Grab your coat
Grab your hat, baby
Leave your worries on the doorstep
Just direct your feet
On the sunny side of the street
Can’t you hear a pitter-pat, babe?
And that happy tune is your step
Life can be so sweet
On the sunny side of the street
– Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong
I HAVE SHARED the story of how a group of travel-weary Trinis put down their suitcases and started to dance to jazz. But not just any jazz; this was Louis Armstrong, legend and son of New Orleans.
I have spoken too of the fact that as we danced, we were embarrassed that none of our legends ever greet us at the TT airport — only advertisements by corporations and fast food joints; or legends promoting corporations and fast food joints. But I digress.
Many moments in my life have been punctuated by jazz.
For example, like when I got angry with Miles Davis because he dared to leave this realm before I got to see him perform live. Angry because he did not take care of himself and for some of the personal mistakes he made.
The New York Times describes his music in a rhythmic way: “His solos, whether ruminating on a whispered ballad melody or jabbing against a beat, have been models for generations of jazz musicians. Other trumpeters play faster and higher, but more than in any technical feats Mr Davis’s influence lay in his phrasing and sense of space. ‘I always listen to what I can leave out,’ he would say.”
I was drawn to his fierce individualism as an artist.
He dropped out of the prestigious New York performing arts school, Juilliard, to join the band of jazz great, Charlie Parker. He is quoted as saying, “Up at Juilliard, I played in the symphony, two notes, ‘bop-bop,’ every 90 bars, so I said, ‘Let me out of here,’ and then I left.”
In many ways, the history of this music is intertwined with our musical and historical journey here at home. It emanated in large part from pain and loss, but was used to tell important stories in the human experience. “Jazz grew from the African American slaves who were prevented from maintaining their native musical traditions and felt the need to substitute some homegrown form of musical expression.”
The suppressed African rhythms in New Orleans and elsewhere emerged as something new on calabashes, western instruments such as the piano, or work songs and hymns of the enslaved. That expression subsequently spanned musical styles from blues to gospel, hip hop, reggae, Latin music and calypso — all connected across diaspora. In TT, we added our pan and Caribbean flavour.
Andre Tanker and Clive Zanda were among the first crop to successfully experiment with merging our Caribbean rhythms and jazz.
Sean Thomas, jazz drummer and musician, educated at the prestigious Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz, is credited with conceptualising Jazz Artistes on the Greens. He and his team created a forum to allow jazz lovers to be able to enjoy the music in an open-air setting.
Elan Parle, led by Michael “Ming” Low Chew Tung, delved into the smoother version of the genre. They have also managed to gain a strong following with original compositions that impact emotionally.
And, the new generation of local jazz artists is led by current phenom, Etienne Charles, educated at Juilliard. Etienne is fiercely Trini and Caribbean in his interpretation of the music and, like Miles Davis, is on a successful path to bring the cool back into jazz.
“Southern trees/ Bearing strange fruit/ Blood on the leaves/ And blood at the roots/ Black bodies/ Swinging in the southern breeze/ Strange fruit hanging/ From the poplar trees.” The music of Nina Simone, Billy Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and other jazz vocalists often helped me to make sense of the world. While I don’t always agree with their views, their music, raw and unforgiving, sings the pain of generations and gives perspective to many aspects of life.
We should not be afraid of jazz. It is another unexplored form of cultural expression that could teach so much. I mean, the extract from Strange Fruit by Nina Simone, sung first by Billy Holiday, is pure poetry. We should also not perpetuate the misconception that jazz in its pure form is not commercially viable. There are global festivals that celebrate this music, and do well financially.
Next week, I will go a little deeper into this fascinating creation. For now, just relax and, please, put on some jazz.
Dara Healy is a performance artist and founder of the NGO, the Indigenous Creative Arts Network – ICAN