A hundred years of jazz Jump to main content

A hundred years of jazz

On 25 April 1917 William and ‘Tempie’ Fitzgerald announced the birth of a baby girl in Newport News, Virginia, an inauspicious shipbuilding town close to the border with North Carolina.

Nearly six months later, on 10 October, just 150 miles south in Rocky Mount, NC, an inaccurate birth certificate was signed celebrating the arrival of ‘Thelius Monk’.

And in a small town still recovering from the economic impact of the Civil War, on 21 October, James and ‘Lottie’ Gillespie extended their burgeoning family with the birth of their ninth child, John, in Cheraw, South Carolina.

By their mid-late twenties, all three were building reputations as the most important young musicians in American jazz; John ‘Dizzy’ Gillespie was touring across numerous states with orchestras led by Teddy Hill and Cab Calloway, Thelonious Monk held the position of house pianist at Minton’s Playhouse in Manhattan, hosting nightly ‘cutting contests’ with leading soloists of the time, and Ella Fitzgerald had already gained acclaim with Chick Webb’s orchestra, including their infamous sessions in Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom.

With these three centenaries, the lasting significance of the year 1917 (alongside the Original Dixieland Jazz Band’s first ‘jass record’) is more than apparent. #jazz100 is a new digital initiative from the Jazz Promotion Network launching the next 100 years of British and Irish jazz.

Jazz in the UK and Ireland is undergoing a resurgence, with more innovative musicians emerging through electrifying festivals and venues than ever before. Jazz is also cropping up in, and coming from places that traditional fans don’t expect, highlighting the continuing evolution of the music to adapt to various contexts, which has been closely connected with jazz since the beginning. Ella, Dizzy and Monk all brought about progress in the music in their individual ways; Ella in launching its widespread appeal into the mainstream throughout her career; Dizzy in the invention of bebop language; and Monk in his unique approach to composition and improvisation.

In order to examine the importance of Dizzy, Ella and Monk, and discuss the next 100 years of jazz, I employed the services of three of their instrumental counterparts; Scottish trumpet player and producer Kim Macari, award-winning vocalist Zara McFarlane and the recently commissioned pianist Peter Edwards – also all in their mid-late twenties, to give a personal and musical perspective on these three giants of jazz, talk about their lasting influence on the music today, parallels they find in their own music making, and, being themselves the very future of jazz in this country, look ahead to the next 100 years.

Kim Macari on Dizzy Gillespie

So Kim, Dizzy Gillespie - could you talk about your first memory of hearing him?

When I was about 14 or 15, I heard A Night in Tunisia and I remember thinking ‘Oh my god, what is happening here’ – that [solo] break is incredible. Up until that point I’d listened to Miles [Davis] and Chet [Baker] but this was a different thing, it was on fire, so intense. I think what really grabbed me was all the lines were so dense but he was in such control.

Any particular songs/recordings/performances to check out?

There is an amazing video of him and Louis Armstrong – Umbrella Man – that just exudes joy. Their sense of time is amazing and you can see so clearly that they love what they are doing – for me it breaks down the barrier between performer and audience – everybody is having a wonderful time and all formality evaporates – this is when it becomes more about sharing an experience than just music.

What do you think was so significant about his style and how does that carry through into jazz today?

His impact was enormous and can’t be understated – he was pivotal in the creation of a new language for improvising which is now the basis for the way jazz is taught, and the universal jam session vocabulary – the way we communicate as jazz musicians with others around the world.

I’m also really drawn to how genuine his playing was – I believe everything he played. This is key for me. You don’t have to separate yourself according to musical context, the most important thing is to be honest and be yourself.

Our #jazz100 project is looking at the past but also the future, launching the next 100 years of jazz. What is exciting you right now and how do you see jazz developing over the next years?

