There’s a dimly lit room. The strong smell of Cubana smokes teases your nostrils and stings your eyes as you dodge waitresses carrying trays laden with tumblers of single malt. A crowd mulls around you. There are women showing skin, men in hats. And you hear the plaintive wail of a saxophone cut through the heavy smell and sound of people drinking, puffing and laughing in a packed room.
A slow dance starts between the guitar and the double bass, as the sax walks around the perimeter waiting for its chance to cut in. There’s a brief pause before the sax suddenly lights up full on, the drums skitter along haphazardly, the bass plunks dual thickness underneath the fray. Rhythms thump and pound, gaining in intensity and retreating into caves just as quickly. The brass instruments go freer still, running even higher in their respective registers to usher in a more chaotic amble to the fading finish. The audience breaks into applause before turning back to their tables.
Hmm. That’s the image that pops into everyone’s head when someone utters the words ‘jazz club’. Of course it’s only an impression we’ve formed from films such as Casablanca, Round Midnight or the recent Chicago. We have no real experience of true live jazz, considering there aren’t enough patrons of the genre in the country and therefore no jazz bars.
But enter New Orleans, the birthplace of jazz, and the city wires you into the amplifier along with its electric jazz guitar set. Although jazz has had to move off the streets of this city and into the bars, and the hub shifted from the famed Bourbon Street to the Decatur Street in the French Quarter of the city, New Orleans still has more jazz in its heart than its competitor, New York.
If New York has better ‘classic jazz’ bars, New Orleans is now home to brass jazz and also envelopes certain South American styles. The mecca of jazz in the city however, Preservation Hall, celebrated its 45th anniversary last April when it reopened post-Katrina. It hosts bands that perform nightly in the typical New Orleans style and crowds queue up for over two hours for each performance.
The New Orleans style is a distinctive sound — not big band swing with horns creating harmony, nor post World War II modern jazz or bebop relying on speeding tempos and virtuoso soloing. It’s not even pre rock ‘n’ roll pop. Any song can be ‘jazzed’ up with a New Orleans beat, which has a swinging, stomping beat that makes you want to dance.
It was in the 1950s that ‘modern’ jazz became music for listening rather than for dancing. But originally, near the turn of the century, it was instruments such as brass, reeds and drums, used in marching and dance bands that became the instruments of jazz.
Jazz came to New Orleans with the arrival of black Americans, first as slaves and later as free people, near the end of the 18th century. And although the roots of jazz were nourished in the African-American community, the genre became a broader phenomenon when it started drawing from the many ethnic groups in the multi-cultural city.
Subsequently it started exporting its talent, as demand for jazz grew. One of the best known pioneers of the genre, trumpeter and singer Louis Armstrong, left New Orleans and went on to revolutionise jazz on the virtue of his solo excellence. He replaced the ensemble style with the soloist’s art.
Armstrong was to jazz in the ’30s what Michael Jackson was to pop in the ’90s. Other musicians such as trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, vocalists Bing Crosby, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and later Frank Sinatra and Sarah Vaughan further developed the genre in the Swing ’30s and the Bebop ’40s. Post ’50s was the era of free jazz and avant-garde jazz that allowed more improvisation.
Of course the fact that improvisation lies at the heart of jazz, also means that the genre has proliferated into various sub genres.
Today it’s become hard to pin point what is jazz and what isn’t.
And though most of us might not really make it to New Orleans to soak in All that jazz, there is a humble equivalent in our own metros, where once a year, jazz aficionados can take their grass and mats and bourbon out and truly unwind with the likes of Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, the Blues Brothers, Lisa Lobo and Kenny Garrett at the One Tree festival, Jazz Yatra and such.
It may not be the real thing, but hell, that’s all we’ve got access to!