Limning the Fire of Jazz


Vision 12


Limning the Fire of Jazz


Matthias Hoefler

Copyright © 2002, Matthias Hoefler, All Rights Reserved

Jazz is a truly American music.  If you’re trying to set the stage for an American experience, particularly from about 1900 on, jazz may be the thing you’re looking for. 

In the beginning, Creole and African American musicians took the helm but soon white America began imitating this new sound that had feet tapping and bodies moving, to the chagrin of the parents of that generation.

I’m going to present a number of quotes that include vivid descriptions of jazz at its fieriest, and as I’m doing that I’ll make comments, pointing out implications based on the practice of these authors for our own work.  .  Lastly I’ll recommend an introduction into the world of jazz that you can pursue for yourself if you wish.  Keep in mind that although I’m concerned in this essay with fast jazz tunes, (what I’ve called in the title “the fire of jazz”) there is also a mellow side to the art we could have looked into.  For the sake of focus I’ve chosen the more up tempo songs and left the ballads for you to check into for yourself.

Let’s start with a poem by Carl Sandburg.  Here is how Carl Sandburg treats jazz music in his “Jazz Fantasia”:

… batter on your banjos, sob on the long cool winding saxophones… [s]ling your knuckles on the bottoms of the happy tin pans, let your trombones ooze, and go husha-husha-husa with the slippery sandpaper. Moan like an autumn wind high in the lonesome treetops, moan soft like you wanted somebody terrible, race like a racing car slipping away from a motorcycle-cop, bang-bang!… make two people fight on the top of a stairway and scratch each other’s eye in a clinch tumbling down the stairs… [n]ow a Mississippi steamboat pushes up the night river with a hoo-hoo-hoo-oo… and the green lanterns calling to the high soft stars… a red moon rides on the humps of the low river hills… (Untermeyer, 242)

There’s so much I could pull out of this excellent passage.  Note the particularly strong visual imagery; some people imagine visual scenes that the music is describing when they listen.  Personally I tend not to do that, but that wouldn’t stop me from using jazz music to describe an imagined scene in a text I was writing.  Nearly any scene could be evoked by the music; jazz encompasses both fast passages and slower ballads.  Nearly any psychological space you could imagine could be entered through the leadership of a jazz band.

Sandburg, however,  stretches beyond painting certain events or human conditions.  He even fills his instruments themselves with descriptive phrases.  I like that the “trombones ooze” and the saxophones “sob.”  “Ooze” is very visual and not a musical term at all, but it puts a picture in your mind’s eye that is enjoyable, or even a bit nasty.  The saxophone becomes a creature capable of soft tears, seemingly entirely apart from the musician playing it.

Zora Neale Hurston shows us a beautiful picture of jazz at a club.  As with our previous example, she builds the music into images for the reader, as her character becomes a part of the picture she expresses to us.  She joins the performers in some way.  Permit me to quote her here at length.  She’s got something to say to us:

… when I sit in the drafty basement that is The New World Cabaret with a white person, my color comes.  We enter chatting about any little nothing that we have in common and are seated by the jazz waiter.  In the abrupt way that jazz orchestras have, this one plunges into a number.  It loses no time in circumlocutions, but gets right down to business.  It constricts the thorax and splits the heart with its tempo and narcotic harmonics.  This orchestra grows rambunctious, rears on its hind legs and attacks the tonal veil with primitive fury, rending it, clawing it, until it breaks through to the jungle beyond.  I follow those heathen – follow them exultantly.  I dance wildly inside myself; I yell within.  I whoop; I shake my assegai above my head.  I hurl it true to the mark yeeeeooww!  I am in the jungle and living in the jungle way.  My face is painted red and yellow and my body is painted blue.  My pulse is throbbing like a war drum.  I want to slaughter something – give pain, give death to what, I do not know.  But the piece ends.  The men of the orchestra wipe their lips and rest their fingers.  I creep back slowly to the veneer we call civilization with the last tone and find the white friend sitting motionless in his seat, smoking calmly.

“Good music they have here,” he remarks, drumming the table with his fingertips. (Gould, Diyanni, et. al. 18)

Note that Thurston doesn’t describe the music much at all in the above quotation.  It’s also not the instruments that become a focal point, but the entire band .  Also, she highlights her response to the actions of this ‘creature’ which the band members collectively become.  She describes the band as a creature out for blood and then details her joining that creature in prowling through the jungle.  This synergy gives rise to a reaction that we might read in the pages of The Lord of the Flies.  As you already see, there is much expressive potential in a text such as the above.

Her white friend’s understated response is a contrast that serves her purpose well.  His laid back remark and gesture sharpen our sense of her inner response to the music.   Keep contrast in mind as you are showing jazz music.  Contrast is an important principle to all the arts.

What if you’d like to appeal to an audience who has a little more technical knowledge of music?  Or what if, for some other purpose, you want to move in this direction?  From “Describing Music in Five Easy Steps” you can pick up some of the language that would pin down what your characters hear, and even some of the instrumentation the band itself would have.  Under timbres it lists these adjectives: “dark, bright, rounded, rough, scratchy, reedy, and brassy.”  What is a timbre?  Think of timbre as the characteristic sounds of a given instrument in contrast to other instruments.  So you might have a bright sounding flute, rounded tones from the clarinet, or rough rips coming from the trombone section. 

