2 February 2023

All that jazz: The genre’s role and importance


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By: Dr. Marzelan Salleh

Jazz is a genre of music which is highly based on sophisticated harmonies and improvisation. It is also the most popular and is an exemplary of an American art form. New Orleans, played an all-important role in the development of Jazz in the very early part of the 20th century. African-American musical traditions mixed with other of the city’s population and gradually jazz emerged and the music spread widely and developed rapidly from the United States to many parts of the world.

Some consider jazz as a great art form. In most jazz performances, skillful players typically improvise whereby, they make up melodic phrases on the spot. Improvisation is a constant and natural feature of jazz music. Most jazz music is very rhythmic in nature, which means it naturally has a forward momentum called “swing,” and uses “bent” or “blue” notes. Each song will sound different, and that means jazz musicians play in their own distinct styles making each version different. A series of brilliant jazz musicians include names such as Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Louis Armstrong, and Duke Ellington. Over the decades, jazz developed into different styles including swing, bebop, traditional jazz, cool jazz, and jazz rock, among others.

“With conflict and division in many parts of the world, it is my hope that, through the universal language of jazz, our celebration this year can inspire people of all nations to heal, to hope and to work together to foster peace.”

Herbie Hancock, UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador-

The 30th of April this year 2022 is marked as the International Jazz Day by UNESCO. International Jazz Day 2022 will be led by jazz pianist and composer, Herbie Hancock, who is also UNESCO’s Goodwill ambassador, and chaired by UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay. Previous International Jazz Days has seen this annual global celebration connect and engage people from all parts of the world through education programmes, performances, culture, media, and community outreach.

Without a doubt, jazz is still very much alive in the society, but is jazz still important and relevant in our current world? Paving the way to a profoundly new connection between art and popular, the blending of jazz, the popular, and the avant-garde does attract in new audiences.

Jazz improvisation is exciting both aesthetically and socially and is very engaging for interrelationship, group creativity, and freedom. Improvisation reinterprets, transforms, and synthesizes various human experience regardless of cultural origins. Jazz encourages transformation of traditional musical forms into new ones, new forms of expression, improvisation, and artistic innovation.

Jazz is a transmitter of freedom of expression, and that means, breaking down barriers and creating opportunities for tolerance, mutual understanding, and reducing tensions between people, and communities. This discovery has led into many private citizens, educational institutions, governments, and organizations get engaged in the promotion of jazz music, as they embrace the opportunity to promote greater appreciation, and unlocking jazz music’s capacity to creating more inclusive societies.

assorted-title of vinyl records
Jazz encompasses generations and influences (Pic courtesy of Unsplash)

Jazz is known to boost up productivity. John Hopkins university ran a study and discovered that listening to jazz can actually improve mood, memory, and verbal abilities. Besides that, jazz music is able to promote theta brain waves. Theta brain waves are known to foster higher levels of creativity. Jazz also helps us focus better and aids the brain to work better and to see something creatively. Its music is also a great stress reliever.

The Malaysian jazz scene usually concentrates in the country’s capital, Kuala Lumpur. Most of these live performance spaces are fully supportive and dedicated towards maintaining Kuala Lumpur’s jazz scene’s strength. Firstly, many Kuala Lumpur jazz acts have performed at No Black Tie since 1998 until the club’s closure at the end of 2019. Now, live music clubs such as Jao Tim, Alexis, Mezze Bar and Bistro, and Bobo KL, to name a few, are present to support jazz acts in these recent times.

Jazz isn’t just about performing. It’s about making music together and keeping the love and education of jazz alive. In Malaysia, in just over the course of a few decades, jazz programs have popped up all over the country, and is one of the influential programs in colleges and universities.

Even though the size of jazz’s audience is not comparable to the more lucrative popular music audience, jazz music is still highly regarded as a sophisticated artistic expression in the art and business worlds. Furthermore, jazz has become a formal course of study in universities and colleges around Malaysia. Indeed, young people of Malaysia now have more possibilities of playing and hearing jazz today.

Dr. Marzelan Salleh

The author is a senior lecturer at the Faculty of Creative Arts, Universiti Malaya, and may be contacted at marzelan@um.edu.my