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From ghettos to the mainstream

Gabriel Stravelli Quintet, a jazz band on a world tour to celebrate hundred years of the form, performs in three major Pakistani cities

From ghettos to the mainstream

In 1917, when Original Dixieland Jass Band comprising five members recorded Livery Stable Blues it became the first jazz recording ever. Gabriel Stravelli Quintet, a jazz band has been touring the world to celebrate the hundred years of the first jazz recording. The tour also coincided that with the celebrations of the 70th birth anniversary of Pakistan and as a reference to that, they sang and played some of the famous jazz standards that were recorded or played in 1947 in various venues in three cities in Pakistan — Lahore, Karachi and Islamabad.

The trip was organised by American Music Abroad, a people-to-people cultural exchange programme designed to communicate America’s rich musical contributions and diverse culture to the global music scene. It represents a wide variety of American musical genres also builds on the historic legacy of the Jazz Ambassadors like Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and Dave Brubeck. Who first traveled the world in the 1950s.

Like most musical genres, jazz too has a beginning shrouded in mists of the past. It is definite that it originated from ghettos and other informal gatherings of the Afro-American community: Brought mainly as slaves to the United States, they had to make a home for themselves in the foreign environment. Gradually it developed in bars, and other underground locations in the Southern United States where the contours of the form began to take shape. Two cities, New Orleans and Chicago offered more hubs to these early jazz maestros. Being an amorphous form and having grown from the folk tradition with no classical binding rules it grew in many directions and one has to stretch ones area of definition to label it as such. But it is now recognised as a definite music form belonging to the United States — one they can truly call their own.

Like most musical genres, jazz too has a beginning shrouded in mists of the past. It is definite that it originated from ghettos and other informal gatherings of the Afro-American community

Dating back to 1860, there had been an African-American slang, ‘jasm’, which means ‘vim’ or ‘energy’. In 1916, the New Orleans Times-Picayune newspaper referred for the first time to ‘jas bands’. That particular spelling suggests ‘jas’ could have come from ‘jasm’, or perhaps it referred to the jasmine perfume that sex workers in New Orleans’ famed Storyville red light district often wore.

Jazz music had developed, in part, as the music played in brothels and the Original Dixieland Jass Band itself betrays the etymological mystery of jazz. Like ‘jas’, ‘jass’ probably has a sexual connotation, a reference to woman’s backside. When Broadway picked it up, they called it jazz. Perhaps by the time ‘jass’ made it to New York City from New Orleans, and a few months after that recording of Livery Stable Blues, the band too changed their name to the Original Dixieland Jazz Band for good.

dave brubeck

Dave Brubeck

Except for Derrell Green, the drummer, nobody from the group had visited the subcontinent before. Gabrielli Stravelli, the leader of the Quintet who also provided the vocals has composed original songs and also performs the classic standards. At the age of 15, she began singing as a soloist with orchestras. She was one of the 10 finalists selected internationally for 2011 Shure (microphone manufacturer which organizes events), Montreauz Jazz Festival vocal competition and a runner-up for jazz mobile vocal competition in Harlem in 2011. Whether crooning ‘Skylark’ or ‘My Foolish Heart’ or playing with Pink Floyd she embraced each line with perfect supple phrasing and effective breath control. She is currently working on a new song cycle ’Rooms of Light’ written by renowned jazz pianist Fred Hersh.

Patrick O’Leary studied piano and bass at the Crane School of Music. He arranged and composed the Montenegro Jazz Suite and the Balkan Jazz Suite for choir, orchestra and jazz quartet.

Darrell Green who has toured Pakistan before in the last ten years has been making a name for himself as a leading jazz drummer in New York City. Scott Robinson has been heard on tenor sax, on trumpet, on alto clarinet and on bass sax. He has been heard numerous times on film, radio and television, and his discography now includes over 165 recordings. His four releases as a leader have garnered five-star reviews from Leonard Feather, Down Beat Magazine and other sources worldwide. Michael Kanan hails from Boston, Massachusetts where he first began to play the piano by age seven. Improvising figured heavily in his early experiences at the keyboard, and by age ten was already beginning to learn about Jazz. He also developed a reputation as a vocal accompanist.

A lot of experimentation has been done in the name of jazz by musicians in the US and Europe and some of the sounds appear to be quite alien to our ears. But in this band since quite a few standards and classical jazz numbers were played, there was an air of familiarity about the shows. Since Jazz is a new form in comparison to others, it may find an inviting ground to experiment especially in the area that challenges the conventional understanding of music and application of the note. The effort has been to go beyond the melodic and rhythmic structures in the same manner as literature has tended to go beyond the well-made play or novel.

American Music Abroad’s activities focus on younger and underserved audiences with little or no access to live American performances. The ensembles representing American music conducts public concerts, interactive performances with local musicians, lecture demonstrations, workshops, and jam sessions with diverse audiences. American Music Abroad ensembles are selected on the basis of artistic quality and commitment to education and cultural engagement through an open competition. And so was the Quintet that basically performed in public auditoriums and colleges in Pakistan last week.

Sarwat Ali

The author is a culture critic based in Lahore

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