Jazz musicians are known for getting lost in the music. In fact, our own group, the Scat Cats, has, on more than one occasion, “woken up” from the trance of a really great practice session to find we had gone for hours longer than we realized. When you do that, you just have to shake your head and hope your significant other didn’t get too worried. It’s part of the musical experience, and I wouldn’t trade it for the world!
If you have jazz in your heart and time has a way of getting away from you, then you won’t want to miss a Kansas City landmark that is open nightly, all night, for one long jam session. In the 1920s and 1930s, Kansas City was immune from prohibition, thanks to political boss Tom Pendergast, who was crucial to the city’s flow of alcohol during this time. As a result, the city became a mecca for entertainers of all types, and jazz musicians led the way. At one time, there were more than 100 nightclubs, all featuring jazz music on and around Kansas City’s fabled 12thStreet, the nationally known home of jazz clubs, gambling parlors, and brothels. It was this dedication to entertainment and excess that partially insulated the area from the Great Depression.
While many of the clubs are shuttered now and the brothels are either “underground” or completely gone, the jam sessions remain intact at the Mutual Musicians Foundation, a union hall (and now historic landmark) that was central to the jazz scene in the Roaring 20s and remains open for all-night sessions to this day. Hanging out with other musicians in this venue is truly an escape from reality and almost like time-traveling back to the earliest age of jazz. Everyone loves the music and loves learning from each other – just like the greats did in the 1930s.
The union hall itself is a huge part of local history. It was originally called Local 627 and was home to the African-American Musicians Union, which was founded in 1917. The MMF was incorporated to manage the building and assets for Local 627 and continued to operate the building as a social club after the union merged with Local 34 in 1970.
In addition to hosting local and traveling musicians from all backgrounds who love and perform jazz, MMF also opens its doors to everyone on the weekends for all-night jam sessions. If you have never gotten lost in the music before, this is your best bet to get there. It’s an experience you will never forget.
Louis Armstrong was larger than life but, to those who knew him, a relatively quiet and simple man (they said).
His grave, which is located in Flushing Cemetery in Queens, New York, is a testament to that quieter side of the jazz superstar who brought us “Stardust,” “What a Wonderful World,” “When the Saints Go Marching In,” Dream a Little Dream of Me,” and “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” to name just a few.
When Armstrong died in 1971, he left behind a legacy of musical improvisation, including scat singing. Literary critic Harold Bloom placed him on par with Walt Whitman as “the genius of this nation at its best.”
Jazz aficionados who visit Armstrong’s grave may find it a bit surprising. The large, black stone is simple, engraved with nothing more than his name, Louis Armstrong, and the nickname “Satchmo” in quotes. Atop the stone lies a white marble trumpet and a white marble handkerchief.
3 Surprising Things to Know About Louis Armstrong
What does it all mean? Well, here are three things you can learn about Armstrong at his gravesite that might surprise you.
Louis Armstrong had at least 3 names.
Although the gravestone itself is inscribed with the name “Louis,” Armstrong apparently used multiple spellings and pronunciations of his name throughout his life. He was most commonly referred to as “Louie” or “Lewie” and registered himself for the 1920 U.S. Census using the latter spelling. However, in his 1964 record, “Hello, Dolly,” he refers to himself as Lewis. Musicians and close friends reportedly referred to Armstrong simply as “Pops.” His third wife, Lucille Wilson, publicly referred to him as “Louie.”
“Satchmo” refers to Armstrong’s early performance habits.
Armstrong was known by the nicknames “Satchmo” and “Satch” in reference to the longer version of his nickname, “Satchelmouth.” As a young boy in New Orleans, Armstrong would dance in the streets for pennies. When he received coins from an appreciative audience, he would hold them in his mouth to keep bigger children from stealing them. Another version of the story simply states that friends nicknamed Armstrong “Satchelmouth” because he had a large mouth, and the name was eventually abbreviated “Satchmo.”
His white handkerchief started a trend.
Armstrong was known for using a white handkerchief to wipe his face when he perspired, particularly when he was on stage. These handkerchiefs became iconic, and many are preserved at the Louis Armstrong House Museum at Queens College today. Young people in the 1950s often carried similar white handkerchiefs and wiped their own faces with exaggerated mannerisms in an attempt to mimic Armstrong. This is one reason Armstrong’s gravestone bears a white, marble handkerchief.
Louis Armstrong was one of the best-loved musicians in American history, and he made headlines consistently during his life and after his death. In the wake of his funeral, fans actually plundered the graveside for flowers and other mementos just to remember him by. When criticized, they returned, “I just want something to remember him.”
Flowers or not, there is no forgetting Louis Armstrong.
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.
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.
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!