Preview to the Vail Jazz Party column: Think of jazz as a gumbo
Ryan Summerlin July 26, 2014
While I am not a “foodie,” I enjoy good food and discovering new flavors and seasonings. The fusion trend in cuisine — combining different cuisines in a meal or adding non-traditional ingredients to traditional dishes — is therefore fine with me.
So how do you get from fusion cuisine to jazz? It is really very easy. Think of jazz as a gumbo. While there are many recipes for making the dish, all add multiple ingredients, all use seasonings liberally and each chef has his or her own recipe. Originating in New Orleans and using ingredients and culinary techniques of many different cultures, primarily West African, French, Spanish and German, gumbo is a one-of-a kind dish with many, many variations. What is also clear is, whatever the recipe, a master chef needs to let it simmer slowly. Sounds like jazz to me. By the way, gumbo is the official cuisine of Louisiana.
Musicologists are in agreement that jazz began to evolve in New Orleans in the late 19th century. A fusion of West African music traditions (primarily polyrhythms, syncopation, improvisation and other elements) and European harmonies and scales, these raw ingredients were stirred and simmered by multiple musicians (chefs), each adding his and her own voice and technique (spice) to create a brand new genre of music: Jazz.
If the recipe had been agreed upon by all back then, today we would have jazz not unlike the music of “King” Joe Oliver and “Kid” Ory, but as the great trombonist J. J. Johnson said, “Jazz is restless. It won’t stay put, and it never will.”
Probably the first new ingredient added was Afro-Cuban musical elements. It shouldn’t be forgotten that there was a ferry that ran between New Orleans and Havana twice a day in the late 1800s and musicians moved freely back and forth. Jelly Roll Morton is credited with calling this new influence the “Spanish Tinge.”
It wasn’t long before many new chefs were adding new ingredients to the gumbo. As jazz moved outward from New Orleans, regional influences (ingredients) from around the nation began to be added to the gumbo and it wasn’t long until influences from outside of the U.S. began to appear. One of the first of which was “Gypsy Jazz” from Europe in the ’30s. The great Django Reinhardt added rhythms and melodies from his heritage and there was a new recipe for gumbo with distinctive Gypsy seasonings.
For decades after World War II, the U.S. State Department sent jazz musicians throughout the world as musical ambassadors. In many cases, these appearances created an intense interest in jazz and it took root in Asia, Africa, the Middle East, South America and, of course, Europe, where there was already a growing interest in the music. With each new home for jazz, the gumbo began to take on more local flavors. The bossa nova is a great example of Brazil’s unique seasoning of the jazz gumbo.
So how does curry fit into the story? Curry is a South Asian dish not unlike gumbo — spicy and made from many recipes. I wouldn’t recommend blending a good gumbo with a good curry, but there is a unique band that does combine the sound of a New Orleans brass band with the rhythms of northern India. Red Baraat (a baraat is an Indian wedding procession) is led by Sunny Jain, a first-generation Indian-American raised in Rochester, New York. Sunny is a charismatic dhol playing (a dhol is a two-headed, barrel-shaped drum played on two sides with sticks) chef d’ cuisine, who has clearly created his own unique recipe for gumbo.
As part of the 20th anniversary of the Vail Jazz Festival, we are pleased to present Red Baraat in concert on Thursday at 6 p.m. at Vail Square. This band rocks out, so be prepared to move with the music. You might want to watch the dance sequence in “Slumdog Millionaire” to practice your moves.
Howard Stone is the founder and artistic director of The Vail Jazz Foundation, which produces the annual Vail Jazz Festival. Celebrating its 20th year, the Vail Jazz Festival is a summer-long celebration of jazz music, culminating with the Labor Day weekend Vail Jazz Party. Visit www.vailjazz.org for more information.