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Jazz Corner: The Jazz Meteors

One group of artists who by their very definition do not play the same tune in the same way twice are jazz musicians

Sunil Sampat Apr 19, 2018

Jazz artists are imaginative and expressive. Photo: Christoph.G/Flickr/CC BY-ND 2.0

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In a city like Mumbai, there seems no shortage of opportunity to hear live music on practically any night of the week. Often, one is spoilt for choice with multiple options on the fare on offer. If you have a taste for music across genres, you will find a gig somewhere in this city to suit your taste. I imagine it is much the same in other Indian cities. So you get to hear vocals, instrumentals, classical music of all varieties, percussion, choruses and combinations of these. It makes for a great variety of entertainment.

Viewed in perspective, one attempts to make the distinction between performance and creativity. Does one analyze what is heard or is it merely entertainment or a diversion for an evening? No doubt, there is ample room and scope for either, but let us look at the serious listening experiences we encounter. I am sure that a lot of the ‘performance’ one is exposed to come from a process of music that is written, rehearsed and performed exactly as rehearsed. One hopes for originality in the music, even though the creative process may be a part of the writing of the music as opposed to creativity during the performance. What can be a little disappointing sometimes is the performance of ‘covers,’ where a known song or tune is merely duplicated on stage. The difference between the two may be likened to a contemporary phenomenon from the ubiquitous social media trend; one receives endless “forwards” on WhatsApp and other social media. A forward delivers a recycled message from a friend, while a personally written text from the same friend would be much more expressive and personal.

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I find a similarity between impersonal forwards and playing of covers in a concert or a night club gig. Some originality always elevates the quality of the music and the listening experience.

Now, one group of artists who by their very definition do not play the same tune in the same way twice are jazz musicians. They are the guys who come up with imaginative, expressive solos; these are akin to a story being told by an artful writer. Because of it’s inherent spontaneous nature, a jazz performance is never repeated, making jazz a most exciting live performance art form.

My thoughts go to some of the geniuses of jazz who died young and yet left behind a profound legacy of music. They came to the scene, dazzling us with their creative genius and, like bright meteors they went away all too soon. The music they have left behind is rich and bright, just like a meteor.

Charlie Parker created a new form of jazz in bebop. This music continues to live with us although, Bird, as he was called, died at the age of 35. Bird is arguably the most brilliant saxophonist in the history of jazz.

Nat King Cole, Wes Montgomery, Cannonball Adderley, John Coltrane all died in their 40s. Each one has left us with a stellar jazz legacy. Then there were Booker Little, Fats Navarro, Scott LeFaro, Charlie Christian and Eric Dolphy who all died young.

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The irony of the inverse proportionality between creative talent and life span is not lost. One wonders at these quirks of fate that have cut some of these most prolific jazz wonders in their prime.

Sunil Sampat is a jazz critic and Contributing Editor of Rolling Stone India. Write to Sunil at [email protected]

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