Jazz music is one of the longest-lasting musical genres out there. Over the past century, jazz has evolved with the times, shifting with world events and even making a difference in the course of international conflict. Unlike many other genres of music, which remain relatively static over time, jazz continues to change with the times, playing key roles in the emergence of other genres as well. For example, hip hop and rock and roll both have their roots in jazz.
Part of learning to love jazz is learning to “speak the language.” Jazz musicians have their own set of terms and “lingo” they use to describe their music. Understanding what the band is saying when you attend a jazz performance is definitely part of the fun, so here are seven jazz terms you definitely need to know in order to know what is going on onstage.
Jazz musicians sometimes refer to their musical instruments as “axes.” Originally, this usually was used to refer to a saxophone (maybe because the two words rhyme), but now it can apply to any instrument the jazz musician plays. Jimi Hendrix also made the term popular in referring to an electric guitar.
Use: You might hear someone say, “What do you think of my new axe? Sounds pretty good, doesn’t it?” That means they have a new instrument and want to know what you think of its tone.
You may have heard of the mall chain, Lids. That store got its name from this term, which is used to refer to a hat. Today, the term is most often used to refer to a baseball cap or other hat worn as a fashion statement versus to keep the wearer’s head warm. Be careful using this term, however, since it also has commonly been used to refer to an ounce of marijuana since the 1960s.
Use: “We’re all wearing the same lids tonight to support our team, and James even broke out his jersey as well.”
Interesting fact: “Lid” became a common term used to refer to an ounce of marijuana because the amount of pot that fits in a mayonnaise jar lid is about an ounce
3. Skins Player
The skins player in a jazz band is the drummer. While technically you could use this term to refer to any drummer in any band, the term has remained largely unique to jazz. The term originated when drums were covered with cowhides or other dried animal skins and stuck long after this was no longer ubiquitous. Drums may be referred to simply as “skins” as well.
Use: “I can’t believe our skins player bailed last-minute on our set. Good thing we know a cat who can fill in!
4. Hot Plate
A really great song or a really great recording of a song. This comes initially from the way that a record resembles a plate, so a “hot plate” would be a hot record.
Uses: “That was our best recording yet. I think we’ve got a real hot plate on our hands!
A person who plays jazz. The term emerged because cats, like jazz musicians, tend to go out at night, are resourceful and “always land on their feet,” and remain slightly separate from the rest of society.
Use: “When I played jazz in Kansas City, I used to hang with some cool cats on the weekends.
Scatting involves improvising nonsense words to a song. The syllables fit with the music, which may be syncopated, but do not form actual words. Vocal jazz musicians may also refer to this as “scat singing,” but in the vernacular it will usually just be used as a single word, “scatting.” This means that “scat cats,” for example, are jazz players who are good at this stylistic technique.
Use: “That cat Dizzy can really scat when it counts.”
Interesting Facts: The term “scat” is thought to have emerged on the scene after Louis Armstrong forgot the lyrics to the Hot Five song “Heebie Jeebies.” Ella Fitzgerald is generally considered one of the greatest scat singers of all time
You might confuse this term with others like “bread” and “scratch,” both of which are used to refer to money. In jazz lingo, however, the term “clams” is used to refer to mistakes a musician makes while performing.
Use: “I don’t know what’s wrong with Joe, but he’s definitely laying down some clams tonight.” The term may also be paired with “clinker,” which is a term for a missed or “fluffed” note, as in, “Joe sure hit a few clinkers tonight. I hope he doesn’t lay down that many clams tomorrow or we’ll have to find a replacement.”
These seven terms barely scratch the surface of a jazz aficionado’s vocabulary, but they will give you a good start when it comes to speaking the language (or at least understanding the conversation) when you are enjoying a live jazz performance. Jazz musicians, cool cats that they are, tend to enjoy having inside jokes and special ways of referring to their instruments, each other, and their lifestyle. To truly appreciate the music, it helps to appreciate the slang that comes with the genre as well.
