Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Jazz 101: What Is Jazz?

Trumpet player and composer Kelly Rossum coordinates the jazz program at the MacPhail Center for Music in Minneapolis. He's currently teaching a 12-week class called "Jazz 101: What Is Jazz?" Those of us taking the class were asked to come up with definitions of jazz. This is his:
Jazz is a global art form which, through improvisation, combines traditional and popular music of multiple cultures within a modern social context.
Here are Kelly's tips for listening to jazz, especially if you're new to it:
  • Listen for the mood
  • Unfocus your ears
  • Listen to the sounds
  • Listen to specific instruments
  • Isolate on one instrument and follow it
I came to jazz in the 1980s through the fusion door--David Sanborn, Jeff Lorber, Jean-Luc Ponty, Stanley Clarke, the Yellowjackets. One day I heard a tune by Thelonious Monk on the radio. Soon after, I met Suzan Jenkins on a school field trip with our children. What a lucky break for me. Suzan and Willard Jenkins are encyclopedias of jazz. They took a laid-back approach to my jazz education...basically "Try this, you'll like it, then try this."

Now I get to learn from Kelly, along with others who share a passion for the music. And I get to hear a lot of live jazz because I live in a town with a lot of venues, thanks in large part to Leigh Kamman, who hosted jazz radio shows for more than six decades. Before Leigh, someone noted in one of the many articles written about him prior to his retirement from Minnesota Public Radio last month, this was mostly a polka town.

I like Kelly's definition because it clearly describes the nature of jazz: Global. Art form. (In the days of the Depression and swing bands, jazz was popular music, but today it's art music.) Improvisation. Combination. Multiple cultures. Jazz is big, broad, and full of surprises.

When Louis Armstrong was asked to define jazz, he replied, "Man, if you gotta ask, you'll never know." Bix Beiderbecke once said, "One thing I like about jazz, kid, is that I don't know what's going to happen next. Do you?"

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