Saturday, September 29, 2007

Jazz and Opera

Paul Tomasko, a neighbor, and a fine singer of operetta and theater music, came by to show Opus 40 to a friend, a musician from New Orleans. The musician’s name was Chris Saunder, and he was Al Hirt's piano player for ten years, and then worked with Pete Fountain. These aren’t artists I’d rush out to hear, but you don't get gigs like that without being very good. Chris also turned out to be a very nice guy, and we passed about an hour in conversation about music, which is one of the best ways to spend an hour.

Here’s one of the things he said that struck me. He was talking about the contribution of Italian musicians like Nick LaRocca to early jazz. He asserted that the Italians brought syncopation to jazz, and that it came from their cultural background listening to opera.

Well, I’m not so sure. Most people think that those early LaRocca recordings of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band don't swing the way jazz should, and they're mostly right. Most people credit the polyrhythms of West Africa for the syncopation that so much of jazz is built on, and they’re mostly right too, as are those who point out that you don’t need syncopation in order to swing.

But the more you listen, the more you learn. There’s a lot of racial territoriality in American music, neither side willing to concede much to the other. And that can get in the way. The 20th Century, the American Century in music, gave the world one of its greatest artistic flowerings, and it owes its greatness to, as much as anything else, its mongrel nature. Whenever cultures and sounds and styles have butted up against each other, it has enriched the mix. So…opera as a godfather to jazz syncopation? I love it. To me, it’s one more affirmation of the greatness of our American music.

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