Backstage: Jazz offers a lot to riff about

Ed Dunsavage, artistic director of the Siskiyou Institute, promotes jazz and jazz studies throughout the Rogue Valley. He is also a guitar instructor at Southern Oregon University. We met at Boulevard Coffee to talk about jazz.

ED: The guitarist Frank Zappa had a great quote: “Jazz isn’t dead, it just smells funny.” Like classical music, it’s probably in the 2 to 3 percent range of what people listen to. Jazz, as an art form, is recognized worldwide. It’s more appreciated in Europe and Asia than here.

EH: Is there a difference between jazz and classical musicians?

ED: I think there is a difference in terms of attitude, from the classical approach to the jazz approach; they’re different worlds. Classical musicians are amazing sight readers and interpreters of music, but if you ask them, “Can you improvise over these chord changes?” that’s a whole different thing.

The jazz end of it is: Understanding the theory behind it; understanding how things work, how chords, scales and arpeggios work; how to read a lead sheet. Whereas classical studies are about learning how to read, then learning how to interpret; there’s no improvisation at all. I find that a little ironic because some of the great composers of classical music apparently were great improvisers. With Bach, Beethoven and Liszt, that would be part of their concerts. They’d play a piece, and then do a whole improvisation. Bach’s music, when you study it, has very similar harmonies to jazz.

EH: Is there a form to jazz performance?

ED: Typically the form of it is: You are playing a tune, a piece that’s been written. A lot of the jazz repertoire is from The Great American Songbook, the popular music from the ‘20s through the early ‘60s: composers like Cole Porter, the Gershwins, Irving Berlin.

Jazz was originally dance music, the popular music in the ‘20s, ‘30s and ‘40s. You had musicians coming out of the swing period looking for something new. They saw these great compositions, but they wanted to expand on that. That’s how the bebop movement was created. You had that basic chord structure, and composers would start creating new melodies over the chord structure.

Part of jazz education is learning these forms, learning these tunes, seeing where they came from, then seeing how they were interpreted and recreated by composers like Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, the whole bebop movement. Charlie Parker wrote a ton of tunes based on other songs. There were popular songs that people were listening to on the radio, but these guys wanted to take it a step further.

Some jazz musicians crossed over: Bill Evans, the great pianist, loved Debussy and Ravel. He brought much of that aesthetic into jazz music. You can hear it: He’s still improvising, but he’s using more classical voicings.

EH: Is jazz becoming more serious?

ED: There are lots of great young composers who are studying the music, studying the history. Wynton Marsalis has done an amazing job with jazz at Lincoln Center; they take it all over the country with the jazz orchestra. Like classical music, when you’re taking jazz and putting it in the concert hall, you run that risk of becoming too stuffy, too impersonal.

Rock and roll ultimately ended up in the jazz world, creating what is called fusion. Jazz artist like Myles Davis were blending the energy and instrumentation of rock and roll with the improvisation of jazz.

There are a lot of great musicians out there who are pushing the envelope and trying different things. I’m still waiting for the next great development in jazz. Ultimately, it’s about self expression. It’s being in the moment.

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