Preview to the Jazz Party column: Counter-culture geniuses
VAIL CO, Colorado
Editor’s note: Preview to the Jazz Party is a twice monthly column by Howard Stone, the founder and artistic director of the Vail Jazz Foundation.
The world of jazz has had a disproportional number of famous, but eccentric performers. As many are African Americans, they were the subject of overt discrimination, and in the early years of jazz, all musicians – black or white – were seen as undesirables living outside the mainstream of society and playing the devil’s music. Use of drugs and alcohol abuse also didn’t help their image.
Out of the crucible of their musical lives and branded by society’s negative stereotyping, some were able to rise to positions of fame, but in most cases, not fortune. Although the “jazz life” eventually became exotic and appealing to many outsiders, and the 1920s was known as the “jazz era,” it took many more decades for jazz musicians to gain the respect readily afforded to other artists. Names like Armstrong and Ellington dominated the world of popular music by the mid-20th century, and in the last 100 years, jazz has gone from underground music played by unschooled, but extraordinary musicians, to a musical genre prized throughout the world, and formally studied at music conservatories around the globe.
But, it was the early counter-cultural musical geniuses that brought jazz to the world at large. Here are a few of their stories:
Ferdinand J. “Jelly Roll Morton” La Menthe, a Creole born in New Orleans in 1890, was a ragtime piano player in the bordellos of New Orleans. Besides being a musician, he was also a pimp, gambler and pool shark and was extremely arrogant. Credited with being the first important jazz composer, Jelly Roll fused ragtime with the black culture that was evolving in New Orleans at the time into the beginnings of jazz. He famously proclaimed himself the inventor of jazz, a claim that most musicologists reject.
Thelonius Sphere Monk, the legendary pianist and composer, was initially branded as crazy. His strange name, weird hats, propensity to get up from the piano and twirl while other musicians played, combined with an introverted nature when off the bandstand, contributed to this reputation. But slowly, he and his music were accepted, and he gained much respect, ultimately appearing on the cover of Time magazine.
Lester “Prez” Young, one of the most influential saxophonists in jazz history, was highly unorthodox. He had a unique sound and style of play. He held his sax off center towards a horizontal position, wore zoot suits and his distinctive “pork pie” hat, and he invented a complete vocabulary of hip jazz. The film “Round Midnight” (1986) was largely based on his life.
Every year over Labor Day Weekend, the Vail Jazz Festival pays tribute to some of the greats that have shaped the music that we are dedicated to preserve. Using live performance, video and narrative woven into a multi-media tributes led by today’s big names in jazz, we tell the story of jazz greats that have made important contributions to the development of jazz. This year we celebrate the lives of jazz giants Dave Brubeck, Dizzy Gillespie and Ray Brown.
Howard Stone is the founder and artistic director of the Vail Jazz Foundation, which produces the annual Vail Jazz Festival. Now in its 18th year, the Vail Jazz Festival is a summer-long celebration of jazz music. The festival culminates with the Labor Day Weekend Vail Jazz Party. Visit vailjazz.org for more.
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