When most people think of the Jazz Age, they think of the Roaring ‘20s, The Great Gatsby, flapper dresses, and sultry crooners. None of this is wrong, but it barely scratches the surface of what the concept and the cultural movement known as jazz really encompasses. In fact, many historians actually cite the Jazz Age as officially starting at the endof the Great Depression rather at the end of World War I, which would have placed its start at the beginning of the Roaring ‘20s. Regardless of the dates you pick for the initiation of this long-lasting cultural phenomenon, however, knowing these five surprising facts about jazz will help you better appreciate it in every era in which it has appeared and, even more importantly, its presence in music today.
Surprising Jazz Fact #1: There was a strong, organized opposition to jazz music when it first appeared on the scene.
While many people immediately loved the creativity and flexibility that jazz permitted musicians, a large population of classically trained musicians and people who appreciated classical music objected strongly to the concept of jazz even if they enjoyed the sound. The reason? Jazz musicians often learned their skills through practice and experimentation rather than through classical training. Whether traditional musicians felt threatened by the emergence of an untrained population of musicians or they just did not appreciate the new sound, there was an organized movement in the music industry against jazz before it was fully adopted as a new, exciting genre of music.
Surprising Jazz Fact #2: Early musicologists tried to classify jazz by race.
In a move typical of the era in many ways, early musicologists tried to establish different types of jazz for difference races. One musicologist went so far as to propose that there were three different types of jazz: white jazz musicians playing for white audiences, black jazz musicians playing for black audiences, and black jazz musicians playing for white audiences. He tried to clearly define each sound and make the case that the three “types” of music could not overlap, but soon was proven wrong as the jazz sound evolved and, ultimately, resulted in some of the earliest desegregation of music clubs and stages in the country.
Surprising Jazz Fact #3: There are at least 8 ways to spell “jazz.”
Jazz was originally a slang word and spelled in a wide variety of ways. Sometimes it was spelled jas, jass, jaz, or jasz. Some historians believe the word was originally pulled from slang used in baseball to describe a player who played with passion or fighting spirit, while others speculate the original manifestation of the term was a word with strong sexual connotations. Today, the conventional spelling is the familiar “jazz,” and all of the historical connotations of the word have been wrapped up in the full, flexible, strong and sensual sounds of this type of music over the ages.
Surprising Jazz Fact #4: Jazz musicians have secret signals.
Ever wonder how jazz musicians can all improvise together to make such incredible music, even when they are playing a timeless classic? Well the secret lies in the band’s subtle signals to each other that let each musician know what is coming next. For example, a musician playing a solo will usually give the rest of the band a heads-up that the solo is nearly done by nodding their head in a certain way or even pointing theatrically to the next musician up for the spotlight. They may also use a finger to point to their heads, meaning that it is time to return to the “head” or original melody of the song. Watch closely next time you attend a jazz performance and you will likely spot the secret signals passed from band member to band member.
Surprising Jazz Fact #5: Hipsters owe their nomenclature to jazz.
While most jazz musicians are not necessarily bearded and wearing beanies or berets, their musical movement originally coined the phrase that now describes a generation of somewhat disaffected young people with lumberjack beards and a fondness for flannel. Before jazz musicians began referring to themselves as “jazz cats,” they sometimes referred to themselves as “Hepsters” or “hep cats,” meaning they were cool and knowledgeable. This slang came from a 1930s term, “hep,” which eventually evolved into today’s “hip” and the generational description, “hipster.”
Now that you have some serious insider knowledge about jazz music, it is time to put that knowledge into action. Find a jazz venue near you and attend a live performance. The music will definitely be a new experience for you now that you are a hep-cat-in-training yourself.
Even if you know little or nothing about jazz, you have probably heard the name Ella Fitzgerald. She is known as “The First Lady of Song,” “The Queen of Jazz,” and “Lady Ella,” just to name a few. Fitzgerald was the most popular female jazz singer in the United States for more than 50 years, won 13 Grammy awards, and sold more than 40 million albums. She was known for her incredible vocal range and incredibly diverse audience of fans, but there are a few things most people do not know about jazz’s first lady.
