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Why Jazz?

February 23, 2011

Zach Nielsen gives the following quote from Chris Benson’s review of Why Jazz? A Concise Guide by Kevin Whitehead.  Here’s the quote:

Music endears itself to us long before we achieve an understanding of it. When I was enrolled at Wheaton College, where students must uphold a covenant (popularly known as “the pledge”) that entails abstinence from alcohol, tobacco, and—at that time—dance, I felt the institutional standard for “the responsible use of freedom” was really an impingement on freedom. Escaping the claustrophobic campus, I discovered a freeing atmosphere in downtown Chicago at the Green Mill and Jazz Showcase, amid hoot ‘n holler, clanking glassware, and a marine layer of cigarette smoke.

Those nights grooving to jazz are indelibly stamped on my imagination. Bewitched by the democracy of musicians who vocalized their eccentricities through instruments, I bopped my head, thumped my foot, and snapped my fingers. None of the entertainment seemed “immodest, sinfully erotic, or harmfully violent,” as the pledge cautions against. But it was—and is—spontaneous, experimental, and daring. Years later I realized why this music appeals to me beyond its pleasurable sounds. “Jazz is freedom,” declared the great Duke Ellington. It is an exhalation of the human spirit, like all music, but uniquely textured by the African American cry for freedom: long-suffering, exuberant, and sensuous.

Asking a big question in the title—as Kevin Whitehead does here—primes the reader to expect a big answer. Why Jazz? aims to “tune you in if you’re new to the music, or tune up your listening if you’ve already got the bug.” Whitehead, National Public Radio’s Fresh Air jazz critic, admirably succeeds in meeting this goal by using a chronologically organized Q&A format. With remarkable precision and polish, he traces the lineaments of each genre, discerns the significance of key figures, explains the anatomy of sound, and sketches the important venues—making this a useful reference for a puzzled or curious audience. I am now equipped with more angles for listening to jazz performances, although the music theory continues to stump me.

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