A History of "Jazz History"
Wind ensemble director Jim Worman gives movement to music appreciation course
Thursday, February 25, 2021
Jim Worman conducts a Wind Ensemble rehearsal

It’s a (typical, pre-covid) warm summer day in San Antonio, and the third floor of Northrup Hall is relatively quiet. Bells ring on the front door of the Strategic Communications and Marketing office as team members flutter in and out. The hum of the air conditioner is offset by a white noise machine. And then suddenly—

A trumpet blares, and a saxophone soon follows. A booming rhythm from electric pianos, bass guitars, and drums lend an iconic beat. The halls are filled with Miles Davis’ “Bitches Brew;” Jim Worman’s “Jazz History and Styles” course is now in session.

As someone who took “Jazz History and Styles” almost 15 years ago, I can’t help but linger outside Northrup Hall 318 and listen in again: I’m reminded of the history, the history makers, and the diverse impact of jazz on music and on the world. I asked Professor Worman—or “Doc,” as so many of his students and ensemblists call him—to share more with the Trinity community about “History of Jazz.” And as always, Doc delivered.

 


 

Can you give us a history of “Jazz History and Styles” (MUSC 1346)—an overview of what the class is about, what you hope your students learn or take away, and how it came to be?

The definition we use in class is that jazz is not a music or a style, but a concept:

Jazz is a guiding aesthetic that informs the playing, singing, and composing of music.  It is defined in large part by its origins in the Black experience in the United States and the cultural history of slavery. For this reason, it is uniquely “American,” involving a blend of vernacular and cultivated elements from Africa, Europe, and other world musics. It relies on a variety of musical concepts that may or may not always appear in any given example of jazz, the most prominent of which are improvisation, blues, syncopation and a rhythmic feel described as “swing,” which is an informal lilting division of  the beat derived from the oral-aural tradition of music making.

Embedded in this definition is that one cannot understand jazz unless they understand the cultural aspects of musical expression. So, we spend time investigating the source of the sounds primarily through the musical-cultural markers of West Africa. But these manifest in a unique way through jazz, due to the confluence of multiple and diverse musical genres in the U.S. throughout the 19th century. We spend time with minstrelsy, operetta, professional touring bands, Black Musical Theatre, and the Blues. As these musical styles did not function in a vacuum, we also study the societal and historical influences concurrent with each.

Once we understand the vast tributaries of the foundation, we then delve into how these meld and evolve into what is recognized as “jazz.” The challenge in the course is to find the balance between context and content along the way: to understand not only what bebop sounds like, but why bebop sounds different from big band swing, or how free jazz grew out of the dawning of the contemporary Civil Rights era.

 

“Jazz History and Styles” isn't just for music majors—in fact, it has been a part of University curricula for many years to encourage students in understanding diversity. What cultures do you explore in the course? Why is it important to learn about and seek value in the experiences of people different from ourselves?

We start in West Africa, learning various musical-cultural markers evident and how they transfer to sounds. From that, we gain an understanding of jazz as it relates to the oral-aural traditions of West Africa, in addition to such elements as improvisation, polyrhythms, communal integration with music making, and call-response. As we get into 20th-century United States, we analyze how social and cultural systems adapt to changing cultural circumstances in jazz, such as Reconstruction, the Depression, the Civil Rights era, and more. We examine differences in power and privilege within jazz (race, gender, labor) and how these differences may lead to the domination, exploitation, and exclusion of some groups by others.

Jazz connects ethnicity and empathy. Music making is a social construct, with conscious and subconscious elements in the creation and the reception of the art. We identify and analyze how culture and context manifest in sound through the unique interpretation and manipulation of otherwise “cultureless” elements (melody, harmony, rhythm, form, sound). Admittedly, my ulterior motive in stressing this crucial understanding transcends music or art and gets to the humanity of our coexistence with others. In “Jazz History,” I want them to understand the sounds—moving past the like/dislike knee-jerk reaction. Understanding leads to acceptance, and acceptance leads to coexistence. The arts should teach that different is different, absent a judgment of “good” or “bad.” And that lesson is an important one to transfer to our daily encounters.

 

Improvisation is about learning from the people around you—in the moment, with empathy and emotion. What has jazz taught you? What have you learned from the musicians you collaborate with? What have you learned from your students of this course?