1. She may have worked for the mafia in high school.
Although Fitzgerald was a great student in her younger years, she spent her high school days in Harlem after moving in with her aunt in order to escape a troubled home life after her mother’s death. The New York Timesactually reported she worked for a mafia numbers runner and may have even acted as a lookout at illicit locations like local brothels. Fitzgerald’s non-school-related activities eventually caught up with her, and she was placed in an orphanage and, eventually, the state reformatory for girls. Sadly, the caretakers at the reform school beat the girls, and Fitzgerald eventually ran away. She found herself broke, alone, and living on the street, a terrible combination that ultimately set the stage for her entry onto a real stage at the Apollo.
2. She started out singing for tips on the street.
When Fitzgerald returned to Harlem, she made money by singing for tips on the street. She got a lucky break when she won an opportunity to compete at an “Amateur Night” at the Apollo Theater, where she initially planned to perform a dance routine. She changed her mind at the last minute after realizing she would have to follow the Edwards Sisters, Ruth and Louise, one of the most famous female tap-dance teams of all time. The Edwards Sisters had just closed the main show, and Fitzgerald feared any dance she presented would pale by comparison. Fortunately, her street performance experience meant she had a large vocal repertoire to choose from. She sang Hoagy Carmichael’s “Judy” before obliging audience demands for an encore with the Boswell Sisters’ “The Object of My Affections.” Apollo band member Benny Carter was so impressed with her performance he began to introduce her to anyone he thought could help launch her career, and soon Fitzgerald’s career took off.
3. Marilyn Monroe gave Fitzgerald a big break.
Fitzgerald’s star was on the rise when Marilyn Monroe demanded the owner of the popular nightclub, the Mocambo, book Fitzgerald on his stage. He had previously refused to book her because he felt she lacked the “glamour” his audience demanded (some historians say he did not want to book a black musician). Monroe told the owner she would take a front table every night Fitzgerald performed, promising the “press would go wild.” They did, and Fitzgerald recalled years later that she owed Monroe “a real debt,” adding, “After that, I never had to play a small jazz club again.”
Fitzgerald was known for her incredible work ethic, and often played two shows a day in cities hundreds of miles apart. She did not slow down as she aged, refusing to slow her hectic performance schedule until after her half-sister, Frances, died and Fitzgerald took on care of her sister’s family. She received the National Medal of Arts from the United States in 1987 and a similar award from France several years later, finally giving what would be her final concert in Carnegie Hall in 1991. She eventually had both legs amputated in an attempt to control side effects from severe diabetes. Fitzgerald died in 1996, but her legacy lives on. Now, turn on a “A-Tisket, A-Tasket,” or “Dream a Little Dream of Me” and take a minute to enjoy that legacy for yourself!
If you are getting ready to have major surgery, make sure some good jazz is in your playlist if you want a faster, less painful recovery. According to research published in Advanced Mind Body Medicine, patients who listened to a little postoperative jazz after major surgeries like hysterectomies had less inflammation, lower levels of anxiety and stress, and reported less postoperative pain. The study group was divided into two smaller groups, one of which listened to jazz while in post anesthesia care (PACU). The other group were given noise-canceling headphones for use while in PACU.
The researchers expected that those listening to jazz would have lower heart rates and blood pressure, indicating lower levels of stress. They believed they would also see less pain in the group listening to jazz. They were right on both counts, although patients who experienced silence in PACU instead of the usual bustle also experienced superior results to those who experienced a “normal” PACU stay. “Using music and/or noise reduction could decrease opioid administration, promote relaxation, and improve patient satisfaction,” wrote the team when the experiment had concluded.
It’s All About Your Brain Waves
So why would jazz music be a better postoperative treatment than, say, a classical theme? Well, as it turns out, jazz has a unique set of soothing, mellow tones that actually affect your brain waves in the same way other relaxation techniques like meditation and massage would. In fact, Science Dailypublished a study indicating that this reduction in stress and inflammation in your body can result in serious healing advantages, such as better memory and verbal recovery in stroke victims, a 25-percent improvement in mental state for depressed individuals, and a decrease in blood pressure that is the equivalent to losing about 10 pounds. Chronic-pain sufferers reported a 21 percent decrease in pain when they began listening to jazz just 30 minutes a day, and multiple studies show that daily jazz boosts your immune system.
