Finding the Art in Everything

30 April, 2008

All that Jazz

Here we have a transcript of "Giant Steps," from his 1957 recording, which is one of the most influential Jazz pieces of all time.

As a history teacher, I am always seeking the most important primary sources to document and explain the American experience to my students. We read the The Federalist, Kennedy's Inauguration Speech, the Port Huron Statement, and Up from Slavery. There is no point to the textbook material if we don't get these. All of the "vocabulary words" and "Main Idea Questions" don't matter if we can't get these.

There's an authenticity to Jazz music that makes it a primary source. It is the intense sentimentality met by both structure and spontaneity that makes it an authority on the human experience, where pop music is reading the "vocabulary words" only. We read primary sources because their complexity and sophistication offers a more thorough and honest explanation of history.

So why isn't there greater exposure to masterpieces like "Giant Steps?" Far be it from me NOT to gravitate toward something that cultivates my elitism, but I can't help but think we are worse off with less of this in our lives. I think Jazz isn't popular because it seems inaccessible. Jazz is like poetry in that you often have to work to get the beauty of it. It is true that the theory behind the composition brings the meaning that meter does to poetry. But jazz is different because of its spontaneity. Jazz makes meaning out of its immediacy-- the improvisation creates a common experience between artist and audience that means as much as theory and meter.

In high school, when everyone was listening to Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, I was listening to Kind of Blue. When I was supposed to be listening to Dookie, I was listening to Giant Steps. I played tenor sax in the Jazz band, so I enjoyed terrific exposure to the standards from both my teacher and my bandmates, who also found this music more engaging than what we were offered on the radio.

I found the Giant Steps video when I was on the blog from The Bad Plus. They are coming to The Social on Saturday, and I really hope to make it. They are a jazz group that is both complex and clever, but very accessible. They have an outstanding degree of musicianship and technical skill that makes them fun to watch, but still offers substance. The following video is a taste of what they have to offer, and a great example of modern, accessible jazz. It's called, "And Here We Test Our Powers of Observation."

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