A very exciting event of my life occurred when I was 16 years old. It had to do with a CD I located called ‘The Jazz Soul Of Little Stevie”. To my knowledge,it’s the very first album Stevie Wonder ever recorded. On the way home,my family put it into the car CD player and while listening to the opening song called “Fingertips” I remarked that I’d never heard Stevie Wonder do jazz before. I was than told that the music was not jazz because it contained no instrumental improvisation. At that age,it’s often best to get used to being corrected on something because that is usually an adolescent’s function in life. That function is to learn and grow mentally as much as possible. And on that day that I doubt even my own family would remember,I learned one of the most valuable lessons about music that I ever could: the difference between the composition of a song and it’s instrumentation.
This particular CD that I speak of was recorded in the 1963. During that time there was a genre of music called soul jazz. Artists such as Horace Silver,The Jazz Crusaders and Ramsey Lewis Trio specialized in this. Interestingly enough,this sound co existed with soul music itself. That was coming from people such as Ray Charles,with whom Stevie Wonder himself was very strongly compared in the beginning. Taking all this into consideration,not to mention the fact that the Motown house band were also seasoned Detroit jazz musicians themselves,my perception of this music as “jazz” would later be found to be unsurprising in origin. At the same time,my family were right in that the music we were all listening to and enjoying on this album was not jazz in the strictest sense of the word. So that being my later understanding of this particular album’s musical origins,why would my mind instantly jump to the conclusion that I was hearing jazz?
Generally speaking,I was basing my perception of the genre this music belonged to on the sound of what I was hearing. The songs on the album had a lot of heavy Latin type percussion effects such as bongo drums and shakers. And in a lot of cases,the songs had swinging beats that I had at that time heard only in jazz. What I was missing is that the horns,woodwinds and even Stevie’s harmonica were playing the melody very exactly,as in a popular song and in fact no improvised solos were present. Everything was indeed carefully composed and written. So in essence it is not the music,but rather than way in which it’s played that defines it as jazz or otherwise. As Miles Davis once said it’s not different instruments that will ruin music,but poorly done music. And as long as the musician/musicians involved have the talent to express what they wish,whatever instrument they play will project that talent well. That of course not only applies to Stevie Wonder but to my understanding and learning experiences of jazz,soul,rhythm and blues and funk music as well. And I have my family to thank for that important revelation.