Three weeks ago, my playlist ended with a song by Billie Holiday. Last week, it ended with a song by Jamie Cullum, a modern jazz artist who happens to be my all-time favorite artist from any genre. This week, I figured I should explore the genre a little more as it’s one that I absolutely love.
I’ve mentioned this before, but since I was young I’ve always felt like I was born in the wrong decade. I love the music of the 40s and 50s, but more than that, I love anything that falls into the swing, big band, or jazz categories. I want to share with you some of my favorite jazz hits from some heavy hitters in the business.
Dave Brubeck Quartet
No lyrics and yet this tune still grabs me. I first heard of “Take Five” as a 17-year old and faithful viewer of American Idol. A contestant named Paris Bennett sang Billie Holiday’s version of the song, and I sat with wide eyes. I was loving her voice, but the song even more. After searching endlessly and failing to find that version online, I “settled” for Dave Brubeck’s rendition. What a happy thing to settle on because I find it captivating.
My technical musical language stops at being able to identify that the timestamp is different than most songs, but beyond that I can’t explain the rhythm. I just know that it is uneven, which is appealing to me because you can’t really settle into it. It kind of keeps my brain on edge in the most interesting way, so I wind up being engaged with the song the whole way through.
I start to do this awkward move (one of many) where I look like a conductor keeping time for an orchestra. Then comes the saxophone. Most times when I think ofa saxophone, I think of something kind of corny like from an 80’s synth-pop song, but not in this case. It’s smooth, and responsive to that uneven tempo in a way that is complementary. The two play off of each other and create a dynamic interaction. I’m really trying to explain this but I’m not sure how effective my words are. This song gives me a feeling that’s almost intangible, and I don’t know that I did it any justice with my explanation.
“Cry Me A River”
Why Julie London did not come into my life a decade ago is beyond me. She sings low notes that are uncommon for many women, but easy for me to sing. Instantly, I connected with her and this song because of her lower register. Her voice is smooth, sultry, and beautiful. Her delivery hits all three of those notes, too. She is the epitome of class in her music and her image, which is pretty representative of the 1950’s and a big part of why I connect to the era.
The elegance and poise of many women from that time period is so refreshing, (think Grace Kelly and Ella Fitzgerald-see below), especially compared to a lot of the “icons” that are constantly portrayed in today’s media. Many women of the 40’s and 50’s had a certain air about them that was so sophisticated, and for years I wanted to be just like that.
At 28, I’ve really developed my sense of self in today’s modern world. However, reflecting upon this song and artist has made me realize that I try to carry a little of that 1950’s charm around with me wherever I go. This song will be added into my karaoke repertoire starting now.
“Someone To Watch Over Me”
Speaking of Ella, I need to acknowledge her contributions to jazz music. This woman was so revered in her time, being recognized for her pure tone and incredible phrasing. She gained recognition from bandleaders like Chuck Webb and Benny Goodman and began to make a name for herself with their help and exposure. She even took over as bandleader when Chuck Webb died, turning the band into “Ella Fitzgerald and her Famous Orchestra.” She has won 13 Grammy awards and is known as the "Queen of Jazz." She helped pave the way for women like Julie London, Nina Simone, and even Norah Jones.
In short, she is an absolute legend.
I feel like this song is pretty well known, whether done by Ella or a different artist. She sings with a tenderness that is so pure and sweet. She’s like a crooner, though I can’t say I’ve ever heard her given that title, I think it fits. For me, this song is like a lullaby that makes me feel relaxed and at ease.
God, would I love to meet her in my next life.
“Minnie the Moocher”
This song is so saucy. The first 30 seconds are swanky and sensual, which from what I know was somewhat unusual for the time (1931). I would think that this may have been viewed as provocative back in the day. I mean, Cab Calloway does refer to Minnie as a “hoochie coocher” within the first two lines.
Apparently, Minnie was a character commonly featured in Cab Calloway’s music, and based off of a real woman from downtown Indianapolis who begged for and stole food (hence the title of “moocher,”) and lived on the streets. After doing some more digging, it turns out this song is laden with references to several different substances. Now, we all know the internet doesn’t always tell the truth, so let’s take this information with a grain of salt. Either way, the content of this is song is most definitely racy.
I wonder how it was received back in the 30s? Were audiences receptive to it because it told a relatable tale, or did they scoff at the somewhat vulgar nature of the behaviors that the song described? I may never find out my answers, but I really dig how evocative the lyrics and overall feel of this song are.
“Sing Sing Sing”
Benny Goodman Orchestra
I’m going to bet that many of you know this song without knowing you knew it. Confused? Curious? Have a listen! The first thing that comes to mind when I hear this is a Chips Ahoy! commercial from back in the 90s (maybe some of you share this same memory). I know that I liked the song then, and the association with chocolatey desserts definitely helped me to remember it.
When I heard this again more recently I was happily surprised! I never knew what the real song actually was but was happy to download it and add it to my “Swing It, Baby” iPod playlist. There is so much going on in this song, and I think it really shows the beauty and uniqueness of jazz.
Someone once told me that jazz is really just organized chaos. A good friend of mine who plays the trumpet (and also loves jazz) explained it something like this: when it comes to jazz, you first need to learn all of the rules. You need to learn the technique, what chords go together, and how to achieve certain sounds, just like you would with any other type of music. The difference with jazz is that when learning the rules, you also should also be learning how to break them.
I think that’s what fascinates me so much about jazz music. It really is this organized chaos, but when it’s done well, it’s incredible. For many it can be overwhelming as it may seem like it doesn’t many any sense, or that nothing goes together. In reality, it all works in perfect synchronicity, just not in the way that most other types of music work. It’s this strange enigma in the world of music that I can’t get enough of.
Being transported back in time for the week has really made me feel good! It brings up a sense of nostalgia for me, as if I were actually around when these songs that came out.
Stand-Out Song: “Someone To Watch Over Me”
This song is so soothing and heartfelt, it pulls at the heartstrings and brings out my romantic side.
What is your favorite genre of music?
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