April is Jazz Appreciation Month, or JAM – a holiday that was first recognized in 2002 by the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. JAM is intended to encourage people on all ages to study jazz music, attend concerts and pay tribute to jazz as both a living and historic art form.
Though Missouri is not one of the 25 states that officially recognizes JAM, local art organizations this week are hosting a series of events to celebrate the history of jazz music. KBIA’s Annie Rees sat down with Arthur White, director of Jazz Studies at MU, to learn more about one of America’s greatest cultural achievements.
“Jazz sounds like… life to me. It sounds like the busy highway, the rushing rivers, the business of a nightclub, the tranquility of holding a sleeping baby in your arms,” White said. “it can mean so many different things and it really does mean all of those different things and it reflects in the way that I play music and it reflects how I write music. Everything around me is jazz, almost. So that’s really where it’s at!”
White has know he wanted to be a jazz player since he was 14 and his band director had him listen to Charlie Parker.
“I was very attracted to the virtuosity of Charlie Parker’s playing,” he said. “I was very attracted to the sound he made and speed with which he played and the harmonic aspect of his playing. It was all incredible to me.”
The roots of Jazz can be traced to the times of slavery, when slaves sang in call-and-response. During the great Migration, African Americans moved all over the country. Although New Orleans is thought to be one of the major scenes of Jazz, Missouri played a major role in its formation too. Scott Joplin ragtiming in Springfield, Charlie Parker bebopping in Kansas City and Miles Davis wailing in St. Louis. White teaches the way jazz took hold and grew in Missouri.
“I think you have to address historical developments in the music and I think you have to be respectful to regional sounds,” White said. “It’s really important know how to play Count Basie’s music. You can’t just play Basie’s music from the notes on the page – there’s a spirit, there’s a vibrancy that is — that you have to translate.”
White said when he teaches, he tries to balance teaching performance and teaching historical context.
“We need to understand how race factors into this, and it does,” White said. “Jazz is Black music. Jazz is historically black music and all of the great developments our music have been done by the great black musicians. I think we have to, as modern jazz musicians, learn from that, recognize that and live it. I think we have to understand as much as we possibly can what it is like to deal with race in music. The music I play is black music the music I play is Latin music. The music I play is historically significant music from those angles. And I don’t know what it’s like to live those lives, but I want to learn about it. And the great teachers and performers of this music that are white understand that as well. And I think it’s significant that we continue to learn and really grow from that experience, as much as we possibly can, given that we’ll never live it.”
But like any art form, White said there are many misconceptions about Jazz, and he wants to set the record straight on one in particular.
“One of the things that we tend to lose as a jazz culture anyway, is the idea that it should make you want to dance and groove and move and shake your butt. And that’s OK! That’s a beautiful thing.”
To top off a week of JAM-related events in Columbia, Rose Music Hall will host veteran local act Planet Jazz April 7th for a free show starting at 5 pm.