The facts behind these seemingly incredible claims are actually quite simple: Our brains and our bodies are deeply, inextricably, often confusingly linked. When we experience emotional tension or stress, our bodies react with physical symptoms. Furthermore, that tension and stress affect our behaviors, often causing us to sleep poorly, exercise less, eat foods that are bad for us, and overindulge in a variety of negative behaviors. Simply indulging in a simple bit of relaxation by listening to jazz can change all of this by reducing the amount of stress and tension our brains are telling our bodies about. Then, our bodies and our common sense have a better shot at working the ways they are supposed to and keeping us healthy.
Make Jazz Part of Your Health Regimen
If all of this amazing information has you chomping at the bit to put a little bit of jazz into your health regimen, make sure you are listening to the types of jazz tunes that activate the “theta brain waves” that are most likely to stimulate your creativity and reduce your stress. Miles Davis’ “Blue in Green” or Chet Baker’s “Almost Blue” are both prime listening for this type of health-oriented jazz appreciation, as is John Coltrane’s “Blue Train.” Your body won’t be singing the blues for long after a healthy dose of jazz hits your system, and then you can thank us in person at our next live jazz performance – which is also good for your health!
If you needed more proof that jazz is life, a Massachusetts astronomer has something for you. Mark Heyer, who studies galactic gases and collects three-dimensional measurements of clouds of gas in the Milky Way, uses sound waves to better visualize the three-dimensional clouds on his two-dimensional computer screen. He developed the technique to help better understand the data he was collecting, but, like any artist at heart, soon decided to “scale up” and create a musical score based on the sounds of atomic, molecular, and ionized gasses found in our galaxy.
The result? The Milky Way Blues.
Yep. When you assign saxophone tones to ionized gas, bass tones to atomic gas, and piano and wood blocks to molecular gases, you get a galactic jazz ensemble that is eternally unique yet surprisingly consistent as the universe expands and the gases in the Milky Way stream toward and away from Earth at various rates of speed. Those moving toward Earth are higher notes; while lower notes indicate gases moving away. Of course, the longer the note, the greater the intensity of the gas.
Heyer did not stop with the Milky Way, either. He now creates a monthly jazz-space mashup that includes scores for Martian winds on Mars, black holes, and “good vibrations” from the sun. In March 2018, he also noted that the Inner Solar System sounds a bit like Radiohead, but he usually sticks to his jazz ensemble roots.
Heyer himself is not a musician, although he does have some experience with the dulcimer. He really created this technique so he could better visualize how the various components of our galaxy relate to each other and to our planet. “Even astronomers don’t really understand the vastness of space,” Heyer admitted, calling the cosmos conceptually “mind-boggling.” In his bio on the University of Massachusetts website, Heyer emphasized:
“I’ve been true to the data. I haven’t massaged it to make it sound nice, but by turning what we actually observe with a radio telescope into a musical scale it gives us familiar tones that sound surprisingly like music with which we’re familiar.”
Heyer also noted that a two-minute “composition” can take multiple months to assemble. Again, just like jazz.
You will often hear it said that “jazz was the soundtrack to the Roaring 20s.” However, the birth of this musical genre took place nearly two decades earlier in the form of “New Orleans Jazz” and the bright, brassy sounds of the black brass marching bands in the streets of New Orleans. Usually, we think of jazz as a post-WWI phenomenon, but really it began before the war did. It was the Victrola, promoted and sold by the Victor Talking Machine Company, that literally broadcast the new sound across the country and made early jazz nearly synonymous with flapper dresses, the Charleston, and, later, Gatsby.
