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February 12, 2009 |

By TK Burton | Music | February 12, 2009 |

My first love was extremely mature—I mean, we are talking way older than me. My best friend, Jackie, introduced us one summer afternoon. We had been lounging in her room, painting our nails and talking about sex, probably. And suddenly, my love was right there, filling the room with a kind of sensual power that I had only dreamed of until then. I was thirteen—also the year of my first real orgasm, most likely not a coincidence—and Billie was my love. But Billie Holiday was just my gateway drug, making room for a lifelong passion bordering on obsession, eventually giving way to weak imitation that I can claim as some of the best experiences of my life. Jazz.

Welcome, class. Welcome to the next great can of worms.

Jazz is as great an American tradition as beer, porn and baseball, and for good reason. It draws from West African and European folk roots — as do most of our worthy cultural fingerprints — but is truly original to these stolen shores. It is the meeting of so many cultures through the universal language, a language we all speak, no matter how we may disagree on intonation, structure or style. This is the music of our country. And aside from metal and pop country, there is probably not a more divisive musical genre. You either love it or you hate it (or you just don’t get it — and I’m here to remedy that last part).

As many great things do, jazz sprung up around the country in small, dispersed pockets — Chicago, New Orleans, St. Louis and Kansas City, notably—and relatively all at once, a phenomenon my friends I and like to call “the collective consciousness”. But as soon as it was on the scene, it evolved and changed. And this is what we can pinpoint as the pulse of this completely unique and identifiable musical style: it embodies evolution. Jazz thrives on progression, movement, individuality and inspiration. It never truly inhabits itself in a recording—that is a pale shadow of what it should be, although still better than nothing. Instead, jazz lives authentically in the moment, standing in balance between the last note hanging still faintly in the air, and the anticipation of the what next note will be, no real knowledge and only a guess of where it is going to go. And if you are listening to a worthy player, that path is always a surprise.

To have a well-rounded and impressive knowledge of this style to increase your chances of coitus with the desired sex, you should at least know the major styles. As with any genre, there are thousands of offshoots and fusions, but I want to focus on the major movements within jazz, and there are about this many *holds up seven fingers*.

Dixieland/New Orleans Jazz
armstrong.jpgWhen you hear Dixieland, think Louis Armstrong. Think cornets. Think big brass band. Think “When the Saints Go Marching In.” Simple, right? Right. Think strong, overlapping melodies that each player uses as a base to create their own little version of the melody, with very little to no rhythm section other than the bass line.

It started in the late 1890s, and found an audience when the Original Dixieland Jazz Band (a whitey white face group, by the way — not at all typical (or as cool) for jazz bands in that day considering most players were black) sold over one million records of the first popular jazz recording in 1917. (Apple would have killed for iPhone sales like that, just to give you a bit of perspective.) Boom. And we’re off.

“Palesteena,” Original Dixieland Jazz Band

It might not sound that exciting to your modern ears, but man, this was the happenin’ stuff then. Music in America had really hit a plateau in terms of style, and now with wars of independence and a civil war under our belt, artists began to really thrive.

Swing Jazz
basie.jpgBy the time the 1930s came rolling around, the country had seen a huge economic and population growth and was about to experience the flip side of that coin; the Great Depression. But swing music denied any ill news and bade you to let the good times roll. Roll, they did. Swing came in with a hard-hitting and extremely danceable rhythm section, in addition to the individual players improvising over the main melody; it felt more put together, sleeker than the easy, relaxed, flexible style of Dixieland. It was a very welcome diversion from reality, especially because a lot of good swing started in speakeasies and other places of certain repute that a lady would not be seen in. (Put a shot on the bar in front of me, and you have found exactly my kind of place.) But the rising popularity of radio really kept swing alive for almost the next 20 years.

Benny Goodman (by way of the lesser-known but more inventive Fletcher Henderson, because he had to sell a bunch of his tunes to Goodman to make a living) became one of the most well-known swing bandleaders. My personal favorite was Count Basie.

