By Jess Szabo, Arts Writer
Phoenix Radio features programs in a variety of music genres, and each one of those is likely to be unfamiliar to at least some of us. We all have our favorite programs and styles of music. But what about those times when we turn on the radio a little early, catch a few minutes of something else, and think, “I need to start listening to that type of music.”
Getting interested in an unfamiliar type of music can be intimidating at first. We may tune into a new show from the beginning, and listen to the whole thing, but find most of the artists’ names and songs new to us, even though we can tell by the way the program host or DJ talks about them that this is someone we should know.
For those who are just getting interested in Jazz, here are a few of the fun facts, insights, and artists you should know.
Jazz was not invented by any one person, despite the claims of some common internet searches.
Although Jazz is played all over the world today, it is a distinctly American art form, originating in Black communities. No one person can be said to have invented Jazz, but Buddy Bolden (1877-1931) is believed to have been among the first to play a style of music that would later be known as Jazz. Trumpet player and singer Louis Armstrong (1901-1971) is widely considered the first great Jazz soloist, and some music websites refer to Jelly Roll Morton (1890-1941) as Jazz’s first great composer. However, none of those people singlehandedly created Jazz.
Duke Ellington (1899-1974) was one of the first to write music for the individual player rather than just for the instrument that he played.
Those coming to Jazz after listening strictly or mostly to pop music may not think this is so innovative. Pop songs are typically written specifically for a band or artist. This was not always the case with Jazz.
“Before, people like Count Basie, Gene Krupa, Bennie Goodman wrote for the instrument. Anybody could play the songs,” explained Masters of Jazz radio program host Lou Santacroce. “Duke Ellington wrote for the individual player, and that player’s individual style. That’s why later versions of some of his songs sound so different. Among the many examples are ‘Concerto for Cootie, ’written for trumpet player Cootie Williams.”
Far from being a single style of music, Jazz is actually composed of several genres.
Early Jazz is the music most famously associated with Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton. This is the music that developed between the 1910’s and the 1920’s. Next came “Big Band” and “swing,” of the 1930’s and 1940’s, exemplified by Duke Ellington, as well as Count Basie, Glen Miller, Bennie Goodman, and Artie Shaw (source: Jazzfuel.com)
“Hard bop” began in the 1940’s and developed into the 1950’s. The Jazz Messengers, Dexter Gordon, Charles Mingus, and the Sonny Rollins Quartet are vital to know from this era, which incorporated elements of different styles of music popular at the time, including R&B and Gospel.
If you have always thought of Jazz as laid back, soft music, you have probably heard some “Cool Jazz,” which began in the 1940s and 1950s. Dave Brubeck, Miles Davis, and Lester Young are some of the first people to listen to if you want to familiarize yourself with Cool Jazz.
Free Jazz is a form of improvisational Jazz first heard in the 1960’s. Cecil Taylor and Evan Parker are just two important figures in Free Jazz.
Jazz vocalists often inspire arguments over who is and is not Jazz among fans.
Joining a Facebook group for Jazz fans will get you a lot of pictures of Amy Winehouse (1983-2011), along with many more comments declaring “Not Jazz!” and “What is this doing on a Jazz page?”
Neither the people who post her photos on Jazz pages or the people yelling at them to take them down are completely right or wrong. Her music was actually a blend of several genres, including soul, R&B, Rock, and Jazz. But according to the biography section of her internet movie database page, Winehouse did indeed grow up listening to Jazz. The influence can certainly be heard.
Ella Fitzgerald (1917-1996) on the other hand, is not only undeniably a Jazz vocalist, but the greatest female Jazz vocalist, if not the greatest female vocalist, of all time. Diana Krall, Nina Simone, and of course Tony Bennett and Frank Sinatra should be on anyone’s introduction to Jazz vocalists list.
Jazz has been a part of interdisciplary arts pieces, such as music in film or television….so you have probably heard a bit of Jazz, even if you are someone who has “never listened to it.”
Medical dramas and Jazz don’t seem like they should belong in the same sentence, but Jazz music was a part of the television show “ER” (1994-2009)for a few episodes. In season one, the staff of County General Hospital is faced with an Alzheimer’s patient who wanders around singing. The character, revealed to be a Jazz singer named Mary Cavanaugh, was played by a real Jazz singer, Rosemary Clooney.
Jazz even plays a huge part in the beloved children’s television show, Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood.”
“Fred Rogers was an amateur Jazz pianist,” Santacroce noted “The theme of the show, played during the closing credits, was a Jazz piece that he wrote and performed.”
Rogers’ musical director of more than twenty-five years, Johnny Costa, (1922-1996) was also a gifted Jazz pianist.
Jazz is such a diverse and influential genre of music, this is only the most basic introduction, just the very first few artists, terms, and fun facts you might want to look up the next time you’re purchasing new music or searching Spotify or YouTube.
The best way to begin your Jazz listening journey is right here at Phoenix Radio. Listen to Masters of Jazz, hosted by Lou Santacroce, every Sunday afternoon from 2 p.m. until 6 p.m. for the best in Jazz, along with more information about the genre.
The above is an expanded version of the column published in the June 2021 edition of The Heat Beat.
To listen to Phoenix Radio online: www.955theheat.com
Jess Szabo is a Utica novelist, writing teacher, and arts writer. More of her writing for and about local artists can be found at www.artistcafeutica.com