by Kelly Ebeling
Recently, I was a lucky audience member listening to the first of a series of discussions called Exploring Jazz.  Located at the Raven Theater in Healdsburg, CA, this forum is being presented by our local AAUW (American Association of University Women) chapter and is led by Len Lyons, a well-known jazz authority: jazz author, historian, educator and musician.  As a jazz enthusiast, like many others in the audience, I learned so much from our initial session.
Lyons began by playing a 6 minute medley of mostly well-known , but, diverse jazz standards.  From Fred Haas’s “Theme For Ernie” to Louis Armstrong’s “West End Blues” to The Duke Ellington Orchestra’s “Cottontail, we listened to 9 very different pieces.  After listening, Lyons asked us how all of these pieces were united within the cornucopia of jazz.
Many in the audience responded correctly in one way or another.  But, Lyons proceeded to go through a list of what specifically made it jazz, in his opinion, while drawing some eye-popping comparisons.  Here’s a partial run down:
  1. Speech-like vocalization of the instrument(s).  The artists’ intentional blowing of each note through their horns – trombone, sax or clarinet – as if they were speaking words.  Then he tied these instrumental vocalizations to the African-American tonal and musical language patterns. Wait! What?To bring this home, he juxtaposed Josh Redmond’s saxophone solo of “Body and Soul” with a clip of Martin Luther King’s last speech, “I Have Been To the Mountaintop”, which Lyons referred to as “musical oratory”. In this context, one could certainly draw the comparison between King’s lyrical rhythm and cadence of his speech to any number of jazz solos. Amazing!
  2. Improvisation.  Here, Lyons discussed the artist’s stretching the boundaries of a song or melody to such a degree that it may barely sound like it’s original point of reference.  To demonstrate, he played for us a straight-forward rendition of “Bye Bye Blackbird” from the musical review, “Fosse” followed  by Miles Davis’ own version.  The two songs couldn’t have been more different. While Fosse’s was snappy, concise and very Broadway-like in it’s presentation, Miles’ version comes in lazily behind the beat sometimes omitting entire lines in the song. His mood in this recording is sultry, nuanced and sexy!
  3. Individuality/Creativity.  Then, Lyons compared this stretching of the boundaries in Mile’s improvisational solo to what Picasso had done so brilliantly on canvas with his cubist portraits of women,.  He even called the latter “Eye Jazz”! Picasso, like Miles and his music, was helping us to see the subject in an entirely new way by departing from it so radically. Yet again, I found Lyons’ analogy fresh and surprising.
There are more of Lyon’s “jazz unifiers” to come in the next blog.  It was all very rich, enlightening and a LOT to absorb.  Please stay tuned.  For links and other references, you may look up Lyon’s website:  I, for one, will be eagerly awaiting our next forum session. If you are local and want to join the forum, there are  still 5 more sessions to go for this one: