Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Duke Ellington, 3 Nov. 1954

July 10, 2020

We Have a Lot to Learn from Jazz

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In an era where we create entire festivals around electronic dance music and praise carefully engineered techno tracks, jazz might seem like a far cry into the colossal cavern of music history. While it is true that jazz has long been a cornerstone of the American music landscape, the style has certainly stood the test of time. Even today, many of the tunes and subgenres we hold so dear are rooted in the techniques and motifs of jazz. This style is an essential part of America’s national heritage, one we would do right to learn from and honor.

First and foremost, it is entirely impossible to truly understand jazz without an awareness of the people who developed and cultivated it. The style was born in New Orleans, the lively Louisiana hotspot known for its diversity of ethnic and racial identities. Residuals of French culture left behind by colonial ventures interacted with both African cultures brought to the United States through enslavement and the resulting African-American cultures that took root. Additionally, new arrivals from several European countries settled in New Orleans. The tail end of the 19th century until roughly the end of World War I was a crucial incubation period for the new style, although jazz really saw its heyday in the decade or so preceding the Great Depression. It is at this point that we see many of the greats, such as Louis Armstrong, begin to emerge.

Jazz was groundbreaking. It was edgy, evocative and disruptive. It drew upon the traditions of its precursors — namely blues and ragtime — with an enthralling and upbeat twist. Some historians even surmise that the term “jazz” itself comes from the jasmine scent worn frequently by New Orleans’ prostitutes. The style’s strong syncopation is evidence of the effects of African drumming customs, while its unmistakable flare shows the influence of Caribbean tunes. Even the “call and response” pattern common among jazz pieces is reminiscent of the interactive nature of Baptist religious gatherings.

The essence of jazz, though, is improvisation. Jazz creates musical moments that are irrevocably in flux. As put by Ryan Gosling’s character in Damien Chazelle’s 2016 film La La Land, during a performance each member of a jazz group is “composing, they’re rearranging, they’re writing and they’re playing the melody.”

If you’re convinced that your only connection to this style is Spotify’s “Jazz for Study” playlist, I challenge you to think again. Jazz is not just your grandparents’ childhood soundtrack, either. In fact, it reaches further and wider than you might immediately imagine. Stylistically, jazz has popularized the improvisation we often see in genres that surfaced later in the 20th century, such as rock. A glimpse at some of the most beloved American hip hop tracks also reveals the indelible impact of jazz. “Empire State of Mind” by JAY-Z and Alicia Keys is grounded by a punctuated piano phrase that sounds an awful lot like something you might hear from a jazz quartet; The Sugarhill Gang’s quintessential “Rapper’s Delight” is practically teeming with jazzy basslines. Even today, the crossover between the two styles is easily discernible — take a look at the work of Anderson .Paak or Rejjie Snow.

Even pop powerhouses cite jazz artists as major sources of inspiration for their work. Adele has discussed her appreciation for Etta James. Lady Gaga has spoken about her childhood exposure to Billie Holiday. Lana Del Ray has been public about her fondness of Ella Fitzgerald. It is important to note that in addition to the ones listed above, many of the most well-respected jazz singers were Black women. Nina Simone, Dinah Washington, Sarah Vaughan — the list goes on and on.

Jazz continues to fuel changes in our musical terrain. Modern artists are both honoring the style’s roots and using them as a foundation for a completely new type of craft. What is it, exactly, that we can learn from jazz? The answer, like the genre itself, is not a simple one. Jazz is about harnessing the dynamism of life and being receptive to how different ideas, sounds and cultures interact. This openness is perhaps the most important lesson jazz has to teach us.


Megan Pontin is a rising sophomore in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. She can be reached at [email protected].