Leita Hutchings studies the unique vernacular that evolved from the art of Jazz
Ever noticed how jazz has its own vernacular? Bebop, liquorice stick, layin’ down the clams, cool? Ever wondered why Nina Simone wanted ‘sugar‘ in her bowl, or where Beyoncé got the idea that ‘you gotta work your jelly’?
Why do jazz musicians speak a different lingo? What’s the fascination with the play of words, so infused in the genre? For sure, it’s shaped with a pidgin shorthand from the early merging of African and English languages; but it’s the quick wittedness of it all, that ability to invent and reply on the spot, an improvisation, that modelled vocabulary. That colloquial brilliance was adopted by jazz musicians regardless of ethnicity or colour, and created a unique platform for respect to generate between musicians.
The product was so damn cool, it was reflected in poetry, writing, art, theatre, culture, and even real estate. The great American model Arabella Chamberlain (cousin of English PM Neville Chamberlain) turned ‘scat’ from a verb into a noun, addressing the band at Moodies saying, “Boys, time to scat!”. Arne Birger, one of the earliest known Danish Jazz musicians, was documented as saying, “Bring that axe baby and let’s jam”. There was a strong merging of attitudes by musicians in Paris; during and after the world wars, and with the post-war settlement of musicians like Bechet in France, the language really took hold in Europe.
According to American publication DownBeat Magazine, ‘In Nazi-occupied France during the war, Jazz and its offshoots became insanely popular.’ Bukowski spoke jazz in his poetry, Kerouac wrote On the Road with jazz flow, and the whole Roger Vadim-Brigette Bardot phenomena happened in the 50s with French New Wave cinema, with our heroines and coquettes dancing or lisping Je t’aime, Je t’aime, tragically, to jazz beats. Remember Miles Davis’ brilliant improvisation to Ascenseur Pour L’Échafaud, with Jeanne Moreau?
Did you know John Coltrane’s 1960 album Giant Steps was the most feared song in jazz, due to its complex chord changes? The album’s name was so evocative, the concept of a ‘Giant Step’ or a ‘Giant Leap’ became rooted in our popular perceptions. Rothko was an artist who aspired to be a jazz musician, and Lakla Hadil, confirmed she painted to Bird’s Bloomdido. The most fly President of the United States, Barack Obama, not only hosted International Jazz Day in the White House, but also sang Sweet Home Chicago onstage with Buddy Green and B. B. King back in 2012. And even the infamous New Orleans Axeman promised not to kill anyone in a home where jazz was playing, way back in 1918.
This fusion of language and jazz inspired Satchmo to assert that ‘If ya ain’t got it in ya, ya can’t blow it out’. Hampton mentioned ‘Let’s steal some apples’ to Powell, and Lady Day commented that Lester was ‘fly’. To ‘dig it’, to ‘get real’, to be ‘cookin’, ‘hot’, or to have ‘some bread’ can all be attributed to the language of jazz. It’s evolved into our common vernacular and continues to evolve. Rap for example, observes its rhythm, its disarming honesty, and fully employs language for street cred.
The bottom line is there’s not really a lot of truth in this article; only half of it is true. But just like jazz, it’s sure been nice improvising with you.