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Jazz speaks to the soul

Charlie OwenVail, CO, Colorado
Jazz organ player Tony Monaco will perform with his trio at Cucina at the Lodge at Vail on March 27.
Special to the Weekly |

VAIL, Colorado The definition of jazz has always been elusive. Ever since jazz emerged in the black communities of the South (most notably in New Orleans) in the late 1800s, it has been a style of music that relies heavily on improvising a basic song structure. Over the years jazz music, musicians and audiences have evolved, but the genres roots remain the same. When you go to the gigs and performances and see whos coming to them, its everybody, and its mostly the common man, just as it was, said jazz vocalist and saxophone player Max Wagner.Wagner is right. Simply put, jazz is the music of the common man. But dig deeper and jazzs true essence shifts like a vapor being grasped at. Unlike rock and roll or hip hop, jazzs parameters arent clearly defined.In honor of the Vail Jazz Festivals annual Labor Day Weekend Party, we asked several of the musicians playing at this years festival to share their definition.It seems that no one can put their finger on exactly what the answer is, said jazz pianist Don Washington. For me, I guess jazz is … a music that gives the artist or the listener the opportunity to draw upon a wealth of experiences no matter what their background to kind of create their own mixture of music and also their own contribution to whats going on in the music.Jazz allows the listener and the player to combine the cerebral with the emotional, Washington added. He enjoys the looseness of jazz performances and the incredible amount of space that each player has when it comes to interpretation.My favorite part is if Im playing in a combo with a group, just being able to listen and watch and create those little moments of tension that really make the music come alive, Washington said.

Ace trumpet player Terell Stafford boiled jazzs definition down to one word: Freedom.He needed a few more words to fully explain his definition, though. Staffords background in classical music makes him appreciate the beauty of a well-written symphony, but there isnt a lot of room for movement within the style.Whereas jazz, you totally have the freedom to interpret it on your own and you can play it seven nights a week and play the same song seven different ways. And so I love the freedom of that, and I love the expression, Stafford said.Hes absolutely right, too. One can hardly fathom another artist changing the melody or words of an Elvis Presley or Metallica song, but in the realm of jazz, thats almost a form of flattery.

Freedom is no doubt a big part of what makes jazz so appealing to the players, but Tony Monaco said there is not one thing that makes music jazz.Somewhere along the line, someone gets to be able to speak something from their soul and not written music, said Monaco, a jazz organist from Ohio.Jazz is built around the tradition of storytelling through song. In much the same way that a group of people all tell a story a little bit differently, each jazz artist in the band will play something different to add to the overall theme of the story, Monaco said.Soloing is a form of talking, Monaco said.Drummer Victor Lewis chose jazz because it pushes him more than any other genre, he said. Jazz band musicians tend to feed off their audiences more than in any other type of music, Lewis said.If what youre playing touches people and opens their chakras and raises their vibrations to a vibration of love of the planet, then youve really gotten to the next level, Lewis said.

As with many jazz musicians, Lewis described jazz but couldnt define it. Its hard to define a style of music built on so many abstracts. Howard Stone, founder of the Vail Jazz Foundation, compared it to other philosophical questions like What is truth?Though the essence of jazz may be impossible to define, many of the genres artists enjoy it for the paradox it presents. Jazz reveals two sides of the same coin in many instances: The logical with the emotional, the individual with the collective, the freedom to improvise while staying true to source material, spotlighting the band and the audience. Its spontaneous creation of music by a number of players who, if they can do it well, are coming together to create something thats more beautiful than any one player could create, Stone said.Either way, its refreshing that the common mans music is still defying labels more than 100 years later.High Life writer Charlie Owen can be reached at 970-748-2939 or cowen@vaildaily.com.


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