“Corner Pocket,” The Count Basie Orchestra

Bebop Jazz
Ok, to start you off on the right foot here, if you have never seen Dizzy Gillespie play the trumpet, please allow me to pop your cherry by way of a Muppet Show appearance:

“St. Louis Blues,” Dizzy Gillespie with The Electric Mayhem

Good Godtopus, that man’s cheeks could inspire epic poems.

gillespie.jpgSo Bebop — Bop, if you are one of the cool kids — introduced some really interesting things in jazz: syncopated rhythms, all kinds of crazy time signatures that make me gasp for breath, insane but chordal (meaning, the notes lie somewhere within the chord progressions rather than being all over the place with no real musical reference) improvisations over a complicated chord structure. The guys weren’t out to make a recording for an audience—although I’m sure that getting a record deal then was no less exciting than it is to today’s aspiring musicians—they were putting themselves out there and experimenting in a way that had not been seen in American music. It challenged the listener to really listen to it. If Dixieland was like reading a children’s nursery rhyme, then Bop was like seeing your first comic book: explosive, colorful and full of energy. Bop’s most important accomplishment, though, was to influence a whole new generation of jazz players that took the ideas of the giants before them and became giants themselves. People you have probably heard: Charlie “Bird” Parker, Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk, Max Roach.

“Salt Peanuts,” Dizzy Gillespie

AHHH! He is too precious for words.

Cool Jazz
miles.jpgOk, for one, only dudes in California would name an entire jazz movement “Cool” although it really originated in New York. But they did. And yeah, it was. Cool Jazz was on the opposite end of the spectrum from Bop; where Bop is wild, Cool is, well, cool. Chill. (BORING, in my personal opinion.) Cool jazz was the brainy kid in gym class; the one who refuses to play but can tell you all the rules to the game and can actually create some interesting offensive plays. (Pun totally intended.) It took the improv side of jazz and dolled it up with intricate stylings, intertwining, twisting melodies, and Cool jazz is where the whitey white man came into his own; Dave Brubeck did us a solid for once with “Take Five”. And yes, the man himself, Miles Davis, who became a name in Bebop with Charlie Parker’s ensemble, became even bigger with Cool Jazz and The Birth of The Cool. But that was only the beginning for him. (This is waaaaay before Bitches Brew.)

Hard Bop Jazz
trane2.jpgMiles Davis. John motherfuckin’ Coltrane. Coltrane! TRANE! That is all you need to know. Hell, I could have written just one word for this entire article: Coltrane.

Ok, so not quite, but I think I’m making my point. Miles Davis (and Art Blakey, and Horace Silver) “invented” hard bop in the early 1950s, kind of in reaction to the Cool Jazz movement—which should just go to show you how flexible and creative Davis is as a musician, spearheading a musical movement against the movement that made him a household name. Clever guy. That is what people nowadays call pulling a “Madonna” except he had, you know, actual musical ability.

So yeah, Hard Bop. Well, we still have some of the elements of Bop here (obvs), but now with 25% more free with your first purchase if you act now! (Ack, sorry, OxyClean infomercial.) By the 1950s, Swing was moving out of the spotlight but audiences still wanted to dance. There were two solutions: Rhythm and Blues, and Hard Bop. Hard Bop reintroduced aspects of the big band era: a tangible melody line over a heavy steady rhythm section. Hard Bop brought back the Africa to jazz, where Cool Jazz and brought out the European.

Davis created his first quintet in 1954 and introduced Coltrane. TRANE! John Coltrane was heavily influence by Charlie “Bird” Parker, so it just stands to reason that he would come roaring in with Hard Bop in a way that no one expected.

“So What,” Miles Davis and John Coltrane

That first soloist is Miles Davis, recognizable specifically for his lack of vibrato. He said that he wanted to play in a “round tone” way, without all the little tricks and gimmicks other musicians used to create a sound (which, to me, I liken to the difference between hearing Beyonce and Nina Simone). The second soloist on sax, is of course, Trane, who went on to be much more than just the sax player in Davis’ quintet. (Another notable in the Hard Bop vein: Charles Mingus, one of the greatest bass players of all time.)

