Jazz Questions and Answers
by Toni Morrison

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What do jazz lyrics talk about?

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This lyrical and non-lyrical genre of music is a language in itself. Popularly known as the Father of Jazz, this style of music was originated by the legendary Louis Armstrong during the early twentieth century. Jazz became increasingly popular in the 1920s through the 1940s as several musicians and composers, including Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, and Miles Davis expressed a variety of moods (eg, love, dissappointment, despair, racism, happiness, depression, desire for intimacy) by using only a title to represent the sounds made with their instrument. For example, the symbolism in Duke Ellington's non-lyrical "Black and Tan Fantasy" is that this tune offers a seductive tempo that harmoniously, though temporarily, brings two races of people together despite segregation and misegenation laws.

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Oh, my! What *don't* they talk about, which is really the point. Jazz lyrics speak of the troubles and triumphs of every day life, from sex to money, from cooking to drinking, from infidelity and abuse, to romantic love and sexual conquest. Here are a couple of classic examples. The first is from my all-time favorite artist of any genre, Billy Holiday. The lyrics are from "My Man":

He's not much on looks
He's no hero out of books
But I love him
Yes, I love him

Two or three girls
Has he
That he likes as well as me
But I love him

I don't know why I should
He isn't true
He beats me, too
What can I do?

Other artists, like Cab Calloway, played around with matching tone, dialect, and slang into energetic dance numbers. Here's a selection from "Hep! Hep! The Jumpin' Jive":

De-boodle-de-ack, de-boodle-de-ackasaki!
Oh, rang-tang, te-dah-dah,
Gonna tell you 'bout the jumpin' jive,
Jim, jam, jump, the jumpin' jive;
Cats gonna beat out this mellow jive;
Beat it out on the mellow side.

Whatcha gonna say there, gate?
Oh, boy!
Whatcha gonna say there, gate?
Palomar, shalomar, Swanee shore,
Let me dig that jive once more,
Lay it right on down to the gator.
Oh, boy!
Lay it flat as a gator.
Now, can't you hear those hepcats call,
Come on, boys, let's have a ball!