The rebirth of cool

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 06 September, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 06 September, 2009, 12:00am

Emerging more than 100 years ago, jazz and its many musical offshoots continue to flourish today.

The result of West Africa's tribal musical traditions and European music's concept of harmony, the genre was born in the US. Improvisation and personal interpretation are at its core. Jazz embodies traits of its homeland - like a democracy which treats composer and performer as equals - and treads the fine line between commercial music and art.

The music was pioneered both by blacks and whites, and at first featured instruments used by the marching bands of New Orleans, whose members played a key role in developing the budding sound.

Tours by newly minted jazz musicians spread towards both sides of the nation, reaching New York, San Francisco and everywhere in between.

The rise of speakeasies, or illegal drinking holes, during the 1930s' prohibition led them to become the venue of choice for the new jazz age. But the genre suffered from its association with the underground bars, with some people feeling it promoted the decadence that had come with the economic growth of the 1920s.

Jazz's following grew in the next decade, as did the size of bands. The 1930s ushered in the age of big swing bands, where jazz legends Duke Ellington, Earl Hines and Louis Armstrong made their names.

The undisputed dance music of the era, jazz was soon broadcast nightly on the radio across the nation, and started to make inroads outside America.

Sub-genres began cropping up in the 1950s, such as a more purely musical form, using faster tempos and rambunctious rhythms. The dizzying pace of the new style spurred the emergence of a smoother form epitomised in Miles Davis' Birth of the Cool.

Faster forms such as bebop continued to evolve alongside other variants which borrowed from rhythm and blues and gospel, and introduced the saxophone into the mix.

Regionally, jazz in Japan took on a new forms inspired by minimalism and native instruments; but it also found a home in the old colonial haunts of Hong Kong, Bangkok and Singapore, according to Hong Kong Jazz Association advisory board member John Huie.

'Hong Kong had a very healthy jazz scene into the 1990s, vibrant with a lot of gigs and exposure,' he says.

A number of jazz venues hosted nightly live gigs, but the genre suffered a setback prior to the economic downturns of the early noughties, Huie says.

Although the local scene has rebounded recently, Huie adds the Shanghai scene and its artists have started gaining international attention, which could lead the genre's evolution on this side of the globe.

To find out why jazz is so enduring, check out these gigs.

Backstage Live Thursday

Skylark Lounge Friday/ Saturday

Ned Kelly's Last Stand Nightly

Peel Fresco Most nights

Grappa's Cellar first Wednesday of the month