Jazz for People Who Hate Jazz
Has anybody ever asked you “What kind of music do you like?” and you’ve replied, “I like all kinds”? I have. And that would not be truthful.
As a columnist who regularly writes and takes pleasure in sharing with you what music I’m enjoying and listening to in the moment or have discovered along the way that I find of interest, I’ve often rejected the notion of critical review. My mantra has been that all music is good to someone, somewhere, sometime. It compares with the position that places emphasis on perception over some hocus-pocus make-believe qualitative measurement. Or as David Hume wrote way back in 1742: ‘”Beauty in things exists merely in the mind which contemplates them.”
With an affinity and preference for roots music, or perhaps that still hard-to-define genre we’ve classified as Americana, my own truth is that I do not love all music. I can differentiate between that music whose audio signals my brain can’t process with any sort of clarity — metal, punk, a lot of (but not all) hip-hop, experimental and free-form — and that which I simply can’t listen to because I have a negative emotional response. Like this song, which is closing in on 30,000,000 views on You Tube.
So … jazz. From my very first job in the mailroom of an indie music distributor in 1972 and throughout the next 35 years doing sales and marketing, I’ve represented some of the greatest labels and musicians, yet found most all of it barely listenable. I just couldn’t get my head or ears around it. The rare exceptions were an album on Riverside by Lil Hardin Armstrong, Ornette Coleman’s 1960 Change of The Century, John Coltrane’s My Favorite Things, and anything by Django Reinhardt.
That changed in 2001 with the release of Ken Burns’ documentary Jazz, which covered the history of the genre in America from the beginning of the 20th century to present day. As I watched and listened to those ten episodes, I realized that it wasn’t that I couldn’t relate to jazz, but rather that I hadn’t yet been exposed to what pleased my ears. My “sweet spot” ran from the early recordings of Sidney Bechet and Jelly Roll Morton, through the New Orleans and Harlem Renaissance period, the Chicago and Kansas City bands, and into the swing era and big bands of the late-’40s.
For a kid who only knew Louis Armstrong from his recording of “Hello, Dolly” and later “What a Wonderful World,” it was surprising for me to discover that he was as important to the history and development of jazz as the Carter Family or Jimmie Rodgers were to folk and country music. Armstrong moved in and out of bands for decades, playing with Kid Ory, King Oliver, and Fletcher Henderson, and accompanied vocalists Ma Rainey, Alberta Hunter, and Bessie Smith. He didn’t start singing himself until 1929, when he joined the pit orchestra for an all-black revue in New York called Hot Chocolates and performed “Ain’t Misbehavin’.”
That clip speaks volumes to how closely jazz, blues, and the music from Appalachia were intertwined, and along with the Ken Burns film, it inspired me to go off and search for jazz recordings for people like myself, people who felt unable to connect with that genre. And the more I focused on studying the historical context and growth of all-American music instead of sticking to the school of strict genre-classification, the more my auditory palette grew.
If you’d like to take a trip down the jazz highway, here’s a few of the recordings and artists that I keep in rotation. They fit like fingers in a glove with all of my other roots music favorites.
Jelly Roll Morton and His Red Hot Peppers
Jay C. Higginbotham & His Six Hicks
King Oliver and Henry “Red” Allen
Bennie Moten’s Kansas City Orchestra
Cab Calloway and His Cotton Club Orchestra
Many of my past columns, articles, and essays can be accessed at my own site, therealeasyed.com. I also aggregate news and videos on both Flipboard and Facebook as The Real Easy Ed: Americana and Roots Music Daily. My Twitter handle is @therealeasyed and my email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.