What is Jazz?

Jazzskammtur dagsins er í boði franska bandoneonleikarans Olivier Manoury:

After reading Tómas Einarsson’s post about the Gypsy singer Diego El Cigala I had a reflection on the nature of musical genres.

Diego El Cigala has sung in most Latin American countries, he sang Salsa in the Caribbean, he sang Tangos in Argentina and so on, but whatever he is singing, it is always Flamenco.

So what is Flamenco? It is a way of singing. The voice inflections, the ornaments, the way of handling rhythm, the saturation of the voice etc. and the general attitude, make that whatever he touches becomes Flamenco.

Now what is Jazz? Definitions are many, few are exhaustive, and most are contested by jazz musicians themselves. Some black jazz players in the 70’s even refused to label their music Jazz, pretexting this label had been coined by white people. Every step of the evolution of Jazz has repeatedly been accused of “not being Jazz anymore”.

A journalist asked Miles Davis, the most versatile and revolutionary of all jazz artists, if his “electric period” was still Jazz. As usual he gave the definite answer: “What is Jazz? Louis Armstrong played in his way the shit he heard on the radio, I do the same.”

In Armstrong’s youth there were no “Jazz tunes”. He played some Gospel and Negro Spirituals, some Blues and mostly fashionable songs, La vie en rose, Mack the knife, Cheek to cheek and what not, and then Blueberry hill, What a wonderful world… and every tune he sang became Jazz, just like Diego El Cigala with Flamenco.

Then came the Swing era, then the Be-bop etc. Jazz had its own tunes, composers like Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk made an authentic Jazz repertoire, not borrowed from anywhere else. Fair enough! Jazz became a separate planet.

Miles Davis tried to re-link it to the general pop culture, to Rock and electronic music, he was successful in his own projects but the genres stayed separated.

Now Jazz is like Classical music, a classy music for initiated senior listeners.

Like Classical music, many young professionals play it, extremely well, but the audience has run away. Only a handful of stars, backed by big publishing companies and clever marketing fill the halls.

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