Let’s look at how a presentation using what I’m calling ‘technical words’ might play out in an actual description.  Here’s one from Max Jones and John Chilton’s offering, Louis:  The Louis Armstrong Story 1900-1971:

There is an air of precision in the phrasing and articulation that suggests the solo was carefully worked out ahead of time – understandable in that this was his recording debut.  However, in the last two bars of the solo Louis relaxes, shifting the emphasis of the beat in a masterly fashion – and with this phrase emphatically places his calling card in the hall of fame. (222)

The passage doesn’t appeal as much to the emotions as Thurston's did.  It uses terminology that appeals to the mind instead of the emotions.  Both ‘articulation’ and ‘phrasing’ relate to speech.  ‘Articulation’ can be likened to the way your character says her words.  Maybe she accents a word in a sentence, or clips the ‘g’ off the end of some of her words because of the dialect she speaks (e.g. runnin,’ walkin,’ etc.).   You could do the same sort of thing while playing through your trumpet, only using notes instead of using words.  Expressing dialect or emphasis through your horn would be an example of articulation.  ‘Phrasing’ is a related idea.  Phrases are notes grouped into ‘sentences.’  A solo is a collection of these ‘sentences’ that make up a coherent paragraph, so to speak.  The ‘beat’ does not relate to speech; it is what you clap to in a song, or dance to.  This is provided  by the drummer.

This last example comes from Bill Shoemaker’s review entitled, “Duos at Vancouver International Jazz Festival.”  It is a bit more technical than the one we just examined, so it will elicit a stronger response from an audience that is more familiar with music terminology.  Don’t feel barred from writing along these lines if your purpose dictates it.  The hope is that your readers will notice the time you put into researching for your writing.  Also notice that here we have a synthesis of the two approaches I’ve outlined for you; Shoemaker appeals to the mind and to the emotions: 

Their precision, particularly at precariously fast tempi, is frequently astonishing. Intriguingly, their rhythmic finesse is central to how they distill the laughter and sighs embedded in broad, melodramatic melodies. Turnarounds, pickup notes and concluding themes are often oversized and laugh-out-loud funny. Elsewhere, their attack is supple and even impish. With every aside and jape, Trovesi and Coscia created the score for running away with the circus, wandering the countryside, or letting the evening slip into night. (JazzTimes)

A couple of definitions are in order if you’re unfamiliar with the above terms.  A ‘turnaround’ is a group of sounds at the end of a musical phrase that leads you back to the beginning of the melody.  While we’re at it, a melody is similar to a solo, in that the melody is a collection of phrases, or ‘sentences.’  Any number of musicians could play a melody.  However, a musician would play a solo by himself.  ‘Pickup notes’ are a group of notes that are heard at the beginning of a phrase. 

Note the comparison Shoemaker sets up using terms that normally describe actions that require speech. He shows the musicians as playing an ‘aside,’ and a ‘jape.’  We can pick up his technique and use it for our own purposes.  Why couldn’t the bass player pluck out a phrase containing a teasingly snide jibe toward the drummer? 

Also keep in mind that the bandleaders and emcees will talk to the audience.  Any instrument could be played by a bandleader.  Many bandleaders play an assortment of instruments, including: Duke Ellington played the piano; Charlie Mingus played bass; Miles Davis played the trumpet; Max Roach plays the drums; and on the list goes.  This can lend a different sort of atmosphere to the performance or maybe even create a character that you might not otherwise have brought into the fray: 

Cosby kept to the role of star emcee, teasing the VIP-heavy crowd ("Thanks for coming…for free."), roasting his old Birdland buddy ("Enjoy this one Elvin because when you're 85 it's gonna be all ballads.") and berating him for his slow walk of fame. (JazzTimes)

Here’s where I bid you well in your adventure now that we’ve sat and looked at these approaches to expressing what’s going on in the music that your characters listen to, overhear, or play.  You just might do one better by beginning to listen to jazz if that isn’t already one of your hobbies.  This is yet another experience you can bring to your audience.  Being able to present even rudimentary descriptions of jazz allows you to pull your readers into a world that some won’t know much about – and hence would be motivated by and interested in.  Others will enjoy seeing their favorite musicians in print, or pick up on new musicians from your work.  Birdland (mentioned in the above quote) was a club famous for it’s jazz offerings.  I might suggest that you start there with Ella Fitzgerald’s song “Lullaby of Birdland,” or by finding John Coltrane’s “Trane’s Slow Blues" on the album, “John Coltrane Lush Life.” 

We’ve looked at a number of approaches to representing the ‘fire of jazz’ in your work.  We moved from depicting instruments as creatures, to viewing the entire band as an entity with which an active listener can create.    We also looked at three approaches to showing jazz in print.  We began that by examining appealing to the emotions, and then perused appealing to the mind.  Finally, we read an author who successfully sythesized the two preceding approaches.  Which one is best?  I think it depends on a number of factors, including your audience, and the purpose for including the event in your text.  You’ll need to work that out for yourself. 

  1. Think of music and of speech as being similar.  We can use techniques and ideas from one to inform the way we write about the other. 


Works Cited

Anonymous.  “Describing Music in Five Easy Steps.” 

Gould, Eric, Robert Diyanni, William Smith, and Judith Stanford.  The Art of Reading, 2nd ed.  “How It Feels to Be Colored Me.”  Zora Thurston.  New York: McGraw-Hill.  1990.

Jones, Max and John Chilton.  Louis  The Louis Armstrong Story.  Boston: Little, Brown and Company.  1971.

Kahn, Ashley.  “Elvin Jones.”

Shoemaker, Bill.  “Duos at Vancouver International Jazz Festival.”

Untermeyer, Louis.  Modern American Poetry, 6th revised ed.  “Jazz Fantasia.”  Carl Sandburg.  New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co.  1919.