Yes, It's probably a style that hasn't crossed your mind very often. It is seldom heard on the radio, its Grammy's are all but ignored and, yes, it can be a difficult music to understand. It is important to understand where Jazz comes from, to truly appreciate it. Since I see very few fans besides myself, I figured it would be helpful to do a take, not only to promote this entertaining and enlightening music style, but also explain where its roots come from, as people often find it hard to understand, and respect, I think because it is often misrepresented. Though there are many different "schools" of jazz, listeners hear freeform for the first time and decide the entire genre is not for them. So open your ears, minds, and grab a bottle of Chateau Margaux 2000, and enjoy!
*Not to burst your bubbles, but Kenny G and Frank Sinatra do not fit into this genre of music*
Jazz was a style that combined the very popular big-band movements of the early 20th century, and folded the compositions into fake-books around the depression. Fake-books were small snippets and stiffens illegally taken from copyrighted music that big band musicians would use in improvisation. As a band member, you would seek out other musicians who would write licks and phrases from certain music, so that you could memorize them, and be more fluid on your instrument, pulling them from memory and combining them into an orchestration.
Composers of big bands, like the Glenn Miller Orchestra, would write small pieces for the big band, and individual musicians would improvise over them in a solo setting. Benny Goodman was very popular for this style of playing over big bands. In this clip you will notice the complicated twists of different sections of the orchestra. You will also hear that Benny Goodman does not miss a note, but often takes time to consider his next musical innuendo. The concept of silence in Jazz is often more important than the playing itself, taking tasteful breaks and knowing where to place them is extraordinarily subject. Also regard the call and response of the different instrument sections wherein the trombones may blast a phrase, and the alto sax and trumpets repeat the phrase back.
The Harlem renaissance took place in the 1920's where a new brand of musicians were popular pieces from George Gershwin and other American concert artists, playing them in a solo setting as a melody instrument and using their improvisation skills, and themes from African-American soul, and southern folk. This was increasingly popular among the New Orleans crowd, who consider their city, the birthplace of Jazz. If you listen to New Orleans jazz music from this era, you will notice the separation between the orchestration. Instruments in this type of music had their own parts loosely based on the vocal music. It almost sounds like polka, the way the tuba plays the bassline. In this style of music, all of the instruments have their own part, but because of the smaller orchestra setting and fluid bassline, they are free to improvise during the song itself. This further drives the call and response themes, as well as adding more of a feel of looseness to the overall quality. Also regard that the music has a sort of dramatic opus to it, as though it comes from a musical, with the banter between the singers.
The mellow era came along after the great depression. This is the height of jazz in its big band form, lasting from 1935-1944. Count Basie was an amazing orchestrator, and made mellow music popular, passing it down to his pupils, who would later become the heart and soul of Jazz. Notice how mellow jazz still carries the characteristic of show-music, but now has begun to include original compositions, in that messy-improvised sound from the piano, but also has quite a call and response moving line, where lower instruments will say one thing, and then the trumpets will scream back. Notice the long tone-bends especially in the solos where the instruments are starting on one note, and tone-bending lower or higher as the solo, or lick continues.
The mellow era as really the start and development of jazz as a style, and is mostly what we would refer to as jazz. It also, as I had mentioned, brought a lot of new musicians to the forefront, namely the KING of mellow, himself, saxophone player Lester Young, who preferred to play in smaller settings and allow the music to come on a whim, using the power of the pause. Notice in this video how Lester sits leaned-back on the chair, cigarette in his left hand with a pork-pie hat, glazed look in the eye and takes frequent pauses to listen to the baseline move. He then sits back quietly and allows the Trumpet player to respond to what he just said, wherein they play a duet of back and fourths. I would love to have been on the set when this was played live, just to see how relaxed this style actually was. This is an original composition by him. In the second song, regard the syncopated rhythm of the female vocalist as the piano improvises around the chords. The piano here is the main attraction, where the vocalist is treated as another instrument - then that beautiful swelling saxophone solo...
During this era, black musicians like Billie Holiday were given a chance at stardom. From working in a Brothel to working along-side Lester Young, Billie Holiday had vocals that could rail emotion and passion. Her earlier work is part of the mellow era, and Lester was a big influence. She nicknamed him the President or Pres, and he called her Lady Day. She was known to be very charismatic, and very passionate about her career. Like many other Jazz musicians, she struggled with addiction, which changed her vocals later-on making her perfect for Blues. She really felt the bassline, and understood when to hold and sway and how to swing. Regard in this song how Billie's voice fits with Lester's playing in such a dramatic way. Lester opens the song, and then a Trumpet responds, and then an alto sax, most likely played by our next musician. Then the piano, and bass fill in the bassline. Notice the bouncy nature of the chord changes, almost like New Orleans Jazz... Bum Bum Bum Bum Bum - and Lester and Billy almost ride it like a chariot.
But Mellow music was just the beginning of this expanse of jazz. Something happened in 1948 that would change Jazz forever.