JAZZ IN JA
Jamaicans never want to be left out of anything. And if sidelined, will invent ways of boring to the centre of whatever their target is. And, to their credit, the island does seem to consistently punch harder than its featherweight geographical status suggests. Cultural heavyweight or, as one 21st century cultural critic put it, ‘it’s the greatest little island in the world’. Unfortunately though, much of the world frequently has less than fair praise for the small Caribbean territory that invented Rasta, produced Bob Marley and carry home a disproportionate number of gold medals from Olympic meets. Current concerns feel it apt to mention that Marley liked to publicly reiterate how much Jazz influenced his work. And just like when some outsiders choose to sum up the African contribution to world culture, they prefer to downplay the contribution in areas outside art and sport, so too, inside and outside of Jamaica, critics persistently omit to point up Jamaican musical achievements outside of Reggae. And there are many… There is now, even, a ‘Jazz Hall of Fame’ on the island, an idea introduced by big band stalwart and director of the almost two decades old, Ocho Rios Jazz Festival, Sonny Bradshaw.
The island’s achievements are all the more admirable when we consider, firstly, that the majority of the 2.7 million people live in dire poverty. And secondly, that these same personalities who shine, come from this very same background. There is wealth and money on the island but, it is enjoyed only by a privileged minority who, in turn, contribute precious little to the social culture of the island. Once in a while, however, one such individual will clench their teeth and achieve fame… and fortune by totally immersing themselves in the culture of ghetto denizens. Think Third World, Sean Paul, Shaggy and Tammi Chin. As Deejay Bounti Killa has said, ‘it is not the brownin’s or the politicians who’ve made Jamaica famous and brought the most money onto the island, it’s the Rastaman and di ghetto bwaay’!
Kingston’s newest municipality of Portmore, St. Catherine, that lays South-west of the island’s capital, is one of the hubs of cultural activity in Jamaica. It is a popular location for ‘larger than life’ Reggae expos such as ‘Sting’. Of a twilight or even a dawn - as this is Jamaica where noise disturbance is not yet a criminal offence - it is not uncommon to hear a popular Bebop tune intersperse a session of ‘Olditz’ (old Blue Beat, Ska and Reggae hits) played by a DJ old enough to remember ‘Unchain My Heart’ by Ray Charles and Swing numbers by two of the greatest big band Jazz leaders, the music world and, indeed the world in general has ever known, in the persons of Count (William) Basie (1904-1984) and Duke (Edward Kennedy) Ellington (1899-1974). Of note too, is the fact that Ellington Road, Basie Avenue and Charles Street are three of an entire block of streets in the municipality’s Bayside area, named after Jazz greats. Most of the residents, I suspect, haven’t the foggiest idea after what or whom these streets are named.
In his 1981 song ‘Is That Jazz’, Chicago-born Gil Scott-Heron cuts a swathe across a survey of more than one recognisable sub-genre of Neo-African music and rhetorically asks exactly what we mean when we use the term. Stevie Wonder and Bob Marley who, are not traditionally considered Jazz artists, are both mentioned. It is important to Scott-Heron that his work embraces the rich musical tradition that is his birthright. Sometimes his tributes are so veiled with innovation that categorization becomes difficult and he frequently jokes about the tendency to find his work under ‘miscellaneous’ classifications in record stores. His father is Jamaican and the Heron family’s distinction in stage and vocal performance on the island since the mid 19th century is legion. Post modern Bluesman, Taj Majal also had a Jamaican father. A cursory reading of the history of Jazz will not help us here as the ‘stuff’ in which we’re interested is, for the most part, deftly tucked away or plain and simply omitted and these stories are what British-based saxophonist, Courtney Pine has been indefatigably trying to tell since he rose to prominence in the 80s: ‘that Jamaicans have been an integral part of the culture of Jazz but, a few years after the music’s inception. Chroniclers and compilers of Jazz history have a variety of motives for glossing over the Jamaican contribution.
How many people, for instance, know that the most respected personality in Jazz today, New Orleans-born trumpeter, Wynton Marsalis was actually named after a Jamaican Jazz pianist? Pianist/composer Ellis Marsalis was so impressed with Wynton Kelly’s playing that he decided to burden his ‘destined to be a giant son’ with his name. In his short life - a sad feature of this fraternity - Kelly made, in the name of sax giant John Coltrane’s 1959 album, ‘Giant Steps’. At 27, he featured on what is considered the greatest Jazz album of all time. Miles Davis’ ‘A Kind Of Blue’ was recorded at Columbia’s 30th Street Studio, New York City on March 2 and April 22, 1959. The notoriously irascible but, brilliant Davis said of Kelly, ‘I loved the way Wynton played… he could play almost anything. Plus he could play behind a soloist like a muthaf**ker man. Cannonball [Adderly - who played the other greatest Jazz album of all time - John Coltrane’s ‘A Love Supreme’ rec. 1963] and Trane loved him and so did I’.
Stellars of the Jazz world had nothing but praise for the young keyboardist who grew up in Brooklyn and died prematurely of an epileptic fit in Toronto in 1979, aged 39. Among others who Kelly worked with were the inimitable Dinah Washington and John Birks ‘Dizzy’ Gillespie. There was also Billie Holiday’s close friend, saxophonist Lester Young who, the extraordinary vocalist nicknamed ‘Prez’ and bassist, Charles Mingus. In his short life, Kelly also found time to serve in the military. Racial bigotry and the attendant slowness of Jazz to gain social acceptance caused many pioneers of the music, Jamaican or otherwise, to live comparatively short and lonely lives. Billie Holiday ‘Lady Day’ died at 44 because a hospital refused to admit her as she suffered a seizure brought on by substance abuse. Jamaican-born altoist, Joe Harriott died the same age in Britain and many African-Americans found themselves living in ‘self-imposed exile’ in Europe because they found it less bigoted. But exile is a lonely road. Doubtlessly, the worse thing about living is dying and what is sadder than lying on your deathbed and looking up and not seeing anyone who looks like or knows you? But it was a risk many including drummer, Kenny Clarke, clarinetist Sidney Bechet (1897-1959) and saxophonist Johnny Griffin were willing to take.
In the past, most ‘Jamaican Jazzers’ waved goodbye to their native home as the music’s structure did not appeal to the majority who, were used to predictable dance beats. Moreover, Jamaica is a nation emerging out of chattel slavery, where most people do not have the patience and/or the cerebral wherewithal to embrace the art form. But the music penetrated the island’s shores with a vengeance because of its close geographical proximity to the music’s birthplace and was heartily embraced by a ‘chosen few’. And even if it was not wholly embraced, its influence found its way into locally innovated forms such as Ska and Blue Beat, both of which had a direct influence on the birth of Reggae.