One Century of Jazz (part 1)

In the 1930s, jazz, and particularly swing, both in cities-based dance bands and blues-influenced country swing music, was among the first music to present African American sounds for a predominantly white audience. But let’s try to examine how jazz music was born…

After 1808 (The importation of slaves into the United States is banned), Afro-American people began to discover the African musical traditions, modifying them to fit their needs in a different American context.

Depending on the region and the tastes of the musical audience, music styles changed from place to place. You could listen to the melancholic call-and-response hollers, or the “sperchils” on the tobacco fields.

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About the drum rhythms, they were mostly influenced by African rhtyhms, too, and homemade drums were used to accompany public dancing until the outbreak of the Civil War. An important influence came from the harmonic style of church hymns , which slaves had learned and merged into their own music as “spirituals”

During the early decades of 1800, an large number of black musicians learned to play European instruments, mostly the violin, which they used to parody European dance music in their own “cakewalk dances”.

Vaudeville (originally French )was a colorful, joyful variety show that took place in most american big cities’theaters, and featured comic sketches with professional actors (some of them-like the Marx Brothers-or even Charlie Chaplin- became famous in movies)-music, ballets, small circus acts. Vaudeville can be considered an important influence on jazz music of the early years.

Years from 1898 to 1933 were incredible fertile and creative, with black artists who played in vaudeville shows and a huge success- but with the beginning of the financial crisis and the birth of cinema, vaudeville began to lose audience.

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Ragtime was a musical genre that enjoyed its peak popularity between 1895 and 1918, Its main trait was its syncopated, or “ragged”, rhythm. This is another genre that has got its origins in African-American communities like St. Louis. Ragtime famous songs include: “Maple Leaf Rag”, “The Entertainer” by Scott Joplin (1902)-

Scott Joplin “The entertainer”

Another big influence for the developing of jazz music is the Cornet player Buddy Bolden : he is considered by many to be a key figure in the development of a New Orleans style of rag-time music, or “Jass” , which later came to be known as jazz.

Guitarists

One the most important guitarists to emerge in the first decades of the 20th  century is definitely Eddie Lang (born Salvatore Massaro) with a style that I find similar to Django Reinhardt (considered the most important guitarist of this era) and I mean: fast, rhythmic chords, faster runs when it came to soloing (and I’m talking really fast!) and considering that guitars had an high string action, it’s really impressive…

I talk about music phrases played with precision, timing, elegance. Eddie (or, for my dear Italians, Salvatore) had a technique and style that combine classical tonal harmony and flamenco guitar -or, if you like, the musical materials that are common in these two genres- listen to this song : Feeling my way (major/minor harmonic scales, dminished arpeggios, chords progressions and phrasing patterns) ragtime “grooves” and timing, and a “little bit” of blues/country elements with all the bendings  typical of these two musical worlds/environment…

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If you focus on feeling my way– you will find different musical influences: its flamenco-like intro (a phrygian dominant scale -the 5th mode of harmonic minor-) that suddenly changes mood as the main tune is in Major and the style becomes very “ragtime” -once again- but the amazing thing here is the use of all those chords, that function as an intermezzo between the song’s themes: very often block chords are used (every melody note  has got its harmonization as the melody goes)

Charlie Christian- the great innovator of guitar

Charlie was one of the 2 first guitarists to play the electric guitar to the audience (the other one is Lonnie Johnson, who also played blues and I wrote about him in my “One century of Blues” article. His style was smooth (listen to Profoundly Blue), precise and fast- like in this track : swing to bop, melodic- and his guitar works influenced hundreds of future jazz guitarists

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Django Reinhardt

If jazz guitar could have a sex, Django’s style would surely be a woman…class, elegance, smoothness and a magic touch…an incredible fluidity, a liquid guitar tone, both in slow melodies, and fast runs, like, for example, in his classic song (with Stephane Grappelli) Nuages-or in another classic Minor Swing

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And now, the greatest jazz guitarist of all times…the person who influenced also Rock guitarists (like Ritchie Blackmore, Jimi Hendrix and many others) in addiction to jazz musicians like Pat Metheny and others…Ladies & Gentlemen…

Wes Montgomery

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He had it all: smoothness, melody, creativity, precision and an amazing touch on his fingers -listen to Polka dots & Moonbeams– a slow ballad where he plays his famous “octaves” (he used to play guitar with his right thumb, by the way) -or, once again, another jazz ballad, a classic by T.Monk Round Midnight– where smoothness is at the max, and the sense of melody is perfect- incredible performance without mistakes, with music phrases that create a “story” and really give us that “late night jazz club” feel…

One song that I always loved is Too late now and its quiet, serene mood (the song has got a chord progression of chords based on a tonic Major 7 chord and the main theme is played with the “Block chord” technique, every note is harmonized, the harmony follows the melody)

Joe Pass

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 Joe Pass is one of the most important guitarists: he took the legacy of Wes, Lang and the early masters and elaborated their technique, licks, timing, to create something fresh and super-precise and speedy -listen to his album Sounds of Synanon and you’ll immediately feel that Loungey, Smokey, Summer Club-feeling.