Many jazz artists equate jazz with freedom: freedom to express individually, even when part of a group; freedom from expectation; freedom from adherence to a paradigm; freedom to create. In the Western High Art construct, performance practices and conventions create specific “do’s and don’ts.” Jazz teaches that most expectations and hierarchies are artificially established by humans for a reason determined by those establishing the boundaries. So, questioning, exploring, challenging, inventing, creating, and self-expressing are all means of expanding what’s possible. In addition, artistry is not monolithic, and being “musical” is not relegated to the ability to read music or participate in an ensemble. Aesthetic quality and artistic excellence is connected to the level and degree of creation and expressive manipulation of materials, irrespective of genre or style.

To broaden this out, translating that flexibility and thoughtful irreverence to all sorts of aspects in our daily lives can be a healthy emancipation from the “should”s.

 

Trinity has given the gift of jazz to the San Antonio community for a few decades—through KRTU, through the jazz ensemble, and through events like Skyline Swing. How has jazz been a part of Trinity's history? Why is it important that Trinity continue to offer courses like "History of Jazz"?

To be honest, I wish jazz had been and will be a bigger part of Trinity. I did come across a 1937 view of jazz on the Trinity campus, a brief snippet from the Trinitonian, when “asking members of the student body what some commonly used words meant to them.” In the article the author states: “We begin with… jazz (it has a very respectable definition by now, you know. It has made the dictionary).”  Among the responses:
   "it is something mad which stops when a good waltz comes on.”
   “it is not slow smooth music but wishy-washy swing music.”
   “it is the death penalty in some states.”

Perhaps we have moved on since then, but mirroring the view of jazz writ large, jazz resides in a safe self-contained secure corner. My goal is to expand that real estate. In addition to an increased on-campus exposure and support of KRTU and the Jazz Ensemble, a course like “Jazz History” is important. Through the understanding of musical expression and the historical importance of its creation, development, and endurance, jazz can contribute to a stronger appreciation and understanding of the contributions of all creators. Names like Fletcher Henderson, Chick Webb, and Billy Eckstine should be as familiar and common as Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, and Frank Sinatra. That list is seemingly endless.

 

Who are some of your favorite jazz artists and why? If you could recommend 1 (or 2 or 3) songs, albums, or collaborations for a “jazz newbie” to engage with, what would they be?

This goes back to an earlier question—what has jazz taught me… well, a twist on that: What has teaching “Jazz History” taught me? As I have taught this course, and in my effort to stress understanding and appreciation, I have delved deeper into the panoply of artists throughout the century of jazz development. So, if I am in a “saxophone mood,” I may listen to Paul Desmond, or maybe Archie Shepp, or anyone in between that rather wide spectrum established. I appreciate innovators who also possess mastery: Louis Armstrong , Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Bill Evans, Dave Brubeck, Don Ellis. I also love masters of their craft: Sonny Rollins, Max Roach, McCoy Tyner, Maynard Ferguson, Bela Fleck... too many to name. Just two weeks ago the word lost a giant creative artist and wonderful human being—Chick Corea (1941–2021)—who not only helped usher in fusion with Miles Davis, but was a master of acoustic piano and an exquisite musician who was at home in so many genres and styles.

In addition to just exploring (simply spend a few days with KRTU), I think there are some albums recognized as great introductions to a variety of styles: my random top 10 (at least today, in no order as I think of them):

  • Ellington at Newport – Duke Ellington
  • Kind of Blue  - Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, Bill Evans, et al.
  • Saxophone Colossus – Sonny Rollins
  • Blue Train – John Coltrane
  • Song for my Father – Horace Silver
  • Bitches Brew – Miles Davis and many others
  • Heavy Weather – Weather Report
  • Tears of Joy – Don Ellis
  • Fire Music - Archie Shepp
  • Speak No Evil – Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Freddie Hubbard, Ron Carter, Elvin Jones

 


 

In addition to picking up an album or two from Doc’s list above, Tigers can explore jazz at Trinity in several ways: Tune in to KRTU 91.7FM, Trinity’s radio station and one of the only predominantly jazz radio stations in Texas. Engage with an upcoming KRTU event in-person or online. Or, enroll in “Jazz History and Styles,” which is typically offered every year as a summer course and in select fall and spring semesters.

 

Jeanna Goodrich Balreira '08 is the director for content strategy for Trinity University Strategic Communications and Marketing.

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