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September 28, 1995 - Image 21

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The Michigan Daily, 1995-09-28

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The Michigan Daily - Wtc4c.,. 4c. - Thursday, September 28, 1995 - 7B

11

American history grooves to beat of all that jazz

By Eugene Bowen
Daily Arts Writer
"Jazz is the father of hipness, the
mother of invention and a black phi-
losophy of life without words. Jazz is
about the business of the isness of be-
ing. "-- Khaphera Burns
A single, all-encompassing defini-
tion for jazz? You'd be better off
trying to decipher the meaning of life.
Jazz music means so much to so many
that no single description of its con-
tours would do it justice. Evolved
from the basic hand-slapping/foot-
stomping/drum-beating harmony
transplanted sight-unseen to America
by slaves shipped from Africa start-
ing in the 16th century, jazz music
made its first appearance at the turn of
the 20th century in the form of band
and orchestral (doo-wop) music.
Jazz music experienced its heyday
in the mid-1920s, during the period of
African-American history known as
the Harlem Renaissance. The Harlem
Renaissance was actually a national
urban phenomenon, a time when jazz
clubs, bars and gambling spots cater-
ing to the musical and social tastes of
blacks --but not suffering for Cauca-
iian patrons - popped up faster than
people could think of catchy names
for them. Some trumpeters and saxo-
phonists blazed constantly-shifting
melodies with awe-inspiring rapidity
and accuracy. Others played slower,
with deep bass-lines as the founda-
tion upon which the most relaxing
alto and tenor sounds could be heard.
Jazz music offered something for al-
most every taste.
During the '30s, interest in jazz
began 'to dwindle. Yet, unlike most
musical forms of both blacks and
whites, jazz wasn't allowed to burn
out. At a point when its demise was
most assured, this purely black musi-
cal form, raised to utmost heights and
beyond by the sweat and tears of greats
like Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis,
Nina Simone and Count Basie, was
placed in the realm of the "higher art
form," joining opera, ballet and clas-
sical music at the table of a most dubi-
ous brotherhood.
Jazz music, the first African-Ameri-
can creation elevated to this height by
general worldwide consensus, was
loved by so many, across racial lines,
that it was able to break free of the
constricting shackles of prejudice and
white supremacy - often more bind-
ing than the physical shackles of sla-
very barely a century ago. It gained a
position equal to that of white artistic
creations. Jazz was the first American
art to be raised to this level. It is a
testament to their will that blacks,
though treated as sub-human long after
the Emancipation Proclamation was
signed, were the first Americans to con-
tribute a new choice to this selection of
higher art forms.
Jazz ceased being the focal point for
local get-togethers and neighborhood
block parties. Now, an evening of jazz
meant an evening of style. No longer
was this music to be played in buildings
surrounded by the smell of stale cigar
smoke; only the finest nightclubs were
worthy ofits notes. One had to be dressed
m the most expensive suits or dresses,
covered in furs and glittering with gold,
silver and diamonds to gain admission.
This was to be expected; after all, going
to hear jazz was now the equivalent of

going to see "Les Miserables" or hear-
ing a Chopin recital. If you wanted to
hear everyday black music, succeeding
decades brought rock 'n roll, reggae,
R&B and rap.
Yet, many began to feel that jazz
was, in a sense, forgetting its begin-
nings. They were wary of what they
saw: Jazz's original message to black
people being usurped to please a main-
stream, now mostly-white audience.
Sidney Bechet, Count Bessie and
Dizzy Gillespie, as well as the many
corner-hall performers who never
made as big a name for themselves
and died in great poverty, didn't dedi-
cate their lives to jazz so that it could
metamorphosize for money into some-
thing it really wasn't.
Eddie Murphy's film "Harlem
Nights" showed a rough portrayal of
the 1920s atmosphere in which jazz
was born. Teaching was left to Spike
Lee with his "Mo' Better Blues." The
importance of jazz, and more impor-
tantly of blacks returning to jazz and
then returning jazz to its roots, is
stressed in conversation, argument and
song throughout the movie. It is ques-
tionable how many could hear this
message over stories of infidelity and
betrayal about which many of the
movie's plots were centered, but it is
fair to say that Lee's (or someone
else's with opinions similar to him)
message was heard because in the last
few years, many African Americans,
and others, have done just what Lee
asked. They have begun to retrieve
jazz from the iaws of higher art and
forced it to remember the days prior
to its elevation - days when it wasn't
as profitable, yet it was more real.
But, it was never to be the same
again. As Al Jarreau foretold, "Jazz in
its purest form is dynamic and chang-
ing. It will neverbe thejazz ofthe 1930s
and '40s, because it's changing and
responding to its environment."
Jazz has certainly changed, and more
than a few new artists and releases
prove it. Art Porter's "Undercover,"
Gerald Veasley's "Signs," and Norman
Brown's "After the Storm," all 1994
releases, have led smoothly into 1995
LPs like Walter Beasley's "Private
Time," Chris Botti's "First Wish" and
Alfonzo Blackwell's "Let's Imagine."
What differentiates these artists, and
many others, from their predecessors is
the great amount in which they infuse
other music types in their works. Pure
jazz has taken a back seat to hodge-
podge mixtures of jazz, R&B, rap and
pop.
This technique ofcombiningjazz with
other sounds, while very populartoday,
isn't just a '90s phenomenon. Artists of
the past have hooked their songs up
with jazzy influences. Ray Charles''70s
hits like "This Little Girl of Mine" and
"Tell the Truth" are chock full ofjazz,
as are songs performed by the late queen
of gospel Mahalia Jackson including
her personal favorite, "Trouble of the
World."
What Charles and Jackson did has
today been recreated in tremendous pro-
portions. Even some debut artists'
names and album titles suggest that
traditional jazz is virtually nonexistent
in their music. As a result, modernjazz,
much like its forebearer, has crossed
various cultural and ethnic bounds with
relative ease. Buckshot LeFonque's
self-titled release is filled with every

