Howard Stone: The DNA of Jazz

Genetic ancestry testing is skyrocketing in popularity with more and more people attempting to learn about their genealogy. Recently there was a story in the news about Korean-American identical twin sisters that had been separated for adoption at birth. Thirty three years later they were reunited after their connection was confirmed, when each had their DNA tested by 23andMe. That doesn’t happen very often, but the connection between relatives is being discovered regularly now and it is a common occurrence to discover the identity of second and third cousins through the testing.

Howard Stone.

In a way, the genealogy of jazz has been undergoing similar testing for years, not by geneticists, but instead by musicologists who have been examining various styles of music, trying to locate jazz’s “musical relatives.” At the heart of jazz, I’ll call it its musical DNA, are three distinctive “genes”: African rhythms; the blending of multiple music traditions, and improvisation. Many musicologists have concluded that the festive and exuberant music known as choro (pronounced SHOH-roh), which began evolving around 1870 in Rio de Janeiro, is one such relative. However, it would be decades later when jazz emerged in New Orleans, but both forms of music would share many similarities since they sprang from the same musical DNA. Both were A), built upon a foundation of Afro-centric rhythms, B), nurtured in a cosmopolitan center where there was a meddling of cultures and multiple European musical influences and C), heavily relied upon improvisation.

Not unlike jazz in the U.S., choro was at first played by unschooled musicians from the underclasses and with its earthy roots, was regarded with contempt by the white and wealthy establishment. However, by the decade of the 1920s, choro was the popular music of Brazil, while at the same time in the U.S., the decade was known as the “Jazz Age.” In essence, each music grew from the same musical DNA, but in different locales at different times. Each reflected the changing societies it inhabited, but grew into something new and different. And just as successive generations of jazz musicians have reinterpreted the so-called “standards” over time, so too, have choro players reinterpreted composition from an earlier time.

As a jazz fan, my first exposure to Brazilian music was the bossa nova, the musical DNA of which is traceable to the Brazilian samba and American jazz. A close examination of the samba shows that its musical DNA is traceable to choro. So if you were constructing a musical family tree for Brazil, choro would be the father of the samba and one of the grandparents of bossa nova, with the other grandparent being American jazz. The great grandparent would be the rhythms of Africa.

While jazz and choro share much in common, there are, of course, many differences as well. One significant difference is the prominent use in choro of acoustic stringed instruments (mostly guitars, mandolins and related instruments), with the Brazilian 7-string acoustic guitar often featured. Brass and reed instruments are also featured, but no piano or drum set. Percussion sounds are played on the pandeiro, a Brazilian tambourine. In jazz, the most common guitar played is a 6-string instrument; however, there are a few jazz guitarists that play a 7-string instrument. The addition of another string allows the guitarist to play a bass line and add depth to the music, but adds complexity that requires a high level of virtuosity if the player is going to master the instrument. In the hands of a passionate and brilliant player, the instrument can be played in a stunning and thrilling manner that defies description. One such player is Yamandu Costa, considered to be one of the greatest Brazilian guitarists of all time. A remarkable interpreter of choro, samba and the music of Brazil, Yamandu will be in Vail performing with his trio Wednesday at the Sonnenalp Hotel (get tickets here) and Thursday at the Jazz Tent in Lionshead (get tickets here). You won’t want to miss this rare opportunity to see and hear one of the finest guitarists in the world play the music of Brazil.

Howard Stone is the Founder and Artistic Director of Vail Jazz, the presenter of the annual Vail Jazz Festival. This summer Vail Jazz is celebrating its 25th Anniversary Season with performances by internationally renowned artists in multiple venues throughout the Vail Valley. In addition, Vail Jazz presents throughout the year jazz educational programs with a special focus on young musicians and young audiences. Many of Vail Jazz’s performances and educational programs are presented free of charge.