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'You have to learn what you don't like'

The many facets of jazz

By Todd Leopold

H. Johnson has hosted an Atlanta, Georgia, jazz show for 25 years.



Culture (general)

(CNN) -- H. Johnson has pretty much heard it all.

It started in the Atlanta radio personality's boyhood home in Asbury Park, New Jersey. Johnson's family knew several musicians, and when the performers were in the area, many -- including Count Basie -- would drop by and play the family's upright piano.

The area was "totally integrated," Johnson recalls, and he heard many varieties -- country, blues, celebratory Yiddish tunes -- from friends. And as he got older, Johnson became entranced with the performers of Springwood Avenue, the area's version of New York's 52nd Street.

For the past 25 years, he's programmed and hosted a five-hour jazz show every Saturday night, "Jazz Classics," on Atlanta's public radio station, WABE.

And ever since he started broadcasting jazz, he's been getting calls from listeners wondering why he's playing this or could he play that or what the heck does that particular tune have to do with jazz, anyway?

It's a particularly bonding music, he says, and yet a particularly divisive one. "Jazz appeals to different people in different ways," he says. "I've been to concerts and observed people's attitudes. That's why I program that way I do."

Johnson mixes a variety of artists, both instrumentalists and vocalists, from many decades of jazz and pop history. The key, he says, is that the show has to flow: "It has to fit within the groove of what I'm doing."

That's as good a definition of jazz as anything. And it's also a big reason there's constantly so much argument over what jazz is.

For some, it's a brassy Dixieland sound. For others, the vocalizing of Billie Holiday or Dinah Washington. Perhaps it's a cool dose of Dave Brubeck or Dizzy Gillespie. Some enthusiasts would rather go further afield with Ornette Coleman and early '70s Miles Davis. Some fans prefer Bob James and Dave Koz.

Or some combination of the above. Or none of it.

Indeed, some jazz aficionados are fiercely protective of the music. Heated arguments have broken out over trumpeter Wynton Marsalis' direction of Jazz at Lincoln Center, the powerful jazz institute.

It can be a silly debate, Johnson says. People who close their ears to different types of music -- or different types of jazz, for that matter -- are shutting themselves off from what music can offer. Jazz snobs, like music snobs, "do a disservice to jazz," he says.

Mavis Staples, the famed gospel and R&B singer who's one of the headliners at the upcoming Monterey Jazz Festival, puts it more succinctly.

"It's all great music," she says. "I love the jazz, blues ... it's all music to me."

Monterey strives for variety
Mavis Staples won a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award for her work with The Staples Singers.

Monterey is an example of that broad approach to jazz. Besides Staples, the artists for the 48th annual festival include Tony Bennett, Branford Marsalis, John Scofield, Carla Bley, Pat Metheny, Claudia Acuņa, Sonny Rollins and Madeleine Peyroux, as well as young performers described as "the future of jazz."

"There's an effort not to show one type, but a broad spectrum," says spokesman Jason Arnold of the three-day event, which runs September 16-18.

Like other notable jazz festivals -- Newport, New Orleans and Montreal among them -- Monterey strives to be inclusive. The first festival, in 1958, featured Gillespie and Billie Holiday in one of her last performances. Later guests have included Brubeck, Rollins and Louis Armstrong.

For Staples, who's played Monterey a few times -- most recently in the late '90s with her family, the Staples Singers -- the variety makes the festival.

"The artists ... that's what makes it so good for us," she says. She'll be doing a solo set followed by a "Tribute to Ray Charles" prepared by Scofield.

Bley, on the other hand, has never played Monterey; she hasn't even attended the festival since she was a teenager growing up in Oakland.

"That was paradise, that part of the world," the pianist and composer recalls.

Nods to the past

Bley's own history with jazz illustrates the changing directions of the music.

"The first jazz I ever heard was Lionel Hampton. I thought it was totally great," she says. "Then Gerry Mulligan and Chet Baker."

At 17, she moved to New York and spent "every night in jazz clubs. ... That's how I got my education," she says.

But not everything appealed to her -- not even music by those considered jazz titans.

"Musicians define themselves by what they don't like as much as [by what] they like. I used to hate John Coltrane and Duke Ellington," she says. "But you have to learn what you don't like in order to change. ... Everything I ever heard went into my brain and became part of the big ol' jukebox up there."

Carla Bley, second from right, and her quartet play unique, avant-garde jazz.

As she's gotten older Bley has developed a taste for Coltrane and Ellington. And, like many jazz composers, she's invested her compositions with nods to the past -- musical phrases from pop standards, little "quotes" from other works -- as with the piece she'll be playing at Monterey with her 30-piece "Big Band," The Black Orchid.

"I tried to work them in," she says of the pop qutoes, and chuckles. "They usually came in, anyway."

Which is one of the many things that give jazz its distinction, Johnson says.

"A good jazz musician incorporates [that history]," he says. "As he plays, you're smiling. You have to listen to hear what he's doing.

"Some people think it's just a lot of noise," he adds. "But there's a purpose to that madness."

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