What is jazz?
To my ears it’s melody, movement, beat, snap, switch, sweat, dynamic and inverted and syncopated, free and indulgent and arrogant, full and fleeting.
And on the basis of all that it’s likely indefinable.
Pushed to one word though, it’s invention.
A composition can move and shift in the hands of different musicians. Of all music jazz is the genre where the furthest movement from the theme, while still, however distantly, orbiting it, is often most admired.
Basin Street Blues is one of my favourite songs, and a perfect example of this shifting evolution.
It was written by Spencer Williams in 1928, and named for Basin Street, a departed main drag in the (by 1928, cleaned up) New Orleans red light district of Storyville, where he had been raised.
The song was made famous first by Louis Armstrong and later Jack Teagarden, the latter with lyrics. Many other versions followed.
Charting the song across the generations provides as good an answer as any to the impossible question: ‘what is jazz?’
Take three versions.
Louis Armstrong – 1928
To start at the beginning, in every way. Armstrong cut his version in a period where he was, almost single-handedly, inventing ‘jazz’ as a soloist’s art form.
His performances on a number of recordings from this era are Rosetta Stone moments, solos (even at their shortest) in which you can hear the invention of something new.
Louis’ version starts eerily, with Earl Hines’ celesta, before Armstrong solos and scats. But it’s the trumpeter’s second solo (at 2.02) that’s remarkable – an ascending sequence of notes which picks up the melody and takes it up and up, transcending Basin Street and all else besides, to hold a searing high Bb, before returning to Earth for the last 16, somewhat mournful, bars.
Miles Davis – 1963
Thirty-five years later Davis turns the exuberance of Armstrong’s version on its head, moving from the stately stride of the 1928 recording to something pensive and brooding.
Gone is the overarching horn, replaced instead by the interplay of the leader’s muted trumpet, Victor Feldman’s piano and Ron Carter’s bass.
This is a lament – always elegant – for a way of life and a way of music that had long departed.
At times, as the trumpeter slips deeper in his solo (Davis’ first, lasting six minutes, is over twice the length of Armstrong’s song), we stray far from Basin Street, only to slowly resurface, pulled by Carter’s insistent bass.
Kid Koala – 2003
A natural progression. Koala takes Basin Street Blues away from single group performance, building a version with bass, banjo and beats around the melody line, in this case a scratched and slurred horn, his trademark ‘drunk trumpet’.
In contrast to Armstrong’s soloing 75 years earlier what stands out here is the low end, the beats which build in the second half of the song (from 2.13).
Koala, it seems, visualises the song as a funeral march, a fragmented second line, with banjo that closes the circle, echoing the Dixieland sound that Armstrong emerged from generations earlier.
What is jazz then? It’s something that’s found throughout these three works, a form of music that encompasses creation, re- invention and subvention.
But, as Louis himself reputedly said, if you have to ask you’ll never know.