Exploring jazz and blues: How well do you know history's soul sound?

Exploring jazz and blues: How well do you know history's soul sound?
July 11, 2010

Gale Pifer is in the audience at the Sioux Falls Jazz & Blues Society's JazzFest most years since it began 19 years ago.

He says it's the mix of many styles of jazz and blues that keeps him coming back to the free festival at Yankton Trail Park. He'll be there again this year, Thursday through Saturday.

"Some years, some old guy shuffles up there who's been playing for 50 to 60 years, and younger people probably don't know who he is, but they like what he does," says Pifer, a Madison saxophone player known for leading a big band in the region for years.

During past years, JazzFest has hosted dozens of big names, including Bo Diddley, Buddy Guy, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, The Neville Brothers, Buckwheat Zydeco, John Hiatt and Taj Mahal.

But there also were those older acts that Pifer's talking about, like Hubert Sumlin, now 78, who played at JazzFest in 2006. He is a blues guitarist and singer who played in Howlin' Wolf's band and is among Rolling Stone magazine's "100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time."

The late, legendary Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown performed there in 2003. Brown is known for playing old blues, but also country, jazz, Cajun music and R&B styles.

Long-established and new-to-the-music-scene players all perform their spins on jazz and blues styles. Pifer enjoys that variety.

"Some older fans may not recognize some names," Pifer, 72, says. "But some of the jazz and blues that these musicians are putting out there is just absolutely amazing."

The variety at the concerts is fitting, since jazz was born from the influx of many cultures that mingled in New Orleans during the 1800s, says Sioux Falls musician and music educator Jeremy Hegg.

"We tend to talk about blues and jazz as a 'musical jambalaya,' " Hegg says. "Each culture also has their different foods, especially in New Orleans - it's a grab bag of cultures and foods, from French and African to Caribbean and more, making the food spicy and tasty and unlike anywhere else on the planet."

Blues work songs pre-date jazz but soon joined the mix in New Orleans as freed slaves moved there to find work. Other musical ingredients came from the German, Irish, West Indies, Asian and Pacificers who also arrived at the major port city to work.

"That food analogy that's made about jazz has been around for years, and it's true," says Robert Joyce, the Jazz and Blues Society's executive director and chairman of JazzFest. "It's a gumbo of sorts where everything is thrown in and it ends up being something very unique that's also very good."

Listen to movies and television, and you'll find jazz and blues still is thriving and evolving, Pifer says.

"Jazz has never really gone out of vogue," he says. "Watch TV, from commercials and situation comedies to a lot of the dramas, close your eyes and listen. The soundtracks are jazz, and people are listening to it all the time."

It's A Jazz And Blues Concert

Sometimes people give Joyce a hard time about the name "JazzFest" because there is blues at the concerts, too.

Joyce says the official name, the "Sioux Falls Jazz and Blues Festival, JazzFest," more accurately reflects the range of music there as well as the history from which the styles evolved.

He points to the roots again, in New Orleans where there were lots of parades, celebrations and parties nearly every day in the late 1800s.

"These parades would march down the street, and John Philip Sousa was the star of the day, so they probably would be doing some Sousa marches," says Joyce, who teaches jazz history at Augustana College. "But when those musicians were done, they would sit on the corner and play jazz and blues, letting their styles intermingle."

The musical brew has created musicians who cross hard-to-define lines between the two styles.

Blues came along and joined jazz, and both styles still share the concepts of form, says Corliss Johnson, saxophone player and music director of the 18-piece South Dakota Jazz Orchestra. Both styles are similar in that they share the idea of using chord progressions as a basis for improvisation.

"But while jazz musicians are expected to play the blues, not all blues musicians play jazz," says Johnson, who was on South Dakota State University's music staff from 1972 to 2005, teaching clarinet and saxophone and jazz improvisation.

They're both American art forms.

"Both styles have distinct musical syntaxes, and yet both share a common focus on creative expression through the art of improvisation," Johnson says. "Both are deeply rooted in, and reflective of, America's cultural history."

Keeping JazzFest A Free Festival

During its first 10 years, JazzFest did occasionally charge for concerts, from a few dollars to up to $30.

The festival skipped a year, in 1995, when the founders ran out of steam and the new leaders, including Joyce, picked up directing the festival.

"We decided that we wanted to make it free, and we wanted to make it special by holding it at Yankton Trail Park," he says. That's where it has remained, previously on private grounds and in the baseball stadium.

Free admission is the key to a fun festival because it creates a special atmosphere, both for fans and for the musicians, who are paid. The festival is financed by sponsors, and sale of food and beverages fund the society's educational programs.

"We want to keep it all inclusive - regardless of where you're from or how much money you make or your socio-economic background," Joyce says. "Not having a fee is our way of doing that. Even if we charge just a few bucks, it would be kind of a logistical nightmare, with fencing and tickets."

Once an event starts charging money, no matter how much it is, the vibe changes, he says.

"I've watched people sit down, put their blanket down, kind of bond with people around them," Joyce says. "And if someone comes and sits near them, they don't care. They didn't pay for the seat, they're just enjoying the music and the sun. It's kind of sharing feel in the community."

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