Sunday, March 31, 2013

Jazz: The Language of the Heart

The first thing that comes to mind when you think of Jazz is that it is an all American artform. The second is that it is joyous, swingy, funky, recreational music, the kind that you can play in the background while you tend to your accounts, whatever they may be. While the roots of jazz extend across the globe, from the darkness of Africa to the cool chic of the European renaissance, from the folk forms of the Mexicans & native American Indians to the microtonalities of India & middle east, it was the American circumstance that threw all these into ingredients into one cauldron & brought it to a boil. And it is joyous celebrant music, since it really is the expression of the strength needed to overcome the struggle of daily life & turn even the harshest of social persecutions into a reason to rejoice.

Today’s listening post is about looking at jazz differently. Jazz is largely a comment on social inequity, hypocrisy & discrimination. However, instead of being a messenger of gloom, jazz turns it into a uniquely participative art form, one that engages you & demands your attention, you accounts be damned. This playlist is meant to nudge you into thinking about where we come from & where we are headed as a civilization. Playing time: 60 minutes.

Part 1: Roots 

a) This song was declared as the song of the Century by TIME in its 1999 millennium list. This version has two of the brightest stars of two different genres coming together. Sting, with the Gil Evans Band at the Perugia Jazz Festival, singing Strange Fruit, a song about lynching. Enjoy the lyrics. Click here to watch on Youtube.

Southern trees bear a strange fruit/ Blood on the leaves & blood at the root,
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze, Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.
Pastoral scene of the gallant south,/ The bulging eyes & the twisted mouth,
Scent of magnolias, sweet & fresh,/ Then the sudden smell of burning flesh.
Here is fruit for the crows to pluck, / For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop,/ Here is a strange & bitter crop.

b) Jazz really started out as a way to interpret & cope with the oppression of discrimination in the American South, & once the railroads were in place, it caught the train & came to the cities & the coasts. And it came in many guises, as the blues, as dance music, as popular song, & as bop. Each of these avatars cross bred & gave birth to countless subgenres. This is one of the more electrifying performances of the all time Gershwin classic, Summertime, by one of the iconic women of rock, Janis Joplin, live in Stockholm, 1969.

c) Jazz did not just restrict itself to the social environment. Much of the greatest jazz you will ever hear is about deeply personal politics – about love, loss & longing. Here is a 1933 tune made famous by many down the years, Cry Me a River, sung by Ella Fitzgerald for whom it was originally written, accompanied by Joe Pass.

d) The history of Jazz through the 40s and 50s has already been covered in detail in previous sessions, so let us jump over Ellington, Monk, Charlie Parker, Coltrane, and Charles Mingus to where Jazz began being adopted by the world. Musicians like Miles Davis, John McLaughlin, & Chick Correa (to name a few) were bringing global influences into modern jazz sensibilities & giving birth to an entirely new genre – Fusion or World Jazz. Not only did it infuse jazz with refreshing new syntax & phrasing, it also took jazz to audiences & musicians that were not familiar with it, & opened doors that no one could have imagined existed. As we step out of the shadow of bebop and swing to a new world, here is a tribute to three of the many pioneers who turned Jazz into a truly universal language. Playing together in 1983, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter & Billy CobhamEye of the Hurricane. Click here to watch on youtube.

Part 2: Branches

By the early 60s, the Blues and R&B had already been appropriated & adopted by popular music & the three chord 12 bar blues became a mainstay of the emerging rock sound. Innovation, improvisation, & intuitiveness marked the new world ambassadors of jazz. From being the music of the oppressed, jazz was suddenly the language that everyone could speak.

