Apr 302018

Today is International Jazz Day, proclaimed in 2011 “to highlight jazz and its diplomatic role of uniting people in all corners of the globe.” Upon his designation as a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador for Intercultural Dialogue on July 22, 2011, Herbie Hancock announced his intention to create an International Day celebrating the diplomatic role of jazz music. In November 2011, following a favorable recommendation by the 187th Executive Board, UNESCO’s General Conference officially proclaimed April 30th as International Jazz Day, recognizing jazz as “a means to develop and increase intercultural exchanges and understanding between cultures for the purpose of mutual comprehension and tolerance.” The date of April 30th was initially proposed to position International Jazz Day as the culmination of the Smithsonian Institution’s April Jazz Appreciation Month (JAM), though no formal connection exists between JAM and International Jazz Day.

The Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz, a United States NGO also chaired by Hancock, is the lead organizational partner for Jazz Day. The Institute coordinates activities in the UNESCO member states as well as the Global Host Celebration. Events in the Host City culminate in an All-Star Global Concert, which typically involves a number of high-profile jazz musicians from around the world performing in or around an historical landmark.

The 2017 Jazz Day was hosted by Havana. The Host Celebration included a weeklong series of education and community outreach programs featuring jazz artists Esperanza Spalding, Richard Bona, Melissa Aldana, Tarek Yamani, Antonio Hart, and Regina Carter, among others. The culminating All-Star Global Concert took place at the Gran Teatro de La Habana Alicia Alonso and included 55 musicians from Brazil, Cameroon, Chile, China, Cuba, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Lebanon, Mexico, Russia, South Korea, Tunisia, and the United States. This year’s host is St Petersburg in Russia, with an allied celebration in New Orleans to mark the 300th anniversary of the founding of the city.

Jazz is certainly a worthy medium for world diplomacy, and I’d like to expand on that vision, even as exemplified by Hancock and the like. Jazz from its founding was an exercise in cultural fusion. Its main roots lie in the African-American communities of New Orleans, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, developing from blues and ragtime, among other genres. My major caveat here is my constant awareness that performance traditions, that become crystallized at some point, do not have a single or simple point of origin (unless you consider the Big Bang).

If you want to try to define it, which is probably a mistake, jazz is characterized by swing and blue notes, call and response vocals, polyrhythms, and improvisation. Although jazz is deeply rooted within the African-American experience of the United States, different cultures have contributed their own styles to the art over the years. As jazz spread around the world, it drew on different national, regional, and local musical cultures, which gave rise to many distinctive styles. In the 1930s, heavily arranged dance-oriented swing big bands, Kansas City jazz, and gypsy jazz prominent styles. Bebop emerged in the 1940s, shifting jazz from danceable popular music toward a more “musician’s music” which was played at faster tempos and used more chord-based improvisation. Cool jazz developed near the end of the 1940s, introducing smoother sounds and long, linear melodic lines. The 1950s saw the emergence of free jazz, which explored playing without regular meter, beat and formal structures, and in the mid-1950s, hard bop emerged, which introduced influences from rhythm and blues, gospel, and blues, especially in the saxophone and piano playing. Modal jazz developed in the late 1950s using modal scales as the basis of musical structure and improvisation. Jazz-rock fusion appeared in the late 1960s and early 1970s, combining jazz improvisation with rock music’s rhythms, electric instruments, and highly amplified stage sound. In the early 1980s, a commercial form of jazz fusion called smooth jazz became successful. Other styles and genres abound in the 2000s, such as Latin and Afro-Cuban jazz.

Given this potted, and over-simplified, history, it’s easy to see why Hancock would promote jazz as a world music style suitable for a kind of global ambassador role. I want to go a step further and look a little deeper into the definition of jazz by blurring some old and well-established terms. I once had a long, impassioned, and (as always), stupid and pointless discussion with a colleague who heard some modern Chicago jazz I was playing – the Art Ensemble – and declared matter-of-factly, “that’s not jazz.” Apparently, he thought that certain rhythms and the blue note were critically diagnostic, and the piece I was playing lacked them. Ergo, it was not jazz. Stupid. Here’s where definitions break down, as any good philosopher will tell you. In fact, I would like to argue that there is no clear-cut line between jazz and classical music. Throughout much of the 20th century, musicians, musicologists, and composers liked to think that such a line existed, but a few thought otherwise. My colleague in the 1980s, Bob Levin (a professor in the Music Conservatory at my university), used to give lectures to my students on Mozart’s methods of composing. This link will lead you to one such lecture: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wkFdAigjmLA   Levin focuses on Mozart, but his point can be generalized from the days of Bach to Beethoven and beyond. In the late 19th and 20th centuries, down to today, most classically trained musicians were severely discouraged from playing music without following a score – absolutely strictly. Many classically trained musicians, some very skilled indeed, cannot play any piece without the music in front of them. In Mozart’s day this state of affairs was unheard of. In many pieces, particularly concertos, there are marks in the score for the musician to improvise. In a concerto, for example, the cadenza, which occurs near the end of the first movement is marked by the composer who essentially says, “take it away . . .”

