When you think of the Roaring 20s, probably the last thing that comes to mind is today’s controversial Al-Jazeera television station, based in New York City. However, Al Jazeera presently occupies a “stage” that used to belong to jazz legends like Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, Woody Herman, and Bob Crosby. That stage is part of the now-defunct Terrace Room, which was once one of the most glamorous night spots in the Big Apple.
The Terrace Room was perhaps one of the more successful business ventures attached to the New Yorker Hotel, which opened just in time for the Great Depression and struggled to keep its doors open. Management often ordered the lights in vacant rooms left on in order to give the appearance that the hotel was doing a thriving business, but the New Yorker filed for bankruptcy in 1966. Before that sad day, however, the hotel boasted more televisions under one roof than any other building in the world (1948), operated the dining services at LaGuardia Airport in the Kitty Hawk Bar and Grill, and proudly hosted a 50-chair barber salon.
During the second World War, the New Yorker was filled with service personnel who enjoyed the night life in the Terrace Room and the luxuries and hospitality available throughout the hotel itself. Many soldiers enjoyed reminiscing about their time there so much that they would dub their dugouts on the war front “The New Yorker” with hand-painted signs. When the Terrace Room was in its heyday and Benny Goodman was often in evidence, the hotel broadcast concerts four nights a week, bringing jazz and swing to millions of homes across the United States and into those dugouts via the American Forces radio network.
In front of the stage where Goodman and others performed, a retractable floor hid a small ice stage. At times, the hotel would host an ice performance in conjunction with the musical concert, and this was the case for Goodman and his band when they played at the Terrace Room during that time.
Today, the Terrace Room is nothing but a memory. The revolving brass door that once opened into a terraced room with its central, focal ice stage below now leads into television and recording studios. Next door is the long-defunct, vacant Manufacturing Trust Bank (MTC) and a vast wall of empty safe-deposit boxes that were, thanks to the Great Depression, mostly never filled. If you listen closely, however, you might hear the faint echoes of Benny Goodman, playing tunes requested by diners eating lobster while watching one of the most glamorous shows available at the time.
The New Yorker was purchased in 1976 by the Unification Church, who used part of the building as a world mission center. The New Yorker and 1,000 rooms in the original building are now operated by the Wyndham Group. You can listen to Benny Goodman and other musicians from that era in the lobby museum.
One of the most common myths about jazz music that we hear (mainly from people who have never listened to more than half a sheet of jazz music, at most) is that jazz music is “too depressing” to enjoy. “I can’t get into those blues songs,” people often say. “I just don’t know why you would want to listen to that sort of melancholy music.”
Now, if you have ever met me or listened to the Scat Cats perform, you know already that I’m not a “Debbie Downer” kind of person. Put simply: I do not have the blues in any way, shape, or form. So it always surprises me when people who know me tell me they think jazz is too sad, slow, or depressing for them to handle, because I’m not a sad, slow, or depressing kind of person. Do you really think I would sing that sort of thing all the time? I can, sure, and it sounds great, but it’s not my main strain by any stretch.
So where did this crazy misconception about “sad jazz” come from?
Well, truth be told, there is a lot of slow, sad, bluesy jazz out there, and a lot of it is brilliant. However, a lot of people completely overlook the “happy jazz” that started it all: the hits of the 1920s and 1930s that had a bounce and (you know it) a “swing” to it as well.
When I think of jazz, I don’t just think of the blues. I think of the Big Band music of the swell, elegant, crazy 1920s. I think of the 1930s and George Gershwin, of the swing-era musicians and the bands they put together to bring jazz to the forefront of that musical age. And, of course, I think of the 1930s jazz trumpet/cornet genius Bix Beiderbecke, of Bing Crosby’s earliest vocal experiments, and the Rhythm Boys. They’ve all got bounce. They’ve all got swagger, and believe me, you will feel nothing but happy when you’re listening.
Not sure what or who I’m raving about? Let me give you a quick run-down before you go on your next Google search for these happy-jazz musicians:
- George Gershwin wrote I Got Rhythm, just for starters, and that wasn’t even his most famous piece. I mention it because everyone knows it, but not everyone knows it is jazz.
