were centered in Los Angeles, it was nicknamed “West Coast Jazz.” Among the many top artists who were important in the development of Cool Jazz were Lester Young, Miles Davis, Gerry Mulligan, Dave Brubeck and Stan Getz.

Hard Bop

Although some history books claim that hard bop arose as a reaction to the softer sounds featured in cool jazz, it was actually an extension of bop that largely ignored West Coast jazz. The main differences between hard bop and bop are that the melodies tend to be simpler and often more “soulful,” the rhythm section is usually looser with the bassist not as tightly confined to playing four-beats-to-the-bar, a gospel influence is felt in some of the music and quite often the saxophonists and pianists sound as if they were quite familiar with rhythm and blues. Since the prime time period of hard bop (1955-70) was a decade later than bop, these differences were a logical evolution and one can think of hard bop as bop of the 50’s and 60’s. By the early ’60s, the music had already splintered into a number of different styles, notably Modal Jazz, Post-Bop and Soul-Jazz. With the rise of fusion and the sale of Blue Note (hard bop’s top label) in the late 1960’s, the style fell upon hard times, although it was revived in the 1980’s and continues as one of today’s mainstream jazz styles.

Free Jazz

Dixieland and swing stylists improvise melodically and bop, cool and hard bop players follow chord structures in their solos. Free Jazz was a radical departure from past styles for typically after playing a quick theme, the soloist does not have to follow any progression or structure and can go in any unpredictable direction. When Ornette Coleman largely introduced Free Jazz to New York audiences in the mid 1950s, many of the bop musicians and fans debated about whether what was being played would even qualify as music; the radicals had become conservatives in less than 15 years. Free Jazz, which overlaps with the avant-garde, remains a controversial and mostly underground style, influencing the modern mainstream while often being ignored. Avant-garde Jazz, originating in the 1960’s, differs from Free Jazz in that it has more structure in the ensembles (more of a “game plan”) although the individual improvisations are generally just as free of conventional rules. Key performers of free/avant-garde jazz were pianist Cecil Taylor, saxophonist Ornette Coleman, keyboardist-bandleader Sun Ra and saxophonist John Coltrane in his later years.

Soul Jazz/Groove

Soul Jazz, which was the most popular jazz style of the 1960’s, differs from bebop and hard bop (from which it originally developed) in that the emphasis is on the rhythmic groove. Although soloists follow the chords as in bop, the bass lines (often played by an organist) dance rather than stick strictly to a four-to-the bar walking pattern. The musicians build their accompaniment around the bass line and, although there are often strong melodies, it is the catchiness of the groove and the amount of heat generated by the soloists that determine whether the performance is successful. Soul Jazz’s roots trace back to pianist Horace Silver whose funky style infused bop with the influence of church and gospel music along with the blues. With the emergence of organist Jimmy Smith in 1956, soul jazz organ combos (usually also including a tenor, guitarist, drummer and an occasional bassist) caught on and soulful players including Brother Jack McDuff, Shirley Scott, Jimmy McGriff, and Richard “Groove” Holmes, along with such other musicians as guitarists Grant Green, George Benson and Kenny Burrell, tenors Stanley Turrentine, Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis, David “Fathead” Newman and Houston Person. Despite its eclipse by fusion and synthesizers in the 1970’s, soul jazz has stayed alive and made a healthy comeback in recent years. Groove, a sub-set of Soul-Jazz, is injected with the blues and concentrates on the rhythm. It is a funky, joyous music, where everything in the performance is there to establish and maintain the groove.

Fusion

Fusion is basically a mixture of jazz improvisation with the instruments and rhythms of rock. Up until around 1967 the worlds of jazz and rock were nearly completely separate. But as rock became more creative and its musicianship improved, and as some in the jazz world became bored with hard bop and did not want to play strictly avant-garde music, the two different idioms began to trade ideas and occasionally combine forces. By the early 1970’s, fusion had its own separate identity as a creative jazz style (although sneered upon by many purists) and such major groups as Return To Forever, Weather Report, the Mahavishnu Orchestra and Miles Davis’ various bands were playing high-quality fusion that mixed together some of the best qualities of both jazz and rock. As it became a moneymaker, much of what was labeled fusion became a combination of jazz with easy-listening pop music and lightweight R&B. This style of commercially-oriented, melodic, crossover jazz became the dominant style of fusion in the ’80s, and by the beginning of the ’90s, it had earned a new name­—smooth jazz. This label, along with terms like The Wave, contemporary jazz, and New Adult Contemporary were crafted by the now widespread commercial radio networks that program jazz (and near jazz) aimed at the widest possible audience. The many examples include artists such as Kenny G, Dave Koz, Chris Botti and David Sanborn.

So there you have it, you now can claim at least some understanding of the basic labels attached to jazz music. Now, go out there and listen to lots of jazz. Explore the different styles—you might discover some keepers. And by the way, since Jazz Pensacola supports all kinds of jazz, we program a variety of jazz styles in our monthly performances and in the Pensacola JazzFest. Hope to see you at the next Jazz Jam or Jazz Gumbo.

Roger