While jazz has been called an African-American art form, it is so much more. With its expressive freedom and strong reliance on improvisation, jazz is hidden whispers and sudden shouts of those who feel its sweet, violent and in between caress. Jazz is the story told by one spirit to another, and continuously passed on and expanded upon.
The history of jazz is as colorful as the music itself. Although it is unclear when the term
jazz first came into existence, though its first known appearance in print was in 1913, in a San Francisco club, in reference to a white New Orleans group led by Tom Brown. The word has been traced to African and Creole terms as well as to the French verb, which means to chatter.
With its African and French roots, creating the Creole flavor, the word, jazz, could be a product of any of the three, or any combination of them. The term could also have come from the verbal form, to jazz something up, expressing something hip, slick and new. However, the more famous, or perhaps, infamous source of the word, comes from a slang term for a sex act and relates to the words orgasm and gism (semen).
Whatever the source of the word, the result of the paring is a perfect compliment. Like the music, jazz, the word, sounds just right. With its overlapping, apart-playing, coming-back to the group, and soloing, and merging with vocals, jazz is its own source and needs no explanation.
For instance, the way Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday used their voices as musical instruments is beyond any possible explanation, rhyme or reason, and yet there is a rhythm to each vocal inflection used. Jazz singers have shaped and crafted tone and melody to conjecture their own special flow. Frank Sinatra, talking about Ella Fitzgerald, once said, “If Ella were a musical instrument, she’d be the whole damn orchestra.”
Another example of the vocal and instrumental paring in jazz can be heard on the duets of Billie Holiday and Lester Young, a saxophonist, who fist instrument were the drums. Young created melodies and phrases that paved the way for future invocations by the likes of Charlie Parker, Thelonius Monk and Dizzy Gillespie, with their Be-bop, which in turn created other styles and sounds.
Miles Davis, a student of the creators of Be-bop, ushered in the Cool era of jazz. In fact, Davis’ Kind of Blue is considered, possibly, the greatest jazz session ever, and featured another giant of jazz’s unrestraint progression, John Coltrane. Coltrane’s Giant Steps, his first album of only his own compositions, used the most densely packed chords yet heard in jazz, though later in his career, he would move to more open compositions and adapt a freer, and dissonant harmonic approach.
While many of its creators, such as Parker, Davis and Coltrane, were addicted to heroin, the scores of expressions of jazz continued to be heard. Each new style or sound gave raise to another. Whether it was the New Orleans style. Swing, Bebop, Cool, Fusion or Avant-Garde, the music spoke to those who played it as well as to those who listen to it.
In conclusion, jazz is alive, because it has life, energy all its own, with whispers and shouts that demand our attention. Jazz is a feeling, an emotion, one you just cannot put in words, but one that needs none. It explains and describes itself by being unexplainable. Jazz is that elusive freedom we long for, a mix of the bitter and the sweet. It is in our head, the beat no one else can hear, yet it’s been captured and tells us that our deepest fears and greatest joys can be expressed and known by others.