What is Jazz? .. the musicians answer me!

ParkCity Everly Hotel
ParkCity Everly Hotel


Before I attended the Borneo Jazz Festival  in Miri, Sarawak, (May 2014) I asked “What is Jazz?” and I came to no real answer so said I would ask the performers once I was able to talk to them at the  ParkCity Everly Hotel.

Worldwide, jazz festivals are really popular and the local organisers in Sarawak decided they could not afford to be the same as every other jazz festival so the people selected to come to Malaysian Borneo are all very different creating a small and perfectly formed music festival. This year, by chance, vocals and piano were big in this 2014 event. (Next year is the 10th annual Jazz festival so I expect there will be big celebrations for this milestone)

However, this, in part,  is what some of those performers said in reply to the query ‘what is jazz?’

The crowd-pleasing group was Vocal Sampling, an all-male a cappella group from Cuba . The band is 25 years old and the trip to Miri was part of the celebration. They said Cuba is a very rich musical environment in which both old and young like jazz … but no explanation why their music is jazz … it seems improvisation will be the common denominator answer!

Mario Canonge is a great musician and showman who plays creole jazz with West Indies rhythms. Originally from Martinique he now lives in France  and said”Jazz is just a word. When you improvise you are jazz’.

Anthony Strongpianist and singer, hailed as ‘England’s new jazz superstar’, sings mostly classical jazz and I missed his interview so a few days later, over breakfast at the Royal Mulu Resort I asked him the same ‘what is jazz’ question. He responded with “I’m sure if you Google it there will be heaps of people who have written many theses on the topic!” All true – he went on to say he thought not all jazz was improv; that the term is an umbrella for many forms of the music.  Just like ‘world music’ has no specific musical genre – that there must be 500 different forms of music that comes under the label – and jazz is the same.

YK Band from Indonesia featured jazz with a Borneo flavour and the locals particularly loved this group – who also couldn’t give a simple answer to my question.

Iriaoa Georgian ethno-jazz band said each area had its own ‘folk’ music and all were different … and although they didn’t give me a definition of jazz they said that Georgian music and jazz were sent to space as a part of  ’13 masterpieces.’

Both evenings of the festival concluded with a jam session all the musicians ( inside the hotel) which was certainly improv .. so maybe was ‘really jazz’, while in the Pavillion beside the ‘Stage by the Sea’  DJ Roundhead had a popular Club Set: crowned the ‘Malaysia DJ Champion’ three years in a row he has a 20 year history in the local music industry.

Junk o Func, (with 12 people) grabbed the stage and entertained us with punchy, gospel-influenced vocals and playful, interaction with each other and the audience – who loved them. (I predict they will return!)

So what is jazz .. to me it seems it’s jazz if you say its jazz! So make up your own mind or become one of the thesis-writing uni students and spend years studying the genre.

So, if you love jazz, if you love music, if you would love to laze around the pool (or beach) all day, eat and then experience great jazz at night, the Borneo  Jazz Festival is for you! (repeat daily!)

If it’s World music that you like, Sarawak also hosts a festival which is also by the beach! Rainforest Word Music Festival (#rwmf). I’ll I’ll be at in Kuching, Sarawak in a week for both the Rainforest the Borneo World Expo at the Hilton  – I’m staying at Damai Beach Resort for the RWMF and at the Hilton for the expo … see you there! 🙂

Andy Kho: official photographer
Andy Kho: official photographer at the Borneo Jazz Festival

Music lovers enjoy the small, perfectly formed Borneo Jazz Festival

Music lovers from around the world have just had a great time enjoying performances by international jazz artists at the small, and perfectly formed, 9th annual Borneo Jazz Festival. (Artistic Director Yeoh Jun Lin)

Some genres confound our expectations and jazz can do this – we sometimes can’t tell where the tune will go to next and often don’t like that uncertainty. I recently asked ‘what is jazz’ and soon I will blog about what these performers said about that vexed question.

ParkCity Everly Hotel
ParkCity Everly Hotel

The eight handpicked performers included (in no particular order) were Iriao, an eight-piece ethno-jazz band from Georgia. Their repertoire is based on Georgian authentic folk instrumental and polyphonic music, which has been recognized by UNESCO as being a masterpiece of oral immaterial heritage. They say the band is not aiming to modernize the unique polyphonic Georgian music but to saturate and adorn it with jazz elements. Listen to one of their pieces here on YouTube.