New Orleans jazz originated with the invention of the “Big Four” beat by Buddy “King” Bolden, a cornetist whose band, the Bolden Band, was popular in New Orleans around the turn of the century. Bolden has been dubbed the “father of jazz,” although he is far from alone in holding this title. The Bolden Band combined ragtime and blues in an innovative manner, using brass instruments to play both blues tones and gospel music. Because Bolden and his bandmates played mostly by ear, they were among the first to extemporaneously rearrange well-known tunes to better accommodate their own musical preferences and performances. The “Big Four” beat is a rhythmic variation on marching band beats that allows for more improvisational music than other traditional rhythms. Without the “Big Four,” embryonic jazz might not have become the improvisational art form it is today.
Bolden’s band was popular in New Orleans until 1907, when Bolden himself succumbed to a possibly alcohol-induced psychosis that ultimately led to a diagnosis of schizophrenia. He was institutionalized and spent the rest of his life in the Louisiana State Insane Asylum. Jazz, however, was here to stay, and Bolden’s bold move of bringing brass to the blues would set the stage for the bands that would soon begin combining cornets, trumpets, clarinets, trombones, string instruments, drums, and piano to create the lush point-counterpoint of increasingly spontaneous, robust jazz sounds.
Jazz continued to evolve throughout the early 20thcentury, but it truly began to be broadcast across the air during and after WWI. This was due, in large part, to the popular phonograph, which had actually been invented more than 30 years earlier but only began to be mass-produced and -marketed in the 1920s. What better sound to play on your new Victor Talking Machine (Victrola) than the bright, brave sounds of jazz that had sustained hope throughout the war and personified everything bold, hopeful, and irreverent about the new decade? Jazz flourished as more people began listening to and modeling the sound in their own performances, ultimately leading to the evolution of the genre familiar to most of us in the mellow sounds of Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Benny Goodman, the “King of Swing.”
Unlike many musical genres that have evolved, boomed, and then faded, the creative, spontaneous elements of jazz mean that this music will likely never fade from the American consciousness. In fact, you still hear elements of the “greats” and the “grandfathers” of this music today in Bebop, Hard Bop, Cool Jazz, and even the “Fusion” of the 1990s. Of course, in the 21stcentury, we not only hear echoes of the classics and plenty of mimics of them, but also we hear jazz tones in hip-hop, rap, R&B, and the intriguing “jazz rap” that samples jazz from other eras.
As musicians, artists, and humans, we never stop “broadcasting.” This is particularly true in this day and age. And as long we’re broadcasting and our speakers are working, you can be sure jazz will remain in our music and on our stages — virtual, electronic, and otherwise.
If you love jazz, then you know that sooner or later someone is going to tell you how much they hate it. That information will likely be closely followed up with something like this: “It just doesn’t make any sense to me! How can you enjoy something that never sounds the same twice?” Then, you are forced to decide whether you will (probably futilely) attempt to correct this blatantly incorrect assessment of the musical genre or simply close your eyes in defeat and step away from the topic.
This post is not for those of you who step away. It’s for the jazz lover who stays to fight and, hopefully, convert the uninitiated to the wonders of jazz.
Usually when someone complains about the “sound” of jazz, it is not that they really don’t like the soft, mellow, catchy and enchanting sounds in the melodies. It is more that they really do not understand what is going on when the musicians start to improvise.
Duke Ellington used to say about music that it is the process of “finding some way to say [something] without saying it.” Jazz musicians, like all musicians, tend to put their “stamp” on music when they successfully perform it. However, unlike musicians who stick closely to a score and, as a result, usually create instantly recognizable tunes, a jazz musician may have an instantly recognizable improvisational style as well. It’s that improvisation that people who “hate jazz” tend to have a problem with.
Here’s one way to explain it:
First, tell the person that a lot of jazz has nothing to do with that unpredictable element they dislike. After all, don’t they recognize Ellington’s “It Don’t Mean A Thing” every time they hear it? What about Armstong’s “What a Wonderful World?” Yep. Jazz greats.
Once they’re listening, then point out that jazz improvisation is not invented on the spur of the moment. It’s created around a flexible structure, kind of like a sculpture in the air. A good jazz musician, regardless of whether they play an instrument or employ their voice, will improvise along a series of predetermined tunes and “roles” for their instruments. They are creating spontaneous art but, if you give it a chance, your ear will quickly identify the direction in which the composition is going.
