What Is Jazz? There's no question that jazz is the foundation of black music. But understanding the art form can be a daunting challenge. This month, News & Notes is focusing on America's classical music — jazz. Today, we're taking a crash course with three renowned experts.
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What Is Jazz?

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What Is Jazz?

What Is Jazz?

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This is News & Notes. I'm Farai Chideya.

(Soundbite of "Giant Steps" by John Coltrane)

CHIDEYA: Jazz. Some of us know it when we hear it, some love it, some don't. Jazz is one of the foundations of black music and American music. This month on News & Notes we're going to focus in on an art form that's traveled the world and changed it. Today we're taking a crash course in jazz. Jazz 101 with jazz educator, historian and producer Bill Kirchner. Bill is also a composer, arranger and saxophonist and formed the Bill Kirchner Nonet over 20 years ago. Also we've got David Schroeder, he directs jazz studies at New York University's Steinhardt School and he plays reed with his own group, Combo Nuevo (ph). Also we have Eugene Holley, Jr., a Delaware-based freelance jazz writer and producer. His work has appeared in Downbeat, Philadelphia Weekly, Vibe and most recently The Village Voice. Welcome gentleman.

Mr. BILL KIRCHNER (Jazz Musician and Producer): Thank you, welcome.

Mr. DAVID SCHROEDER (Director of Jazz Studies, New York University's Steinhardt School): Thanks for having me.

Mr. EUGENE HOLLY, JR. (Freelance Jazz Writer and Producer): Hello.

CHIDEYA: So, you know, this is a big topic, and I'm not incredibly well versed. So Eugene, tell me about the origins of jazz. We see it as one of the first African-American forms of music, often tied to New Orleans. Where did the sound really originate?

Mr. HOLLY: Well, it originated in the American South and the New Orleans region. And New Orleans is important for the origin because in the 19th and early 20th centuries you had a mix of not only free and slave people of African descent, you had people from Cuba, people from Haiti, from all over the Caribbean. You also had an old European population, some of the first opera in this country was formed in New Orleans. So you had a great mix in the New Orleans area that birthed jazz. And one reason why jazz is so popular around the world and why it's so vital is our most mixed and our most multicultural art form, and it really mirrors what the diversity of this country has to offer.

CHIDEYA: David, what do you think of this idea of jazz being inherently multicultural?

Mr. SCHROEDER: Well, I agree, especially if we talk about New Orleans as a melting pot for jazz. It was filled with all the Caribbean countries, all the ex-slave and slavery folks as well as Europeans, like Sicilians. We forget there was a lot of Italians and Germans and a wide variety of cultures living in New Orleans after the Louisiana Purchase. New Orleans was a major sea port where everybody came to do their trade and to move in to the United States.

CHIDEYA: Bill, one of the things about music is that for most people it's indescribable. It's something you get or something you don't. And something that you don't describe. Now if you're a critic or a historian or a musician that's different. So if you had someone who didn't really have language for jazz, how would you try to tell them about it?

Mr. KIRCHNER: It's like any other kind of music. Don't forget, for the first half of jazz's existence, for about the first 50 years it was primarily dance music. And also someone once asked Count Basie to define his music and Basie's response was three words, tap your foot. So I guess what I'm leading up to is, you know, we tend to over-intellectualize jazz. The fact is that there are all different kinds of jazz, some that are more accessible and approachable than others. But the most accessible of those are perfectly approachable and understandable to anybody with open ears and a foot that they can tap.

CHIDEYA: So Bill, if you were talking to someone who has - who loves music but doesn't really know much about jazz, who would recommend they listen to?

Mr. KIRCHNER: Do you have about three days?


(Soundbite of laughter)

CHIDEYA: Cut it down to 60 to 75 seconds.

Mr. KIRCHNER: Well, you start with the obvious heavyweights. You start with Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Miles Davis, John Coltrane and then we can go to about a thousand more. You know, jazz has a rich heritage, now fully 100 years, and since 1917 it's been recorded. So there's a rich recorded heritage and luckily for the past 20 or so years a lot of that has been made available on CD that previously was out of print or otherwise unavailable for decades. And now with downloading of course being another possibility, jazz is easily accessible to anybody who wants to listen to it.

