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A JAZZ JOURNEY - 1925-1994


Ken Rattenbury
Parts 1 2/3/4/5/6/7/8/9/10/11/12/13/14/Conclusion



I'VE ALWAYS held the view that jazz should, first and foremost, swing like mad at whatever tempo and, without that almost undefinable quality, that built-in, frequently implied, relentless rhythmic impetus, without which the music may inspire serious doubts as to its validity in the idiom at all. On a similar track, I don't mean - putting it rather indelicately, but with obvious clout - that the output should be of the "excrete-or-explode" variety; frantic, decibel-scarred, convoluted to the point of disintegration, a courting of the cheap cheer. Not a bit of it, for surely, nobody really needs to shout to be heard?

There is much steely strength in the gentle, nicely-timed riposte, the considered, carefully formulated adjoinder, and in music, the canny utilisation of silence and relaxation, breathing space such economy brings. And when you get both swing and spaciousness in the same package, the music can do no less than possess dramatic impact of heroic proportion. Light and shade, the weaving of textures. In painter's terms, I guess, to start a picture with dead, sable black in unduly generous, careless profligacy, means where else can they go for effect or telling drama? They've loosed their arrows, so to speak . . . .

And so it is with jazz - all a matter of taste, objectivity and discrimination against any form of excess. I know, to my shame I admit, from years of operating in a jazz environment, that often all I seem to need to do is initiate, say, a belting, blistering lip-trill and eke it out over a whole chorus (changes permitting, of course!) and, to a certain minority faction, I'm sold. Not any aesthetic profit, true, but I do acknowledge a certain basic, almost animal pleasure to be derived from the effort.

Trumpets have to be tamed, from time to time! Only do it once in a session, though and even then the lads have been known to murmur, "Here it comes again!" Then, in converse almost - I don't really go for timid, diffident soloing, never did. Far better to wallop it one now and again, then tiptoe back to the ballads - say, the harmon mute and the placid coasting of relaxed economy. An open-ended subject, this business of what and how much to play. That is why jazz is such an unremitting challenge; almost wholly dependent upon mood, company, environment, incentive and - dare I suggest (why not - that's what I believe!) - a modicum, carefully rationed, of reverent sycophancy (you know, a bit of Bix, Bunny, Bobby or Braff, a mention of Miles, a suspicion of Satchmo, a whirl of Wild Bill, a dash of Dizzy and so on), doesn't come amiss.

Quoting from the stylistic edicts of the greats can be a reliable spur, a springboard from which one's own humble efforts may be catapulted - I go as far as to say, goaded into profitable reality. Learn from such masters, I say - they radiate such inarguable truth from their extemporised statements that it seems quite likely that at least some of their discoveries could conspire to widen and extend one's own horizons. Maybe.

Which brings me to the somewhat vexed question of preferences and of what is jazz. What is it really all about? Where and how did it all begin? Where's it going to end, if, indeed, it ever does - and I don't think it ever will . . . . On preferences, we all like what we like, don't we? Trad., mod., mainstream, big band, small group, swing, blues - and we have every right to pursue our own favourite sounds. Customer's privilege. Room for all . . . . . .

So, to what is jazz? I once had a crack at defining the jazz phenomenon, from a purely musicological stance, I admit, in an essay I wrote for Composer, a magazine specialising in the analysis and appreciation of the work of contemporary composers, operating in (for want of a better adjective) the "serious" school of endeavour.

This is what I said:
"I would define jazz, in simple, broad terms, as being an aesthetically acceptable fusion of sounds and style of Black rural blues with the conventions, fashions, traditions and sophistications of White music-making; the hybrid, by now effectively stabilised, being clearly identifiable as having derived from the Black culture, but expressed in terms of the White culture, neither being the loser."

"Neither being the loser" . . . . there's the core of the conclusion. But from whichever direction we approach the consideration of what is, what isn't jazz, what is outstanding, what is mediocre jazz, we must, I believe, never lose sight of the fact that there are really only two kinds of music - an overworked but powerfully direct truism indeed - be it jazz or not - good or bad. And let me say the good kind adheres to the traditional tried-and-tested, patiently evolved rules (all of them!) of harmony, rhythm, counterpoint, modulation (this is an opinion formed after years of transcribing and analysing jazz solos, taken down from recordings).

The bad variety does none of these things properly and more often than not ends up being random, shapeless and incoherent. So I don't think that atonality, most particularly the collectively performed kind, has any place in our music. The brilliant, gifted jazzman/woman, knows all the rules - not by name, perhaps - doesn't need to have been taught them, takes the right directions by God-given instinct; guided by that miracle of natural, spontaneous creativity which simply doesn't allow him/her to wander off the straight and narrow track of lightness, sweetness and true musicality. All a question of good taste and built-in orderliness.

So, when all has been said, this wonderful 20th Century phenomenon, relying so much, as it does, on the capricious whims of instant composition (all fortuitously able to be captured for the enjoyment, enlightenment and encouragement of its countless devotees, in whatever bracket of involvement, through the total recall offered by recording) is surely a surprise and delight ranking equally alongside all other valid practices of artistic endeavour. So much, then, for those chimp paintings and piles of bricks in The Tate. Ah, well . . . . . .

It is astonishing to observe that a mere one hundred years has seen the evolution of jazz music from naive, intuitive folk practices in the Deep South slave communities, via work chants, spirituals, blues, ragtime, then later the stylised, often derivative, profit-seeking promotions of Tin Pan Alley into the instantly recognisable, but still incredible restless volatile form the music assumes today. Yet a major cultural success, its very volatility promising countless new departures in the future.

Let us just hope and pray that anarchy (the practice of aural mayhem, wherein those involved may be heard to be indulging in the fantasy that unrelated, non-modulating changes or even none at all of predetermined pattern - chaotic rhythms - again, perhaps, none at all), shrieking harmonics, brutal bastardisations of tone make valid music - yes, let's hope that this anarchic faction is kept firmly corralled.

No - the emperor's new clobber was never, ever in high fashion . . . . . .

Copyright Ken Rattenbury © 1994