Thursday, December 12, 2013

It Don’t Mean A Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)

Madhav Chari continues his series on understanding jazz by recollecting an incident to help define swing.

There is a common misconception that Jazz music is not easily accessible to a general audience. I mean an English speaking audience from urban India with at least some tiny exposure to elements of western music. Even Bollywood music has elements of western music: this level of exposure is enough to enjoy Jazz music.
The misconception is rooted in two obvious causes: recorded music and live performances. Much of the music labeled as Jazz either by the press in India, recording industry, or by many musicians, is actually NOT Jazz music, but music incorrectly labeled as Jazz music. Live performances either of the so called Jazz legends of India in Mumbai, considered the premier Jazz center of India, or even by some foreign musicians sent by consulate organizations, can be extremely insipid, and almost always not connected to the actual energies of Jazz music.

Count Basie and Frank Sinatra

My own belief is that Jazz music played well, can communicate to this very same English speaking urban Indian audience. But the issue is quality, and the energy of the music has to connect with the Jazz of the past masters of the music. In particular the music has to “swing”.

Swing is an energy carried by the rhythm in Jazz music, and has the ability to make you tap your feet to the music. No intellectual understanding is necessary to feel swing. Every great Jazz master was, and is, a master of swing.

Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to conduct a Jazz workshop at the National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT). The students who attended the workshop were mainly women in their early 20s, and none listened to Jazz music in any depth, some were not even familiar with the term “Jazz”. A lot of them were consumers of Indian pop culture, and most had definitely listened to Bollywood.

Just ten minutes before the start of the workshop, the classroom was almost full. My assistant Melvin Ranjan and I wanted to find some background music on his laptop to warm up the audience before we started the actual session. We wanted to find some Jazz that was swinging.

Not much music was on the laptop, and we quickly found a recording of guitarist Alan Holdsworth: definitely not swinging, but plenty of fast notes, intricate drumming, and in my own opinion the sort of guitar player that could appeal to a rock music audience.

Unfortunately the audience did not respond with their bodies to this music, in fact we felt that the energy in the room was a bit dead. We needed to find some new music fast.

With some quick searching and luck, we found a wonderful recording of the great pianist-composer Count Basie, probably recorded in the late 1930s or early 40s. The moment we switched to this recording, there was a complete change in the energy of the audience: you could see all the young women in the front row tapping their feet to the music, even if they were sending an SMS to their friends or talking with each other. We could also see bodies slightly swaying with the music across the room.

This completely vindicated my assumption that good quality Jazz that swings hard and with emotional intensity, has the ability to communicate to a lay audience, even if the audience has not been exposed to Jazz music.

So how does one start listening to Jazz music? I recommend the lovely recordings “We Get Requests” by the great pianist Oscar Peterson, or “Atomic Basie” by the great pianist bandleader Count Basie. After that, just listen and feel the music!

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