Jazz: It’s All That

Blitz Magazine, May 2003

Festival: n Time of festive celebration; merry-making; [periodic] series of performances.

jazz1Jazz: n Syncopated dance music, of US Negro origin, with characteristic harmony and rag-time rhythm; (slang) pretentious talk; ~ adj Discordant, loud or fantastic in colour ~ v Dance to, play, jazz; arrange (music) as jazz; arrange (pattern) in vivid or grotesque form; brighten, liven, up.

In this day and age, it’s hard to believe that our society’s cultural deep-freeze was such that jazz was something that could be enjoyed only behind closed doors. You had to be a grown-up, you had to be of a certain race or class, or you had to be slumming.

In fact, the first proper jazz festival didn’t take place until 1954. That was the famed Newport Jazz Festival, which has presented Louis Armstrong, Dave Brubeck and Billie Holiday, among many others, and has stirred a lot of controversy: riots in 1960, 1971 and 1972 caused the festival to move to New York; it didn’t return to Newport until 1991.

Luckily, the Newport idea caught on and, with the help of Newport Fest founder George Wein, festivals were initiated in London, Paris, Rome and Berlin. Today, there are jazz festivals all over the world—from Turkey to Australia to India. Each year, tiny Italian villages burst with festival visitors; the concept is huge in Japan. Canadians, of course, are always up for anything and the country now hosts some of the world’s top jazz festivals, most notably in Montreal and Vancouver.

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The Vancouver festival consistently presents one of the most culturally-diverse music celebrations in the world, gracing the city with what the Vancouver Sun has called “Ten Days of Heaven”.

All day, every day, inside and outside, jazz of all styles is presented at 40 venues, by 1700 musicians doing 400 shows, many of which are free. With 2002 attendance of 430,000, it is the largest cultural event in western Canada and one of the biggest musical events in the nation.

Festival co-founder John Orysik calls this festival—any jazz festival—‘a cultural lubricant’.

“The jazz festival engages people. It brings music to a large group of people in a short span of time, and it brings the music to everyone—people of all ages, races, socio-economic levels. It allows music to be introduced, and marketed, strategically and effectively, in the biggest context, and it has an event cachet that you don’t get with a one-off concert.”

Orysik explains what it is that makes jazz so popular in every corner of the globe. “It’s the spirit, the energy, the freedom. The music is…everything.”

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The Divine Comedy: Buster Keaton & Francisco Goya

English: Film comedian Buster Keaton has his f...

English: Film comedian Buster Keaton has his foot caught in the frog adjacent to Western Ave., on the Calico and Ghost Town Railroad at Knott’s Berry Farm, Buena Park in 1956. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

English: Photograph of Buster Keaton seated. B...

English: Photograph of Buster Keaton seated. Buster Keaton, full-length portrait, seated, in costume (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Or, What Could These Guys Possibly Have in Common?

Spanish artist Francisco Goya (1746-1828) is noted for work that captured the horrors of war and, in its articulation of humour and tragedy, work that had an enormous impact on modern consciousness. He also satirized the folly of Spanish society, using double meanings to shed light on social hierarchies, royal personalities, relationships between the sexes, and a continued belief in superstition despite the rise of rational thought that dawned with the Enlightenment.

American filmmaker Buster Keaton (1895-1966) is famed as one of history’s great comics, enjoying a successful 60-year show business career. Keaton employed physical comedy to reveal a modern world that is unstable and ruled by the rhythms of the machine age. In his films (One Week, Cops, Sherlock J., The General) chaos and calamity reigned, with ordinary people moving from one disaster to the next, defying the laws of physics and surviving unscathed.

South African artist William Kentridge (1955- ) has earned an international reputation for his exceptional animated films, prints and sculptures. Often depicting a world in chaos, his work employs subtle humour and personal gesture to reflect on the psychic landscape of post-apartheid South Africa. In his animated short films, we see real life becoming tragically absurd.

goyaThe common denominator between these artists is found in The Divine Comedy, an exhibition that the Art Gallery of Gallery of Western Australia organized to explore the relationship between comedy and violence, laughter and tears. Through the work of these artists, we can see the shifting relationship between aesthetics, politics and humour.

The Third of May 1808 by Francisco Goya, showi...

The Third of May 1808 by Francisco Goya, showing Spanish resisters being executed by Napoleon’s troops. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Through a range of images from 18th century etchings to contemporary video, the exhibition weaves together the work of three artists who lived through times of extraordinary social change, when forces of modernization obliterated stale old ways and left artists grappling with the loss of social and moral certainties. It provides a timely look at how black comedy, absurdity and satire are used to express our relationship in a tumultuous world.

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Blitz Magazine, January 2004