timbre under the black music rainbow.
Hami has done unheard of things with
the piano and violin in his debut, "The
Funky Descendent." The 10-member
Milo Z's "Basic Need to Howl" fea-
tures a street music twist in its jazz
performances, and "Street Gamins" by
Jaz B. Lat'n seeks to spice up jazz with
Latin-American influences.
Traditionaljazz, however, hasn't been
ignored. Originals from past greats re-
main available. Rhino recently released
a John Coltrane box set, and the newly
re-imerging Impulse Records label has
followed suit, re-releasing three ofJohn
Coltrane's greatest albums. Only 34-
years old, trumpeter Terence Blanchard
has done a spectacular job recreating
the jazz of the past in "Romantic Defi-
ance." The legendary Lionel Hampton
has returned with "For the Love of
Music" to teach the younguns how to
do jazz right. Tributes to Lee Morgan,
Thelonious Monk (Sonny Fortune's
"Four in One") and Dizzy Gillespie
(Richie Cole's "Kush") are also out. All
these CD's have been released within
the last two years.
Whether you like it or not, no one
can deny that interest injazz has grown
to amazing proportions in the last few
years. Everyone and everything from
R&B artists (Rachelle Ferrell, "First
Instrumental") to basketball stars
(Wayman Tisdale, "Power Forward")
to soundtracks ("Promised Land,"
"The Show") feature the sounds of
traditional or modern jazz.
Norman Brown and Alfonzo
Blackwell, among others, have
"jazzified" popular tunes like Janet
Jackson's "That's the Way Love
Goes" and Mary J. Blige's "Love No
Limit" showing that, just as any mu-
sical type can be brought into jazz, so
too can the jazzy spirit of many songs
be brought out. Branford Marsalis'
former position as head of NBC's
"Tonight Show" band, President
Clinton's saxophone performance on
CBS's "The Arsenio Hall Show" and
sporadic features of jazz music in the
opening credits of "New York Under-
cover" (Fox) have done no less than
further the realization that there is no
avoiding this jazz revolution.
With modern jazz now divided into
categories like acidjazz, fusionjazz, Ozo-
jazz, and more, it seems that generaliza-

tions about jazz have been made more
general. While a dividing-line separating
jazz from other musical types remains, it
is more fuzzy and lenient, allowing a
wide array of sounds many traditional
jazz lovers wouldn't even recognize as
standing beneath thejazzmusic umbrella.
Many lament this fact, saying that this
stuff is as close to jazz as Gregorian
chants are to West Coast rap.
But, as J.A. Rogers wrote, "Jazz is a
marvel of paradox: too fundamentally
human, at least as modem humanity
goes, to be typically racial, too interna-
tional to be characteristically rational,
too much abroad in the world to have a
special home." There never has been a
single, unique jazz flavor. To try and
create one now would be hypocritical.
Lionel Hampton once said, "It's
always jazz. You can put a new dress
on her, a new hat on her, but no matter
what kind of clothes you put on her,
she's the same old broad." That's the
beauty of modern jazz. Beneath all
her modern multi-colored dresses of
lies the same woman first born at the
turn of the century, now reborn. This
is the real spirit of jazz, and we have
nothing to fear. It hasn't changed.
Nor will it ever.

The father of hipness himself, Miles Davis.

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