Free Jazz
coleman.jpgOrnette Coleman — who still happens to be living and continues to perform, I believe — was one of the fathers of Free Jazz (or Avant-Garde Jazz if you want to sound pretentious, or Avant Jazz if you are pretentious and lazy). He was set to perform at Bonnaroo in ‘07 — one of my most anticipated musical performances — but it was too hot and he was having trouble, so he didn’t make it out on stage. (Although, I did get to see the Philadelphia Experiment, which I’ll hopefully be able to review one day, but seeing as they having only one album of live recordings I doubt there will be another any time soon.)

Ahem, so Free Jazz: the most feared and misunderstood jazz movement. I mean, I’m not kidding; it can be terrifying. Listen:

Ornette Coleman

Sounds all over the place, right? Well, haphazard though it may seem, it is practiced. In fact, Free Jazz is one of the more difficult sounds to master, especially in the context of a group. It doesn’t follow traditional chord progressions — hell, half the time it doesn’t seem like there IS a chord progression — but is still strongly rooted in tradition jazz rhythm principles. The idea of Free Jazz was to break down the accepted conventions of jazz, because really, jazz can’t be conventional. It is meant to go against the grain and push creation forward. Free jazz is reaching for a feeling, an openness of expression. And that is why it can be so terrifying. Get a standard, talented jazz player and tell them to just play. They can’t. They want to know what the chord changes are. They want to know where the breakdown is. They want to know the tune line so they can solo. Free jazz was the perfect movement away from the conservation of jazz. It still pisses people off, so it has got to be doing something right.

Coltrane really got into Free jazz as well, inspired by Coleman and Sun Ra, and out of this ménage a trois of Free jazz, Hard Bop, and Coltrane’s insane talent came the apocalyptic A Love Supreme. (Oh, yeah, and there is a Coltrane Church based on St. John Coltrane and his music. And it is awesome.)


“A Love Supreme,” John Coltrane

(Hey, a record player was better than some of the other YouTube offerings.)

bitchesbrew.jpgGod, fusion is such a general term, but with jazz we are talking about combining aspects of traditional jazz — the kind you probably hear when you go out to a lounge nowadays—and parts of rock and funk. Miles Davis, once again, pushed this ahead as much as he could, but it didn’t really catch on. The styles were too competitive, and by that time (late 60s, early 70s) rock was taking on its own evolution into caverns and precipices that we continue to argue about today.

Needless to say, I’m a bit less excited about fusion (athough I really love Latin fusion jazz and Asian fusion food), but here is some ear candy to get a feel for it.

“Spanish Key,” Miles Davis

Also, Miles came out with the super amazing Bitches Brew in 1969, pulling from his Free and Fusion sides to come out with a sound that was totally unconventional and revolutionary. Davis continued to play with electronic instruments in these recordings, and the result was a huge influence in modern music. The man was a genius, really.

“Bitches Brew,” Miles Davis

Now that I have completely overwhelmed you with my insight and knowledge, let’s have a chat. Who are your favorite/inspiring/intriguing jazz musicians? The only wrong answer would be Kenny G, and I think the commenters will take care of that for me, because you know, gas is expensive and the MurderTank has a 50-gallon tank. For, you know, emergencies such as someone actually liking Kenny G. And now that I have made a point about it, I’m sure at least 10 people will claim love for Kenny G.

And you know what I have to say about that?


Boo is a self-supporting wise ass with a mean streak, a sweet tooth and an amazing pair. You can find her under a rock in the Southern Appalachian mountains, attempting to write, play and sing music, usually while in some state of inebriation. Read more about her at Girl Named Boo.

Pajiba Music

A Love Supreme

A Jazz Primer for Eloquents / Boo

Music | February 12, 2009 |

TK Burton is the Editorial Director. You may email him here or follow him on Twitter.

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