The cadenza was at one time the soloist’s opportunity to improvise on the themes in the first movement while the orchestra was silent. Because 19th century, and later, musicians were taught never to improvise, cadenzas had to be written for them, and this practice still continues. But musicologists and conductors, such as Levin, have been trying to train contemporary musicians to improvise as they did in Bach’s and Mozart’s time. To do this they insist that they break their habit of being chained to the score, and instead listen to – you guessed it – jazz. Jazz is all about improvising. Once the main melody is established, the soloists break off into improvisations of their own devising. How and when they improvise depends greatly on the style of jazz. The big bands of Duke Ellington and the like, for example, had very limited opportunity for extended improvising because they were playing often for dances. New Orleans trad jazz musicians improvise within one set of ideas, Chicago modern jazz musicians according to another, Afro-Cuban using another, and so forth. Starting in the 1950s and 1960s, a few rebellious classically trained musicians started taking classics and improvising in jazz style. Jacques Loussier’s Air on a G string by Bach is now legendary:

A few – a very few – famous soloists cross over between the classical repertoire and jazz. Wynton Marsalis is one of the best known.

For Jazz Day I suggest you indulge in some jazz cooking. This concept will be at the heart of my new Chameleon Cooking tab here when I get around to it. Jazz cooking, or chameleon cooking as I call it, involves taking a basic recipe and improvising with it. I’ll just start you off here, and you can return to the tab over the next few months for more ideas. I’ll begin with shepherd’s pie or cottage pie. This is an extremely traditional English dish of ground meat and vegetables placed in casserole, topped with a layer of mashed potato, and baked. The difference between shepherd’s pie and cottage pie is that shepherd’s pie uses ground lamb and cottage pie uses ground beef, although modern cooks often mix the names up. The fact that you can use beef or lamb is the opening note in my improvisation.

I don’t use a recipe for cottage pie, and I make it all the time. I brown off some ground beef and onions in a skillet, add stock to cover, add in some vegetables (typically peas and carrots, but I also like mushrooms), simmer until the meat is cooked and the vegetables are tender, then thicken the stock with some flour. Meanwhile, I peel and dice some potatoes, boil them until they are very tender, then mash them with some cream and butter. Final step is to assemble the pie by placing the meat mixture in a casserole, and then spreading the mashed potato on top. Usually I draw lines with a fork in the potatoes, and dot the top with some butter. I put the pie in a hot oven for about 30 minutes, or until the potato topping is golden and a little crisp. Done it a thousand times.

Without too much difficulty you can see where improvisation can come in. The other day I made what I called (mentally) “swineherd’s pie” using ground pork and pork kidneys for the meat. That ought to tell you that you can use ground steak and kidney too and make a version of steak and kidney pie (omitting the peas and carrots). You can make a chicken pie, or a turkey pie, or even a fish pie. You should change the gravy in accordance, of course, but have at it.

We can get a lot funkier than swapping out the meat, though. Changing the vegetables to suit your tastes is obvious. I often use leeks in place of, or in addition to, onions, and use whatever mushrooms I can get my hands on. In Asia that gives me plenty of scope. I like spinach in a cottage pie also. You can use celery, parsnip, turnip . . . whatever you want.

We are still just getting started. The topping does not have to be simple mashed potato. I often add in minced leeks (because I am a leek nut). You can also add in grated cheese. There is no end to the possibilities using just mashed potatoes as the base. But why stop there? Make a mix of mashed potato and turnip or carrot or swede. Or forget the potato entirely and just use mashed turnip (or what you will) as the topping.

Chameleon cooking involves figuring out the components of a dish and then improvising on them. Cottage pie is made of two basic components, a topping and a filling. The topping is a mashed vegetable and the filling is meat and something. The pie is finished by baking. With that structure in mind, improvise away. You need to be adventurous, but not completely crazy in case you wind up with a combination that is unappetizing. That’s where the artistry comes in.

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