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Classical and Neoclassical Jazz Series I, The Birth of the Neoclassical

Welcome to our first post on the Classical and Neoclassical Jazz Series! In this series of posts, we will analyze the emergence of classical and neoclassical jazz in the 80s, from the point of view of a jazz critic using Berendt and Huesmann’s The Jazz Book as our reference. Let’s start!

Towards the end of the 1970s, the transformation that jazz was going through was apparent. While blues, the spine of jazz development, was getting more interested in funk and hip hop music this led the jazz world to be more interested in a rock version of jazz, fusion, and then free funk.

However, the postmodern view of new jazz needed more than fusion and free funk. Some patterns in postmodernism, like bringing fragments together and referentialism, was not yet apparent in fusion and free funk. Therefore, neoclassical and classical jazz emerged!

At the beginning of the 80s, the emphasis on melody and structure in free jazz has become more apparent and mixed with mainstream jazz. Therefore, with the jazz critic, Gary Giddins’s saying, it became a “neoclassic”. Neoclassical jazz was the translation of free jazz methods and techniques to the postmodern, new jazz. Elements of free jazz are generally combined with fragments of traditional styles to create a new whole.

The finest examples of neoclassical jazz started with the release of Air Lore from the band Air, in 1979. Air Lore has combined Jelly Roll Morton’s New Orleans music and Scott Joplin’s ragtime melodies with the free jazz ecole. This was a major shock in the jazz world. The movement continued with Arthur Blythe’s In the Tradition and many other artists: Henry Threadgill, David Murray, Lester Bowie…

Surprisingly, the first neoclassical jazz musician was Duke Ellington. Even though he was not aware of this dry label, he was the first musicians to organically develop structures that are the combination of contemporary jazz (at the time) with the oldest Afro-American melodic structures. Now, the reason why Duke Ellington was a great hit in the 80s is quite evident!

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