Halftime Leisure

Sound it out, dear

March 26, 2014

Originating as an outgrowth of African American folk music in the early 20th century, Jazz became an outlet for anyone with a story to tell. And because there have been so many iterations of the genre, I think that it is almost impossible not to find at least one that resonates with you. Though we typically relegate “Jazz music” to our fathers and/or the elevators in their office buildings, popular music actually owes much of its inclination for innovation to the genre of blue notes and trombones. cti

Take for instance Jay-Z and Kanye West’s song “Otis” off of the album Watch the Throne. For the music connoisseurs out there, this distinction was a no brainer—J and Kanye obviously painted their lyrics over the repetition of an Otis Redding riff. Simple. However, for the everyday consumer, the opening 30 seconds of the song were “catchy” or “old school,” and the inquiry ends right there. With the magic of modern music production, we often do not know where one song ends and the other begins. Although this creates an all-inclusive breadth of material to work with, it can also prevent us from giving credit where credit is due simply because we don’t consider the origin of a hook.

 The strain in Redding’s voice coupled with the slowly increasing tempo of the clip introduces the listener to one of our favorite Rap duos. You don’t even need to know what Redding is saying to feel the music ooze from his voice—though, after placing it on repeat you inevitably figure it out. With the affectation of a trumpet, he pours his soul into the few bars that we hear. Once Jay and Kanye come in, you are already so hooked on Redding’s rhythm and progression that their part seems like a natural outgrowth. The combination is musically profound. But without the knowledge of the fact that it is a ­combination, you lose half of it’s genius.

 For me, that genius stems from the incredible storytelling that characterizes Jazz music. Underneath what may seem to be typical love songs and ballads, Jazz utilizes the emotive powers of different keys and rhythms. When a drummer decides to double his tempo, and then double it again, the listener feels that change as their toes fail to keep up tapping. Similar to the anxiety you get when watching the end of a 500-meter race, the tempo seems to outrun your expectations and all you want to do is make it to the end.

 With “Otis” as merely one example of our modern fascination with Jazz music, there is much more to the style than its cameos. Jazz presents us with merits of its own. Already comfortable with the rules and patterns of standard time and key signatures, Jazz artists create new ones, hoping that their listeners will catch on. When contemporary musicians want to experiment with their art, they look to the improvisation of masters like Miles Davis and James Brown. No longer should musicians fear to stray from the norm, Jazz has paved the way for stylistic rebellion!

 Above all, Jazz allows us to say what we need to say, without having to say it at all. Rather, Jazz sounds it out.

 When we learned to read, we only knew the elementary sounds of letters. “Sound it out” our teachers encouraged, “take it one letter at a time.” Eventually, we acquire the skill of putting these sounds together to make them mean something, but the first skill is still just as important. By “sounding out” each letter, we have to slow down enough to understand the way that each letter effects the next. We feel the sound of words before learn to read them.

 Jazz sounds out the feelings of those who play it and gives those who listen to it an opportunity to do the same. It takes each pang of sadness and every burst of joy and puts them into the strum of a bass or the squeal of a saxophone. As a catharsis, Jazz music gives us a form of emotional consciousness that we can combine with modern sensibilities or enjoy straight up and on its own.

 Photo: Jorge Franganillo/Flickr and Pam Shu/The Georgetown Voice

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Let’s not get jazz confused with other parts of the Black music tradition. While Otis Redding and James Brown are champions of their genre, they fall into the “soul” category, which stems from jazz, but is actually very different. The music of these musicians is not grounded in improvisation, but rather, a “groove.” Something that made Brown’s music unique was its ability to use a very simple progression and repeat it hundreds of times without getting old. While his music is great, it is not jazz. The works of Miles, his predecessors, and his followers, are based in more complex chord structures, and even when following a simpler progression, varied greatly through improvisation. Don’t make the mistake of lumping any song with a horn section into the jazz genre. When you listen to Maceo Parker and Cannonball Adderley, you’ll find that you’re listening to VERY different music. Funk and soul are great, but they are not jazz. Not to say that jazz does not get its due in the hip hop world. Tribe samples Freddie Hubbard, Gangstarr samples Dizzy, etc. Anyway, good column, but I think the author is a bit misled when it comes to understanding exactly what jazz is.