Imagine walking through a quiet street in New York’s Harlem in 1958. It’s the 12th of August – you can feel the oppressive heat, as you are making your way through the city. You suddenly hear lots of voices and spot a crowd of people all trying to squeeze into the tiny front steps of a building. What you see is a bunch of musicians – a dome of excellence covers their heads. Little do you know, you’re experiencing one of the most iconic pictures in music history being taken.
This famous “family portrait” is known as “A Great Day In Harlem”, and what a great and unusual day it must’ve been! It is quite astonishing how many legends and key-figures of jazz have come out to 126th Street, in order to be a part of this image.
It was then published in Esquire’s magazine in 1959, with the headline: “In a historic gathering, four decades of jazz musicians stand for a picture which illustrates, with living proof, the following special section on The Golden Age Of Jazz.” And what an impressive evolution these four decades were!
Over the years, jazz has proven to be a genre that lives off of the fusion of American and European classical music. Not only does it blend different styles of music, but people with all kinds of heritage and backgrounds. This also marks its importance in linking and connecting the dots between different cultures.
Starting out in the early 1910’s, musicians began to play around with the rhythms of march music and fused them together with beat patterns from Cuba – such as the Habanera from Havana, traditional styles from the Caribbean and polyrhythmic (two or more different rhythms occurring at the same time) music from Africa. This resulted in a refreshing new interpretation of the sounds American people were used to playing and hearing. This formed the essential groundwork for the never-ending evolution jazz was going to be under.
With the turn of the 19th century, Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe brought their traditional Klezmer music to the jazz table and the two styles fused together began to create a new potpourri of music. More often than not through the Jewish melodies and the voice of a clarinet. The Ashkenazi traditionals, who are still to this day often played at celebratory occasions, gave a whole new array of tonal leeway and lead the way for such important musicians as Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw. The two genres profited off of each other and both found new ways to exist within each other, while still maintaining their essential core.
Since New York City has and always will be a one of a kind scenery made up of different cultures, it comes to no surprise, that over the years music from all over Europe has found its way into jazz. Italian songs, Irish jigs – each country brought their homeland’s best to include their stories into the ever-evolving music.
As popular music started to fan out into more than just a few genres in the 60’s and 70’s, jazz was still very much linked to what the radios were playing at the time. Soul in all its shapes and the existence of artists like The Supremes, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin and James Brown would be unthinkable without jazz as a crucial part of their musical backbone. Inspired by rock and funk, R’n’B and world music, jazz musicians took elements from said genres and incorporated them into fundamental jazz “guidelines”: improvisation and solo parts. Combining these principles, as well as using electric instruments for the first time in jazz, brought a whole lot of new ideas to the notion of what jazz can sound like.
Since a lot of the songs we hear today are originally rooted in jazz in one way or another, we can sit back or have a little dance to the broad line jazz has been walking on for the past hundred years.
To hear a wonderful example of how the crème de la crème of jazz-rooted genres can intertwine in order to create something chic and absolutely refreshing – give LION BABE a listen. The New York-based duo is currently in the midst of celebrating the one year anniversary of their last album Cosmic Wind, by releasing three videos for their songs. So far, Different Planet and Sexy Please have been released into the wild – we are patiently keeping our eyes peeled for the last one coming on March 31st.
All of the songs on the album are deliciously funky and carry so much heart and soul in them, that Stevie Wonder himself would have a good boogie listening to them. They all celebrate the quest to be free and are connected with the nature of life along with natural inclination as humans to be imaginative and visualize a beautiful way to move through the world.
It’s so easy to fall in love with the exhilarating confidence that is oozing out of every beat and how these visuals bring a whole new creative element to the already fiery songs.
If an attempt would be made today to organise a similar gathering of all the people influenced by jazz, like the one in 1958, the streets would be flooded. People would keep coming in to give their praise and their contribution to the genre – LION Babe will surely be right at the front line.