One very exciting thing is the sense of community and responsibility. People want to nurture the music not just through performance but also through teaching and running festivals – it’s truly wonderful. If you look at [saxophonists] Cath Roberts, Dee Byrne or [clarinettist] Matt Robinson, they’re all running festivals because they are incredibly passionate about the music, which makes me confident that the artform has a future

Kim Macari’s quartet ‘Family Band’ will release ‘Board of Origin’ in the autumn of 2017 and she has co-initiated a new record label of improvised music called ‘Bug’. She is also Chair of Jazz from Scotland and Director of the Apollo Jazz Network.

Zara McFarlane on Ella Fitzgerald

What was your journey of discovery with Ella?

I was aware of Ella’s voice from a young age, without knowing who she was, or what she represented. I always found she was quite ‘perfect’ as a singer, so the younger me wasn’t as attracted to that sound – but the real appreciation came when I was studying jazz; she is so perfect and virtuosic in the way she performs, quite different from other singers.

What recordings would you recommend?

She has such epic amounts of work it is difficult to pick one, but I love the stuff she did with Louie [Armstrong], and also the Cole Porter songbook.

What qualities do you think were so unique or significant in her style, and what do you take into your own performing?

The effortlessness of how she uses her voice, her purity of tone and her professionalism. She was a talented entertainer, and wasn’t concerned about being a ‘personality’, which is the opposite to nowadays in pop music. She was a true professional who knew how to put on a show, and her sound and style were very classy too. All these elements are things I try to engage with in the way I perform.

What jazz is exciting you in the UK today?

Lots of the guys that have developed through Tomorrow’s Warriors; like Shabaka [Hutchings], Camilla George, Moses [Boyd], they’re making their own projects and everyone is helping each other out. There’s a great feeling of community and scene. A lot of musicians also hang out at particular jams, which makes it really buzzy and really helps to develop people. It’s been organic though, people haven’t been thinking, ‘it’s cool to do jazz’, they’re doing it anyway, and people are finally noticing.

Speaking of ‘scenes’, do you think London 2017, for example, can compare to New York 1940?

I think one big similarity is because any big city is so diverse, you’ve got a lot of artists drawing on their heritage. I draw on a lot of my Jamaican heritage, Camilla George, she was originally Nigerian born, and her album has a lot of African influence, Emilia Mårtensson has Swedish influence on her writing, so you hear a lot of that in the music that is developing here, a melting pot of styles, genres and influences.

Zara McFarlane is working on her new album, produced by Moses Boyd, due to be released in September. The launch will be 15 November at Rich Mix during the London Jazz Festival.

Peter Edwards on Thelonious Monk

Peter, how did you first come across Monk as a pianist and what were your immediate impressions?

My first memory of experiencing Monk's music was learning to play Straight, No Chaser. Like a lot of his tunes it sounds deceptively simple and yet has a rhythmic twist that is unexpected and memorable. I love the way he plays with the listener taking you to unexpected places and breaking conventions in his compositions and improvisations (including dancing around the piano when other band members played their solos).

What do you think was so significant about his style and how is that relevant for jazz 100 years later?

Monk had incredible confidence in his style of playing. Whatever he played had conviction even if it was unconventional. That's why his music speaks to so many people today because it's direct and playful. He treated the piano in a much more percussive style than his contemporaries, almost as if each key was a drum. He influenced pianists like Bud Powell, McCoy Tyner, Chick Corea, Jason Moran and countless other artists beyond the jazz world. I get the impression that Monk was very accepting of whatever he played and wherever the music went. I hope that musicians today aspire to feel the same way about their music making. I certainly do.

As a young jazz musician in the UK what is exciting you right now?

There are a crop of young musicians who are writing and performing some really great music at the moment – saxophonist Nubya Garcia, bass player Daniel Casimir, pianist Ashley Henry and Tuba player Theon Cross all have their own groups and recordings. They've all got very promising careers ahead of them and I highly recommend checking them out.

Peter Edwards has been commissioned by Turner Sims and Tomorrow's Warriors Live to write a piece around the many centenaries this year. Journey with the Giants of Jazz will be performed in London on 8 July at the Clore Ballroom, Southbank Centre.

Dave Morecroft, Jazz Musician and Jazz 100 Director