Duke Ellington and George Gershwin

Musical interdisciplinarians.

George Gershwin and Duke Ellington were some of the most famous and influential jazz composers of all time. Their most lasting accomplishments have been in the field of interdisciplinary music, or the sampling of classical and popular music in their jazz compositions. Let’s learn a bit more about Gershwin and Ellington:

George Gershwin was born in Brooklyn in 1898, and began his performing career at the age of 15, after dropping out of school. Throughout his career, Gershwin wrote a dozen Broadway shows with his older brother Ira, as well as orchestral compositions like An American in Paris (1928). During the time when Gershwin was composing, the realm between jazz and classical music was very fluid, and the influence of both forms is found in both types of compositions. Gershwin, who was originally interested in pop music and then became primarily a jazz guy, entered the classical world through the success of his Rhapsody in Blue in 1924. Gershwin’s classical success and the connection between the forms was symbolized in Austrian Ernst Krenek’s 1927 opera Jonny spielt auf which illustrates a jazz guy stealing the violin of the classical performer, which is representative of the jazz musicians and classical musicians stealing musical stuff from each other. Gershwin died in Hollywood in 1937.

Duke Ellington was born in Washington D.C. in 1899, and started taking piano lessons at the age of seven. Ellington led his legendary band from 1923 until his death in 1974. Ellington didn’t explicitly label his style as jazz; instead, he thought that all genres of music could borrow from each other and make a sort of post-genre kind of music. But there are some aspects of individual genres that just wouldn’t work together—like a country music theme with a jazz progression even if they were messed with—just wouldn’t work that well. Genres seem to exist for a reason, aspects of some music belong and should only belong to the genre, although are probably “good.” However, Ellington used a number of different styles, and borrowed aspects from many different styles that worked very well. Ellington’s ideas relate to the borrowing of some musical techniques from one genre, with a healthy amount of messing, is usually a good idea, and certainly was good for him and his innovations. Ellington died in New York City at the age of 75.

What are your favorite George Gershwin and Duke Ellington tunes?

Remembering the Jazz Side of Etta James

Although her songs better recall blues than jazz, Etta James, who died last week, was also noted for adding jazz undertones to most of her catalog and even won a Grammy for "Best Jazz Vocal" in 1994 for  a tribute album to jazz legend Billie Holliday. As for Etta's own albums, "Blue Gardenia," was perhaps her most pure jazz album.

Since so many modern people only know the late legend for bluesy R&B music such as "At Last" and "I'd Rather Be Blind," I think it's important in the aftermath of her death to underscore her jazz tunes.

Besides the title song, the 13-song collection "Blue Gardenia," released in 2001 and partially an homage to jazz singer Dinah Shore who also had an album by the same name, contains James' interpretation of the following jazz staples:

  • This Bitter Earth
  • He's Funny That Way
  • In My Solitude
  • There is No Greater Love
  • Don't Let the Sun Catch You Crying
  • Love Letters      
  • These Foolish Things     
  • Come Rain or Come Shine           
  • Don't Worry 'Bout Me   
  • Cry Me a River  
  • Don't Blame Me              
  • My Man              

If you listen to nothing else on the album, choose the first three reflective, haunting songs which are by far the most moving.  Clearly, her penchant was for ballads and dark, pessimistic tunes. That's understandable since her life was rough and she ran away from home during her teenage years, finding her fame on a road filled with drug addiction and abusive lovers.

On Saturday, the day of Etta James' funeral at a church in Gardena, California, I will be listening to the entire album.

The beauty of Etta James' music is that it's can't really be confined to simply one genre.  The 74-year-old legend prided herself on merging a variety of sounds with jazz and blues, including rock, gospel. and even country.

Listen to Etta sing the jazz-tinged "Bitter Earth" below:

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Thoughts on Jazz Film Classic: “Bird”

Recently I re-watched Clint Eastwood’s celluloid expression of the musical life of Charlie “Bird” Parker. It remains as hideous as I remember.  A man who was charming and full of life is presented as dull and hard to watch.

Forgive me, Forest Whittaker fans, but the lead role was horribly miscast. Whittaker was simply not able to capture the dynamism that IS Parker.

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Most of the blame must fall on the shoulders of the director for his story choices, exclusions and lighting. That’s right, lighting. The film is horribly illuminated. I imagine the intent was to create a somber mood to fit the music, yet it is as if the director didn’t know how to properly shoot dark-skinned actors.  There are several scenes where the characters are but indistinguishable blobs – a disgrace for a biographical portrait of Parker. One can argue that such darkly fused images reflect the chaotic nature of Parker's jazz. I don't buy that. If the effect interferes with the enjoyment of the film, it fails on execution.

Secondly, there’s little jazz music, giving viewers little chance to fall in love with the creativity and mind of Parker.

More than the lightning and the lack of signature tunes, however, I question the choice to isolate Parker in a white world, showing no relationship with his mother and not even a scant reference to his first two black wives. There are no scenes of Parker vibing with the other famed black musicians of his time. It’s as if Parker sprung fully-grown from the earth into the arms of white women and the life of his pal Chan Robinson, creating his music in a vacuum. 

Of course, I understand Eastwood’s desire to have the movie illuminate the bond between Robinson and Parker, which was essential to Parker’s career. However, the movie dismisses any integral role Parker’s cultural bonds and heritage had on his musical development.  That is a travesty.

Here’s hoping another director will take on the task of bringing the true and full Charlie Parker to film.

