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Louis Armstrong

The Death of Jazz

by Sihle Mthembu / 24.11.2010

I am sad to report that Jazz is dying. The music that once shook the clubs and pubs of Sophiatown and Mkhumbane. The vibrations that pulsated in anyone willing to listen have been relegated to the fringes of history. With the exception of a few down town cafes and the pilgrimage of diehard fans to festivals barely mentioned on the arts pages of newspapers. Saul Williams puts it best in his spoken word piece Telegram: “Hip Hop is lying on the side of the road half dead to itself / Blood scrawled over its mangled flesh / like jazz stuffed into an oversized record bag.”

Jazz is dying. I remember watching the Oscar nominated documentary – A great day in Harlem. It got me thinking that Jazz, unlike most contemporary pop music, is perhaps the only purely original musical form. It doesn’t sample and more often than not most of the great tracks from legendary musicians like Hugh Masekela and Miles Davies were creative accidents. Unlike the modern day wonders like LITTLE Wayne. (Yes I don’t call him lil, it’s LITTLE Wayne). I remember my first Jazz orgasm. It was in 1999 and I was visiting my grandmother for the first time in Jozi.

As a young boy struck by the enormous size of this city, coupled with the unpleasant business of walking through Park Station, I thought I was in for a gatvol time. I remember arriving at the house the first night and looking past the big screen TV at the stack of records my grandfather had. Thinking to myself he could open up a record store and make a fortune. Bear in mind that 1999 was the magical millennial year of big boom box blasters and All Star Chuck Taylors – but this old timer still had a record player. Not some sleekly designed Technics HI-FI either. I’m talking the original record player complete with a large side horn that could rival any Kudu in the Kalahari.

Miles Davis

Events that night include being lectured to about the importance of Abdullah Ibrahim and listening to Louis Armstrong’s Potato Head Blues over and over again. It seemed awful at the time! But I guess that’s how jazz jelly rolls – it grows in you like a cancer. It has an aura only good music has. It creates its own rules. Its own world within the world. Jazz is a front for the “classy” like opera these days but it remains free of the mindless materialism currently eating through hip hop. Jazz generates feeling.

A feeling most likely to be experienced on YouTube. Live performances in Switzerland and Gibralta uploaded by purists like me – holding on to the past. Even dinosaur music stores help murder the interest in classic tunes. Jazz is kept right at the back and limited to one or two rows. Looking for Duke Ellington’s Jungle Night in Harlem? Nope, not here! We got the latest 50cent though! Really? As if hearing a muscle man brag about cars is going to add salt to my soup. Women are keeping jazz alive. Esparanza Spalding springs to mind. With a verdant generous voice and a whizz on big base instruments she is one of the last of a dying breed. I remember watching her perform at the White House. Elegant and understated. Supreme and sublime. It was bittersweet. Esperanza had made it to the center of global power at a time when the music she lives for is fading from cultural relevance. We need to help rescue a musical form that will otherwise die out. In return we get to enrich our lives.

*You can start by reading this and this and this.

Ella Fitzgerald

Louis Armstrong

Boldens Band

Boldens Band circa 1890

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