There aren’t many musical styles so divisive as Jazz, except perhaps for Prog-rock which owes much of its influences to Jazz anyway, especially with bands such as King Crimson. The problem with Jazz is that some of it sounds masterful while some of it sounds like an elephant trying to play the flute. I’ve been making hesitant steps into Jazz recently mainly to find out what the big fuss was all about, with who have become my gateway band, the legendary Art Blakey And The Jazz Messengers.
Art Blakey is renowned by those who have heard of him as one of the greatest drummers of all time. It’s extremely rare for a drummer to become the focus for a band in the way Art Blakey did; The Messengers are his band, he is the star of the show. In this video you can see why:
Jazz drumming is a particularly challenging skill to master because of the time changes and odd rhythms that are needed to keep the other musicians together. A lot of it is intuitive not formulaic and this can sometimes make it hard to listen to especially if you prefer music with more of a hook. I see The Messengers as more of a gateway band because they have the catchy hooks but also the intuitative jamming between instruments. Their hit song Moanin’ from 1958 illustrates this with a catchy hook at the beginning which has been used thousands of times since:
Another problem with Jazz is its image as quite pretentious and let’s be honest ‘up its own arse.’ People immediately shy away from something that can appear to take itself a little too seriously. The Jazz programme from the ‘90s BBC comedy The Fast Show springs to mind, with the smoking presenter (before smoking was banned in the workplace) periodically turning to a side camera to purr “Cool” and “Nice”. It’s stupid and funny but not far off the mark in most people’s minds. “People think it’s all weird chord changes and messing around on instruments, but that’s just not the case.” says Paul Richards, who runs the Blues Jam night at The Brunswick and The Brighton Blue Notes night below The Greenhouse Effect pub, “The Jazz standard songs are often a duet and they can be really beautiful. I play solo Jazz guitar as well. It’s not all big band music.” Louis Armstrong, of What A Wonderful World fame, an incredibly un-pretentious song, was an accomplished and still is a very highly respected musician and not just on the Jazz scene. Yet his music was almost without any drawn out solos.
However, the more Jazz I listen to the more I am beginning to understand that free form playing is still a very important part of the scene. It’s about freedom of expression, the joy of listening to an extremely talented musician using their instrument to the fullest and sometimes just playing what comes into their heads as a stream of consciousness. It’s creative experimentation at its best and it’s by playing with the boundaries of rhythm and key that new forms of music can arise. Jazz played a huge role in developing Soul, Latin, Funk and Rock which in turn have influenced the music we listen to today. “There are loads of different styles like Latin Jazz and Samba Jazz,” comments Paul, “But it can be an acquired taste and not everyone’s cup of tea.”
If you are interested in giving Jazz a chance then head down to the Blues Jam at The Brunswick pub on Tuesday nights from 8.30pm. Anyone is free to come up and play regardless of ability, “I play guitar and bring in a different bass player and drummer every week.” explains Paul, “We welcome all skill levels, from very high standard to beginners. Everyone there is really encouraging and if you keep coming you get to know everyone. There are quite a few regulars.”
Alternatively, if going up on stage seems a bit too daunting, you can go to The Brighton Blue Notes night every Friday below The Greenhouse Effect pub also run by Paul, “It’s more of a ‘proper’ gig. I get a special guest in each week and you can just come down and sit in.”
To find out more about Paul visit his website at: