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OPINION: An ‘ode’ to jazz

by Samuel Clanton | September 6, 2023 at 4:00 a.m.

I don't know about you, but I'm fascinated with jazz music. Especially post-war (WWII) era, bebop jazz, a.k.a. "bop," which culminated in the mid 1960s, and in my opinion, has not been surpassed and likely never will be surpassed in terms of artistic exploration and musical achievement.

There, I said it. That's how strongly I feel about bebop jazz.

The other day I considered my passion for the genre when I re-read a social media post of mine from exactly 12 years ago, stating:

"Jazz has a way of making things make sense. Partly by stretching the boundaries of what makes sense at all."

I have often reflected on how listening to jazz, especially while driving, helps me think. The fast tempos, bombastic rhythms and bursts of improvisation actually serve to slow my mind down a bit, crystallizing my thoughts. Maybe this is some kind of anomaly, but that's how it works for me.

Jazz is largely considered urban music, due to the American cities it came from and urban areas across the globe that support it, but I hear the tones of nature in jazz, and entropy. I also hear sounds from outer space, beyond our own galaxy to the furthest reaches of the universe.

It's been said before, but John Coltrane definitely had his own space ship.

I thought about this recently while drafting a headline for David Cater's astronomy column here in The Weekly Vista. "Fall brings extra-galactic deep space views." I wrote that using some of Cater's own phrasing. Seeing his accompanying photograph of the M31 galaxy made me think of bebop, for it also brings extra-galactic, deep space views.

Jazz is a play on space (and spacial harmonies) and time (i.e. timing) and it's expanding.

I don't really believe in coincidence, so it was telling to me that when I saw my post from a dozen years ago, just the night before I finished watching the first episode of a new documentary series about an extraordinary jazz composer and saxophonist, "Wayne Shorter: Zero Gravity," which is out now on Prime video and IMDb. It's incredible and I highly recommend watching it.

As I'm writing this column, I'm listening to Shorter's 1966 album "Speak No Evil."

This brings me to a point: In the mid sixties, while the Beatles were being enamored with adoring fans here in the U.S., Shorter and his bandmates in Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers were performing to sold out venues in Tokyo, Japan and encountering similar enthusiasm. Likewise, trumpeter Miles Davis experienced royalty status in Paris and throughout Europe, as bop pioneer Charlie Parker and others had before him.

When these men and their bandmates -- mostly African Americans -- returned home to the states, they had to deal with a completely different ethos. Here you have innovative, intelligent, world-renowned, expert-level, dressed-to-the-nines musicians who often were not allowed to lodge or even linger in the same facilities they were booked to perform at. "... All because of the color of their skin/ What do you think about that my friend?" Bob Dylan asked that question in his iconic civil rights protest song "Oxford Town."

Dylan is a fan of jazz, and apparently actor Brad Pitt is too. He's the executive producer of the new Wayne Shorter documentary. The more you know.

My son is also a fan of jazz, though he leans more toward fusion. I feel like I didn't fail him as a father... He told me the other day that I probably enjoy bebop so much because I can understand it, being a musician myself. He said a lot of people just can't digest it. I get his point, but one of the reasons I dig bop (I said "dig") is because it blows my mind theory wise. I'm not sitting there analyzing 1-4-5 chord progressions, etc., as I do with the kind of tunes I typically pick along with on the mandolin.

This reminds me, no "ode to jazz" column of mine could ever be complete without mentioning the great string band jazz innovator, mandolinist David Grisman. If you have not listened to the Dawg and his music, I'd get on that immediately if not sooner.

I also enjoy swing, vocal scat and the stylings of the great jazz singers Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, et al. But I digress.

I pick a lot of bluegrass, folk/Americana and such, but I'm fortunate enough to have the opportunity to perform with Doug Dicharry and his band Dance Monkey Dance on occasion. Doug is the new band instructor for Joplin High School, up Missouri way, and he can play all of the brass instruments, most of the woodwinds, and can really tear up a guitar too -- all while stomping out beats with his feet and laying down loops for extended jams, one-man band style.

He doesn't need me or bassist Cal Porter to put on a good show. He can do that all by himself. But it sure is a lot of fun making music together. I enjoy learning and playing horn parts on the mandolin, trying to implement my acoustic instrument into brassy, funky pockets -- and all that jazz.

Samuel Clanton is the editor of The Weekly Vista, formerly The Village Vista newspaper, which dates back to July 1965, amid the heyday of bebop jazz. These columns contain his unsolicited opinions, musical and otherwise.

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