- Bix Beiderbecke, whose real name was Leon Bismark Beiderbecke, was part of America’s most popular dance band at the time, Paul Whiteman and his Orchestra, and composed or played such classics as “Georgia on My Mind,” which you might have recognized as jazz, and “Riverboat Shuffle,” which you might not if you think jazz has to be slow, sultry, and sentimental. Now you know differently, and you should be happyyou were wrong!
- Bing Crosby is ubiquitous as a famous singer, but did you know he got his start thanks to a jazz-influenced rendition of “Old Man River” in 1928? It was his first number-one hit.
This list (and I) could go on and on, but I think you’re starting to get the picture. I just have to add one final thing: If you don’t believe jazz can be happy, then come hear the Scat Cats perform. I guarantee your toes will tap, your hips will sway, and your face will split wide open in a great, big grin.
Assuming there is anything left on the planet in the year 8113, the smooth strains of jazz great Artie Shaw could waft through the futuristic sound systems of Atlanta, Georgia, in the spring of that year. Six of Shaw’s recordings are part of the extremely eclectic mix of items sealed in the Crypt of Civilization at Oglethorpe University. The crypt is widely considered to be the first conventional time capsule, and its open date is May 28, 8113.
So how did Artie Shaw get into this time capsule, and who else is in there with him? Shaw himself is regarded as one of the finest clarinetists in jazz history and was in his heyday in 1936, when the capsule’s contents were assembled and then sealed behind a welded-shut, stainless-steel door in the basement of Oglethorpe University’s Phoebe Hearst Hall. In 1936, Shaw had not yet released his recording of Cole Porter’s “Begin the Beguine,” which led to the clarinetist’s swift ascension to pop-icon status, but he had been performing with some of the country’s most popular big bands. Shaw had also gained attention in 1935 for his unusual instrumentation, including the decision to play backed only by a rhythm section and a string quartet in some concerts.
Interestingly, Shaw is only one of two named musicians in the crypt, although the official documentation of the contents indicates that multiple “miscellaneous” records are also included in the vault. The other musician is composer Richard Himber, who was an American bandleader, composer, violinist, magician, and practical joker. Shaw may have made the list because, like Himber, he was a multidisciplinary artist. In addition to playing the clarinet, Shaw was a composer, bandleader, author of both fiction and nonfiction, and actor. He also enjoyed studying advanced mathematics.
The Crypt of Civilization is the brainchild of Dr. Thornwell Jacobs, now regarded as “the father of the modern time capsule.” Jacobs, a historian himself, was routinely frustrated by the lack of accurate information about ancient civilizations. He conceived of the crypt as a way to create a permanent record of life at the time the crypt was sealed, in 1936. Jacobs included everything he could think of to help the future civilizations gain an accurate view of his world, including hundreds of newsreels and recordings, a device to teach English to whomever or whatever opens the crypt in 8113, and myriad items from daily life including a piece of lucite, a “Toastalator (electric),” a pocket watch, clothing, hair pins, dentures, and a plastic flute.
Artie Shaw’s recordings, along with the rest of the items in the crypt, are sealed in a room 20 feet long by 10 feet high by 10 feet wide. The room rests on bedrock beneath two additional feet of stone and is lined with porcelain enamel plates embedded in pitch. The stainless-steel door is welded shut, and no valuables such as gold or gemstones were included so as “not to tempt vandals.” Fortunately for that future civilization, whatever it may be, a record player is included in the inventory. We just hope, for their sake, they know
A lot of people insist that there is no such thing as “bad jazz.” They may be right. So many times, what is a perfect fit for one jazz enthusiast’s ear is a terrible clunker in another ear. Because jazz is such an extensive genre both in terms of style and longevity, it is easy to say that one man’s (or woman’s) “trash” is another’s treasure when it comes to jazz.
