Jazz Appreciation Month is not until April, but let’s start early, especially since February is Black History Month, which should include jazz history, too. The very first jazz recording ever made was “Livery Stable Blues” by the Original Dixieland Jass Band on February 26, 1917. The entire band was white, led by coronet player Nick LaRocca, which allowed them the privilege of recording in a New York City studio just as the technology was being developed. Jazz actually began in New Orleans, and there were certainly black musicians who had been playing longer and better, but this first recording did allow the music to reach a broader audience. The form of jazz played by the ODJB is considered classic jazz and consisted of ensembles without an emphasis on solo artists. Just two years later, the band performed in London gaining an even wider exposure for jazz.
Readers who would like to explore the origins of jazz should check out “The History of Jazz” (Oxford University Press, 2011) by Ted Gioia and “The Jazz Book: From Ragtime to the 21st Century” (Lawrence Hill Books, 2009) by Joachim-Ernst Berendt. Both books pair well with the albums “The Music of the Americas” (Sony Music Entertainment, 2011) and “Jazz: The Smithsonian Anthology” (Smithsonian Folkways, 2010). Each of these albums include that very first jazz recording and many other highlights of jazz music up through the 2000s. If readers want a book with some wonderful pictures, “Jazz: A History of America’s Music” (Alfred A. Knopf, 2000) by Geoffrey C. Ward is a great choice.
Defining jazz often involves words like “improvisation,” “syncopation” and “regular rhythm,” but that’s not very helpful. There’s a story that’s floated around the internet for years, purported to be an interview with Yogi Berra trying to explain jazz in which he says: “90% of all jazz is half improvisation. The other half is the part people play while others are playing something they never played with anyone who played that part. So if you play the wrong part, its right. If you play the right part, it might be right if you play it wrong enough. But if you play it too right, it’s wrong.” I can’t confirm the attribution but it certainly sounds like Yogi and he’s absolutely right about jazz. Readers who want to gain a better understanding of the musical workings of jazz might try “Experiencing Jazz: A Listener’s Companion” (Scarecrow Press, 2013) by Michael Stephans.
The roots of jazz are African, especially the rhythms, but it has branched into nearly a hundred sub-genres — everything from acid jazz to world fusion. Jazz is organic and constantly reinventing itself. It’s “been a forward-looking art, continually incorporating new techniques, more expansive harmonies, more complex rhythms, more intricate melodies,” according to Gioia. If you think that jazz is all elevator music, you might be thinking of Kenny G and smooth jazz. If you think it’s all screaming saxophones or trumpets, you might be thinking of free jazz such as John Coltrane played in his most experimental last years. My personal favorites are swing and big band. The library has a number of albums featuring current artists practicing this style of jazz including Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, Squirrel Nut Zippers and The Brian Setzer Orchestra, as well as classic jazz musicians such as Count Basie, Duke Ellington or Louis Armstrong.
We are so lucky, living here in Columbia, to be just hours away from Kansas City where such giants as Count Basie and Charlie Parker made their marks. You can read about Basie in the book “Dream Lucky: When FDR Was in the White House, Count Basie Was on the Radio, and Everyone Wore a Hat” (Smithsonian Books, 2008) by Roxane Orgill and pair it with the album, “America’s #1 Band!” (Sony Music Entertainment, 2003). The book “Kansas City Lightning: The Rise and Times of Charlie Parker” (Harper, 2013) by Stanley Crouch details the birth of bebop and modern jazz and goes nicely with “Yardbird Suite” (Rhino, 1997).
Ragtime, one of the earliest forms of jazz, has roots even closer to home. One of the key musicians was Scott Joplin, and he wrote one of his most famous pieces, the “Maple Leaf Rag,” while living in Sedalia, Missouri. You can read all about him in “King of Ragtime: Scott Joplin and His Era” (Oxford University Press, 1994) by Edward A. Berlin and hear his music on the album “Piano Rags” (Naxos, 2004).
If you would like more jazz recording/book pairings, you can check out this list. And if you would like to see some of my favorites, here is another list. While listening to a jazz recordings can be great, the best way to experience jazz is through live performance. And, again, we are so lucky in Columbia to have so much live jazz available.
Feature image credit: Gottlieb, William P., Portrait of Charlie Parker, Tommy Potter, Miles Davis, Duke Jordan, and Max Roach, Three Deuces, New York, N.Y., ca. Aug. 1947. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/gottlieb.06851/.