Nostalgia in Jazz Music

American Jazz artist Mose Allison once said "The essentials of Jazz are: melodic improvisation, melodic invention, swing & instrumental personality." This is evident from the beginnings of jazz and continues to be true today. The topic of nostalgia in jazz music is an interesting one as jazz has evolved so much throughout the years while maintaining an unmistakable bond to its 20th century roots. Most jazz artists are inspired by others and heavily incorporate their style into their own albums. Modern jazz has evolved to the same extent as it has remained the same. While aspects such as instrumentation and orchestration have changed throughout the years, other aspects such as the fundamentals of rhythm, groove, and chord structures have remained the same. Furthermore, the impact that historical jazz legends have had on modern day players is extensive. All of this has provided modern jazz with its deep connection to its 20th century African American roots.

Jazz music, originating in New Orleans in the early 1900s, has deep roots in African American culture. Its music has been derived from a combination of “voices, cultures, stories, and histories” that date back to slavery days (Grandt 18). Originating from Africa and coming to the United States when Africans were enslaved, the music from which jazz has evolved has been around for a long time. When they worked in the fields, enslaved African Americans treated music as a form of self-expression. The music, which provided hope for the slaves, was passed down from generation to generation and brought them closer together, developing a sense of unity. The songs continued to provide hope and unity for African Americans during the Jim Crow times, even after they were freed from slavery. The songs were sung to help the community connect, cope, and to escape their suffering through a positive outlet. This form of music was commonly performed in segregated black churches as well, enduring time and remaining to be a source of faith and progression.

Jazz music is filled with odes to the past and utilizes both reflective and restorative nostalgia and they are present throughout years of music. Reflective nostalgia is a desire for or remembering of the past, whereas restorative nostalgia is a longing to recreate the past. Reflective nostalgia in the music is when the performer or listener can connect the piece to other sources of inspiration or other artists and composers. Restorative nostalgia is depicted in the artist’s decision to choose which song to perform and improvise upon.

Jazz artists all draw inspiration from each other and their idols from the past. In his interview with Keyboard, renowned fifteen-year-old jazz pianist, Joey Alexander, is asked about the many artists who influenced his style and what each of them more specifically contribute to his playing. While discussing the multitude of artists who have inspired and taught him, it is noted that his 2015 album, My Favorite Things, was modeled after famous jazz saxophone player, John Coltrane’s recording. In addition to My Favorite Things, Alexander also covered Giant Steps, Countdown, and Lush Life, among several others, originally recorded by Coltrane. Coltrane, in turn, based his version of My Favorite Things off of the original one by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II. Coltrane’s adaptation “significantly altered its chord progression and tempo, making the song his own virtuoso piece” (Chilton). The Rodgers and Hammerstein waltz version was popularized by the musical The Sound of Music, as it was prominently featured and sung by Julie Andrews (Chilton). Because both Coltrane and Alexander, although several generations apart, were and are jazz artists as well as played completely different instruments, their takes on each piece differ vastly. One of the main elements of jazz is improvisation, which is clearly evident when listening to each piece, as the only similarities lie in the fact that they were based upon the same song which can still be heard despite the variances in them.

The nostalgia found in jazz music is not necessarily always derived from and inspired by previous jazz artists, but potentially from other genres. Coltrane, for example, based his rendition of My Favorite Things off of the original by  Rodgers and Hammerstein, which was more of a classical waltz type piece, but by giving it another personality from his perspective and altering the orchestration, his version was a jazz take. Additionally, Joey Alexander recorded Over the Rainbow, a jazz edition of Israel Kamakawiwo'Ole’s Hawaiian pop song Somewhere Over the Rainbow. Having the ability and freedom to rearrange an already well-known song results in nostalgic context. The reason an artist records their own version of a song is simply because they like it and have nostalgia for it which also causes the listener to feel nostalgic and remember the previous versions.

Another important aspect of jazz is that it is one of the few genres in which it is common to hear an artist play another artist’s song. Jazz standards are a general outline of the chords and melody of a tune (the rest to be decided by the musicians) that are significant parts of jazz musicians’ repertoire and are well known by both performers and listeners alike. Because jazz has this large set of standards, it is easy for one to connect pieces with multiple artists, thereby evoking nostalgia. An interesting point is that jazz music can be considered both reflective and restorative nostalgia. The reflective aspect dwells on the fact that with each piece, one can remember the inspiration and the artist behind it. Pertaining to restorative nostalgia, each new recording of the song, adapted and changed drastically by the performer, fills in new spots. There can be a new group of notes, a different set of notes entirely, or a lack of notes where things were completely unalike in every other version of a song. In this case, a new song is being built, or patched up, over an old one.

Jazz is a genre that is essentially the epitome of nostalgia as it is based on history. The foundations of it lie in a lilting rhythm, groovy swing, intricate chord progressions, and the technique of improvisation which "can be thought of as a series of decisions to be made in real time" (Onsman, Burke viii). In the subgenre free jazz, improvisation is even more significant, because the decisions are ones that the performers must make in relation to each other and the music. There are guidelines which the composer wants the performer to follow yet leave room for flexibility. A important aspect of jazz is tradition, as it has its roots, but part of jazz is breaking the rules as well, which makes the genre all the more complex. According to Onsman and Burke, there are a loose set of defining characteristics of jazz, which consist of the rejection of "harmony and form structures" and "regular tempos, pulse, predetermined phrasing and meter", the use of "overtones, microtones, multi-phonic and clustered tones", the "abandonment of the assumption that the roles of the musicians and structures of the music are fixed", and a "preference for in-the-moment improvisation and experimentation" (10). It is in this respect that jazz has held an unmistakable connection to its historical roots, through its foundation in improvisation, rhythm, and feel.

Jazz evokes nostalgia in performers as well as listeners. Artists are strongly inspired by other artists, especially from the 20th century and their audience can hear and see this in their music and compositions. With such a rich cultural history, jazz composers and performers have a lot to draw from, and despite potentially playing the same music from hundreds of years ago, continue to improvise and put their own twist on it even today. To artists, the presence of other artists is obvious, and they can clearly hear their influence, which induces nostalgia and remembrance. Additionally, they incorporate other artists with the intent of creating nostalgia, and as a nod to the past, or perhaps a tribute to the greats. Listeners can also hear the influence and this leads them to reminisce about prior artists and remember their music in what might be a new form. Artists of other genres, such as popular music and rock, will talk about their inspirations and such, but it is not nearly as evident in their music who they model themselves after. In jazz, it is much more prominent, and one will be able to notice even the subtle similarities in chord structure and melodic shaping. This contributes that much more to the effect of nostalgia in jazz, as throw-backs to historical legends of jazz are not merely mentioned, but eminently present in the music created.

The genre of jazz has taken many different paths since its origination, however, the basic essence of it remains the same – it is built on rhythm, groove, chord structures, and improvisation. While new music is constantly being composed, old music is still being listened to, played, and is built upon nostalgically. Utilizing both restorative, as well as reflective nostalgia, jazz is the musical essence of nostalgia. It is apparent, when listening to one’s music, which of the greats are present in and have shaped their style. Moreover, each jazz artist’s foundation is comprised of a unique variety of the influences of other artists, continuing their legacies while still contributing to the progression of jazz music.

Nostalgia in Jazz Music