THE DO’S AND DON’TS OF JAZZ
Don’t know your blues from your bebop? GQ meets the Grammy award-winning jazz vocalist Gregory Porter to learn about jazz gig etiquette and the genre’s defining artists. The kings of jazz knew how to make it up on the spot, according to American vocalist and songwriter Gregory Porter. Scatting, for example, actually started when Louis Armstrong forgot his lyrics and started singing “Do be do be do” to fill in. Hopefully then, the jazz legends of old will forgive us for asking Gregory Porter to tell us how to bluff your way through such a vast, knotty subject.
Do expect jazz to be free
“What makes jazz different is that you can’t predict it, it’s all about freedom. Just when you think you know what you’re going to hear there’ll be a left turn, a jazz musician will change it up.
Even if you’ve being playing together for years, there’ll always be something new. You’re constantly back phrasing, front phrasing, singing faster, singing slower. You’ll change the rhythm, change the tune, change it to 3-4. There’s just an endless amount of ways that you can constantly change and improvise.”
Don’t assume you don’t like jazz
“Whether you like punk, grunge, or early rock and roll, there’s probably something in there you’ve been living with your whole life and you didn’t even know it was jazz. Lose your assumptions. You wouldn’t judge all classical music based on one Wagner tune that you heard. The umbrella of jazz is so big and so wide . If you don’t like saxophone, try a vocalist, if you don’t like vocalists, try guitar.”
Do go to see jazz live
“You’ve got to find jazz live – because of the spontaneity, you never know what’s going to happen. When it works it’s genius. It may never happen in the course of a night but sometimes you can come out of a jazz gig and be, like, ‘bam, what just happened?!’ In the UK I’d recommend going to Ronnie Scots.” [GQ recommends Nightjar.]
Don’t think of jazz in the past tense
“Something I enjoy about my career is that there will be a nine-year-old and an eighty-nine-year old at my concerts. That’s dope to me. I got the mumma, the grandmother and the daughter.
Don’t assume that jazz is the music of your grandfather or even your father. It’s a living music, it’s not this thing that sits on a shelf and gets dusty. As years pass you take the spirit and energy of that time and that gets put it into and changes the music.”
Do clap (but only when you’re supposed to)
“The number one no-no in jazz is clapping or clicking on the one and the three beat. It ruins the swing! If you click on those beats do you know what you get? A children’s song. If you’re going to snap your fingers, always do it on the two and four – that’s where it’s suppose to be. The other thing is clapping before the solo is over. Of course, if you feel some joy, you can clap anywhere, jazz is a music that comes out of expression. But, if you clap too early people might think you’re tired of the solo, so it’s generally better to wait.”
Do use the lingo
“If a track’s got a good beat a real jazz man would say ‘mmm, that’s funky!’ (you’ve got to say the ‘mmmm’). If something’s got really good brass, when a trumpet player is really in a place, you say ‘he’s singin’. It goes back to the voice. And generally, you could always just say ‘that’s killing’ – you can use that about any instrument, ‘he’s killing on his instrument. That’s bad, he destroyed his instrument. He f***** those drums up! Church ladies don’t read GQ otherwise I wouldn’t put that in.”
A condensed history of jazz, courtesy of Gregory Porter the voice
“For me as a singer, I think you have to start in terms of the voice, with Louis Armstrong and Billie Holliday in the Thirties (although Armstrong had been playing the trumpet for decades before that). To bluff your way through a conversation about early jazz, you can always bring it back to how the most impressive thing about Louis Armstrong was his speaking voice. He had an incredible speaking voice, an incredible singing voice, and incredible playing voice.”
“You will know you are listening to big band because it is just this massive sound, this loud group of 18 or 25 player just doing all they can musically to support this voice. All of these elements create a pillow, a palette, a bed for the voice to float on top of.
That’s an extraordinary thing. If you want to get into big band Ella Fitzgerald backed up by the Chick Webb orchestra, is one of the greats. Fitzgerald is one of the quintessential voices of jazz.”
“You can recognise bebop by its rapid succession of notes.
Charlie Parker was the master and the foundation of bebop. He’s bebop personified. It’s less about being lyrical than what came before where the soloist would oftentimes consider the voice, try and compliment the voice, sticking closely to the melody of the song. Once Charlie Parker came in he was breaking down the chords of any particular chord that was being played, flipping a chord upside down, inverting it and doing all kinds of amazing things.
Bebop really expanded jazz in the way it takes music apart and puts it back together.”
Sixties onwards: experimental modern jazz
“You’ve got to start with Miles Davis. Miles was the leader. The hip thing about Miles was that he was in the big band era, the bebop era, but then he kept changing. So his fusion was ahead of his time. What came out after was free and experimental. That’s what I think jazz is now. When people say something is jazzy it almost means that it has that different angle, a freedom, and individualism not present in other genres.”
Jazz the influencer
“Jazz has fed into all sorts of modern genres from pop to hip-hop. Sting has been a genius in adding jazz and jazz musicians into his band. And he’s had top musicians from great bassist Ira Coleman to Branford Marsalis in his band. Motown was also genius in taking the skills of jazz musicians and using them in a more palatable way. You should always listen out for the ripples in music that have been influenced by jazz.”