Jazz music has always intertwined with developments in the real world. Chris Searle’s new book explores this by looking at specific recordings from the early years of jazz to the present. His infectious enthusiasm and love for the music rise off every page.
The first great jazz stars emerged in the 1920s. Their music was revolutionary, but their output was constrained by those who released their records and owned the clubs they played in.
They were unable to openly express their views – especially their anger at racism and segregation.
The stage at the Cotton Club, where Duke Ellington played, was made up to look like the veranda of a mansion on a slave plantation.
Searle argues that performing songs that simply showed the reality of work undermined the stereotype of lazy contented blacks.
Ellington struggled to be liberated from the Cotton Club, and went on to produce music which openly celebrated black life, like Black, Brown and Beige.
Searle follows the history of the music through the century, but particularly celebrates the upsurge of radical jazz connected to the movements of the 1960s and 1970s.
Charles Mingus’s “Fables of Faubus” attacked Governor Faubus, who had excluded black pupils in Little Rock. But his label refused to release a version with vocals, which overtly said what the music implied.
Occasionally Searle gives the impression that if it’s radical then it’s good – but that doesn’t stop him uncovering real gems, like Archie Shepp’s “Attica Blues”, a powerful response to a prison massacre.
Searle affirms that jazz is still developing through integration with other musics, whether Native American, African or Latino.
by Chris Searle
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