A crowd-pleaser was Vocal Sampling, an all-male a cappella group from Cuba . Their 2011 album ‘Cambio de Tiempo’ was nominated for 3 Latin Grammy Awards. Only using their voices, cupped hands and bodies they create a full range of timbres and textures of the Latin Orchestra – percussion, horns, keyboard, bass – which are vocally reproduced with astonishing accuracy.  The crowd, and me, loved their classic boleros, rumba, and salsa, as well as more contemporary compositions.

Brassballettfrom Germany – evidently the first and only show worldwide where the musicians dance at the same time, although it is something many marching bands do the same. In their crisp suits and red ties, the choreographed show was popular. With only one stage at this festival on the beach, the stage manager and his crew deserve a shout out too.

Mario Canonge is a great musician and showman who played creole jazz with West Indies rhythms. He is originally from Martinique and now lives in France and the audience loved this band returning to Miri and the Borneo Jazz Festival. It seems each festival is a mix of one or two groups who have been before along with introducing new groups to the crowd.

YK Samarinda
YK Samarinda

YK Band from Indonesia featured jazz with a Borneo flavour and the locals particularly loved this group which has been performing since 2013.

Anthony Strong, pianist and singer has been hailed as ‘England’s new jazz superstar’. In 2013, Anthony Strong beat Gregory Porter, Michael Buble and Harry Connick Jr. to become October’s No. 1 on iTunes and No.2 on the Amazon USA  jazz charts. Evidently Rod Steward described him as amazing while BB King called it ‘real great music’. The crowd, and I, loved his retro-contemporary repertoire including‘Too Darn Hot,’ ‘Luck Be a Lady’ and ‘My Ship’ from his ‘Stepping Out’ album. (He tells me a new album is imminent)

Anthony Stone
Anthony Stone
Diana Luis
Diana Lui

Local-born artist, the 30-year old Diana Liu  started classical piano lessons at five and, with a music degree from Australia and who starting formal, classical singing during her 3-years at Otago Girls High, New Zealand, plays pop, jazz, bossa nova, gospel, funk and soul in a beautifully clear voice. She sings in Mandarin and English and performed with an international ensemble of jazz musicians – Lewis Pragasam of Malaysia, Christy Smith of USA, Tan Wee Siang of Singapore, Greg Lyons of Britain.



Interview time!
Interview time!

Junk o Func, (with12 people) grabbed the stage and owned it!  Lead singers Elvira Arul and Russell Curtis entertained us with punchy, gospel-influenced vocals and playful, interaction with each other and the audience – who loved them. (I predict they will return!)

Both evenings concluded with a jam session all the musicians ( inside the hotel) while in the Pavillion beside the ‘Stage by the Sea’  DJ Roundhead had a popular Club Set: crowned the ‘Malaysia DJ Champion’ three years in a row he has a 20 year history in the local music industry.



Held at the ParkCity Everly Hotel, Miri (Sarawak) is the birthplace of Malaysia’s petroleum industry – oil was discovered in the early 1900s and remains the major industry. With a population of 300,000 people, it’s a resort city with easy links to many of the states adventure and nature attractions and is close to the Sultanate of Brunei and Sabah, Malaysia.

The city is surrounded by four world-class national parks, Gunung Mulu National Park (UNESCO World Heritage Site, home to the world’s largest caves), Niah National Park (Historical and archaeological site), Lambir Hills National Park (diverse species of flora and fauna) and Loagan Bunut National Park (largest natural lake).

Thank you to Sarawak Tourism Board for hosting me to this wonderful event.


One of the great bands at the #Borneo #J

One of the great bands at the #Borneo #Jazz #Festival Iriao.Song of sad Gurian man #music YouTube http://ow.ly/xcSD4 blogging about it now #Sarawak

What is jazz?

I was confused at my first jazz festival. I thought jazz was the music I listened to on the streets of New Orleans but not all the performers and their music were like that at the Christchurch Jazz Festival  (New Zealand). I loved the music but I wasn’t sure it was jazz!

I also heard music that was labelled jazz at WOMAD New Plymouth (NZ) – I thought it was big band or ska so knew I was missing something.

Now that I’m off the annual Borneo Jazz Festival (Miri, Sarawak, Malaysia) it’s time to do some research (via Google) but find even the people writing about it there have different opinions – but there are many similarities.

Part of the audience in 2013.
Part of the audience in 2013.