His masterpiece is this album: virtuoso– where he plays alone, single note melodies, arpeggios, chords, chops, everything,,,with a great taste and elegance.

Jim Hall

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Incredible guitarist with a precise touch and phrasing, a warm, gentle and rich tone. He can play in all situations, all tempos, all grooves. Listen to Jazz Guitar – to hear his amazing, elegant playing…

Barney Kessel

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Another important jazz guitarist, who developed a relaxed, precise, elegant style, beginning in the 50s playing a loungey-swing jazz  music  (listen to Easy like, Don’t blame me where he plays block chords a la Montgomery) Another example of his incredible style, made of block chords, single lines melodies, natural harmonics and ususual chords (for jazz music) is this cover version of I’ve grown accustomed to her face

Pat Martino

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Pat Martino is one guitarist that I like very much, his style is unique, and the musical blend of Afro/Cuban percussions in a jazz environment is something very warm, almost Lounge music speeded up- El Hombre

Tal Farlow

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One of the best jazz guitarists, he combines block chords with single line melody, fills, arpeggios with an incredible taste and elegance

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John Mc Lauglin

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One of the first guitarists to create a fusion between jazz, rock and other music worlds (like traditional music from India) – listen to this masterpieces: In a silent way (Miles Davis) with its liquid, dreamy guitar work-

Mahavishnu Orchestra -Power of Love– and this one Special summernight with Di Meola e De Lucia where the trio play a medley of flamenco songs with special jazzy solos by John and Al Di Meola

His original style incorporates oblique melodies and an alternative (and proto-new wave) approach, like in Devotion, composition with a spacey, abstract and positive atmosphere

and distorted sounds – personally I prefer this kind of playing to his speedy, jazzy solos with super fast runs. Also Marbles is interesting, with different musical elements (a psichedelic “tremolo” arpeggios in the intro, a hard rock riff, psichedelic-jazz solos…)

Grant Green

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Influenced by Charlie Christian, Lester Young, Charlie Parker, Grant was an incredible guitarist, with a precise phrasing and elegant tone…listen to him soloing over a Miles Davis’classic (he uses the famous melodic minor scales, also known as jazz minor scales) So what

Stanley Jordan

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Among the jazz guitarists of the 80s/90s, there is one who is worth to mention: Stanley Jordan, famous for his “touch technique”: he plays, combining techniques such tapping, fingerpicking and legatos, three parts all together (basslines, chords, melodies). His playing is unique and it’s worth listening at least at this live performance : Flying Home

or in this performance, where he plays two guitars at the same time ! What’s going on (Marvin Gaye)

JAZZ ROCK AND FUSION MUSIC

Tommy Bolin

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Before playing with Deep Purple, he played with various artists, and his contribution on Billy Cobham’s Spectrum– his style was a blend of jazz, blues, country, hard rock…at maximum speed

Sonny Sharrock

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Sonny was an interesting guitarist with a style that is a fusion of jazz, rock, experimental music, free jazz…I admit I didn’t know him till today, but after a research on free jazz guitarists I found him and I think his music is really worth a listen: Ask the ages is a cool album, that can satisfy different kinds of listeners, for its “abstract” quality – he often plays “outside” and with a strange tuning, with a rock distortion and a peculiar sense of melody

Allan Holdsworth

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He’s the most incredible guitarist of all times, when it comes to composition (jazz mixed with 900s  contemporary harmony, pop, progressive rock, impressionism) so expect a style that belongs to no genres in specific (that’s why it’s called Fusion music)- listen to Tokyo Dream and its ever-changing moods (and chords) -music that really opens a part of your mind and let you imagine landscapes, fantasy lands, fairy tales…

listen to  City nights : a wonderful journey where you know the start, but you don’t know the end: fast, dreamlike melodies that don’t follow a specific tonal centre (because it always changes) keep on playing again and again, and a sense of freedom, like floating in the air at the maximum speed, start to create inside your mind’s eye…

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