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Music runs deep in my family. Though no one has made a career of it, my family has a long history of performing and appreciating music. Three of my four grandparents were musicians in high school and college, one of whom got a degree in music education. My father sang and played bass guitar in high school and college. My siblings and I are all in band and have been successful musicians. Because of the great diversity I have experienced from different generations at home and ethnicities in school, I have come to appreciate, and often enjoy, almost all types of music.
Of course, I enjoy certain genres and styles of music more than others, and what music I listen to greatly depends on what I am doing and how I feel. For me, the best music is the kind a person can lose himself in. When listening, life’s worries and hardships melt away as the musician pours out his soul.
At that level of musicianship, I experience a sense of tranquility and satisfaction that cannot be satisfied by any other means. For me, the music that lets me experience this peace is Hard Bop jazz.
Though it may seem strange at first to attribute such a surreal state of being with a little known, niche sub-genre of a dying music, Hard Bop has distinct features that make it different from other styles of jazz and music. Coined in the 1950s, Hard Bop is distinguishable from other forms of jazz by its focus on improvisation, emphasis on piano and saxophone, and roots in gospel.
Perhaps the most significant distinction of Hard Bop from other forms of jazz is the performing ensemble’s size. While a big band has over ten musicians, a Hard Bop ensemble typically consists of five or less musicians. A piece typically consists of a lead sheet (a written melody with key changes) and improvisation (musicians spontaneously composing music as they play). Because of this, Hard Bop in known for its conversational and intimate sound. Just like speaking another language, improv is spontaneous expression through sound and is best learned through practice, listening, and immersion. This is one of the many reasons why I love Hard Bop as much as I do. While listening, I can hear the musicians conversing with each other and expressing great emotion. When I focus in on the music, I can understand what they are saying just as if they were speaking English. As I zone in on the notes coming out of the performer’s instrument, I am brought through a musical journey. Like Shakespeare, a complex story is being told that demands the audience’s full attention, for only at the end of the story is there resolution and fulfilment. Only in Hard Bop is this level of musical storytelling achieved, which is one of the many reasons why it is my favorite type of music.
Another one of my favorite aspects of this expression of jazz is its album art and legendary recording techniques. In the world of recording studios during the vinyl era, one of the most recognized was Blue Note Records. Blue Note was the premiere studio when it came to Hard Bop, recording legendary albums from legendary musicians like John Coltrane, Herbie Hancock, Art Blakey, Thelonious Monk, Horace Silver, Sonny Rollins – the list goes on and on. Blue Note also had three aces up its sleeve: recording engineer Rudy Van Gelder, photographer Francis Wolff, and cover designer Reid Miles. Van Gelder’s trademark style was recording the airiness of the musician’s instruments, further intensifying Hard Bop’s intimate feel. When listening to a chart recorded by Van Gelder such as Joe Henderson’s Inner Urge, it feels like I’m almost there in the studio sitting right next to the legendary saxophonist. It’s as if I have travelled back 50 years to 1966 and I get to witness him play in person. Van Gelder also employs exaggerated stereo where certain instruments are isolated to one channel, especially during a solo, so that the music being played sounds more conversational.
In order for an album to sell well, it must be appealing both audially and visually. Van Gelder and the legendary artists he records fulfill the audial aspect, but Blue Note had to make the covers of their vinyl stand out from the rest in order to attract new customers and keep an edge on competitors. This was the job of Wolff and Miles. Wolff would be at all the recording sessions capturing photos of the musicians while they played and conversed. Wolff was able to capture the essence of the artist and their raw emotion while they played, and would pick a negative that would normally be overlooked and send it to Reid Miles. These images would capture the attention of the customer by their unconventionality and originality. From there, Miles would crop the photo and find a way to incorporate it with his graphic design, whether the photo cover the entire album face or be the dot on an “i”. Miles’ album covers were well known for their use of vibrant color, thoughtful placement of text, shapes, patterns, and other visual methods that were guaranteed to catch a person’s eye. All of these innovative people and their techniques helped launch Blue Note, its artists, and Hard Bop as a whole into relevance and fame in American culture.
Though Hard Bop may be my favorite form of music, there are dozens of other styles, both domestic and foreign I enjoy and appreciate, each with their own set of qualities that makes them great and relevant to their cultures. Prior to this course, I had exposure to several very distinct and unique world musics, especially those of Latin America, Europe, and Native America. Because of my Hispanic heritage and upbringing in Texas, I have grown up hearing music from Latin America. From mariachi to samba to tango to Latin jazz to salsa, I’ve heard it all. One of my favorite parts of Latin American music is its roots in African, Native, and European music. The complex rhythm in many Latin genres originates from the music African slaves would sing while working in sugar, cacao, coffee, and fruit plantations. Native American influences in Latin American music include instruments such as the siku, kena, pinkillu, tarka, and wankara. While these instruments were more popular pre-19th century, they are still seen in Latin music today, both commercial and traditional. European instruments like trumpet, guitar, and violin paired with European music theory help give Latin music its trademark sound. These influences help make Latin American music some of the most energetic, lively, and festive music in the world. That part of the world is known for dance, which would not be the same without its music to support it.
Because of my family’s rich musical background, I have also been exposed to European music most of my life. The majority of this has been classical music throughout all its periods, but I have also had exposure to folk music, especially English and German. My father’s side is English and German, and while I have not been to either country, I’ve been able to go to Oktoberfest and renaissance fairs and see some of what traditional European music is like. I enjoy the energy and intimacy of the music. The ensembles are small, so each member must be be proficient at their instrument, and it involves them embellishing the music they play, giving it personality and character. Moreover, I love how people sing along to the tunes and embrace each other as if they are family.
I have been a Boy Scout since elementary school and stayed involved until I earned the rank of Eagle. Through all of those years in scouts, I had the opportunity to participate in many ceremonies which are rooted in Native tradition. We did not participate in pow-wows or plains-style music, but in our Order of the Arrow ceremonies, fellow scouts would tell Native Indian legends, dress in traditional leather clothing, and most significantly, play straight beats on a bass drum through ceremony and play an American Indian flute. I know this is not a very accurate representation of Native culture, but the environment created with these instruments was very unique and was an incredible thing to experience. Because of these ceremonies, I used to go online and watch many videos and TV programs showing what real Native American music and culture is like. I really like the sense of community and spirituality that one feels while watching or participating in a Native tradition. Furthermore, the unity and intimidation that Native music can create is very incredible to me. Native music is some of the most thoughtful, inspiring, intimidating, and spiritual music in the world because of these factors, and being able to experience even a little of it has been an awesome opportunity.
Every culture’s music has unique sounds, traditions, notes, and instruments, but one thing they all have in common is the ability to bring people together. Whether it be a dance, concert, bar performance, call to prayer, or religious tradition, music brings people together. Because of this, it has the power to impact and inspire in a way nothing else can. Music is accessible to all whether it be through playing, singing, writing, or listening. Each culture’s developed style is the best for its people, and while outsiders may not understand a culture’s music, they can appreciate and respect its power.
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