The Sweet Sounds of Stepping Out

Upon listening to a current jazz album in a recent interview, African American jazz bassist Christian McBride surprisingly stated, “well what do you know: a jazz record that sounds like jazz.”[1] What exactly does jazz sound like to McBride? He claims that “in the jazz world right now, it’s not too popular to play swing rhythms;” yet, “everything is cyclical,” and though not always popular, swing rhythm has been continuously present in jazz world, along with imagination.[2]

This past winter, almost two years after the release of his album Stepping Out (2012), British Jazz vocalist and pianist Anthony Strong made his first visit to the U.S. to be interviewed on NPR Music. Despite his developing popularity with European audiences over the past five years, he has only recently been introduced to U.S. audiences. He has been performing throughout Europe at festivals and shows, and topped music charts in Germany. He was originally trained as classical clarinetist, and he later attended music school to become a jazz musician. He learned to improvise, studied jazz musicians in the American tradition “intensely,” [3] and performed as a session musician with legendary blues artist BB King. [4]

Even tough critics like Christian McBride have to admit that Stepping Out sounds like jazz. Almost every song on this albums swings, and all of the instruments take their turn improvising. Strong covers many of the key genres within the history of jazz, and the instrumentation is often comprised of a traditional rhythm section and horns. The first song opens with keys and a scat solo, flowing into an original funky, big band number. The song unexpectedly switches time signatures, creating a rhythmic feel where you cannot help but move your body with the bass. Title track, “Stepping Out with My Baby,” swings with a baseline reminiscent of jazz standard “Fever.” In “Luck Be A Lady” grooves in a way familiar to the bass and rhythms of Horace Silver’s Latin jazz hit “Nicas Dream.” His rendition of jazz ballad “When I Fall in Love” features a sultry string arrangement that might be heard on Ella Fitzgerald’s Songbook collection. “Change My Ways” features complex bebop melodic lines and busy, fast solos that Charlie Parker might play.

Stepping Out has musical content that appeals to both pop and jazz musicians alike. Many of the songs swing and have syncopated rhythms, but his vocalizing is sweet like Pat Boone. His originals utilize catchy melodies that are relatable and unthreatening for listeners who may be unfamiliar with complex jazz harmonies. His voice is clean and pretty, reminiscent of Harry Connick Jr. or a 90s singer in a boy band, and he regularly ventures into gospel territory, using vocal melisma that are found in today’s American popular music. His improvisational talent does not lies more in his piano playing than in his scatting-as is clearly evidence. On Stepping Out Strong reveals an impressive familiarity with the American jazz tradition. This album lacks the innovative imagination that is often found in the untraditional rhythms, structures, and instrumentation utilized by other European groups today such as Swedish EST and Icelandic ADHD. Stepping Out cleverly utilizes familiar styles and techniques within the American jazz tradition in a way most anyone can grove to. These sounds do not break any ground, but they will make you move.

Too Darn Hot

Cheek to Cheek

[1] “Anthony Strong on ‘Song Travels.’” NPR Music, Song Travels. 12 December 2014.

[2] ‘Everything is Cyclical:’ Christian McBride Looks at 2015 in Jazz.” NPR Music, Jazz Night in America. 14 January 2015.

[3] Anthony Strong on ‘Song Travels’ 12 December 2014.

[4] Anthony Strong on ‘Song Travels’ 12 December 2014.

Intend to Be Independently

Jazz has long been a fusion of multiple musical genres that results from the bridging of typically separate cultural forces. Jazz musicians develop their dynamism by necessity; their bills being paid essentially by the audience, jazz players survive best who can play whatever the people want to hear. Nina Simone’s tumultuous uphill journey from her humblest of beginnings in Tryon, North Carolina to her breakout hit “I Loves You, Porgy” and following ascent to the throne of the “High Priestess of Soul,” was not unusual in this way.[1]

She dreamed as a youth to become a concert pianist and showed prodigious talent playing at church from a young age. Aided by community contributions, Simone was afforded the opportunities to take piano lessons and attend the Allen School for Girls in Asheville, North Carolina. Unflinching in her aspirations to this point, she proceeded to audition for the Curtis Institute to study piano but failed to gain acceptance. Simone’s vehement belief was that she was rejected for her race, despite later denial of the notion by the Institute.[2] Upon moving to New York City to attend Juilliard, Simone found herself in a time and place offering extremely limited mobility to African-Americans such as herself; Simone was pigeonholed as a jazz singer.