CHIDEYA: All right, let me play a little bit of Louis Armstrong, fabulous pioneer and of course part of New Orleans.

(Soundbite of song "I'll Be Glad When You're Dead You Rascal, You)

Mr. LOUIS ARMSTRONG (Jazz Musician) (Singing): I'll be glad when you're dead you rascal, you. I'll be glad when you're dead your rascal you. For I brought you into my home, You wouldn't leave my wife alone. I'll be glad when you're dead you rascal you... Oh I'll be glad when you're dead you rascal you.

CHIDEYA: Eugene, on one level this is a little bit of a bitter song, but upbeat, and when you hear this, what do you hear?

Mr. HOLLY: What I'm hearing is the Prometheus of American music. Louis Armstrong is really the first instrumentalist who really put jazz on the map. There were people before him, but Louis Armstrong really embodied what we consider jazz in the world. And you're playing that particular cut, Louis Armstrong also is the progenitor of jazz singing. Every person who aspires to sing jazz is really singing Louis Armstrong. He was also the first person to start scatting, you know. He did that on a record called "Heebie-Jeebies" in 1927. But when I hear that, what I hear in Louis Armstrong is his ability to take a tune like that that has a bitter quality and just transcend that with such human optimism. That tragic optimism that Ralph Murray (ph) and Ralph Ellison talk about that's at the core of Louis Armstrong's music and his art.

CHIDEYA: All right David, I want to play you someone else. One of the women instrumentalists. Not always as many as you might think in jazz. Mary Lou Williams.

(Soundbite of jazz music by Mary Lou Williams)

CHIDEYA: Women have not always made as strong a mark in instrumentalism as in vocals. So who is Mary Lou Williams and what does she represent?

Mr. SCHROEDER: Well, Mary Lou Williams in the 1930s was way at the forefront of women in jazz and many jazz musicians. She was really known as a teacher for a lot of the musicians in the Kansas City region. And you can tell, she's well studied and she's - I think probably has prepared herself by listening to all the great stride pianists before her and, you know, she had quite a long career and - but quite definitely she really stands out as singular in women for that time period.

CHIDEYA: Dave, I want to actually want to play a little bit of your work. Your group Combo Nuevo. This is called "Go figure."

(Soundbite of song "Go Figure")

CHIDEYA: How would you describe this music? And what are you playing in the combo?

Mr. SXCHROEDER: Well in that group, I'm playing - on this track I'm playing electric alto clarinet, believe it or not. But the group is an odd group. It's - we've decided that music continues - jazz music continues to grow and morph and be involved with many types of cultures. This ensemble, instead of a drum set, It's Middle Eastern frame drums and Indian tablas, and instead of a bassist it's a cello and it's acoustic guitar and pennywhistles and chromatic harmonicas and such. And, you know, I think this follows true with the jazz tradition of - I really don't believe that jazz music is something of a museum piece, but something that continues to grow and flourish and be invigorated by other forms of music.

CHIDEYA: You mentioned a lot of international music. So I guess in general, I mean it makes sense that musicians would seek out different influences, but do you think that the U.S. music market itself in terms of how most people think of these genres that they listen to is expanding, or do people kind of go in their own tracks, and people who like pop music listen to pop and people who like hip-hop just listen to hip-hop?

Mr. SCHRODER: Well it's true that people become very stuck into the music that they run across and they've fallen in love with. I think the problem with jazz is it's not easily available on radio or on television. You might find it in a film score here or there. But you know what, when we listen - when we have kids listen to music, they don't find new forms of music easily. They find common denominator music. Which is fine, all the pop songs, etc., MTV. But for jazz musicians specifically, it's hard to find a place in the market for our music and find - I think if people had a chance to listen to it, it would be a new ballpark.

CHIDEYA: Eugene, when I listen to contemporary popular music that comes from black artists, I hear - I was just yesterday listening to KCRW, which is one of the, you know, NPR member stations. They were playing some remixes that mixed hip-hop and Indian music, tablas, etc. You know, you'll find hip-hop with electronica, etc., etc., etc. Jazz not so much. I mean, do you think that jazz is still a part of popular music, or is it a kind of a sub-genre?

