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The Spike [or Victoria University College Review 1961]

Listening to Jazz

page 41

Listening to Jazz

Decades Ago a music grew among the oppressed people of America. It was the folk music of the American Negro. It spoke with the directness of life — what it was and what it would be some day. Inexplicably this folk music contained a germ, a spark, the embryo of a musical idea which cannot be said to be revolutionary or developmental. Something was given, something of unlimited energy, of vital force.

This musical concept has expanded into our world. It has grown from folk music to art music. It is making its presence felt all over the globe, demanding every ear and drawing its needs from every source. What is this idea ? Where is its limit, and from where comes its vitality?

If art is a form of expression, then what is expressed must be found in the work of art, the product of the creative urge — the painting itself, the sculpture, or the piece of music.

Music is realized by manipulating the medium of sound. All music is concerned with the exploration of the implication of sound, and it is agreed that major among these are quality, rhythm, melody, and harmony. In jazz, treatment of the quality of sound becomes sensitive and subtle. The sound itself becomes vibrant, meaningful and personal. This music embodies a powerful surge forward into time, the accents dropped so that the beat becomes a pulse, rhythm an organic thing.

The aim in jazz is to produce by every possible means a musical atmosphere that nourishes creative inspiration, to help that inspiration to grow to the utmost possible limit and to shape along into an organic thing that is human expression. The aim is twofold — to produce inspiration, and to explore or master that inspiration. The way jazz goes about producing inspiration makes it different from other music. Rhythm is regarded as being alive and fertile, and it is out of this 'bed' of rhythm that musical structures grow.

Any serious music contains expression elements directly related to large scale social phenomena. Jazz music contains a very definite reference to basic human occupations, a straight-forwardness to human emotion and a strong suggestion of the freedom of the human spirit. It is a new idea of music and tells of a new idea of life.

In a little book, The Composer's World, Paul Hindemith advances the theory that music evokes in the listener 'image-emotions' or memories of feelings previously experienced and thus achieves communication. It seems to me that the listener to jazz is exposed to teal emotion being experienced before him by a real person and he must react to the expression accordingly. This theory explains the feeling of presence and real contact that the listener to jazz experiences. It also helps to explain the more hidden yet all-pervading quality of helping or teaching.

In this article I have tried to write down as best I can what little I know about my own music, its technical approach and its definitive qualities. Jazz is essentially and universally human. It is a valuable and necessary voice in our world today. Listen.

Ian McDonald