And if this doesn’t happen? Well, we implore you to give it another shot because it’s possible that jazz band just wasn’t very good at that part of jazz. As Wynton Marsalis said, “There is no right or wrong [in jazz], just some choices that are better than others.” Maybe in your experience, the performers made a few too many inferior choices along the score.
If your friend, loved one, or acquaintance decides to write off jazz without really understanding the musical process, we know it is a serious musical loss to them. Even if the process is trying, take a few minutes and attempt to clear the muddy waters surrounding improvisation. Odds are, if they’ll give jazz another try, they will find they soon share your affection for it.
George Jacob Gershwin is probably best known for being the composer of “Rhapsody in Blue,” “Swanee,” “I Got Rhythm,” and the hit “Summertime” from the opera Porgy and Bess.Born in 1898, Gershwin was just 20 when he wrote the score for “Swanee” which, when paired with Irving Caesar’s lyrics, became a national hit. The ongoing popularity and royalties from the song, including the sale of 1 million copies of the sheet music and 2 million records sold, enabled Gershwin to leave pop music composition behind him and focus on theater and film scores. The results, as jazz lovers know, would become famous. Gershwin often worked with his brother, Ira, whose talents as a witty and inventive lyricist received as much praise as did Gershwin’s catchy melodies.
The brief synopsis above does not deliver what we promised for this article, however. Jazz lovers, music lovers, and aficionados of the 1920s and 1930s are deeply familiar with the facts above. We promised you five surprising facts about Gershwin, so take a look at the list below and let us know how many of these items you knew already.
His middle name wasn’t Jacob.
When George Gershwin was born, his birth certificate was filled out to indicate the baby boy’s name would be “Jacob Gershwine,” after his grandfather. He did not have a middle name at all. He soon became known as “George,” however, and changed the spelling of Gershwine when he became a professional musician. His brothers, Ira and Arthur, and sister, Frances, ultimately changed their surname spelling as well.
He had chronic anxiety.
At the time, Gershwin’s compulsive chewing on cigars, pulling on his nose, and chronic gastrointestinal issues ranging from constipation to diarrhea were credited to his artistic temperament. The composer himself referred to his stomach troubles as “composer’s stomach.” Near the end of his life, he attempted to deal with stress in unusual ways, such as covering his entire body with chocolate. Today, Gershwin would likely have been diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder, clinical anxiety, and possibly ADHD and depression. Today, he would also likely have survived the initial treatment for his final (and accurate) diagnosis, which you will learn about next.
Gershwin died after a failed brain surgery.
Many people familiar with Gershwin know he died at the age of 38 as a result of a malignant brain tumor. After all, his brother, Ira, dedicated the entire body of his own musical works to George following the composer’s untimely demise. What you may not realize, however, is that it was not the tumor that killed Gershwin; it was the treatment. Gershwin died immediately following a failed attempt to remove that malignant brain tumor.
Sadly, the surgery was unavoidable, as Gershwin was terribly affected by the tumor by the time he sought treatment. The composer had attempted to push his own driver out of a car, experienced recurring olfactory hallucinations that gave him the impression he smelled burning rubber, and suffered from blackouts even during public piano performances. He was initially diagnosed with hysteria. After Gershwin collapsed and fell into a coma, physicians revised their opinion and renowned brain surgeon of the day Walter Dandy performed an emergency removal of what may have been a glioblastoma, an aggressive form of brain cancer that even today has a positive outcome (in which a patient survives more than five years after diagnosis and treatment) of about 3 percent. Gershwin died immediately following the removal of the tumor.
He never wrote another hit like his first one.
