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Jazz Corner: What is Real Jazz?

Resident jazzman Sunil Sampat explores the origins of jazz

Sunil Sampat Jun 21, 2016
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Lawrence Welk. Photo courtesy of ABC Television/Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Lawrence Welk. Photo: © 1969 ABC Television/Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Just the other day my young friend, R, who apparently reads this column regularly said something that really got me thinking. Now this young lady is an avid listener and a  keen observer of the nuances of contemporary sounds in music. She said, “I am very confused with the concept of jazz. I have heard several local jazz bands in Mumbai and elsewhere in India. Yet, my parents visited New York some time back and they came back with stories of how they had heard some “real jazz” there, which they said was a different sound from what you hear locally. So what is this jazz they heard and can you help me clear this confusion?” This  column is for Ms. R. I get to learn a lot in the process of thinking this one through!

One of the great joys and privileges I have had in my life as a jazz listener, organizer, and journalist has been getting close to musicians, some of the all time greats, young enthusiasts and everything in between. A couple of years ago, as one of the organizers of the Jus’ Jazz festival, held in Delhi, Pune and Mumbai, I traveled to each of these venues in the company of some truly outstanding jazz musicians – Regina Carter (a wizard on jazz violin), Renee Rosnes, Helen Sung, Steve Wilson, Peter Washington, Lewis Nash and others. Lewis Nash is one of the greats on jazz drums. He is also very eloquent on the subject of jazz. During one of our several chats, Lewis spoke of the “jazz culture” and mentioned how, despite jazz being played all over the world, to him there was jazz ‘from the culture’ and then….the other kind! Specifically, Lewis mentioned this when we were listening to the American tenor saxophone player Houston Person perform. Now Houston may not be the greatest ever sax player in jazz but he is certainly from the ‘core’ sound that makes jazz the great music form it is.

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The point is subtle and not easy to decipher, but if one has heard enough jazz from a cross-section of performers over the years, that distinction is easily heard.

In the 1960s, an American band leader, Lawrence Welk had a popular dance band which played jazz standards from time to time. Welk was keen to be known as a jazz musician ( a wannabe in common parlance) but was shown his place by a  famous jazz musician who said, “If Dizzy Gillespie plays Jingle Bells, that’s jazz. But if Lawrence Welk plays “A Night in Tunisia”, that’s still only Lawrence Welk”. Cruel but specific about the boundaries of jazz! While a lot of contemporary music is classified under the heading “jazz”, not all of qualifies under this heading; as a somebody once said ,”every  friend of mine is a bit of a rascal, but not every rascal is a friend of mine!” same for jazz…..

Jazz music has come from a long tradition,well over a hundred years old. Essentially it emerged from New Orleans as an extempore rendition of music, essentially the sound of ‘freedom’ (as opposed to say, classical music with written, specific parts for the musician to play). The feeling of the blues was always at the core of this musical expression called jazz. It may be loosely defined but has a definite mainstream….

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We will continue this interesting concept in the next installation, where we hope to explore in detail what jazz “from the culture” is all about and share some opinions of some musicians on the local scene.

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