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The colors of jazz

Artistic Director, Fillmore Jazz Festival

What is the sound of jazz? And can jazz mean different things to different people, perhaps even different things to the same person?

Since its birth in New Orleans near the end of the 19th century, jazz was a hybrid: a mixed-up, beautiful child of Africa, Europe, the Caribbean and South America. The self-described inventor of jazz, pianist and composer Jelly Roll Morton, said: “If you can’t manage to put tinges of Spanish in your tunes, you will never be able to get the right ‘seasoning’ to call it jazz.”

Then again, Duke Ellington, arguably America’s greatest and most prolific composer, famously wrote: “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.” That “swing” being jazz’s uniquely syncopated 4/4 rhythm the drummer plays that co-exists with the “walking” bass line — that steady “four on the floor” pulse. That relationship — the pull of the steady bass line conjoined with the dancing “ding-ding-da-ding” ride of the cymbals is a unique musical signature of jazz.

Of course, you can’t have jazz without the blues. The legendary jazz singer Carmen McRae once said: “Blues is to jazz what yeast is to bread. Without it, it’s flat.” Ironically, the blues is built around the flatted 3rd and 7th notes, the “blue notes” that jazz embraced and embellished. So actually, the blues is part of jazz’s DNA.

But wait. Some say jazz distinguishes itself through improvisation. Sonny Rollins, National Endowment for the Arts jazz master and titan of the tenor saxophone, says improvisation is “the essence” of jazz.

So jazz is the blues. Yes.

And you need to “blow” or improvise. Yes.

And the music has to swing and have the Latin tinge. Yes. Yes.

Can it be more? Does it need more to make it what it is?

Well, one thing jazz isn’t is isolationist. Far from it. Jazz has always welcomed newcomers, embraced other genres of music, called forth musicians from around the globe — or the universe, if you’re Sun Ra — to join in the jam session. And artists are also encouraged to incorporate jazz into their music, to call it their own. This is America’s gift to the world. It was born in a melting pot and is freely given and shared.

Some cases in point: Since its inception, hip hop has embraced and incorporated jazz riffs and phrasing and lifted specific licks; DJs have been mashing up jazz and dance music for more than a generation, while classical composers, world musicians and jam bands have found jazz to be fertile ground to plow.

In the end, we are all one on the global bandstand — that’s the message of jazz. However, on this bandstand, if we’re truly going to make music together, before we play one note, we must listen to each other, make room for and respect one another. Only then can we truly create with one another, express ourselves and support others as they express themselves. In the end, we can achieve great things. We do achieve great things. We can paint with colors unimagined.

With that in mind, at this year’s Fillmore Jazz Festival, prepare yourself to discover the many colors of jazz. You’ll find hot jazz – the early sounds of New Orleans, also called Dixieland; you can partake in a traditional second line Mardi Gras parade led by a banging brass band. You can check out jazz and the American Songbook, some Latin jazz fused with mythology, a bit of burning post-bebop modern jazz, a gutbucket of blues and folksy Americana-tinged jazz, plus some screaming big bands. It’s all there, led by women and men, youngsters and young-at-heartsters.

There will be some kind of jazz for everyone at this year’s Fillmore Jazz Festival.

When artistic director Jason Olaine is not booking the annual Fillmore Jazz Festival, he is the director of programming and touring at Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York City.