However, as with most types of art, there will always be people who want to be able to make value judgments about the relative caliber of one musician or creative individual over another. Particularly if you are new to jazz appreciation, it can be frustrating to feel as if you do not know if you are listening to something “good” that simply does not appeal to you or if you have mastered the “jazz ear” and now can comment on relative merits of one jazz piece over another.
To help with this process and, hopefully, bring more jazz lovers into the fold where they belong and can learn to really appreciate all forms of this musical style, here is a starter list of three ways you can spot jazz music that is, in all likelihood, truly good jazz. Now, do not get carried away. At no point should I ever hear, “Well, the Scat Cats say you’re out to lunch*because you don’t meet these three points for good jazz.” Nope. Better not. Because that would be, as jazz musicians might say, a real bringdown**. In fact, it might lead us to blow our top***and call you a birdbrain****if we were feeling particularly feisty.
You just use these three pointers as a starting place and be fly*****while you learn to love jazz.
Good Jazz Goal #1: The music “tells a story”
Most jazz musicians use some level of improvisation when they perform even if they are playing old classics. When the instrumental comes in, listen for that improvisation. Are the musicians having fun? Are they working together to make that instrumental section really tell a story? If so, then you are probably listening to some good jazz.
Good Jazz Goal #2: You can tell the musicians have their own voice
This goes along with #1 quite a bit. There are a lot of jazz classics out there, but most of us who really love those tunes make them our own. However, you don’t want a musician to muddle through the song or add things that sound out of place just to be unique. If the jazz is good, you think, “Wow, that is a great song; I never thought of quite that way before,” and you know the musician put his or her own style on it.
Good Jazz Goal #3: They can stretch the beat but don’t break it
Jazz has a very difficult rhythm to play because it allows for notes both before and behind the beat, but you also have to keep perfect time in addition to creating a syncopated sound. It is hard. If you are listening to good jazz, you will find yourself amazed at the technical ability of the musicians in addition to enjoying their tunes.
Need a few pointers for the “jazz lingo” up top? Check out the translations below.
* “Out to lunch” means lame or a bad jazz musician. “I can’t stand that guy’s style. He is really out to lunch.”
** “Bringdown” is a verb that means to depress someone. Can also be used as an adjective. “That guy is a real bringdown, so let’s leave before he starts complaining.”
*** “Blow our top” expresses exasperation, but it can also indicate enthusiasm. In this article, it implies exasperation. “We don’t want to blow our top so do not push our patience.”
**** “Birdbrain” is a term for someone who is not original or informed. “Only a birdbrainwould say that Benny Goodman wasn’t a jazz great.”
***** “Be fly” is an adjective that means smooth or cool. “I love the Scat Cats. That is one flygroup.”
If you hold with many popular opinions from musical experts and jazz aficionados around the globe, then you probably will agree that 1959 was “The Greatest Year” jazz ever had. The year was certainly pivotal for the genre. Here is a brief summary of why proponents for this theory support it:
- In 1959, Esquire devoted an entire issue to jazz, titled “The Golden Age of Jazz”
- Miles Davis finished recording Kind of Blue, the bestselling jazz album of all time
- John Coltrane finished recording Giant Steps
- Dave Brubeck released Time Out, which was more popular in its day than Kind of Blue and led the way toward jazz fusion and smooth jazz
So, in summary, in 1959 a major magazine announced that 1959 would be “the year” for jazz and then a number of very famous, long-lasting, impactful recordings and records essentially made it so.
That is fairly convincing, really. You certainly cannot argue that 1959 was not a pivotal year for the genre. But was it the greatest year in jazz?
Placing the title of “greatest year for jazz” on a year now six decades behind us is, perhaps, a bit limiting. After all, while jazz may have encountered some very pivotal events during 1959, it has not, by any stretch, ceased to evolve since that pivotal moment. In very few musical genres may one legitimately state, decades after the genre’s inception, that a new movement has formed as a result of said genre. With jazz, however, this happens once or twice a decade – at least.
