Ask most people what they think jazz is and they’ll most likely tell you it’s a bloke with a trumpet, or a bloke with a trumpet with a band. But to think of it as such is to do it a disservice – it’s actually well over 100 years old, and can be broadly defined as a tuneful collision of traditional African music and its European art-school equivalent.
We at Mayhem! prefer to agree with the great Duke Ellington (one of many giants in the field) who said simply: “It’s all music”. Clearly John Edward Hasse, the founder of Jazz Appreciation Month, agrees with the good Duke and since 2001 has sought to celebrate jazz as both a turning point in musical history and a vibrant, constantly evolving forum for musicians to show off their creativity in improvisation. Settle in and do try to keep up with the Mayhem! house band!
BIRTH OF THE COOL
But just where does our jamming begin? The word ‘jazz’ is believed to come from ‘jasm’, an American slang term dating from the 1860s which meant ‘spirit’ or ‘energy’, but its first widespread use in print was actually in relation to baseball. Consider this extract from a 1912 Los Angeles Times Pacific Coast League report on Portland Beavers pitcher Ben Henderson’s then-revolutionary new pitching method:
‘BEN’S JAZZ CURVE. “I got a new curve this year,” softly murmured Henderson yesterday, “and I’m goin’ to pitch one or two of them tomorrow. I call it the Jazz ball because it wobbles and you simply can’t do anything with it. As prize fighters who invent new punches are always the first to get theirs. Ben will probably be lucky if some guy don’t hit that new Jazzer ball a mile today. It is to be hoped that some unintelligent compositor does not spell that the Jag ball. That’s what it must be at that if it wobbles.”
It quickly spread to other newspapers, with some fluctuation as to whether it was applied in a positive or negative context. San Francisco Bulletin sports reporter E.T ‘Scoop’ Gleeson used it the following year to attack what he saw as inaccurate criticism of George Clifford McCarl, playing for the Beavers’ league rivals the San Francisco Seals, saying first that: “McCarl has been heralded all along the line as a ‘busher,’ but now it develops that this dope is very much to the ‘jazz’” before changing his tune while trying to explain his use of the term ‘jazz’ to his readers:
“Everybody has come back to the old town full of the old ‘jazz’ and they promise to knock the fans off their feet with their playing. What is the ‘jazz’? Why, it’s a little of that ‘old life’, the ‘gin-i-ker’, the ‘pep’, otherwise known as the enthusiasm. A grain of ‘jazz’ and you feel like going out and eating your way through Twin Peaks. It’s that spirit which makes ordinary ball players step around like Lajoies and Cobbs.”
KIND OF BLUE
A lot of this kind of vocabulary spilled over when jazz first made its way into music, first appearing in the context we know it today in 1915, in the Chicago Tribune, where reporter Fred R. Shapiro explained it to his readers succinctly: “Blues Is Jazz and Jazz Is Blues”. Pianist Jelly Roll Morton takes the plaudits as composer of the first widely available jazz arrangement in print, his Jelly Roll Blues published the same year (though he wrote it in 1905).
Ask any jazz aficionado for some recommended listening and they’ll likely reel off a list including one or more of the aforementioned Duke, Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra, Weather Report, and Sun Ra and his Arkestra, possibly also including bebop pioneers like Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Thelonious Monk, though if you’re keen to really go back to its roots in the ‘big band’ era, also check out Count Basie, Cab Calloway, Benny Goodman, and Glenn Miller – as just a few examples.
Should you then be inspired to see it done live, whether as a performer or interested spectator, try either the Portsmouth Jazz Society: www.portsmouthjazz.com or Southampton Jazz Club: www.southamptonjazzclub.org
In the meantime, get practising, get a few friends together and you could be jazzing before you know it!