Vail Jazz: Jazz and freedom are principally intertwined
With July 4 rapidly approaching, I thought I would write an article about the connection between jazz and Independence Day. While I was inspired by the subject matter, I drew a blank, and I was about to give up, when, just like fireworks exploding in the sky over Vail Mountain, it came to me. What do jazz and the Fourth have in common? Freedom.
The Declaration of Independence was signed on July 4, 1776, in Philadelphia, but it would take the Revolutionary War and another 27 years before the U.S. would complete the Louisiana Purchase, thereby acquiring what would become the “birthplace” of jazz: New Orleans. And it would be another century until jazz was “born” in the Crescent City, brought into existence by African-American musicians whose grandparents and parents had been freed from slavery only 50 years before.
Jazz’s first connection with freedom was a direct result of the Emancipation Proclamation and the Civil War. What followed, musically speaking, was the creation of a new form of music that has since flourished precisely because of a fundamental difference between jazz and other music of the time — the freedom to improvise and to evolve.
Yes, in the world of classical music, a soloist like Mozart could improvise when playing the cadenza to a concerto, but in jazz, everyone gets to improvise. So, just as the colonists had wanted freedom from the tyranny of King George, and just as the slaves had wanted freedom from their slave masters, so too did the early jazz musicians want the freedom to create their own music, and they did.
However, in jazz nothing lasts forever, and by the 1930s, the brass bands and New Orleans style of jazz lost their throne to a revolutionary new approach. The Swing Era began, with big bands playing jazz meant for dancing, and it rapidly spread nationwide and became the most popular music of the day.
By the mid-1940s, a group of musicians led by Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk began to play in a completely different manner that became known as bebop. The groups they played in were no longer big bands, but instead small combos. The structure of the music was much freer with all the musicians allowed to improvise simultaneously. Tempos were generally much faster than in swing music and melody gave way to harmonic complexity and rhythmic changes. Unlike its predecessor, the music was for listening, not dancing.
Jazz was a musical revolution that set it apart from other genres of music, and it’s continued to evolve since it was first created. The fact that a musician could spontaneously express himself while being a member of a group was a remarkable idea and a technical feat, but also had implications far beyond the music itself.
The great Duke Ellington said it best: “… jazz is a good barometer of freedom. … In its beginnings, the United States of America spawned certain ideals of freedom and independence through which, eventually, jazz was evolved, and the music is so free that many people say it is the only unhampered, unhindered expression of complete freedom yet produced in this country.”
Howard Stone is the Founder and artistic director of Vail Jazz, the presenter of the annual Vail Jazz Festival. For more information and a schedule of summer events, visit vailjazz.org.
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