COLUMN: Songs of the Jazz Age
Published: Sunday, September 22, 2013
Updated: Sunday, September 22, 2013 22:09
Whenever I listen to, or even think about jazz, the same scene inevitably develops in my head:
The year is 1924. The setting—a New York City speakeasy. Dimly lit, the small room glows a warm yellow—it’s intimate, alluring. An Ivy League educated gentleman, with his top hat, white gloves, and tailed, ebony suit, dances close to a young, seductive woman—she calls herself a flapper. Her hair is bobbed short and adorned with a pair of feathers, her dainty neck is ornamented with strings of pearls, and her lips are a bright shade of red. The couple sways back and forth to the swing of music, carelessly reveling in the rich, luxurious sound of the band’s brass instruments. There are no rules—not here—they are free. This is the Jazz Age.
My conception of jazz, I admit, is very much the result of having read way too much F. Scott Fitzgerald. I’ve inextricably linked the musical genre to his writing, to the point that I literally can’t pick up The Beautiful and Damned, let alone page through The Great Gatsby, without hearing the suave notes of a saxophone and the alternating skip of a deep bass line. It’s a little bit uncanny.
An iconic figure of the Roaring ’20s both in the literary and social spheres, Fitzgerald was closely tied to the jazz scene, almost as much as the characters in his novels were. Despite the connection—and my stubborn preconceptions—there really is more to jazz, though, than Fitzgerald’s tales.
Jazz’s formative years can be traced to the beginning of the 1900s, developing within black communities in southern cities such as New Orleans. Over the decades, the genre has evolved and expanded to encompass other varieties, like ragtime, swing, and bebop, among others. It’s remained resilient throughout the past century and has indelibly influenced other musical styles.
I’d never really considered the chronological history or contemporary relevance of jazz, though, until this Tuesday evening, when I attended a concert in Robsham called “The Beat Before.” Featuring a live band, the musicians covered songs from a range of different time periods, across an array of diverse genres. They played songs by expected artists, like Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald, but they also performed songs by less expected artists, including The Beatles, Michael Jackson, Beyonce, and Justin Timberlake. As such, the concert emphasized both jazz’s longevity and flexibility.
The renditions displayed how various kinds of music, even today, borrow staple elements of jazz to create something new.
The blues, for example, are quite comparable to jazz, as far as form goes—consider the 12-bar chord progression—it’s one that’s ever-present not only in these two genres, but in so many others as well.
A derivative of blues, R&B follows similar arrangement patterns to jazz. So, mainstream R&B songs by popular artists like Beyonce and John Legend are actually stylistically rooted in jazz, to some degree, because of the way that they are arranged.
Even hip-hop and pop music have been impacted by jazz. It’s not incredibly obvious, but think about how alike the idea behind improvising a saxophone solo is to improvising a rap solo—it’s all about emotion and spontaneity.
Jazz influences in pop are evident today also. There’s Michael Buble, channeling a diluted version of Big Band Sinatra, Norah Jones, experimenting with all kinds of styles within the genre, and there’s even Justin Timberlake, smoothly crooning on “Suit & Tie.”
It took a while, but I think I’ve finally realized that jazz can be neither defined by a single style nor confined to a particular decade. It’s a genre, rather, for all decades and for all times. It was then, but it’s also now—this is the Jazz Age. It was Fitzgerald’s, but it’s ours too. Jazz—it’s adaptable, it’s fluid. It beats on through the airwaves, like a boat against the current, never to be borne back into the past.