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Time and Change: The Freedom in Jazz

“If you gotta ask you will never know” – the famous Louis Armstrong responding to someone asking him to define jazz. At the best of times, trying to define “jazz” is well nigh impossible.

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Sunil Sampat Dec 21, 2015
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Louis Armstrong. Photo: Herman Hiller. CC by 2.0/Wikimedia Commons.

Louis Armstrong. Photo: Herman Hiller. CC by 2.0/Wikimedia Commons.

“If you gotta ask you will never know” – the famous Louis Armstrong responding to someone asking him to define jazz. At the best of times, trying to define “jazz” is well nigh impossible.

I tend to draw a parallel from an American judge who was ruling in court on a case of pornography. The defendant’ss lawyer asked this judge what he thought constituted pornography and he said,”I can’t define it for you but I know it when I see it”.  It’s the same with jazz! You know it when you hear it! Perceptions, of course are subjective and so jazz will remain an enigma, refusing to be pigeon holed – fair, because jazz is a free, unbounded sound anyway.

“I love listening to all kinds of music”, I said to a friend who was talking about his love of Sufi music and ghazals. “I don’t understand what you see in jazz”, he opined and gave a pretty good verbal version of how jazz sounded to him. “Rat tat da ratta tat” is how it sounds to me, no melody, no words” he continued.
Jazz is confusing to a lot of people because no one definition has ever described it perfectly; the problem of explaining jazz has become even more difficult because so many new genres and ‘types’ of music have emerged in recent times.

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A couple of years ago, American jazz pianist Helen Sung was in Mumbai for a jazz festival. I was driving her someplace on her visit and she was visibly tense about the chaos in Mumbai traffic. “Hey! Didn’t that guy just go through a red traffic light? There goes another” were Helen’s incredulous reactions. “Just relax, Helen I had said to her”. “Yeah, but how do you drive here?” Needing a logical response, I suggested that was exactly how the playing of jazz music sounded to many not familiar with it. “Roughly speaking you have a known starting point and a definite , known destination; in between you improvise. Isn’t that how people perceive jazz music is made?”. She smiled and  relaxed a bit  for the rest of the ride but said, “If someone in my band  broke a (musical) rule, I wouldn’t care too much for that”. Just for the record, Helen Sung has recorded an original composition called ‘Chaos Theory’ since that trip to India. Just wonder whether there is a connection!

Actually jazz is not really like Mumbai traffic, nor is it the “rat- a- tat” sounding staccato rhythmic music my Sufi music friend ‘hears’.

There is so much beautiful melody and even poetry in jazz.

Take the huge body of work composed by people like Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Richard Rodgers, Johnny Mercer, Gene Lees  and many others; they have composed volumes of beautiful, lyrical melodies which have been assimilated into mainstream jazz. These have created scores of Jazz standards. Some musicians have stretched the melody from these standards. Take ‘My favorite Things’ from The Sound of Music. John Coltrane on soprano saxophone has extended the song beyond the melody by exploring it’s harmonic content. Also, vocalist Betty Carter has taken the same song and worked out new vocal realms for it. These may be interesting to try and hear.

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Such is the freedom in jazz that it gives the musician full liberty to check out the possibilities to his or her heart’s  content. The secret to enjoying it is to listen with an open mind.

And don’t bother about trying to define jazz! Just sit back and soak it in.

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