Wednesday, February 15, 2006

G-Rated Jazz

Last week’s odd spin raises the issue of jazz family values. Rightly or wrongly, jazz does not have a strong family image. Its roots are in the brothels of Storyville, the speakeasies of Kansas City and Chicago, and the night clubs of Harlem. Even today, the formerly smoke-filled night club is the most common jazz laboratory for musical development.

While jazz’s ancestry might be notorious, individual musicians are much more likely to be responsible family members, struggling to earn some bread. Life as a jazz musician, with constant touring and late night performances, certainly can put a strain on family life. Musicians like Charlie Parker and Joe Albany also faced the demons of drug addiction and mental illness, causing tremendous chaos for their families.

Other musicians were able to raise their children in a stable, creative environment, ultimately bringing them into the musical tradition. Ellis Marsalis raised four musical prodigies: Wynton, Branford, Delfayo, and Jason. Duke Ellington passed the leadership of his Orchestra down to his son Mercer, and now grandson Paul leads the band. A similar succession took place when Arturo O’Farrill took over the leadership of Chico O’Farrill latin big band after the elder O’Farrill passed away.

Even children not born into a jazz dynasty can be enriched by an early exposure to jazz. Wynton Marsalis oversees many Jazz for Young People programs at the Lincoln Center, and the Jazz Standard has a special weekend set for kids. After all, there are important lessons to be learned from jazz. It was born out of America’s racial struggles, yet it expresses America’s philosophy of freedom. More than any other music, it prizes individual expression. It is the truest American musical expression. Sadly, there have been a relatively small number of jazz albums produced explicitly for young audiences, but Horace Silver did do his part.