However, she was still unwilling to give up the roots she forged as a classical pianist, infusing her solos and arrangements with homages to Bach and Liszt, among countless other enduring composers. The way in which she made these combinations work demonstrated a deep understanding of the intricacies of both far-flung genres. She was able to shift easily between the rigid and ahead-of-the-beat rhythmic tendencies of classical and the laid-back, in-the-pocket grooves of jazz in a manner that seems musically coy from either background.[3]

Nina Simone, even on her debut album Little Girl Blue (1958), made musical offerings that defied easy categorization. She herself considered her reputation as a jazz musician and even the use of the term “jazz” itself to be racially coded. In her autobiography she said, “to me, ‘jazz’ meant a way of thinking, a way of being, and the black man in America was jazz in everything he did… Jazz music was just another aspect of the whole thing, so in that sense because I was black I was a jazz singer but in every other way I most definitely wasn’t.” She preferred to call the brand of soulful, multicultural music she took part in “black classical music.”[4]

After satisfying her contractual obligations to her label, RCA, in the 1970s Simone began to travel in search of an environment that was a better fit for her than America, visiting countries including Liberia, Barbados, and several European nations before settling in France in 1993. Simone’s version of “My Baby Just Cares For Me” from her debut album was an unexpected hit in Europe in the late 1980s after it was used in an advertisement. Like Chet Baker and others, Europe’s increasingly discerning and voracious audiences provided a second stage for Simone toward the end of her career.[5]

[1] “Bio.” The Official Home of Nina Simone. September 23, 2010. Accessed March 15, 2015.

[2] Nina Simone: The Legend. 2002. Film.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Simone, Nina, and Stephen Cleary. I Put A Spell On You: The Autobiography of Nina Simone. New York: Pantheon Books, 1991.

[5] “Bio.”

The Sami: Swedish Jazz’s Harlem Substitute

The Sami are a relatively small ethnic group of people. The exact number of Sami people is unknown, but it is estimated that there are 44,000 to 50,000 in total, and only 10,000 of them live in Sweden. Some people believe that there could be as many as 200,000 Sami combined living in four different countries, Finland, Norway, Russia, and Sweden, but this number is often debated.[1] The Sami language is divided into three main categories, separated by region, but up to 85% of people who identify as Sami speak the central/northern variety of the language. Although they do have their own language, a majority of Sami people speak the language of the country that they live in. The Sami do not have a country of their own. In the past the Sami were forced to pay taxes to multiple countries and then pay fees for paying taxes to multiple countries. Today the Sami people are citizens of the countries that they live in, but they still defend their cultural identity and try their hardest to keep it alive.[2]

The Sami first started appearing in Swedish jazz tunes from the late 1930s[1]  in songs like “Wooji Wooji Wooj” by Fritz Gustaf and Ernfrid Ahlin, a song in which the lyrics depict the Sami to be teaching people to swing dance.[3] Swedish citizens wanted to relate to jazz music in a similar way to the way Americans could relate to it. American jazz enthusiasts had a different cultural connection with jazz than their Swedish counterparts, and thus were able to relate to and understand the music in a different and more personal context than could Swedish jazz enthusiasts. Swedish musicians used multiple avenues for incorporating Swedish culture into this new popular art form from America, such as the use of yodeling in place of or alongside scatting, and the use of cultural images such as trolls, but the introduction of Sami people into jazz music gave many Swedish listeners a type of personality or mindset to associate with the music.

The Sami people were different from the majority of Swedish citizens, but were much more relevant to the everyday lives of Swedish people than the citizens of Harlem were. Swedish citizens viewed the Sami as ironic images of the Swedish lifestyle, as a happy and very natural people that were carefree and simple, and during a night of dancing, Swedish citizens could mimic this lifestyle and let go of their worries in order to have a good time, similar to the way that some Americans could relate to the culture of its Harlem jazz musicians. And, in contrast to America, the Swedish majority culture had completely dominated the Sami culture, making them a much less risky ethnic group to poke fun at than African-American people. There was even a musical pop-culture theme known as “happy lapp” which was very similar to the American “happy negro” theme of the 1930’s (the “happy negro” theme is more commonly known as the “Sambo”).[4] Lapp is another common term for the Sami people, though they typically prefer to be called Sami because lapp is a derogatory name imposed on them by foreign settlers that means “a patch of cloth for mending.” [5]

Untitled2The Sami played a very important role in the development of jazz in Sweden. In it’s early years, jazz was viewed as a uniquely American art form. As it made it’s way across the globe, it was not always easy for non-Americans to understand the emotions and feelings associated with the music and the Harlem musicians creating it because the music was born out of a uniquely American experience. In Sweden, the Sami stereotype gave jazz listeners a familiar image to associate with this new music, and this helped Swedish musicians and listeners to connect to the music in a more personal and unique way

by Adam Freshcorn

[1] “Countries and Their Cultures.” Countries and Their Cultures: Sami. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 Mar. 2015. <>.
[2] “The Lapps – the Indigenous People of Lapland.” Lapland Travel Info. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 Mar. 2015. <>.
[3] Fornäs, Johan. “Swinging Differences: Reconstructed Identities in the Early Swedish Jazz Age.” (n.d.): 215.
[4] Fornäs, Johan. “Swinging Differences: Reconstructed Identities in the Early Swedish Jazz Age.” (n.d.): 215.
[5] “Countries and Their Cultures.” Countries and Their Cultures: Sami. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 Mar. 2015. <>.