The Sexy Combo of Jazz and R&B: Profiling Jazz Musician Jackiem Joyner

The Best of Smooth Jazz

Since the inception of jazz into mainstream music, numerous variations of the genre have evolved. However, the smoothest sounds of the style continues to grab the attention of the population the most. One of the most relaxing and disarming smooth jazz artists is Jackiem Joyner. Joyner combines the modern sounds of R&B into his particular jazz style in order to produce an up to date and appealing sound that appeals to several.

Growing in popularity with each passing year, Joyner's style of saxophone play is obviously one of the best around. Born in Virginia and raised in New York by a single parent, Jackiem developed his musical skill during childhood, though he did not begin with the most peaceful of instruments. Drums were his first choice of talent and he also participated in church choir events as well. Winning various NAACP awards for his musical abilities, he continued to expound and hone his musical skills as he began to extend his interests to the saxophone. Presently, he is one of the most talented jazz saxophonists in the business.

Joyner's sound is engaging and thought provoking. His music invites listeners to completely dispel all negative energies and stresses as they become engrossed in the palpable notes. Joyner's album "Baby Soul" is a personal favorite of mine. On one of his most notable tracks "Stay With Me Tonight," Joyner collaborates with well known jazz guitarist Peter White to produce a gorgeous and incomparable listen for anyone wanting to unwind. Joyner's website jackiemjoyner.com provides fans with tour dates, information and opportunities to purchase music. Check out this artist, and find out why he has spent several weeks at #1 on the top 50 smooth jazz list during his tenure as one of the best saxophonists in the business. 

Profiling Jazz Musician NILS

Nothing alleviates the stresses of life like an evening relaxing to some of the smoothest jazz sounds in the country. In every city, there are various jazz clubs that provide smooth jazz connoisseurs with some of the most local and pleasurable sounds. However, during these shows, the music is not always available to the listener following the performance which is to the detriment of the listener looking to include some new artists in their music library. Thankfully, however, some of the most pleasurable sounds can be found amongst smooth jazz artists that even some of the most extreme jazz enthusiast have not yet had the fortune of coming across. Accordingly, this article may provide that person with some worthy information.

One of the best jazz musicians available to help calm the stresses of a long day is NILS, a German jazz guitarist and composer. His most recent album inspired by the location of his current home in California, “Pacific Coast Highway" provides listeners with an engrossing and relaxing sound that will take care of any baggage that crazy employees, needy family and dramatic friends have dumped on your day. Providing listeners with a relaxing and soothing electric guitar sound, NILS’s style can be positively compared to those who represent some of the most reputable smooth jazz sounds available today.  NILS sound can be found anywhere online for a reputable price. His most recent album is the highest recommended for those looking to add a new sound to their music libraries.

Comparing John Coltrane's "Alabama" and MLK's "I Have a Dream" speech

We hear snippets of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream Speech” all the time. Politicians subvert it for their own purposes; advertisers use it to sell stupid products.  But the “I Have a Dream” speech is actually brilliant and still motivational to people today. But is it as effective as a piece of music in influencing Civil Rights? Jazz musician John Coltrane wrote the moving and emotion-filled song Alabama in response to the Ku Klux Klan’s bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in 1963. Let’s take a look at these two works, both of which influenced the Civil Rights movement significantly:

People are called to action for a cause if they are emotionally motivated by a cause. This can occur either through feeling inspired by something or through a mental understanding which causes an emotional connection. Martin Luther King makes his readers emotionally connect through his use of biblical metaphors to which they mentally understand to call people to support Civil Rights for black people. Music, rather than words, can inspire people to action because they emotionally connect with it right away, rather than having to understand before forming an emotional bond, as one must do with words. Although it is easier to call people to action with music, such as Coltrane’s Alabama rather than through words because while music provokes feelings in a listener, with words the listener has to mentally understand in order to emotionally connect, Martin Luther King Junior, through his use of metaphors similar to those in The Bible in his I Have a Dream speech, illustrates his wish for equal legal rights for blacks as a moral issue and therefore calls his listeners to action.

MLK uses metaphors with intentional or unintentional religious references to call his listeners to action for Civil Rights because the religious connotation is something which made them feel morally obligated, and therefore mentally and emotionally connected, to support and promote this movement.  MLK uses metaphors which are similar to those used in religious services, such as “not satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred,” which evokes thoughts of communion and drinking from a wine glass, as well as references similar to the Bible, such as “until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream,” which evokes thoughts of parting the Red Sea in which the waters are parted for freedom and justice. These references which stir religious feeling and make his listeners connect the Civil Rights movement as a moral issue which makes them feel morally driven as moral humans to support it and do something to change things. Because they mentally understand the Civil Rights movement as moral, they become emotionally connected to it.

MLK called people to action with his words, but it is easier to call people to action with music, such as Coltrane did with his piece Alabama, rather than words because music stirs emotion in a listener, but a listener of words has to understand and agree with those words in order to feel the emotion. For example, through the dark timbre of the saxophone and the mournful way the saxophonist plays it in Alabama, an emotion is evoked in the listener. A similar connection in MLK would have to be a direct reference to something bad which happened-“we cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote”-- to which the listener could understand and emotionally connect rather than emotionally connecting right away. There is a more direct connection in music between a listener’s emotions and his feeling of a call to action than there are in words.

Listen to Alabama here:

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The Bad Plus - "People Like You"

The slow build of "People Like You", the standout track from The Bad Plus's 2010 release Never Stop, forces its listener to pause and actually take it in for its nine minute running time. This isn't smooth jazz you put on in the background. It's a careful, slow track with some simply elegant melodies. I caught a live performance from this Minnesota jazz trio about a year and a half ago, and it's well worth it to see them play in person. Dave King has been known to play drums with baby toys. Just saying. Here's the full audio of "People Like You". Listen through to the end.

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