My friend Ethan Uslan, he of the ragtime/old time/stride piano playing World Champion fame, received a grant from the North Carolina Arts Council and the Mecklenburg Arts Council to produce a podcast on ragtime and early jazz piano, which he has named The Carolina Shout. Over the summer when the Mint Julep Jazz Band performed in Charlotte, I stopped by Ethan’s house and recorded two duets with Ethan that now appear on episodes 3 and 5 of his podcast. All 10 episodes are available on iTunes, Stitcher, or via his website, and are chock full of Ethan’s humor, wit, early jazz knowledge, and his ebullient piano performances. If your day needs a pick-me-up, this is where to get it!
I ran across a blog called LiveMusicNC.com and discovered a post called “10 Great Places to See Live Jazz (Plus One Great Show!).” I scanned the list, hoping for a scoop on where I might hear some stride piano, a dixieland group, or a swing band, and there was the same list of venues I check, week after week, that only book bebop, modern, or “straight ahead” jazz.
Clearly, we are not speaking the same language. Where is my jazz?
To say that I am disappointed with jazz in the Triangle is an understatement. This has been the norm, me being hopeful that someone will book one of the local, underrated jazz groups I love that play jazz from the 1920’s, 1930’s, and 1940’s, then being disappointed after reading local concert and venue listings. I have tried to get touring dixieland and swing bands gigs at some of these venues and at other venues that hire live music, but to no avail. I even promise an audience who will pay for the band in tips, and I still get no response.
There’s been a lot of lip service recently about jazz in the Triangle, but if the local venues are only offering a certain type of jazz or only booking certain musicians, is the scene really that vibrant?
What if there’s an entire subset of jazz lovers, new patrons, that you could draw to your venue if you added a few more bands to your lineup?
What if there’s an entire subset of talented jazz musicians you’ve never heard of because they rarely get a chance to play the music that really makes them shine?
MY POINT: We will not have a complete and vibrant jazz community without embracing all forms of jazz.
Jazz did not begin in 1950. There is an extensive, almost endless catalog of songs from the three prior decades that is full of life, energy, relevance, bliss, heartache, humor, love, affection, food, sex, and crazy people. This music is awesome in so many ways and, perhaps, should be performed live because sometimes the recording technology back then wasn’t up to modern snuff.
I want to hear it and I have friends who want to hear it. I’d love to be able to go out to something other than a swing dance and hear “Blues My Naughty Sweetie Gave to Me” or “Dinah” or “Rockin’ in Rhythm.” Can we do this, Triangle? I’ve got the people if you’ve got the space.
To help in understanding where I am coming from, I have compiled a list of reasons why your venue should book musicians who play 20’s, 30’s, and 40’s jazz:
What made the Roaring Twenties fun? It wasn’t just the booze, it was also the music – the two were almost inseparable. This music was made for parties, dance halls, brothels, bars, and just about every place your mother would disapprove of. It’s joyous music with an energy that can lift your spirits.
The jazz of the 1920’s, 30’s, and 40’s is pop music – it was the pop music of its time and, while it sounds somewhat different from today’s pop music, the two are not so far apart. It’s melodic and, for the most part, it has lyrics or is based on songs written with lyrics. It all has a driving rhythm, a certain pulse. Most of it is in a major key and in 4/4 time. I think we’ve met most of the criteria for pop music at this point, so your subconscious should at least warm up to the sound.
I don’t want to spend any time bashing modern jazz, I’ll just say it’s not my bag. It doesn’t speak to me the way earlier forms of jazz have spoken to me. Perhaps I just need something that’s simple to enjoy.
The jazz of the 1920’s through the 1940’s was dance music. In fact, a major divide between this era and the bebop/modern jazz era is that sensibility, that jazz transitioned from something that you danced to into something that you listened to – from the dance hall to the concert hall.
However, dancing isn’t the only function. Think about the music that we dance to today – people play “dance” music in bars and restaurants all the time, but you don’t necessarily get up and dance at those places. Early jazz music can create a similar energy in a room.
A lot of people book jazz groups to set a mood. Perhaps its the instrumentation or the songs themselves, but jazz is a class act. Early jazz can add a different tone of class, obviously harkening back to an earlier, perhaps even more genteel and elegant era of the silver screen, the lawn party, and the supper club. It can be a party, but it can also be a soiree, depending on the song selection.
I see evidence of this mostly at live, outdoor events, but people of all ages love this music. Obviously the people who were there the first time around are fans, but kids immediately start going bananas when they hear an uptempo swing tune and try to get as close to the band as possible. Some of the most vocal fans of this music are from the Baby Boomers. As someone sort of spanning Gen X and Y, I’ve been listening to this music since I was a teenager and there are countless others just like me in cities all over the world, and even a few more like me here in the Triangle.
I’d like to make a difference for my friends who love this music or love to perform this music. I’d like to get excited about events and bands. I’d like to make the Triangle a great place for all kinds of jazz. There is certainly so much potential here, but there is still work left to do to bridge these musical gaps.