All That Italian Jazz

Although jazz music poses as the brainchild of the African-American clan, its evolution has nodded well to the Italian descent, fringing its sound with the mix of two cultures that blend well.

Although jazz music poses as the brainchild of the African-American clan, its evolution has nodded well to the Italian descent, fringing its sound with the mix of two cultures that blend well

Let’s talk about music. We’re living in the pop-infused, shoulder-trotting era where the electro-synth patterns in radio-ready songs pair up with sultry, sentimental lyrics. The sound of saxophone, clarinet, trumpet, and trombone has disappeared, if not almost. Or as mindful music enthusiasts call it: the sound of jazz.

New Orleans is the birthplace of jazz. Its rhythmic, jovial tunes found its way in the Southern area of the United States more than as a pastime for the African-American people. Jazz music served as a means to reconnect with their African roots and express themselves via melodies. The jazz history circles back to the dawn of slavery in the United States. To take their minds off the harsh labor work they dappled in, the African-Americans grappled the soothing power of the genre to refocus their attention to the spirit and essence of community. Jumping forward to years later, the feet-tapping and body-grooving jazz offers its winsome treat to people of all kinds and colors, knocking down cultural barriers.

Although jazz music poses as the brainchild of the African-American clan, its evolution has nodded well to the Italian descent, fringing its sound with the mix of two cultures that blend well. What catapulted the jazz history to the Italian-community scene sprouted from Chevalier Bruno Zuculin, Italy’s then Consulate General in New Orleans, when he penned down the description of New Orleans’s jazz scene in two kinds: the mostly-black group who played in hotels, restaurants, and social events versus the mostly-Italian group performing in variety shows, cinemas, and theaters. There was a gradual ascent of fame to the list of Italian jazz performers, but one name stood out in the crowd: Nick LaRocca.

LaRocca was born in New Orleans, Louisiana from Sicilian parents. It was in his DNA to rise to fame brought forward by his ambitious motives and driven self-promotional tactic. It was in his philosophy that “the greater number of audience meant greater success.” LaRocca’s turning point unraveled when he left his old band to set up a new one. Together with Eddie Edwards (trombone), Henry Ragas (piano), Larry Shields (clarinet) and Tony Sbarbaro (dummer and also born from Sicilian parents), LaRocca, who played the cornet, formed the Original Dixieland Jass Band (ODJB).

Their uniform clutched on white shirts and buttoned collars beneath non-tailored black suits, a signature image of the ensemble. The polished-looking quintet made a game-changing step in the musical landscape when they recorded Livery Stable Blues on February 26, 1917,  the first-ever jazz song to be recorded. The lo-fi sounding, high-spirited track smashed the top charts as it sold over a million copies, putting the Dixieland band on a high pedestal that shaped the jazz history.

Between 1919 and 1920, Dixieland recorded new songs for Columbia Records in the UK. The newly-recorded hit tracks sprawled across the country and in Europe, including Italy. During that period, the Italian diplomat Zuculin wrote for La Lettura, introducing the jazz phenomenon to the Italian audience. He linked the rapid success of the new genre to the Italian musicians, adding that jazz could be considered as a “native product” of the country, thanks to LaRocca and Sbarbaro posing as Italian descendants.

It didn’t take long for fame to blow up LaRocca’s self-esteem when he claimed that he was the founding father of jazz music. The statement itself stripped the African-American people and the flourishing jazz scene in New Orleans their rightful credits. Louis Armstong, one of the most influential figures in the jazz terrain, refracted LaRocca’s assertion when he acknowledged that LaRocca’s style was far more different than the usual opera, classical, and country chords of that time, morphing old-sounding instruments to bloom into their new facets.

Clambering back before LaRocca’s career took off, the Italians did paint their influence in the rise of jazz music. An influx of over four million Italian immigrants coming from Italy’s Southern regions — mostly from Sicily, Campania, Abruzzo and Calabria — sailed to the United States between 1880 and 1920. The hotspot turned out to be New Orleans, a place thought of to provide economic relief to the hopeful immigrants.

Aside from their bags of clothes and brimming hope, the Italians brought over their traditional music with them to keep in touch with their roots. The North African and Italian music cultures then harmonized together and struck a bond that influenced each other’s style: traces of North African music tangled itself in the notes of traditional Southern Italian music and vice-versa. 

In Samuel Charter’s take on the history of jazz, he connotes the influence of Italian musicians to the revolution of jazz as a “much wider range of music than simply small instrumental ensembles playing ragtime melodies.” It proves to be true as the comprehensive list of Italian artists entered the spotlight of the jazz industry including Joe Alexander and Angelo Castigliola, Lawrence Veca, Johnny Provenzano, John “Bud” Loyocano, Leonardo “Leon” Roppolo, Vincent Barocco, Pete Pellegrini, Arnold “Deacon” Loyocano, Joe Loyocano, Tony Giardina, Salvatore Castigliola, Anthony Sbarbaro, Joseph “Wingy” Manone, Leon J. Roppolo, Santo Pecoraro, and Nick LaRocca, among the many names.

It’s a tough nut to crack then that jazz, in its gradual flow, appears to leave the limelight as years fly by. The online-music-streaming generation might bury the jazz songs at the bottom of their playlists, but the genre’s sweep in Italy continues to move forward. Propelling from the previous era to the present year, the home to famous culinary dishes still hosts social gatherings and music festivals that celebrate the jazz sounds.

Umbria Jazz Festival jump started in 1973 and is at the vanguard of one of the most renowned jazz music festivals across the globe with past performances from Eric Clapton, Elton John, and Carlos Santana. Festival dell’Arena di Verona sits on the front row as one of the oldest jazz festivals in Italy after the annual event has taken place in Verona since 1913. Italian composer Gian Carlo Menotti spearheaded Festival dei Due Mondi in 1958, holding theaters, opera, jazz, and dance shows of local and international performers in Umbria. The island of Sardinia surges through the jazz music festivities with its Time in Jazz, a week-long event that Paolo Fresu curates in Berchidda. Summer jazz sessions are alive and kicking in the Siena Jazz Festival that lasts for two weeks. The budding Venezia Jazz Festival clouds over the city of Venice, which is sometimes known as La Serenissima or the Most Serene One, to satiate the jazz fix of eager fans and listeners.

From LaRocca to the familiar saxophone-induced rhythm today, jazz music wields history that latches on Italian culture. It has battled progression through thick and thin with blows of trumpets and trombone, blares of saxophones and clarinets, smashes of drums, pulses of piano keys, and even plucks of guitar strings. It has produced Italian names that carry the country’s flag. It has diffused a new image of culture far from the stereotypical pizza and pasta.

In Italy, the bars are semi-packed with the early-night crowd as the dusk breaks. An array of plastic plates lines up on the table beside the bulk of tissue and plastic forks. Behind them, towering trays cluster to serve sweet and savory dishes for the aperitivo. But it’s not the Aperol Spritz or muffled conversations that sets the mood. It’s the music. Maybe they’re playing the classic improvised melodies filled with bustling instruments. Maybe they’re listening to the revamped jazz songs soaked in electro-pop, jive-inducing synths and clothed in folk-ish production. Whatever that track may be, the soul of jazz music penetrates our culture and it’s timelessness is bound to stay.

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