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Tyler Hornby of Terrain contemplates his jazz career.
Photo courtesy Barb Kelsall

Jazz beats digress

An interview with a rare breed: Calgary jazz musician Tyler Hornby talks about the evolution of jazz.

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52nd Street, New York, 1944. In smoky, dim-lit clubs, a jazz beat penetrates the walls as masters Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and Thelonius Monk improvise to the beat of Bebop, leading a growing rebellion against the commercialized swing jazz music of the '20s and '30s. Bebop soon became the king of jazz culture in the heart of black America, packing underground clubs and revolutionizing jazz music.

Since the 1970s, a new era of jazz has developed as Bebop sounds have diverged into funk, fusion, hip-hop and smooth jazz, while a revived Latin jazz movement has taken North American markets by storm. Traditional jazz artists who pursue a performance career are few and far between. In Calgary, the term "jazz career" is an oxymoron.

It is morning and I sit in a smoke-free coffee shop in Kensington with Tyler Hornby, a local jazz drummer/composer, and a Masters of Music student at the University of Colorado in Boulder. Hornby admits that the Calgary jazz scene is average at best.

There is only one real jazz venue, the BeatNiq Jazz and Social Club, and no post-secondary program to attract and develop jazz musicians.

Hornby finished his Bachelor of Music in jazz studies at the University of Calgary, but had to migrate south in order to pursue further jazz specialization. He has already coupled his performance career with teaching music.

"One word: versatility," says Hornby of his jazz career. "You'll do festivals, clubs, events, and basically everything under the sun in order to get by."

Although he is a jazz artist who has made himself versatile in order to stay afloat, Hornby's roots are in the traditional jazz genre.

"If you can sit in and play a Bebop tune, you're in the loop," he explains.

Bebop harmony and melody move much faster than its swing predecessors, and focus on solo intervals that are undanceable on purpose. The Bebop beat is as technically difficult as it is rhythmically unpredictable and is more syncopated than previous jazz styles.

When asked if the new era of jazz sounds--funk, fusion and hip-hop--are taking over the old, Hornby is decisively optimistic that no one style is taking over the other.

"There are those jazz purists that believe that if it doesn't swing, it ain't jazz," he points out.

Hornby doesn't agree, quickly adding that jazz is broad, and the new stuff just "swings in a different way."

Jazz continues to grow and its definition has expanded since the days of the masters. The new sounds of funk and fusion employ electric instruments, guitar, keyboard, and synthesizers.

"It is a much bigger sound," Hornby explains.

According to Hornby, jazz purists need not worry about bigger sounds drowning them out, but about remaining pure--the bigger problem is commercialization.

"There is a feeling that many jazz artists are selling out to make money," notes Hornby. "Smooth jazz, for example, is at the bottom of the jazz totem pole."

Smooth jazz flows out of contemporary radio stations like The Breeze in Calgary, where artists like Kenny G and Foreplay attract average listeners who, programmed to listen to repetitive lyrics, consume today's music industry.

Traditional forms of jazz, which seldom have lyrics and do not follow a repetitive rhythm, are often too avant-garde to be in the mainstream. Free jazz of the 1960s resists any form of musical structure, and marks a complete improvisation of sounds. Hornby admits that he hated the free jazz genre when he was first introduced to it.

"Unless you know the basis behind free jazz--where the beat stems from and what the artist is trying to accomplish--it is hard to appreciate the genre," he explains.

Few people diverge to appreciate the entirety of jazz music, and fewer still can agree on one definition. Hornby attempts to encompass the whole genre.

"It is a style of music containing improvisation and syncopation using elements of African-based rhythms and classical harmony stemming from Europe."

The net of that definition still may not be cast wide enough--the upcoming Calgary Jazz Festival is proof. The Festival lineup employs sounds that range from the Latin jazz of Cubanismo!, to the funk style of Medeski, Martin and Wood, to hip-hop DJ Grandmaster Flash.

Ironically, the Jazz Festival lacks local traditional jazz acts. Tyler Hornby's quartet, Terrain, is one of the few to have landed a gig, they open for Cubanismo! in MacEwan Hall on Sat., June 28.

Are the traditional sounds of Gillespie and Parker fading away? While the Jazz Festival may point in that direction, the walls of BeatNiq still resonate the Bebop beat. Calgary audiences are getting a taste of the versatility that has now become synonymous with jazz music performance.

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