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Jazz Corner: What Is ‘Real Jazz’? Part II

Maybe not all we hear is jazz, so how do we know for sure?

Sunil Sampat Jul 27, 2016
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Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock. Photo: Paco Romero-Ferrero/Flickr: pacoromeroferrero/ CC BY-SA 2.0

Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock. Photo: Paco Romero-Ferrero/Flickr: pacoromeroferrero/ CC BY-SA 2.0

Jazz has, like a large wide river, been a meandering body that has sustained and nourished people and places it has touched. It has been a source of civilization, culture and certainly has brought musical sustenance along its route. I firmly believe that the basic nature of jazz remains the same. Like the Ganges flowing through Haridwar still remains the Ganges when it reaches Varanasi, so also mainstream jazz retains its integrity through its passage in time.

Jazz certainly has gathered momentum in its century of flow and has incorporated and absorbed  sounds and folk music from elsewhere. Thus the Brazilian bossa nova or samba, first introduced into jazz by Stan Getz and his “Girl from Ipanema” and other songs have now become a mainstream sound in jazz, and the samba beat is widely used in jazz performance. Earlier, Duke Ellington in conjunction with Juan Tizol had brought in some Latin rhythm in composing “Caravan”.  Dizzy Gillespie had a whole songbook full of compositions with the Cuban sounds in the company of Cuban percussionist Chano Pozo.  Dizzy’s compositions, “A Night in Tunisia”, “Tin Tin Deo”, “Manteca” and a few others  are some of the finest pieces in all of jazz.

In recent times, tango jazz with the very clever use of the accordion and Argentinian style guitar, has enriched the jazz river; as has flamenco jazz. In all this integration into jazz’s mainstream, the basic nature of jazz, the ever-present feel of the blues, has never been sidelined. The elements of this great music have always been preserved in each of its progressive steps. As I was trying to explain to my friend Ms. R in this column last month, when we speak of jazz, the music played  may not be a specific sound but it has a definite trend, albeit under a wide umbrella. To cite a parallel from a courtroom somewhere in the US, a judge, hearing a case involving pornography, was asked by one of the lawyers to define ‘pornography’. He said, “I don’t have a definition for it but I sure know it when I see it!” So too it is similar with jazz. We  sure know it when we hear it!

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The aspect that has confused at least one young generation of jazz  listeners is the introduction of the sound of new instruments, particularly electronic instruments. In the late 1960s, Miles Davis embarked into this world of electronic sound as an experiment. The first generation  “synthesizer” in the hands of pianist Herbie Hancock, the clavinet and other electronic instruments created sounds in jazz which were alien to listeners’ ears. Though pianists Chick Corea and Joe Zawinul tried their hands with the synthesizer, not too many horn players entered this arena. However,  Miles Davis never returned to acoustic sounds and continued with his sound of fusion. A decade after this tangential movement started, a counter-movement began that was led by trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and he sought to bring jazz back to it’s “roots”.  A large body of jazz musicians have returned to the mainstream sound of jazz, experimenting with harmonies and melody but not the structure of the music.

Meanwhile in India, the Seventies’ sound of jazz fusion took hold and musicians have taken to this sound wholesale. I have heard a young musician tell me he thought Chick Corea invented jazz; there is certainly a body of thought that Jaco Pastorius, who played the electric bass,  is the father of bass playing! The influence of rock with its amplified guitars and the ‘bass guitar’ has also influenced our younger “jazz” musicians.

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In the US, the home of jazz – and jazz innovations, the present generation is now almost exclusively playing the mainstream sound with conventional saxes, trumpets, trombones, acoustic guitars and upright acoustic double bass, while in India the prevailing sound is a bhelpuri type fusion. This seems to be the inspiration for many young musicians in India, who continue on this divergent tangent.

The river of jazz is the classical music from the US and like any other classical music, it does not have a sell-by-date, any more than the music of  Bach, Beethoven or Mozart. It is timeless and equally fresh and relevant whenever it is played. That is because good music is always telling you a story and storytelling is as old as the hills.

So Ms. R, what you hear in Mumbai and New York don’t have much in common. And maybe not all you hear is jazz!

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