Gershwin’s first hit, “Swanee,” was also his biggest hit. He never beat his sales volumes or profits after the release of that song. However, it is important to note that he never tried to do so. The revenue from “Swanee” enabled him to concentrate on theater work, film scores, and performances. The composer did wonder aloud occasionally “if people will still play my music in 100 years” and, in an effort to achieve this, tried to avoid being seen as a “genre artist.” This attempt led Gershwin to create his now-famous opera, Porgy and Bess, which debuted to an unpopular reception. This reception may well have been the result, at least in part, of the opera’s racially charged content, which reviewers and even some cast members complained portrayed African Americans in a negative light. Interestingly, the initial production was performed by a cast of classically trained African American singers, which was nearly unheard of at the time. Today, Porgy and Bessis one of the best-known and most-frequently performed English-language operas.
Gershwin got the nicest rejection letter of all time.
While living in Paris in the mid-1920s, Gershwin applied to study composition with a number of classical musicians living in the city. He was rejected by all of them, but at least they were nice about it! Maurice Ravel, one of the first composers to get involved in the recording industry, was among those who rejected the young musician. He allegedly wrote in response to Gershwin’s request, “Why become a second-rate Ravel when you’re already a first-rate Gershwin?”
You’ve Got Rhythm
One of the greatest things about Gershwin was that even when he was composing classical pieces, he (and often his brother) kept his music appealing, catchy, and beautiful to the ear. In a time when many composers favored creating such complicated scores that few musicians could play them, Gershwin prolifically wrote not just operas and classical scores but also dozens of some of the most beloved tunes in American music today. This is the main reason we keep that Gershwin sound strong in our own performances because, after all, everyone’s “got rhythm” if they just listen for it.
The Age of Jazz began in the early 1920s, but the musical genre’s greatest contribution in history may well be the crucial role it played in World War II. Around the same time the United States entered the war, jazz and swing were dominating the airwaves, film, and, of course, live performance in the country. In Europe, which had already spent two years battling the Nazi regime, jazz was a symbol of everything that Adolf Hitler hated and, as a result, it was much loved.
Hitler himself was purported to despise the genre as fremdländisch, or “alien music.” All such music was destined, the Nazis insisted, for eradication. Hitler’s minister of propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, called the music “the art of the subhuman,” and the regime used many other pejorative titles for it as well. As a result, the entire genre came to represent freedom, democracy, and, ultimately, liberation by way of American intervention, by the end of the war.
In response, the Nazis banned the use of the word “jazz” and all American musical performances in Paris. When this failed to stem the tide of tunes crossing the ocean, Goebbels ultimately assembled a swing band to rewrite popular songs with anti-Semitic lyrics and play those on the radio. Not surprisingly, these versions were not particularly popular, nor did Goebbels’ production of a propaganda film in which concentration camp prisoners played in a swing band do anything to enhance the Nazi cause. “The Ghetto Swingers” film “actors” ended their lives tragically in Auschwitz.
As the atrocious attempts to subvert the genre became increasingly ludicrous and nauseating, even German youth became enamored with jazz. The Swingjugend, or “swing kids,” held secret meetings to play jazz records and listen to Allied radio signals. Across Europe, for American troops and those suffering under the Nazi Regime alike, jazz was a source of morale and hope for the future.
Jazz trumpeters, already popular since the 1930s, played a particularly important role during this time period thanks to their ability to play rousing melodies and their presence in the military already. Although the saxophone eventually replaced the trumpet as the dominant instrument in jazz, the trumpet remained popular, particularly overseas. Jazz trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie clearly recalls this era of jazz and the importance of the jazz trumpet during this period in an interview in which he observed that jazz must be considered “serious” music in contradiction to what the interviewer clearly believed. Gillespie said, “Men have died for this music…. You can’t get more serious than that.”
Interestingly, New York Times contributor John Wilson suggested in a 1983 jazz retrospective that one possible reason the saxophone overtook the trumpet in jazz performance in the 1940s could be the untimely deaths of many of the most famous trumpeters of the era. “Creative trumpet players [such] as Fats Navarro, Clifford Brown, Booker Little, and Lee Morgan” all died early and, Wilson wrote, their deaths might have heralded the trend to literally mute the trumpet during jazz performances. He noted hopefully, however, that “a new generation of trumpet influences” might emerge in the coming decade, and today’s jazz bands often prominently feature trumpeters in their compositions and performances. No matter the era, however, the notes of the jazz trumpet will always, now as then, ring clear as a symbol of hope, creativity, and individualism wherever jazz is played.