Head out to a club today – and it does not have to be a jazz club, by the way – and you will still hear echoes and invocations of jazz greats from the World War I era and onward. We still feel chills rise when we hear Ella Fitzgerald, but we also get a surge of excitement when we recognize a “sample” of Duke Ellington in modern music, such as when “In a Sentimental Mood” made it into Mac Miller’s “Diablo” in 2014 or “My Little Brown Book” got a nod from Ghostface Killah in 2000.
Is every song impacted by jazz to our personal taste? Probably not, but the genre is nothing if not intensely pervasive and, as a result, we would argue, not anywhere near 60 years past its prime.
In the year 2000, an appropriately named amusement park opened in New Orleans. Jazzland, a close imitator of the popular Six Flags franchise, offered a wooden rollercoaster built on a steel frame that was ironically (as you will soon discover) designed to withstand hurricane-force winds, replicas of rides located at Pontchartrain Beach, a defunct park that had been a local favorite located next to Lake Pontchartrain, and amusement park “regulars” like spinning rides, a carousel, and a log flume. Jazzland featured large, themed sculptures including clowns, crocodiles dressed as chefs, and Mardi-Gras-beaded skeletons.
Although the park seemed perfectly suited for the area, it was not profitable. In 2002, Jazzland was sold to Six Flags and renamed “Six Flags New Orleans.” The company quickly added familiar staples to the Jazzland-themed mix, including a Batman ride, a looping rollercoaster, and a Jester-themed ride relocated from a Texas location. The park retained many of its Jazzland attractions, including themed areas named Pontchartrain Beach, Mardi Gras, and Cajun Country. In early 2005, the park announced it would soon add a water park that would be included in the price of admission, but before this could progress past the planning stage, Hurricane Katrina struck. The last day of operation for Jazzland/Six Flags New Orleans was August 21, 2005, and the resulting “water park” that emerged from the wreckage of Katrina would prove insurmountable even to a national powerhouse like the Six Flags corporation.
What Happened Underwater?
Hurricane Katrina was a disaster of extreme proportions, but it surprised many that the hurricane managed to permanently shut down an amusement park owned by one of the biggest names in the business. The problem was multifaceted. First of all, the park was located in one of the lowest-lying areas of New Orleans and was totally submerged in corrosive floodwater for nearly a month after the storm had passed. Some 80 percent of the park was demolished by the time the waters receded. Although Six Flags declared the park a total loss, the mayor of New Orleans at that time announced he would hold the corporation to its 75-year lease and force the company to rebuild the park. The only way the company could do this would be to force insurers to pay nearly $25 million, of which it only successfully could collect about half due to the catastrophic nature of the storm on the area at large.
In the following years, Six Flags routinely cited its inability to collect the full insurance amount as the reason for allowing Jazzland to remain unrestored and vacant. The company also routinely removed rides and any salvageable equipment like lights, planting structures, and shade coverings, for “refurbishment,” then installed them in other parks in other locations. Local residents had neither the interest nor the funds to buy expensive season passes to the park, which had been one of the least profitable in the Six Flags portfolio even before Katrina hit.
Is Jazzland Gone Forever?
While Six Flags had clearly given up on Jazzland, New Orleans had not given up on its theme park entirely. From 2008 to 2011, another amusement park company proposed a takeover of the lease and an expansion that would have restored Jazzland to its former glory and doubled the size of the park. Sadly, the process of evicting Six Flags and getting the new park approved took so long that nature began to take over the entire Jazzland park while Six Flags continued to loot its own park and diminish the value of the property for sale.
By 2011, it was clear the project would never come to fruition, and the city proposed another manifestation of Jazzland, this time as a mixed-use retail/outlet mall and amusement theme park with an associated movie studio back lot available for filming. Sadly, the only part of this plan that came to any productive end was the movie-industry facet, as Jazzland has been used to film several dystopian productions and has hosted the lairs of multiple big-screen super villains. Ultimately, it also landed roles in “Jurassic World” as Jurassic Park after the dinosaurs trashed it and in “Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters” as a cyclops-targeted metropolis on a deserted island. Jazzland also landed a feature in the video game “Mafia III” as, appropriately, an abandoned amusement park that is partially flooded.
