Tunes with Thomas: Jazz

As engaging and influential as it is intricate, jazz is the coolest

Thomas DeLapp

More stories from Thomas DeLapp

The Eau Claire Jazz Festival will be back in town April 22-23, so to celebrate the return of this Eau Claire classic this week, we are talking about jazz.

I’ve always been listening to some sort of jazz, my parents and older sister would play it around me as a child, so I grew up listening to the swanky vibes of big band.  

When I came to high school, I immediately joined the jazz program and got really, really into it. It was my favorite genre for playing and listening, and I learned a lot about the genre from my mentors.  

A brief disclaimer: I haven’t played trombone seriously since high school graduation, and though I loved jazz and performing it, I will not come close to claiming the expertise that many of the awesome members of UW-Eau Claire’s jazz program hold.  Y’all rock. 

Jazz is a hard genre to try to get into, because, let’s face it, most people think it’s lame.  Jazz can be lame, I will admit. If you hear jazz and think about Kenny G (one of my high school instructors had a swear jar for people who said his name), then you’re right: jazz is lame. 

But we don’t listen to Kenny G (that’s a dollar in the swear jar), we listen to cool, fun, spicy jazz.  With the exception of You-Know-Who, jazz musicians are among the most talented musicians of them all, and make incredibly creative, complex and moving music.  

There’s a ton of subgenres to jazz, too many for me to get into, so you’ll have to look those up on your own. I’ll highlight some of my favorite artists, tunes and how to start your jazz listening journey.

Why jazz? Jazz is cultural, a genre created by black communities in New Orleans in the early 20th century.  The role of race in jazz, as with everything, is complicated, but jazz was born as black music.  White musicians, of course, appropriated it in the 20s and 30s, but turned out some good tunes.

Eventually, everything melded together and jazz, though complicated by racism, is uniquely American.  Filmmaker Ken Burns directed a documentary on jazz, and succinctly described the genre’s importance:

“The only art form that Americans have created that’s recognized around the world is jazz music born in a community that had the peculiar experience of being unfree in a free land,” Burns said.  

I encourage you to learn more about the history of jazz and the minoritized black artists that built it.  But let’s get to the tunes.

My all time favorite jazz artist is Count Basie, a pianist and bandleader who just swung like no other.  He did many collaborations with Frank Sinatra, and recorded the incredible live album “Sinatra At The Sands” in 1966.

Basie’s masterpiece, “Chairman of the Board,” is a rip-roaring, energetic and fun album that features classic Basie horn sections: loud, swinging and unified.  Count Basie’s band is so tight, you can hardly hear individual instruments when they play, just a singular pipe-organ sound that knocks your hat off.

Another of my favorite bandleaders is Charles Mingus, a bassist and composer that went pretty wild with his tunes.  These are long and loud, sprawling, epic pieces that have some of the gosh darn coolest solos. Listen to “Boogie Stop Shuffle,” “Moanin” and “Haitian Fight Song.”

Bop, a subgenre, developed many cool artists that do truly astounding work with improvisation.  Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Dizzy Gillespie are in this mix, and are essentials.  These artists are often labeled as “boring”, but they aren’t, trust me.  

My final recommendation, because this is getting way too long, is for Kamasi Washington, a modern saxophonist.

Loyal Tunes with Thomas readers will already be familiar with Washington, I wrote a whole piece just for him.  Kamasi Washington is the coolest, the bee’s knees, and you have to listen to him. 

It’s basic, but you also have to watch the film “Whiplash,” if only to get excited about how cool jazz can be and also how not to be a teacher.  

As with many genres, listening to jazz live will really help and deepen your appreciation for the intricacies and dopeness of the genre. So listen live.  Eau Claire has a pretty active jazz scene, get out there, get listening and I’ll see y’all at the Jazz Festival this weekend. 

DeLapp can be reached at [email protected]