By Akhila Shankar
“After silence, that which expresses the inexpressible is music.” – Aldous Huxley
It was the late 1800s. There was an influx of West African tribes arriving on the east coast of the New World. Many of them landed in the port town of New Orleans, Louisiana. Here, they would start their lives as slaves. They were expected to toil away in the fields without speaking to each other. It was in this silence that the resonating sound of Jazz was born.
These slaves who came from African tribes with strong musical cultures would often communicate via songs called ‘spirituals’. Over the years this music blended with local music traditions like Blues, Ragtime and European traditional music giving birth to what we today call Jazz.
Jazz truly came of age in the post WW1 era of the roaring 20s. This was a period of rapid economic growth. With more disposable income, owning a radio set became common place. When the radio started playing Jazz, the genre went from being played in New Orleans to America’s dance halls and living rooms. This party didn’t stop when the great depression hit in the 1930s. In fact, it just got a lot louder with the introduction of Big Band Swing artists like Count Basie, Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman, whose upbeat music helped lift people’s spirits through tough times. This was also the era that saw the rise of the First Lady of Jazz, Ella Fitzgerald, who was discovered in an amateur contest at the Apollo Theater in 1934.
From L-R: Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman & Ella Fitzgerald.
The 1940s saw a new trend of Bebop, which shifted Jazz from dance music to music that theoretically challenged musicians with its fast tempos and chord-based improvisation. In many ways, this era defined the modern perception of Jazz as music for those who are serious about art.
By the 1950s, there was a new kind of influx of culture as Cuban musicians started playing with Jazz artists in New York. This led to an interesting amalgamation of Latin culture and then contemporary jazz and blues. Artists like Jelly Roll Morton and Dizzy Gillespie introduced the world to Afro Cuban Jazz.
As America entered the 60s, the genre hit its most difficult patch. Racism and segregation was rampant and the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s became the focus of the era. Not to mention, with the growth of television and the introduction of Rock ‘n’ Roll in the mainstream, the audience for Jazz was shrinking. By the 70s, it was clear that Jazz needed to move with the times. Miles Davis’ ‘In a Silent Way‘ became the first Jazz Fusion album, embracing electric instruments. His 1970 album ‘Bitches Brew’ inspired by rock and funk became his most successful album of the era.
By the 80s, ‘pop fusion’ or ‘smooth jazz’ became the norm backed by the works of Kenny G, Boney James, Grover Washington and others.
The men who defined the Jazz era of the 70s & 80s. From L-R: Miles Davis, Kenny G, Boney James & Grover Washington.
Jazz never regained its position in the mainstream. However, it continues to find its place in the music of Michael Buble, Norah Jones, Diana Krall and the likes. After all, good music doesn’t have an expiration date.