Characterized by improvisation and syncopation, jazz has been moving audiences and music lovers since its emergence at the beginning of the twentieth century. Over the years, it’s as if jazz has gotten lost in the ever-changing, ever-evolving music industry. In today’s culture, a popular notion is that jazz is reserved for elevators, Christmas parties and your grandparents’ car. Recently, jazz has been making its way back into the popular atmosphere through people who love the genre and are ready to bring it into the spotlight.
Damien Chazelle, writer and director of the two widely successful hits, “Whiplash” (2014) and “La La Land” (2016) brought jazz back into mainstream music. “Whiplash” follows the story of Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller), a first-year jazz student studying drumming at a prestigious arts conservatory in New York City. There, he faces the famed conductor, Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), who has an abusive teaching style. “Whiplash” was Chazelle’s foundation for his next masterpiece, “La La Land.” The musical romantic comedy follows an aspiring jazz pianist (Ryan Gosling) and an aspiring actress (Emma Stone) as they navigate their life in Hollywood, their careers and their relationship. After the film released in theaters, it was hard finding someone who hadn’t seen or didn’t love it because the movie does a great job of confirming that jazz music is cross-generational. Fans from older generations love the film for nostalgic reasons while millennials are convinced by the power and appeal of Ryan Gosling. “La La Land” is now critically acclaimed and boasts many different accolades including Academy Awards for best actress, best director and best original music score.
MSU’s College of Music offers a unique jazz studies program that “is committed to the highest level of performance, mentoring, education and community outreach.” The program allows countless students, including recent graduates Pierre Charles III and Eric Smith, to hone their craft in a space solely dedicated
Charles graduated from MSU in 2016, and has always loved jazz. “I grew up with jazz music playing in the house. My father’s roots are in New Orleans, so listening to jazz music was a big part of my childhood.” He began to fall in love with the genre when he decided to take up piano as a child. “Improvising and creating music on the spot – that is the essence of what jazz is.” To Charles, jazz is more than just a style of music. “Jazz is a completely American art form, and much of American pop music of today actually traces its roots to jazz and blues.”
Smith graduated as a piano major in the class of 2017, and like Charles, was introduced to the genre by his family. “My earliest memories associated with jazz are at my grandparents’ house listening to big band music and singers like Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald and Nat King Cole.” He describes the importance of jazz as, “Jazz and blues are the foundation of so much of the music, art and culture we experience in America (and consequently, around the world). To truly enjoy, appreciate and understand where we as a society have come from, and why we as a society create and consume the things we do; we cannot exclude or understate the importance of jazz and blues music and culture.”
As for jazz making its way back into mainstream music, it is possible! The important thing is to educate people on music history and remind pop music fans of its foundations in jazz and blues. Charles believes, “If jazz existed in a mainstream space, like on the radio, more people would start to appreciate the music.” It helps that films like “La La Land” have mainstreamed jazz and shows people that the genre is cool, complex and intricate while teaching about its history and individuality. If other media outlets can show jazz in that light, the style has a chance of finding its way back into the spotlight.