As I write this, I’m sitting at my boyfriend’s parents’ dining room table surrounded by all manner of camping equipment. This is not because they’re a particularly messy family but rather because we’re about to set off into the Gloucester wilderness with their motorhome and caravan. Yes, it’s time for my second holiday with my boyfriend – though this time his family are tagging along…actually, I think Michael and I are tagging along with them!
This will be a completely new experience for me. Caravanning is something I’ve never done, and something neither my parents nor I ever thought I’d do –I would undoubtedly have quailed from such a holiday as a child. But this time, I can honestly say I’m excited to try it out. This is probably because I’ve grown in confidence massively since I was a little girl. Also, I’ve learned something during adulthood: it’s alright to try new things, become a trendsetter or just be different
I’ve written this topic in previous blog posts, but now I want to expand on it via a discussion of jazz music. And what does jazz have to do with all that, I hear you ask? Well, by its very nature, jazz is experimental, innovative and, yes, trendsetting.
The traditional image of jazz (well, mine anyway) is a dark, smoky nightclub in 1920s-30s New Orleans, Chicago or New York with musicians like Louis Armstrong or Ella Fitzgerald on stage. Yet, the origins of jazz lie nearly 100 years earlier with the slaves on US plantations. From this beginning, jazz became influential in the Civil Rights Movement, feminism, fashion, and the diversification of the music industry (you can hear influences of jazz in modern pop, rock and rap music).
Civil Rights Movement
In the 1950s and 60s, African Americans began to demand equal rights to white Americans – the string of protests and demonstrations which followed became known as the Civil Rights Movement. When African Americans’ political voices were silenced, jazz, as an integral part of African American history and a popular music genre, became a medium by which civil rights activists could get their message out. The great example is Billie Holiday’s 1939 rendition of Abel Meeropol’s poem Strange Fruit. In addition, jazz bands such as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s Operation Breadbasket Orchestra performed at benefits and rallies promoting civil rights.
Flapper Girls and Fashion
To put it simply: jazz was a means of rebellion for many women. In the 1920s, the 19th amendment to the US Constitution had just passed, which granted all American women the right to vote, and some women were eager for more. Thus came the evolution of the flapper girl. These women cut their hair short, wore, what was considered at the time, risqué clothing and frequented bars, nightclubs and speakeasies where they could smoke, dance to jazz music and drink illegal alcohol.
Here, I think, more explanation is needed. The lively and improvisational feel of jazz music was not well suited to traditional ballroom dances such as the waltz, so new dance moves were invented, like the shimmy and bunny hug, which many contemporaries considered inappropriately sexual. Unfortunately, dancing in a long skirt was difficult, so women’s dresses became shorter and looser, evolving into what we now recognise as the flapper dress.
My reason for wittering on about the history and influence of jazz is not just because I’m a history junkie. Jazz is spontaneous and ever-changing. Indeed, improvisation is its crucial component, and this very nature could make it more open to new instruments, new performance methods, and, yes, disabled musicians.
Neill Duncan is just one of the many disabled jazz musicians across the globe. Following the loss of an arm, Neill now plays the one-handed saxophone and is also a music producer, composer and teacher. He spoke to me about his band, the Three-Handed Bandits.
“There’s only two of us,” he said. “[My bandmate] is just playing a seven-string guitar which means you’ve got a bass string, and I’m playing the drums with my feet and sax with my hand… And when we’re really swinging, it sounds like four people. [When I lost my arm] it was three hands still making the sound of a quartet, which people find to be pretty cool.”
Neill told me that improvisation is one of the aspects of jazz that appeals to him. He told me that after losing his arm, his new playing style fit jazz really well because the music genre was so flexible.
He said: “The thing the other thing about improvisation and jazz that I really like is when somebody’s expressing themselves, they’re actually telling a story, and jazz seems to be a much emptier canvas for [musicians] to tell their story on because they’re just coming from basically nowhere.
“My story was suddenly a completely different story. And also, because the instrument is different from a two-handed instrument, I learned it fairly counterintuitive. So, my playing all of a sudden became quite fragile, which I really liked. I really enjoyed the fragility of my playing, and it still is. I’m getting stronger and stronger, and I’m learning new things every day, but it still has a fragility that I never had before. So, I’ll go for a note, and it’ll be a completely different note, and I’ll just go with that. I really like how it’s changed.”
Neill views his disability as a force for good – proving that it doesn’t have to be a barrier. Something of which I definitely approve.
“My disability became a possibility. My story now is not just about, ‘hey, I can play jazz’, but ‘hey, I can play jazz under terribly adverse circumstances over the loss of one hand’. So that’s sort of added to the story of me just being a jazz musician. I’m a disabled musician, and the story involves the disability; how I can play the instrument, the instrument itself, and quality within the music,” Neill added.
Since the very beginning, jazz has been a cultural phenomenon by which the side-lined in society could have their voices heard. Starting off as the music of slavery, it has stood for the African American fight for equality and greater freedom for women, to name just two. It has even started off some fashion trends and could perhaps be a champion for disabled music-making in the future.
The good news or the bad news first? Well, the good news is that I’ve been offered a job. The bad news is that I’m not going to have time for the blog. Thus, this will be my last post. My dear readers, it’s been an honour...Good luck!