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Jazz Corner: Jazz Through the Decades

In the long journey of jazz, each decade has also brought new significance

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Sunil Sampat Jan 13, 2020

American jazz artist Miles Davis. Photo: Courtesy of Peter Buitelaar

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As we start a new decade, first of all, my best wishes to you for good music in your life. Somehow, each new decade brings with it a new mood and a new fervor. Let’s see what awaits us in the 2020s!

In the long journey of jazz, each decade has also brought new significance. A hundred years ago the decade of the 1920s – the ‘roaring twenties’ was dubbed by author F. Scott Fitzgerald as “The Jazz Age.” The following decade was “The Swing Era” in which the ‘swing’ jazz bands played largely dance music during the difficult days of the Depression. Interestingly it was in this decade that jazz made its debut in India with the bands that played in a famous Bombay five star hotel. This has formed the roots of jazz in India and subsequent generations of Indian jazz bands have built on the sounds and traditions of these early times. Thus a female vocalist fronted band is quite the norm for the jazz scene in this country; that is the expected format. But I digress!

The post-war era of the 1940s in the U.S. brought us the decade of Bebop, the 1950s modified this into hardbop where much more melody was introduced into the sound and led to ‘Modal’ jazz, best exemplified by the Miles Davis album Kind of Blue.

The 1960s in America brought with it a new ‘war’ in Vietnam and with it, it’s protests, flower children, Bob Dylan and Woodstock with their anti-war messages. That decade was significant in jazz as well. As if in the rebellion of its own traditions, jazz discovered new sounds in the form of the electronic sound alternatives newly available. The Moog synthesizers, electronic pianos, drum machines, electric and amplified guitars, the electric bass, even electronically altered horns, all made available the potential for ‘new’ sounds.

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Davis was at the forefront of this new tangent with his album Bitches Brew as also the band Weather Report helmed by Wayne Shorter and Joe Zawinul. Emphasis on the new instruments seems to have overshadowed the need for improvisational skills in the traditional sense. The era of jazz fusion and the excitement with the possibilities of the electronic sound lasted into the 1970s.

The pendulum swing back to the ‘traditional’ sound of jazz was initiated by trumpet player Wynton Marsalis. He wanted to restore the acoustic sound of jazz and has been largely successful in his attempt.
By the 1990s, experiments to integrate sounds from other musical cultures were underway. It was an era of flux. By the time the year 2000 rolled in, ‘jazz literacy’ became the norm. Formal jazz education was the new trend and a crop of young, music school trained talent took jazz to a studious consciousness. The jury is still out as to whether this teaching and training actually enhanced the sound of jazz or came in the way of natural creativity that was the hallmark of decades of jazz giants, some of whom could not even read music. I have strong views on either side of this debate from prominent jazz players.

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As with many other areas of life, ‘remoteness’ entered the world of jazz. In the 2010s we were all extremely well ‘connected’ by the electronic and social media yet somehow distant from one another as well. In jazz, one witnessed the phenomenon of musicians in different parts of the world recording with each other without ever having met! The use of the computer made it possible for musicians to email their part of the music to the others and then have a recording engineer assemble the parts to make a total recording as if the musicians worked simultaneously in a recording studio! There is no way that could encourage spontaneity or creative interaction.

I don’t know what the new decade has in store for us. But I do have a suggestion, especially for those listening to jazz. Try and listen to entire albums by the artist of your choice. Listening to just one track from an album doesn’t do the music, musician or indeed the listener full justice. It’s a bit like reading a whole book and not just an excerpt. I intend, in the next issue of the JAZZ CORNER (February 2020), to list some fine jazz albums that I have enjoyed greatly over the years. Watch this space!

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