October 31, 2002

The Jazz Issue

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There have been numerous books about it. There have been hundreds of clubs dedicated to its propogation and performance. There have been philosophical debates about its meanings and about its creation. There have been countless cultural ramifications from it’s presence. And yet, though the evidence of Jazz as a music and a culture are everywhere, trying to define “Jazz” is like trying to touch the sun — it’s an admirable, if impossible dream.

And in 2002, the term Jazz is as loaded as ever, though the connotations connected to the word seem to have changed. Once, according to some sources, the word was closely associated with a slang term for intercourse, “Jass.” Today, the word itself seems to conjure images of stuffy old men who debate the superiority of various Miles Davis albums. And while the cannonization of Jazz has, indeed, isolated artists who were probably deserving of more recognition that they ultimately recieve, there are positive effects as well. Perhaps the most obvoius result is that there has been extensive research into the history, the musicology, and the anthropology behind this great music.

Culturally, Jazz has given many African American musicians a door into the entertainment world, a business that for the majority of last century (and into today) had a notorious reputation as a closed industry. And, as Jazz has much in common with several indigenous African musics, African-American artists were able to bring African musical elements into the view of mainstream America.

But that was just the beginning. To this day, musicologist and historians argue where the music truly evolved. Perhaps the most popular answer is New Orleans. Known for it’s unique style of Jazz and it’s long history of live performance, New Orleans is probably too simple an answer to the question of Jazz’s origin. Others will argue that Jazz came from the Midwest. And though this question may never be answered concretely, the truth is that some great musicians came out of both areas.

As a music, Jazz has moved from the porches of the south and the midwest to the dance floors of New York City’s big band ballrooms and into the basements of Greenwich village apartment buildings. It has had various zeniths in popular opinion and parallel dips when Jazz seemed to die out or fade. Yet, all the while, the music has grown and changed, bringing forth some of the most talented composers and musicians this country (and, indeed, the world) has ever seen.

But because the music is so varied and the performers so vastly different from one another, Jazz has generally been broken down into several sub-categories. And though from a historical context, this makes the progression and evolution of the music more manageable, this histographical manipulation of the music is misleading.

Indeed, the story of Jazz is long and convoluted. The term transcends any purely musical domain. And it is this fact that creates much of its enigma. How is it that so many vastly disparate musicians can all be lumped under one genre? Is the categorization dead? Well, jazz never really was a ‘genre,’ per se. Saying a band plays Jazz says more about the artists’ approach than anything resembling a definition of their sound. And for this reason, we can call both Herbie Hancock and Medeski, Martin, and Wood Jazz.

These artists are mentioned together for a more pointed reason. Both have recently visited Ithaca, namely the beautiful State Theatre, to bestow their respective interpretations of that thing we call Jazz. In case you’re not familiar with either, we provide the lowdown on the “Father of Fusion” and the new innovators of the Jazz community.

Herbie Hancock

Born: April 12, 1940

Born Herbert Jeffrey Hancock, Herbie became a jazz luminary beginning with his inclusion in Miles Davis’ early ensembles. As a young and virtuosic pianist, Hancock worked with the likes of Tony Williams and Wayne Shorter early in his carreer. He went on to gain acclaim in Jazz forms like Post-bop and Modal Jazz. But what he’s perhaps best known for is his influence in what became known as Fusion. His album Head Hunters was an enormous departure from his earlier work and marked him as one of the music’s most important and creative icons. On October 26, Hancock gave a performance at Ithaca’s own State Theatre.

Selected Discography:

Maiden Voyage (1965) ; Mwandishi (1970) ;

Head Hunters (1973) ; V.S.O.P. Quintet (1977) ;

Future Shock (1983) ; Future 2 Future (2001)

Medeski Martin and Wood

Formed: 1992

John Medeski, Billy Martin, and Chris Wood emerged from the avant-garde downtown NYC scene of the early ’90s to gain recognition as the leaders of latest front of groove-based improvisers, along with Sex Mob and the Lounge Lizards. On It’s A Jungle In Here, the trio made explicit both their respect for their Jazz roots and their desire to stir things up by pairing Thelonius Monk’s “Bemsha Swing” and Bob Marley’s “Lively Up Yourself.” The group’s sound has gradually veered toward some of their more exploratory interests. Collaborations with Vernon Reid and DJ Logic provided a new definition for “Fusion.” They performed at the State Theatre on October 30.

Selected Discography:

Notes From Underground (1992) ;

It’s A Jungle In Here (1993)

Shack Man (1996) ; Uninvisible (2002)

Archived article by Thea Brown