The heady coming together of the peace movement, rock, protest music, avant garde & globalism led to bands like Blood, Sweat & Tears, The Moody Blues, & Frank Zappa & the Mothers of Invention playing what was essentially jazz. Jazz was no longer a niche, obscure, difficult to appreciate genre. It was out there, in the popular songs, in TV commercials, on your cellphone ringtones, & even in urban & hiphop loops.

a) The other direction jazz was taking was across cultures & nations. Here is a poignant moment from a lecture tour of Russia by Dave Brubeck from the cold war era that shows how jazz transcends barriers.

b) Back in the US, jazz was thriving too. The younger generations were rediscovering jazz as vocabulary thanks to government and private funding for education & research. The good thing was that the musicians ended up having a real good time, free to do what they wanted, and be respected for it too. Here is Victor Wooten playing Amazing Grace.

c) Jazz had grown up to become the common denominator of world music. When you hear performers like Madhav Chari or the Vijay Iyer Trio, you need to strain your ear to hear the Indian influence. On the other hand, if you hear Mahavishnu Orchetra or Shakti, it sounds more Indian than global. Here is an extract from a performance by an act called Kinsmen featuring Rudresh Mahanthappa & Kadri Gopalnath.

d) It is difficult to not include Herbie Hancock in any discussion about the global nature of jazz. His albums – especially The New Standard & Possibilities - are a great jazz primer for young listeners wanting to get a feel for jazz. Here is the Nirvana classic All Apologies interpreted by Herbie Hancock.

e) If you can explain it, it is not jazz. This session has tried to stay away from explaining, but here is a thought for all of us to take home. Jazz taps into the innate power each of us have to preserve & project the mysticity of our human existence. It does so by rising above language, nationality, status, religion & political belief. Jazz is simultaneously the record & the recorder of our history, warts & all. Here is Sachal Studio’s version of Dave Brubeck’s Take Five.

These are my lecture notes from an interactive session I did for the Hyderabad Western Music Foundation on February 10, 2013. Several people have requested that I put it up along with the videos of the music played. It is in the form of a playlist that served as the basis for a discussion on the global language called Jazz. Some of the links refused to embed in the post body, so I added them as clickable links that open in a new window. Hope you enjoyed the music.


  1. Anonymous12:43 AM

    Very enlightening, especially for someone like me who was brought up on a staple diet of R.D. Burman and Kishore Kumar.

  2. Subho, you introduced me to some brilliant music through this post. Strange Fruit was awesome (check out also the Diana Ross version - same link you posted but scroll down). The Brubeck/Violinist clip brought tears to my eyes and Wooten had me mesmerized.
    With the admission that my knowledge of music, never mind jazz is about as deep as the skin of my teeth, your post brought back memories of a tribute to Miles Davis I saw. You would think that Jazz especially as you described it would embrace new ideas. Turns out that Miles Davis' sharply discordant notes angered many, and given he played that way only later in his career it can be assumed he was intentionally pushing boundaries.
    Look forward to your next post.

  3. Subho some brilliant music here.
    Strange Fruit was new to me and very good - but the link you posted (if you scroll down) also led me to listen to Diana Ross singing the same song. Was brilliant.
    The Brubeck/Violinist piece brought tears to my eyes. It was beautiful on many levels and raw (true) in its emotions.
    The Wooten clip had me mesmerized.
    If I may, while first admitting that my knowledge of music is about as deep as skin on teeth, one aspect that may not have come through was that even here people who trod new ground where not always easily accepted. It required courage and conviction. An example that comes to mind is a tribute to Miles Davis that I saw. His sharp discordant notes had many saying "that simply not Jazz". Given the man introduced that type of music late in his career indicates he knew he was pushing boundaries and seemed to accept the implications of doing so.
    All in all, thoroughly enjoyed the post.
    Keep them coming.

  4. One of the best listening sessions I had the pleasure of attending. Was pleasantly surprised at some of the jazz footage you brought up. Looking forward to your next one.

  5. Anonymous1:19 AM

    Just started educating myself on jazz appreciation. Revisited your post on the blues too. Thanks so much for sharing such a beautiful understanding of this form of music and expressing it in such a simple way that even a completely ignorant person like me can hope to begin to understand. I will now set aside theory and just listen...


  6. Thank you for a wonderful and simple way to educate your world about Jazz...
    As my husband recently tweeted:
    In the Beginning Jazz was about Freedom.. In the End it is still about Freedom.....

    Billie Davies
    Billie Davies
    ~ A Jazz Musician ~

    Hollywood, CA 90028
    Tel: (+1) 310.467.2061

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  7. The home of Jazz is said to be Southern Untied States, created by homeless communities. Nice read. You're nicely dealing with all the dimensions of the Jazz.

  8. Thanks. I am completely ignorant of Jazz and this post helped me a bit to get started.


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