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Jazz critic discusses genre’s roots, reinventions, representations ahead of St. Louis event

Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead spoke with host Don Marsh on this Tuesday's St. Louis on the Air.

Jazz music has undergone a series of important changes over the course of its history. Jazz critic for NPR’s Fresh Air Kevin Whitehead told host Don Marsh on Tuesday’s St. Louis on the Air that there are a handful of characteristics that bind seemingly dissimilar styles of music to the singular genre of jazz.

“Improvisation is central to it,” Whitehead said. He added that – though there are many different cultural influences behind jazz music as it’s evolved – “the African American strain [of influence] is the most crucial.”

Still, the author of “Why Jazz: A Concise Guide” and the upcoming book, “Play the Way You Feel,” acknowledged that there are “so many different strains of jazz,” making finding a comprehensive history and a singular definition of the genre challenging.

With respect to jazz’s history, Whitehead stressed that the genre didn’t appear out of thin air, but rather “evolved out of things that were around beforehand,” such as ragtime.

Whitehead played and analyzed a few contemporary jazz pieces, each of which were stylistically distinct. He explained that they were all linked by a “creative, improvisational aesthetic.”

Further, each of the songs assumed bits and pieces of the genre’s tradition. One piece – “The Reckoning” by Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah – draws on hip hop influences, and embodies, according to Whitehead, jazz that is “contemporary, but also acknowledges the distant early days of the music.”

Despite being a jazz critic, Whitehead recognizes that the genre is not for everyone.

“We all have ‘deaf spots’ … [artists] who are great, but maybe we aren’t personally so fond of what they do,” he said.

Whitehead’s own taste in jazz runs the gamut from the more traditional to the more “radical,” and he reflects this in the reviews he conducts on Fresh Air.

“I try to give a sense of the breadth of modern jazz, which involves some of that more difficult music from time to time,” he told Marsh.

Whitehead’s upcoming book, “Play the Way You Feel,” touches on jazz’s role in film, as both subject matter and plot device. He’ll be discussing his book and his work more broadly as part of the Whitaker Jazz Speaks Series, a partnership between Jazz St. Louis and the St. Louis County/City Libraries.

Related Event:

What: Whitaker Jazz Speaks: Play the Way You Feel featuring Kevin Whitehead

When: 7 p.m. Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Where: St. Louis County Library - Grant's View Branch (9700 Musick Ave. Saint Louis, MO 63123)

Song Selections:

  • Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah, 'The Reckoning' (2017)
  • Cecile McLorin Salvant, 'Visions' (2018)
  • Andy Biskin & 16 Tons, 'Muskrat' (2018)

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Alex HeuerEvie HemphillLara Hamdan and Xandra Ellin give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.

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