Wiki tells me: ‘Jazz is a type of African-American music that originated in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century in the Southern United States as a combination of European harmony and forms with African musical elements such as blue notes, improvisation, polyrhythms, syncopation and the swung note.[1] Jazz has also incorporated elements of American popular music.[2]

It goes on  ‘As it spread around the world, jazz drew on different national, regional, and local musical cultures, giving rise to many distinctive styles’    and it was in this list I started to recognise styles I knew;  New Orleans jazz, big band swing,  1940s bebop, and  ska jazz.

Think the quote attributed to Louis Armstrong, sums it up for me!  He was one of the most famous musicians in jazz when he said to Bing Crosby on the latter’s radio show, “Ah, swing, well, we used to call it syncopation, then they called it ragtime, then blues, then jazz. Now, it’s swing. White folks – yo’all sho is a mess!”[3][4]

So seems I was not alone in being confused, a ’mess’ I carried on reading then and thought a blog about ‘What is Jazz?’ seemed a way to clarify it for me and anyone else who is all a mess too.

Here are some bullet points about what I learnt: ( thanks to the people and pages quotes)

In a 1988 interview, trombonist J. J. Johnson said, “Jazz is restless. It won’t stay put and it never will”.

In a CNN OPINION ( @CNNOpinion) piece  Jonathan Batiste (Stay Human Band and is the associate artistic director of the National Jazz Museum in Harlem.(@jonbatiste)  said ‘This is an impossible question, and one with many answers.’

. . . contemporary jazz seems too circuitous for most listeners to enjoy casually. The challenge for the contemporary jazz musician, as I see it, is making this subtle and complex art palatable to the greater public. Jazz is complex.

. . . to play jazz is to contribute to world history. To be a part of this tradition means that you are challenged to transform other people with the sound of your instrument. You are challenged to swing. You are challenged to contribute to the body of work established by some of the greatest artistic minds of all time, work that includes these treasures:

• A performance of “Fine and Mellow” by Billie Holiday, Lester Young and others from a CBS television broadcast in New York on December 8, 1957.

• “It Don’t Mean A Thing” by Duke Ellington features catchy vocals, hard swing, jazz violin and awesome horn section parts that epitomize what the jazz tradition is all about.

• “I’m Just a Lucky So and So” from the album by Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. It is a supreme example of the blues with utmost sophistication and feeling. The way Duke accompanies Satchmo is masterful, and the personality of the two of them signifies what jazz is all about.

 Jazz is an experience; it’s all about the moment –  it’s the language that we use to state our deepest, truest feelings; It is the American art form that is globally owned. (Jonathan Batiste).

In part All About Jazz tells me . . .

“The most pressing, in my opinion is “What Is Jazz?” Or, more to the point, “What Is Jazz Right At This Moment?” The old definitions, which themselves were inadequate and vague, composed of personal biases and half-truths, are now completely antiquated. Just think about the difference between what defined the simple telephone thirty years ago, compared to today’s reality of what a telephone is. And compare today’s smartphones to what a telephone was just five years ago. The more you think about it, the more you realize not only how far things have come, and how quickly they are changing, but how much your own initial definitions are rooted in long-held ideas that no longer apply. “

“While these definitions still apply to some of Our Music, it is no longer descriptive of the entire purview of Jazz. Electric and electronic instruments now share the stage with the classic horns, strings and keyboards that have been standard instrumentation almost since the very beginning. It is incorporating more world music from Middle Eastern to Asian.

None of that really answers the question of what Jazz is right now, possibly because that is virtually impossible to define. Jazz is a living thing, Jazz breathes, it grows, it changes, it adapts.

To summarise Jazz in America

  • It is partly planned and partly spontaneous;
  • “in the moment” this is called improvisation and is the defining /key element of jazz
  • There is no better example of democracy than a jazz ensemble: individual freedom but with responsibility to the group. In other words, individual musicians have the freedom to express themselves on their instrument as long as they maintain their responsibility to the other musicians by adhering to the overall framework and structure of the tune
  • it’s kind of like musical conversation.
  • is like a language.
  • the spontaneity heard (or “felt”) in jazz requires the listener to be alert at all times to the ever-changing aspects of a given interpretation of a tune.
  • the same jazz tune (song) is never performed the same way twice; while it might start and end the same, the middle part is played differently every time.
  • In jazz, it’s more about the way a song is played, rather than what song is played.
  • In order to be able to hear the difference, you’ve got to listen a lot; the more you listen to a particular jazz musician, the more you’re able to recognize that player by his/her sound alone.
  • Jazz is hard to play but good players make it look easy.

I’ve decided I’m just going to listen and enjoy the international and local performers at the festival. See you there!