Music gets me through the day and I can be a bit fascistic, especially when it comes to breadth. My kids don’t even get much TV since I think the radio is a better alternative. And the station they listen to most often is WBGO, the jazz station hereabouts.
I might be the most improbable person to listen to jazz since, in musical terms, I don’t know what I’m listening to. I just followed the music I first loved back through blues forms and found myself in a neighborhood called jazz.
Believe me, when saxophones sound like birds being strangled. I’m as hard-pressed as anyone to enjoy it. For me music is emotional, not intellectual. Yet I worry that jazz intimidates a lot more people than it should and if a couple of pre-teens can handle it so can anybody else.
After all, there was a time when jazz was the rock ‘n’ roll and then the pop music of its day. Plus, it is America’s great musical gift to the world. You can’t really be a Japanese or French rock and roller. You can be a great in jazz.
The truth is you probably already know more jazz than you think you do and can start there. Here, mostly because they are well-known, as well as great, tunes, are a handful to start with.
When the Saints Go Marching In-Louis Armstrong
Louis Armstrong (the insiders refer to him as Pops) was the popular face of jazz for nearly half a century. Born, as he often averred, with the 20th Century, on the 4th of July 1900 (it was really August 1, 1901) in New Orleans, Armstrong was an entertainer first and foremost. That got him a lot of flack but you never doubted the joy he got from playing and sharing his music. Here’s a latter-day rendition of a Big Easy standard played by a classic lineup. This sort of thing was on TV a lot when I was a kid.
Take the A Train-Duke Ellington
I could have picked any number of Swing era hits yet this, to me, will always be the pinnacle of the form. To me, it always sounds contemporary despite being written in 1939 and as a child I reveled in the idea that you could write a song about the subway. (The IND was still relatively new in those days.) Duke (his real name is Edward Kennedy) Ellington was a gentleman and a genius. The chat at the beginning of the clip, I think, demonstrates the first assertion. The music, I hope, speaks to the second. As a bonus, you get the rarely heard words.
Lionel Hampton-Flying Home
The bridge between jazz and blues–the one I crossed– was a post-Swing sub-genre sometimes called jump blues. Dance music that had a foot in both jazz and the blues, it prefigured R&B and rock ‘n’ roll even though it emerged in the early 1940s, attracting more than a few bona fide jazz stars. The vibraophonist Lionel Hampton, who had played with Benny Goodman, was ahead of the pack with his 1942 hit “Flying Home.” Fans of American Bandstand (and Philadelphians) may note the resemblance to “Bandstand Boogie”, the show’s theme.
Nat King Cole–Route 66
For every pop star that’s seen behind an instrument there are more who seem just about spectacle. So imagine the real thing–a gazillion seller–who could have kept up with the best in any type of music. Before he sang “Unforgettable” and shilled cigarettes Nat “King” Cole led a jazz trio. Here he takes on Bobby Troup‘s cross-country standard. Bonus points if you remember Troup and his wife, Julie London, on TV’s Emergency.
Dave Brubeck Quartet-Time Out
A friend, a medievalist and musician, once described “Take Five” as the jazz song everybody knows but can’t remember the name of. The story goes that the song, which is in 5/4 time, was written so the drummer, the great Joe Morello, who was blind, could take a solo. Ironically, this version contains great piano and alto solos but shorts Joe. It’s probably the best known Brubeck work although the signature melody was contributed by the equally great Paul Desmond, heard playing the alto saxophone.
The Girl from Ipanema–Astrid Gilberto and Stan Getz
As recently as the 1960s it was possible to have a jazz-related craze and that’s what bossa nova was. Importing the delicious rhythms of Brazil, the ‘new thing’ fit the whole mood of the early 1960s. This chart-topping number featured tenor sax man Stan Getz and the longer album version has the composer sing the lyrics in Portuguese before the English lyrics start, The single version, shown here, was sung by Joao Gilberto‘s wife , Astrid, an untrained signer and the only English speaker among the Brazilians in the studio that day. As fresh today as it was in 1964.
Ramsey Lewis-The In Crowd
Three things you didn’t know about jazz: 1) it was, and still can be, dance music, 2) it can top the pop charts and 3) it’s not concert hall music, it isn’t harmed by the sounds of a bar and grill or club. This late 1960s hit by Ramsey Lewis demonstrates all three and takes Dobie Gray‘s earlier hit to a whole ‘nother place. I love the photographs chosen to illustrate this song. Look for the interest rate on savings at about 1:40 for a shocker.
Bonus Video: Vince Guaraldi Trio-Linus and Lucy
I’ve been watching A Charlie Brown Christmas each December for most of my life it seems. So much so that even as a child the music didn’t stand out as anything other than perfect for the story. It’s one of Charles M. Schulz‘s great gifts that he went along with using Guarldi , along the way introducing so many of us to this music.
Enjoy the President’s Day holiday.
UPDATE: SPOTIFY PLAYLIST
Here’s the playlist. I included the extended version of “The Girl from Ipanema” and the vocal version of “Take the ‘A’ Train’ as well. Also I included the song i took the post title from. Enjoy.