As a child, the revered jazz composer, double bassist, pianist, and bandleader Charles Mingus was considered musically illiterate and rejected from the local youth orchestra. To add insult to injury, despite being an accomplished cello player, he was unable to take up the instrument professionally because 1930s classical music was essentially closed to black musicians. However, Mingus’ dedication to his own craft and deep affection for the arts in general ultimately led to a unique pairing of the jazz great’s adult resources and a Los Angeles landmark cobbled together from glass, stones, and steel assembled by Italian immigrant and construction worker Sabato “Sam” Rodia between 1921 and 1954.
During the early stages of the construction of what is now known as the Watts Towers, Mingus and other neighborhood children often brought offerings of broken glass and pottery to Rodia in hopes of having them added to his great and mysterious project, which he called Nuestra Pueblo (our town). Most of the offerings were rejected in favor of shards from Malibu Pottery, where Rodia worked, but Mingus never forgot the towers, which eventually numbered 17, and ultimately his Charles Mingus Youth Arts Center would hold (and continues to hold) art classes at the Watts Towers Arts Center for youth and special needs adults.
Mingus was raised in the Watts area of Los Angeles, where Rodia spent 33 years building the Watts Towers. When Rodia’s construction was completed in 1954, Mingus would have been entering the most productive and creative years of his career. While Mingus likely spent a great deal of time as a very young child scavenging materials for the exciting and eccentric Rodia, by his early teen years he was far busier writing the advanced musical pieces he would later record in 1960 with conductor Gunther Schuller and gaining a reputation as a bass prodigy thanks to tours with former Ellington clarinetist Barney Bigard and, subsequently, Louis Armstrong.
By the mid 1940s, Mingus was recording in LA and playing with jazz greats including Teddy Edwards, Bill Davis, and Howard McGhee. Mingus also received a great deal of acclaim thanks to his involvement with a jazz trio comprising himself, Red Norvo, and Tal Farlow, but he was ultimately forced to leave the band due to club owners’ issues with black performers. Ongoing racial conflict in his chosen profession exacerbated Mingus’ already short temper and, ultimately, he garnered the dubious honor of being one of only three musicians ever fired personally by Duke Ellington. That firing took place after Mingus got into a fight onstage with Puerto Rican trombonist Juan Tizol.
After the Ellington firing, Mingus appears to have accepted his short temper as a handicap to playing in other people’s bands and opted to accommodate that temper rather than change it. He became a famed bandleader himself in addition to co-founding Debut Records so that he could handle his own recording career and support young musicians. He also created a group of rotating musicians called the Jazz Workshop, which many historians credit with the ultimate emergence of free jazz because Mingus insisted the musicians creatively explore their own music literally on the spot when they were working with him. His intense dedication to this process led some participants to dub the group “Jazz University” and others to select the nomenclature “Jazz Sweatshop.”
Mingus died in 1979 at the age of 56, but his legacy continues in many venues. Not only does the Mingus Big Band play weekly in New York City but the Mingus Orchestra and the Mingus Dynasty bands are managed by his fourth wife and widow, Sue Mingus. His masterpiece, Epitaph, a two-hour, 4,235-measure jazz composition, was, fittingly, discovered after his death and premiered by a 30-piece orchestra and fellow musician and recording artist Gunther Schuller.
Certainly, the Mingus association with Rodia and the Watts Towers is one of the musician’s subtler lasting cultural contributions, but it stands as a testament to Mingus’ own youthful struggles to enter and excel in the arts. As Mingus himself wrote in his autobiography, Beneath the Underdog: His World as Composed by Mingus, and an Observer reviewer paraphrased, this deeply talented jazz legend grew up “in a world that [was] not only trying to stop you being an artist but has tried to stop you being human in the first place.” Perhaps his fascination with Watts Towers, which he mentions in that autobiography, was another manifestation of Mingus’ determination not just to exist in the antagonistic world of the arts in his lifetime, but to forge a new sound from it and thrive.