Like jazz itself, Jazzland appears determined to evolve and truly become a timeless piece of New Orleans past and present. Today, fully eight development groups have expressed interest in reopening Jazzland in various forms. It remains to be seen which, if any, ultimately will succeed in bringing the original Jazzland back to life.
If you think of sultry clubs and even sultrier people when you think of jazz, you’re not alone. However, many people do not realize that jazz is about far more than suave crooners and passing solos from one musician to the next. In fact, some of the country’s easiest, brightest, and most memorable dance styles originated with jazz.
We made a list of three fun dance styles that originated with this longest-lasting of musical genres. Next time your feet start tapping and your hips start swaying, take a moment to thank jazz greats for giving you the moves you need for this moment!
Dance Style #1: Swing Dancing
You’ve probably heard the old line, “It don’t mean a thing/If it ain’t got that swing,” and you may even know jazz great Duke Ellington is the one who famously sang those lines, although he did not compose them. The musical piece by the same title is now generally considered to be a “jazz standard,” though at the time of composition in 1931 it was a little more groundbreaking. The lyricist, Irving Mills, was prophetic when it came to swing. The original “Swing Era” began in the 1920s and took hold in the 1930s, when Big Band music dominated pop culture.
Swing dancing is a relatively general term for dancing performed to anything related to swing music. It includes the “Lindy hop,” which was titled in 1927 in honor of Charles Lindbergh’s “hop” across the Atlantic, and jazz routines such as “shim sham,” which is generally considered to have originated as a warm-up method for tap dancers during the initial era of jazz, which arguably began just prior to the 1920s. Today’s swing dancing involves lively, partnered dancing and coordinated solo routines, an appropriate combination of swing and jazz dances that is perfectly appropriate for a type of dance emerging from music’s most durable hybrid style.
Dance Style #2: The Charleston
During the 1920s, flappers were breaking ground for women by showing off their arms and legs, making dresses that anyone could whip up at home one of the most fashion-forward statements on the scene, and generally being seen in all sorts of places previously limited to men. While it might not have been the dawn of feminism exactly, the early 1920s was certainly a time of groundbreaking, sometimes bawdy behavior. Jazz music, appropriately, was also breaking ground and musicians were busy being, well, bawdy, in jazz performance venues, so it is unsurprising that the dance that is the “face” of the Roaring 20s, the Charleston, has its roots in jazz music.
The Charleston and, later, its cousin, the Lindy hop, became increasingly popular as the spread of electricity enabled people to stay out later and later, dancing the night away, in dance clubs around the country. The Charleston was one of the first featured dances at dance contests, during which contestants vied to see who could keep their feet tapping in time the longest while spectators cheered, bet on the outcome, and enjoyed the show.
Dance Style #3: Black Bottom
Black Bottom dance originated in the rural South but became famous thanks to Jelly Roll Morton’s “Black Bottom Stomp,” which referred in its title to an area of Detroit, Michigan. In its original form, the dance is “as old as the hills,” as one early performer described it, but the version that ultimately became famous was very similar to the Charleston and performed in Harlem shows and cabarets as well as on Broadway. After this, it became a national craze.
Obviously, the musical link to Jelly Roll Morton inextricably links the Black Bottom dance style with jazz. Dance analysts often credit Jelly Roll Morton with creating the need to distinguish this dance style from the Charleston because of his musical composition. After Morton’s musical number became a hit, certain songs were considered “Black Bottom” dance songs while others were considered “Charleston” songs, although the dance steps often were nearly impossible to tell apart.
Of course, these styles are just three of more than a dozen lasting dance styles that emerged from the jazz movement between the 1920s and the 1960s. Even today, many music historians credit jazz with the origination of hip hop as a musical movement and a dance movement despite that style of music’s much later emergence. In fact, just this past May, a jazz dance contest once again took the spotlight as the Missouri History Museum attempted to break the world record for the world’s largest modern jazz class. No matter what the world around us looks like, we will always be able to hear the echo of jazz in our daily lives.
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!