Magnolia Jazz

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What is Jazz?

Thanks in advance for reading this article. I appreciate your interest and hope you get a few good ideas. I'd love to hear what you liked. Please write me a little COMMENT below. Start a conversation. Tell me what you think, and I'll reply. Promise.

What is Jazz?  I’ve heard this question hundreds of times.  You too?

Like many questions, “What is Jazz” is easy to ask but impossible to answer.

But I believe playing jazz is very similar to something familiar you do all day long, every day.  Everyone can relate to this:

Having a conversation.

And ultimately this is what makes jazz the perfect choice for party music and wedding music.


Jazz is a constantly evolving style of music performance, born of wonder, excitement, and surprise.  (Whitney Balliett , one of my favorite writers about jazz, called jazz the “sound of surprise”.)  Tomorrow’s developments in jazz music will defy today’s definitions.

But for me, it’s particularly significant that jazz has always served a social function: to entertain people.  It’s performance has always been person-to-person.  A communal enterprise.

Magnolia Jazz Band in Cupertino 2011Whenever my band plays, we always engage in a little musical conversation, to produce music that will please the people we’re playing for. We create the appropriate mood with familiar songs that suit the occasion.

This is what makes jazz music the perfect choice for nearly every celebration — especially a wedding or a party.

For example, here is part of the Magnolia Jazz Band entertaining people at a recent 4th of July picnic.  In lively Dixieland attire.  It’s usually jacket and tie or formal tuxedos for us, but not that day.  Is this a conversation or what?

Magnolia Jazz Band in Cupertino 2011By the way, while Andy and I were holding forth in the sextet above, Gary was lead the trio at another huge 4th of July picnic in a nearby schoolyard.  Thank you for sending these wonderful photos, Mark Sin.

I recently described a few observations about Learning Traditional Jazz, and a friend asked “Isn’t jazz by it’s creation improvisational in it’s core? So learning means finding that creative energy and ability to flow?”.

My long reply began, “Good question!  Sorry I’m so wordy, but this is one of my hot buttons.”

Meaning that for years I’ve been really concerned about What is jazz, How do you play jazz, and How do you learn to play jazz?

Now let me elaborate on the rest of my lengthy reply.

Yes, I think jazz is improvisational, the same way a conversation is improvisational.  In a conversation, we speak back-and-forth among ourselves.  We don’t simply take turns reciting our pre-set lines.  What we say flows from the context and elaborates what others are saying.

The same way that thoughtfully responding is the heart of a conversation among friends, it’s the heart of the musical conversation among jazz musicians.

Whatever jazz is nowadays, I believe the original spirit of jazz music lies in the comfortable “give-and-take” among the “voices”.  Even if there might be only one instrument playing.

And I believe the original spirit was to play music to make people happy.  Music that’s easy for people to engage with.  Music to create an atmosphere to help people at whatever they’re doing, and make them feel good.

These are the two qualities of jazz music that I admire the most.

It’s just my own opinion, and some virtuoso musicians may disagree.  But to my ear, their music sounds lonely and shallow, like only one side of a conversation.  Like the discomfort you feel, wondering what you’re missing when you eavesdrop on half of an interesting telephone call.

Perhaps I prefer my music too simple, but I think the flash of technical brilliance often hinders jazz music.  Please don’t misunderstand, I love listening to a display of amazing technique.  However, for some, that’s what jazz is all about, and the more speed and dexterity the better.

But for me, all that flash interferes with expressing the heart of what I call jazz music.  For me the fewer busy distractions the better, especially if they side-track the musical conversation.  I prefer the technique to serve the purpose, rather than vice versa.

Don’t get me wrong.  People can enjoy perfectly fine conversations in English, Chinese, Russian, and all the rest.  Loud or soft, fast or slow.  Republicans, Democrats, or whatever.  Like they say, it’s all good.

Similarly, some jazz musicians can disregard the conversation and take turns playing with all the virtuoso technique they can muster, for their own astonishment and the amazement of their audiences.  God bless them, but for me that’s not where it’s at.

Practically anything can be called jazz these days, and many reasonable people prefer different manners of playing.  My preference isn’t everyone’s, but we’re all playing jazz.

Of course, this is just my opinion, and the next fellow is likely to feel differently.  Where I’m coming from tells you where I’ve been, what I’m doing, and probably where I’m going.

So in my mind, LEARNING to play jazz means keeping it simple and focusing on the musical conversation.  Most of the time we play all together, and there’s plenty of beautiful, rich complexity in the ensemble.

What else about playing jazz?  Keep it EXPRESSIVE, as in poetry — modest and not self-conscious or pretentious.  Learn to LISTEN to the other musicians, learn to REPLY to acknowledge and support their voices, and learn to HEAR our collective music, being mindful of it’s shape, energy, and (especially) the mood it conveys to the people we’re playing for.

Well, that’s my opinion, and I’m sticking with it.  Sorry, I still don’t understand what “finding that creative energy and ability to flow” means.  I’m sure it’s important somehow, but it’s a little too touchy-feely and groovy for my poor brain.  If it means to look within yourself, I suggest instead to focus more on the musical conversation.

For me, playing jazz music is like having a conversation.  And this engaging quality makes it a perfect choice for wedding music or party music.


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Thanks for reading this article. I appreciate your interest and hope you get a few good ideas here. Got one or two? I'd love to hear what you liked. Please write me a little COMMENT below. Start a conversation -- I'll reply. Promise.

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Meanwhile, the Magnolia Jazz Band entertains at weddings and parties throughout the San Francisco Bay Area. If you are ever nearby, you’ll love catching us in action, seeing and hearing us create a great mood.

How can I help you? Call 408-245-9120 or use Planning a celebration? Ask about our availability.

Posted by on July 15, 2011.

Categories: Marketing My Band, Planning Party Music

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