Short narrative article on the importance of jazz music/ why it still exists in America.
|It is 7:26 on a Tuesday night. The Recital Hall at Muhlenberg College is dimly lit, and people are strolling into the venue, greeting each other on the way to their seat. A large assortment of people make up the audience- there are parents, grandparents, siblings, and friends of the performers, music majors and minors, and of course, people who enjoy jazz.
By 7:35, the seats in the Recital Hall are almost all filled. Ted Conner’s Tuesday Jazz Improv group comes out onto the stage, and the room applauds. The musicians take their places at the instruments and microphones that are already set up for them. The lights dim, and the audience members sink back into their seats in excitement and anticipation for the performance that is to come.
To many people, musicians and non-musicians alike, jazz is thought to be a dead genre.
“Less people are willing to put in the work to listen to and perform jazz music because, well, it’s complex,” says Muhlenberg College Music professor and jazz musician, Ted Conner. “I’m overstating, but jazz pretty much died after the big band era, in terms of sales anyway,” Conner folds his hands and looks down.
Since it’s said “death”, jazz has become America’s least favorite music genre, representing only 1.4% of American music consumption in 2014.
So why isn’t jazz completely dead? Who are these people making up that 1.4% of music consumption in America? Why do musicians continue to play jazz, and why do some people continue to listen to it?
“I like jazz because its an inherently creative genre,” says Alex Mast, a jazz pianist in Ted Conner’s Tuesday Jazz Improv group, and a Music major at Muhlenberg College. “A lot of times when you play music, especially classical, it feels very constricting, everything is dictated by the composer. But with jazz…” Mast smiles, “...you have the melody, and you play the mood you want. It can always change, even while performing.”
My love for music began at a young age. I was always surrounded by it. My mother is a pianist and a piano teacher, and my father is a guitarist, so naturally, I started my musical endeavors on piano and guitar. I eventually made my way to the flute, and by high school, started learning to play the french horn. I began taking weekly lessons, and playing in my high school’s band. I became more invested in the french horn than I had ever been in any of my other instruments. I started listening to Mozart, learning concertos, and auditioning for regional and honors bands and orchestras. I finally had found myself- I was a classical musician. Classical music had become my one true love.
That is, until I discovered jazz.
I didn’t grow up around jazz. I never thought much of it- it was always just another genre to me. This held true until my junior year of high school, when my band director asked me to learn to play the trombone and audition for my school’s jazz band. While I was able to learn to play the trombone itself relatively easily, I found it to be incredibly difficult to transition my playing style from classical to jazz. I couldn’t comprehend the music, the feel it should give off, or the creative liberties that the musician should take. While I loved the idea of the genre, I just wasn’t grasping the true identity of jazz.
Thankfully, the more I listened to jazz, and began to understand the genre as a sort of language, the closer I got to finding my “jazz sound”. Once I started to connect with jazz on this level, It wasn’t long before jazz took over my life. I listened to jazz constantly- enough to the point where my roommates (who never used to listen to jazz) began to sing along to John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” when I would put it on.
Many jazz musicians find themselves in similar symbiotic relationships with jazz music. The more they play jazz, the more they listen to it. The more they listen to jazz, the more they play it.
“I like listening to jazz because I can learn from what I hear, It helps me to scat better, have better solos, and to just be a better jazz musician overall,” says Mikal Kalus, a vocalist in Ted Conner’s Tuesday Jazz Improv group, and a Music major at Muhlenberg College.
Kalus wasn’t always a jazz musician. She started her musical career by involving herself in a mixture of classical music, and musical theater.
“I really started getting into jazz senior year of high school when there was a jazz solo in my choir that I wanted to audition for,” Kalus explains. “I didn’t used to like jazz. I never wanted to improv. Improv terrified me. I was scared to think on the spot,” she goes on. “But I tried it, and I was like, oh okay, I’m okay with this, and I started to realize that I had more of a jazz voice than a musical theater voice. Now, I love it because it relaxes me, which I never thought it would. it’s one of the few times where I’m not anxious… I don’t think- I just go, and I’m in a more free head space,” Kalus adds.
There is, in fact, something to be said about jazz improv, and the neurological impact it has on the musician.
According to a study conducted by the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm using MRIs to study musicians’ brains, “...the more improvisation training an individual had, the more neural connectivity registered in their prefrontal, premotor and presupplementary motor cortices areas generally associated with personality expression and decision-making.” This essentially means that jazz allows the artist to connect more with the audience personally, while also connecting to their own creativity and musicality.
“I play both jazz and classical piano, but when I play jazz, it feels more expressive than when I play classical,” Mast tells me. “Jazz just feels a lot more personal.”
While the people who still play and listen to jazz music come for the connection they feel to the genre, the way it relieves stress, or the obsession they have gained with it, the most enticing element to jazz music is the creativity, musicality, and unique artistry that jazz music possesses. This is true with Alex Mast.
“When you’re playing classical music, there’s much more methodological thinking and planning ahead,” Mast stops for a second. He looks up, collecting his thoughts, then leans forward in his seat and smiles at me. “There’s a freedom of expression in jazz, and that’s what's so fulfilling.”