When you think of jazz music, Louis Armstrong is probably one of the first names that come to mind, and not because he stands among the genre’s best musicians, but because he was a crowd pleaser, a real people person. His song ”What a Wonderful World” is still considered to be one of the greatest songs ever written and sung.
In fact, jazz music was always for those who appreciated it, not just for the spotlight, glitz and glamour. As Armstrong once said, “Hot can be cool, and cool can be hot, and each can be both. But hot or cool, man, jazz is jazz.”
It’s amazing to see a genre that was so immensely influential in the 1900’s up until even the early 20th century dwindle into an almost underappreciated form of music in today’s mainstream music society.
Back then, all you heard about was jazz and classical music. In Queens, NY alone, nearly 100 of the most famous jazz musicians of all time resided, from Armstrong himself to Ella Fitzgerald, John Coltrane, Count Basie and Billie Holiday. Now it’s evolved in such a way that it really only survives in the mainstream as a partial influence for some of today’s biggest acts, or unless you seek it out at one of the few remaining jazz night clubs or a larger venue like New York’s Jazz at Lincoln Center. You do, however, probably hear it almost every day when you’re on hold on a call, or in an elevator.
With production always playing a major part in solidifying the perfect jazz recording since its earliest days, we must give credit to the studio for helping to keep such a talented and influential genre alive and kicking, and expanding. It’s become so broad of a genre, with many sub-genres, that it’s extremely hard to define.
African-American communities in the early 1900s were the source of the genre’s formation, with black musicians experimenting with ragtime, improvisation, syncopation and polyrhythms. It was essentially a fusion of traditional African slave songs and European classical music. The significance of African music again shines through, as it does in most genres today.
New Orleans was the earliest and continues to be the central hub of jazz music and prior to the foundation of jazz, traditional African dances accompanied by drums were organized within the city. African hymns, which were often heard in the church setting, were also largely responsible for the soul quality of jazz vocals. The same was for blues music, which originated around the same time as jazz.
As African-American musicians began to pick up European instruments like the violin and the Caribbean islands began to influence the genre’s roots, the basic rhythmic foundations of jazz had planted themselves.
The Structure of Jazz and Harnessing the Sound
Jazz music, like many other classic genres, is very basic at its foundation. When it first emerged, jazz used a 3-note music structure known as Tresillo, which was the basis of some of the earliest jazz compositions. There has always been significant use of the call-and-response technique, which really accounts for the life and personality of a majority of jazz tracks. It’s usually where one musician will play a distinct phrase, followed by the second musician’s phrased response. It can also mean verse and chorus, however.
Improvisation has also always been hugely responsible for separating jazz from most classical forms of music. It’s where a musician will go off on a tangent at a certain point during their performance of a song, and fabricate his or her own verse based on what they’re feeling at that very moment. It’s one of the most creative techniques, even used today by jam bands, and it can run anywhere from under a minute to sometimes close to a half hour long!
With such a focus on the raw talent of jazz musicians and the very basic instrumentation used, we must rely heavily on the studio to get us to that finished product, including the repair of low-fi live recordings and the use of creative mixing strategies.
Of course, jazz’ history is inseparable from some of the engineers and producers who dedicated their lives to recording it, such as the legendary Rudy Van Gelder. A 50+ year career saw him capture several thousand jazz sessions in his New Jersey studio for the heavyweights of the genre, including Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Sonny Rollins, Joe Henderson, Grant Green, Wayne Shorter, and John Coltrane, among others.
We asked Steve Wall, jazz producer, (Gretchen Parlato, Mark Guilana) what his take is on harnessing that perfect jazz sound. Steve says, “When it comes to jazz music, the listener is uniquely focused on the humanity, rather than production of the song; the personal interpretations that musicians have brought to the melody, harmony, and improvisation. We get our rush by hearing people be authentically ‘present’ with their instruments, and each other.
“From an engineering perspective, my approach when it comes to jazz music is simple,” Wall continues. “Firstly, I fix problems with the recording, often ‘rescuing’ live recordings done with a venue’s gear, who’s first priority is rightfully the PA. This is usually where I am often most creative. Tools will include EQ, multiple de-essers, multi-band compression, duplicating tracks and processing them differently, stereo-izing certain tracks, re-amping DI signals, noise-reduction plugins, sample-nudging for phase alignment, making applause sound natural even if it wasn’t recorded — steal those clean claps that bled into the overheads! cut/paste! pitch shift and make more! — cutting out individual drum hits from overhead mics to potentially sample-replace them, especially if they weren’t close-mic’d to begin with, and obviously cleaning out bad-bleed. All of this ‘rescue’ step is essential in my opinion to avoid distracting the listener.”
The next phase for Wall is more “traditional mixing.” “For example,” he says, “keeping the track compression in check, often layering them subtly, so it always sounds reasonably natural, yet controlled. Making sure solos speak, etc. Notably, I find one of the biggest contributors to overall sonic character, once the tracks are speaking well and separated, can be the reverb choice, often convolution reverb and plate. Listening is key.