Mr. HOLLEY: Well, no question it's part of popular music. Jazz has always given popular music a boost for the last 50 years. And you mention hip-hop. You know, when hip-hop really was in vogue, like in the '90s, I mean one of my favorite groups, A Tribe Called Quest, they made a career out of sampling people like (unintelligible) and Weather Report. I was listening to a great producer, J. Dilla, just left us a short time ago. And one of his greatest productions was De La Soul's "Stakes is High," which contains a sample of Ahmad Jamal's "Swahili Land."

And throughout hip-hop and throughout popular music you hear jazz diffused in a whole bunch of things that you might not really think is jazz, but when you do some research, you say, oh, I've heard this before. So it's definitely in hip-hop. You hear a lot of jazz in commercials. One of my favorite commercials out right now is a Volkswagen commercial with a female drummer named Cindy Blackman who used to drum for Lenny Kravitz. She's in the commercial. So people are hearing jazz in the popular idiom, but it's not always stated explicitly.

CHIDEYA: All right, Bill. You have playing, arranging and composing music for years. We want to play a little bit of your music as well. This is "Pretty Blue."

(Soundbite of song "Pretty Blue")

CHIDEYA: All right. Bill, I'm going to go out on a short limb here and say that your jazz music sounds like jazz, what I was told jazz was. Well, does that mean it's traditional? What kind of music are you playing?

Mr. KIRCHNER: I'm playing my music.

(Soundbite of laughter)


Mr. KIRCHNER: I - well, I have to say also in my own defense that I'm a determined eclectic. So that's one of the most traditional things on that particular record that you could have picked. Some of the other things are much less traditional. Some of them have avant-garde influences, some of them have Brazilian influences. I'm determined not to be put in any particular pigeon-hole. And that's how I present myself as a musician. So in the course of an evening concert, for example, my presentation could run the gamut of influences from something that's relatively straight ahead to something that's determinately not.

CHIDEYA; I'm going to kind of get ready to close us out with a question which is - you know, for many of us, we have a favorite genre or two. Whether it's hip-hop, rock, pop, soul, you know, '70s, '80s, whatever you want to define a genre as. If you are not someone who already has plugged in to jazz, why would you? Eugene.

Mr. HOLLEY: For the sheer diversity of the art. Because in the hundred years jazz has been in existence, and particularly in the last 40 years, there's so much diversity of - particularly the jazz music of the 1960s. For example, you opened up with the great John Coltrane classic, "Giant Steps," which was recorded in 1959. And from 1959 to 1979, there was a whole bunch of innovation and experimentation going on. You had Herbie Hancock coming into his own, you had Bill Evans, you had Miles Davis, Wayne Shorter, so you - and also you had a lot of Latin jazz really happening in the '60s with people like Eddie Palmiere, Tito Puente, and so on. So you listen to jazz, you know, you can cue into it through its diversity. And once you start getting a handle on how wide the music is, you can just take it from there.

CHIDEYA: All right. We're going to have to keep this really tight. Bill and then David, why? Why jazz? Why should we listen if we're not already fans? Bill.

Mr. KIRCHNER: Simply because it's fun to listen to. I think the worst thing we can do is present jazz as a form of musical spinach that, you know, listen to it, it's good for you. You know, it's simply great music that's fun to listen to. And anybody who's motivated to find music of whatever description that's fun to listen to should seek it out.


Mr. SCHROEDER: Well I think, too, that if we compare this to people who are interested in wine, you know, there's people who are connoisseurs of fine wine and people who drink wine out of a screw-top bottle. But jazz, the musicians themselves are brilliant. And as you get more into jazz, you realize, my gosh, how does that guy play this way? When we listen to Louis Armstrong, where did he come up with that? And it continues and it spirals and it grabs you. And once you realize that all the skills and the years and the polish and the practicing and how it comes down into just making beautiful music, that's the fun bag at the pot of the - the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

CHIDEYA: Well, gentlemen, it's been great talking to you. Thank you.

Mr. KIRCHNER: Thank you.

Mr. HOLLEY: Thank you.

Mr. SCHROEDER: You're welcome.

CHIDEYA: David Schroeder is the director of jazz studies at New York University's Steinhardt School and a member of the jazz group Combo Nuevo. He spoke with us from NPR's New York studios. Bill Kirschner is a jazz educator, historian, musician and composer. And Eugene Holley, Jr. is a freelance jazz reviewer and columnist.

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