JAZZ music is the most uniquely American of art forms, but it’s increasingly easy to avoid it there. It is played in specialist clubs, on low-budget niche radio stations.
While its sound still pervades mainstream music through hiphop, the thing itself has never been so marginalised. Its status has been greatly diminished since, pre-rock’n’roll, it was America’s pop music.
Yet, there is no musical form that is more diverse than jazz, that encompasses so many styles. It’s the broadest of churches; so broad, in fact, that the only thing still unifying its many strands is the thing that sets it apart: improvisation.
The music of Co Down-born drummer David Lyttle is typical of this range. His recent album Faces featured collaborations with a jazz legend in Joe Lovano, a hip hop veteran, Talib Kweli, and Duke Special.
After a decade of making music and playing shows, Lyttle got to thinking about how jazz is perceived, how, despite having something for every taste, people are still somehow put off.
And, with the support of the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, he undertook a month-long tour across the US to investigate.
“I kind of thought it would be good to explore that idea and try to bring jazz to the general public,” he says.
“I thought America made sense, since you can just jump in a car and drive anywhere, to very different cultures, views on the arts, and life. It’s such a diverse place. And because jazz is a subculture, I thought it could be about bringing the music to other subcultures at iconic locations. To Area 51, Route 66, in a cowboy culture, gun culture.”
Lyttle was joined by saxophonist Tom Harrison on the trip, buying a 1980s Cadillac DeVille in LA before setting off on the highway and vlogging as he went for MoBo’s YouTube channel.
They would typically arrive unannounced in small-town locations, trailer parks, little places along Route 66, and present the music unmediated and unexpected. So what did Lyttle learn?
“I learned was that jazz music when it is played with the right intention, with sincerity, and it’s heartfelt and your concert is presented in the right way, people respond to it,” he says.
“In the States, jazz is victim of the idea that people think it is very highbrow, which sometimes it is. It’s victim to the idea that it’s old- fashioned, which it sometimes is. But it is really such a vast expanse that that is just one small part of it.
“We were really well received by people who weren’t in any way interested in the arts, by cowboys, UFO tourists, locals in bars. But I do think that if we had advertised what we were going to be doing to these people in small communities, I think they probably wouldn’t have turned up, because it was jazz. The biggest problem is how it’s perceived. It’s not that people don’t like it, they don’t think they will like it.”
Stops Along the Way…
“Art Blakey has remained by main inspiration and my hero. He’s the most influential musician in my learning experience of the music. We tracked down where he grew up. It was in this place called the Hill District, which was once quite a prestigious place to live but is now quite a high-crime area. It’s been in decline for decades.
“With the help of the local community association, we were able to perform and film there. Everyone was really helpful. The local NPR station came out to record us. We did a medley of the tunes his band made famous. To have locals come by and watch was really amazing.”
“One of the best experiences was way out in the desert in Nevada, near Area 51 [the air-force controlled area that has a huge part in UFO lore]. We played at a place called the Little A’Le’Inn. It’s in Rachel, a town of about 60 people. We went there and played a set for a small audience. It was a real mishmash of people, but they loved it and bought us drinks all night afterwards. Some of it was the fact that we’d come in to their town unannounced. They genuinely had a good time. It was powerful in the sense of what I wanted to achieve with this.”
“There is so much gun-related violence in the States, most people would quite happily agree that there are too many guns and guns are too easy to get. But at the same time, lots of people enjoy shooting and hunting. I grew up in the country, I’ve shot shotguns, so I get it. The problem is where an obsession kicks in with these semiautomatic rifles.
“I wrote this weird hymn that the sax plays and in the spaces in the melody, I improvised gunfire on an AR-15 rifle. It’s not pro- or anti-gun, it was more that we were in America so we had to respond in some kind of way. I think it was powerful, that brutal sound, the force of it up against a melodic sax composition. A local sheriff in Carson, Nevada, set it up for us. It was one of the easiest things to set up, actually, which I suppose is funny.”
“Hunter S was based in Woody Creek from the late 1960s and wrote most of his famous works there. It’s just a small community near Aspen and the town has just one business really, the Woody Creek Tavern, where he would hang out.
“When we got there people didn’t really want to talk about him. It just seemed like a lot of people thought he was just a crazy nut. The tavern wasn’t interested in having our music. But, in I suppose a very Hunter S Thompson way, a new thread emerged. We met a Native American called Anuk Bald Eagle and stayed with him for two days, learning about his culture and his music. He’s a descendant of Crazy Horse, so he was from very strong tradition and it was amazing to learn about him instead.”
“Every day we thought it could be the last day, with that car. That was an interesting tension all the time. We blew a tyre the first day out, and things were overheating in the desert, but a mechanic made it all fine and we had very few problems after that. The battery got loose once and the car cut out completely in the middle of the interstate. Other than that the car is driving great.
“I suppose it goes back to the subculture thing, this sixth-generation Cadillac represented the last of the really American-looking cars. After that, their cars started looking more European. Now, it’s a memento of an amazing time – I’ve shipped it back here. It’s taken me to all these amazing places, and now I can drive it here. Everyone who sees it is like, ‘What the hell is that?’”