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Jazz Corner: Appreciating the Gift of Jazz

A gift of unparalleled beauty, jazz has defined the sound of modern contemporary music

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Sunil Sampat Apr 29, 2020

Jazz legend Duke Ellington. Photo: Public Domain

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We’ve been enjoying jazz for a long time now, grooving, relaxing and dancing to its strains. It is time to take stock of this fascinating art form and give it it’s due. In 2011, the United Nations Educational, Scientific & Cultural Organization, UNESCO, declared April 30th as “International Jazz Day.” In their own words, they said, “To highlight jazz and its diplomatic role of uniting people in all corners of the globe.” This day, April 30th is celebrated each year as International Jazz Day and is marked with celebrations all over the world. Jazz has certainly become international music.

Jazz, as a genre of music, is over a century old and it has moved majestically like a wide river, gathering momentum and sharing influences along its path over this period of time. Jazz is a story in itself and is full of brilliant characters who have contributed to the stature it enjoys everywhere. It is a story of great music and great musicians.

What is most fascinating about jazz are its origins, it’s roots. Jazz is a gift to the world from the African American community. These were people who were actually kidnapped from Africa and brought to America (both North and South America) as slaves, to serve as labor. In the U.S., they were used extensively in the cotton fields, in extreme heat and other hostile conditions. This process of slavery continued over generations. As slaves, they had no freedom, no rights and not much communication with their brethren, enslaved elsewhere. However, they found their voice through their innate sense of rhythm and music and would communicate in song as they worked the fields.

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In 1865 after the American Civil War and the Declaration of Independence, freedom came in stages to the enslaved African American slave community. The music that kept them united was with them, now emerging as a new stream of song and expression. This is the mother lode, the Blues, from which, distilled and refined emerged the sound of jazz. It is a total marvel to us that we have the gift of this magnificent music from a people who were kidnapped, stripped of dignity and rights and brutally enslaved. Just imagine being gifted music of extreme freedom of expression presented by a people who had no freedom at all!

A gift of unparalleled beauty, jazz has defined the sound of modern, contemporary music. Consider this: most popular music (pop), R&B, rock, hip-hop, rap and their derivatives all have their roots in the blues and in jazz. Without jazz and the blues, these genres might never have come into existence.

Jazz music is suggestive of many moods and even attitudes, but it never seems to imply anger or frustration. It is a positive expression of human emotions. No wonder it has International appeal; it speaks everybody’s language. Many musical cultures can identify with the emotions that jazz brings to them. It is the spirit of freedom and joy which is expressed in jazz. And it’s reach? Jazz has shared its rich musical heritage with several genres of music. From Latin music, flamenco and tango, Cuban and Caribbean rhythms to Indian and Japanese musical sensibilities and beyond, jazz has left its mark. Much like the tributaries and distributaries of a flowing, meandering river, jazz has brought and taken from different music around the world, enriching both giver and taker in the process.

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Film music worldwide has used jazz as a vehicle to express several moods. Even Bollywood films have used jazz for suitable emphasis from time to time. It is hard to imagine what contemporary music would sound like had jazz and its source, the blues not been gifted to us by the African Americans. Perhaps we would be still be listening to minuets and opera as pop music!

April 30th might be just one official jazz day in a year. We should be celebrating jazz all year round and partake of its riches and its joys. It will be worth one’s while. Listen!

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