Jazz: To Tell Your Story

Liner Notes to Jazz (Putamayo Records, 2009)

Jazz is an art form of ensemble individuality. A jazz artist has to first develop a unique, identifiable voice, a combination of tone, style, and phrasing that marks an instantly recognizable sound. Just as no one would mistake Billie Holiday's voice for Anita O'Day, Oscar Peterson's piano style is easily distinguished from Hampton Hawes's, Chet Baker's trumpet from Louis Armstrong's, Ray Brown's bass from Percy Heath's. Creating a signature sound is the objective of the jazz apprenticeship.

Jazz is a performer's rather than a composer's music: its musical practices transformed the popular song into a vehicle for musical conversation. Every musician must "tell a story," a phrase of jazz lore often credited to tenor saxophonist Lester Young. A jazz vocalist inhabits a song: she lives in it like a short story unfolding in musical time. The best jazz vocals are short one-act plays told by a first-person narrator as the musical scenery constantly, subtly shifts to mirror the twists and turns of the singer's emotional dynamics. A singer can often move the listener without words — through scatting, melisma, or just a sighed vocable, that expressive moan or sigh like Armstrong's "bleah-yeah-heah" or Holiday's "hmmmm-mmm." Every jazz vocalist must be able "to get tremendous effects out of the most subtle beat manipulations," Will Friedwald writes in Jazz Singing, since "keeping in time, in jazz, is even more important than keeping in tune." The musicians are not up there to support the vocalist but to interact: jazz requires real-time collective artistic creation.

The 1950s was a golden age for jazz vocals and three-quarters of this collection was recorded during the five-year period between 1956-1961. Jazz's popularity peaked in postwar America for many reasons besides the sheer range of talent in every subgenre, from swing to hard bop to modal and soul jazz. There was the shared common musical ground of jazz standards that gave audiences the ability to understand the ground from which solos were launched; there was a social imperative — the relationship of jazz to civil rights activism during the Jim Crow era; and there was jazz's niche as the music of intellectuals and hipsters on the East and West coasts. Finally, to have one's own sound meant being able to project an individuality often denied to African-Americans. As Duke Ellington once said, "The music had to say what we couldn't."

 Many of the songs in this collection are gems from the Great American Songbook. This body of work is often considered the achievement of songwriters, but this is only half-true. These songs became "standards" as we know them through a process by which jazz musicians standardized the grooves, textures, melodies, and sonorities into an instrumental balladry to which our ears are now attuned. When these songs were first sung — often crooned — in Broadway musicals or off-Broadway revues, they owed more to the operetta tradition of Gilbert & Sullivan than the African-American traditions of blues, jazz, and gospel. Jazz musicians needed shared musical ground for jam sessions — their training ground, since no schools then taught jazz — and songs became "standards" as particular pieces acquired the grooves, nuance and phrasing infused by a generation of jazz musicians. This also put pressure on singers to create an equally adept instrument out of their voices. "Her voice was like having another horn in the band," the musicians of the Count Basie Orchestra often complimented Billie Holiday. This was how musicians distinguished a vocalist — or "song stylist," as Anita O'Day insisted on calling herself — from "a canary" or a "chick singer," common terms for women who looked rather than sounded good.

Jazz is the only indigenous American art form. It is a creolization of the musical cultures of Africa, Latin America, and Europe and its keynotes are groove and interplay, self-expression and improvisation, flow and flexibility. What jazz has always offered any and all individuals is a method for creating a singular artistic voice and then merging it with others who share common musical ground. As guitarist Jim Hall reflects: "I've played in many countries, and in this music, I can communicate fully with musicians whose native language I can't speak." What's American about jazz? Duke Ellington deserves the last word: "Jazz is a good barometer of freedom. The music is so free that many people ... around the world say that it is the only unhampered, unhindered expression of complete freedom yet produced in this country."