It Don't Mean a Thing if it Ain't Got That Swing
By Garrett Peek
The saying is that all things popular in music go in a circle. What is in today will be out tomorrow and what was in yesterday will be back in sometime. You can see this progression even in today's music. The current music has an overwhelming 1980's feel to it. The music is heavily produced and the appeal of the artists looks to be more visual than musical. In the 80's that led to the grunge revolt of the 90's in which the artists were not particularly attractive but the music was pure and the focal point of that era. So I guess we have that up next again on the horizon. The one style that never seems to hit the comeback trail is Jazz. As a musician, this is maddening because not only is jazz a true American music but it also has many qualities that make it unique from other styles of music. I highly encourage students to not only learn how to play jazz but also to incorporate it into their listening.
Jazz is almost pure improvisation. Improv and jazz are almost synonyms. This is complete opposite to rock where the songs are meticulously organized and rehearsed. Jazz songs can be planned out, but they can also be made up on the spot. A lot of jazz groups just decide a key signature and a tempo and start playing from there. This is great for students because it forces them to think on their feet. They have to learn to truly work and communicate with their fellow musicians as the song is rolling.
Somehow in the last 20 years soloing has become a mess. Guitarists still put solos into songs regularly but nothing like the epic solos of the 1970's. The epic solo wars of the Eric Clapton era have ended and what is left is a 4-16 measure jam over the main melody. Drummers have been no exception to this either. Drum solos have become a hodgepodge of speed and technical ability that has become redundant in most cases. I'm a drummer and I use drum solos at concerts as a good time to seek the restroom. Soloing in jazz is much more of an art. The players thrive on call-and-response solos that not only show technical skill but also help accentuate the music. It's not uncommon for jazz songs to have most of the band take a solo at some point. This is because the solos are more entwined with jazz than they are rock. They are designed to help the song, not to let a member of the group flaunt personal ability. This makes jazz an easier sell to drum students in particular.
â€œIf it's too loud, you're too old.â€ The older I get, the more I realize that this is not only true but it's also accepted by older listeners. This can be problematic for rock bands because it limits the amount of people that are willing to make up an audience for a performance. Many people are done with the booming bass and the screaming guitars while they are out on the town for the night. Jazz is a quieter music. Most of the instruments are at a much lower volume and sometimes not even plugged in. This makes jazz accessible to more listeners than rock. I've seen people walk into establishments with live bands and hear the volume levels of rock bands and turn right around. I've never seen that with a jazz band. People enjoy the lower volume and the atmosphere that it adds.
Jazz has been a music kept alive by musicians. We just won't let it die, and for good reason. I don't ever foresee a time where jazz will be the monster it was in the 30's again but I think it can rise from it's current ashes. All that we need to do is keep spreading the love and knowledge of this amazing style of music and it will find it's place again. Or maybe we need to make a Jazz Hero video game. Hmmm.....(Patent Pending).