Updated Dec 5, 2023
by Ryan Thomson, accordionist and fiddle player. This article was originally written for the New Hampshire Seacoast Jazz Society Newsletter, in 1990. Except for the question and answer dialogue section, it is a true story.
"But we don't play jazz," my guitar player exclaimed, as I described a gig I had booked for the band. "Don't we improvise our solos and play heads when they come around?" I countered. "Yes, but we're not a jazz band," he complained. It was a great gig as far as I was concerned, and I pressed on: "Our music comes out of the same traditions and melting pot as Louie Armstrong's, and besides, the money's good, we'll have fun, and its good exposure for the band!" I talked the gig up a while longer to the other members and we finally came to a consensus: We would accept the offer to perform at the 1987 Portsmouth Jazz Festival.
I'll admit that I worried some about how we would be received, but once I viewed the bobbing heads and tapping feet on Bow Street, I knew that we had it made. The glowing Rockingham Gazette review of our performance capped it off. It wasn't until I attended the the New Orleans Jazz Festival the following year though, that I discovered just how right I had been: Cajun and zydeco music is considered such an important part of early developing jazz that it is featured prominently in New Orleans, with many excellent bands performing.
Where else can one attend a workshop exploring the differences and similarities between "cajun," and "zydeco," accordion styles, and then stroll over to the next stage where Wynton Marsalis is doing his thing? My friend, who couldn't make the trip to Louisiana that year, traveled instead to the Montreal Jazz Festival, and spent a weekend listening to jazz fusion and dancing the cajun jitterbug to some rocking zydeco bands from Louisiana.
A: "But is cajun music jazz?"
B: "They feature it at major jazz festivals, so it must be jazz."
A: "Thats a ridiculous argument. If it was really jazz, local cajun and zydeco performances would be listed in the Seacoast Jazz Society Newsletter."
B: Maybe cajun music isn't really jazz, but it does have many of the elements of jazz, besides, wouldn't the people who put together big time jazz festivals know the difference?"
A: "Do cajun bands play 'On the Sunny Side of the Street?'"
B: "No, but its amazing how much rhythmic and melodic improvisation a good zydeco band can get from a one chord dance tune."
A: "Aha!, got you there. Everyone knows that good jazz has LOTS of fancy chord changes. One chord doesn't qualify."
B: "Well, I guess that knocks out a number of modern jazz pieces from consideration."
A: "Wrong, Its common knowledge that "jazz" can't be precisely defined, and besides, the guys that play some of the more modern stuff know how to play 'On the Sunny Side of the Street' if they wanted to."
B: "I could play 'On the Sunny Side of the Street,' cajun style, on my accordion, if I wanted to."
Its no accident that modern dancing to cajun music is described as the "Cajun Jitterbug." Since cajun music and swing music come from the same roots in Louisiana, it makes sense that the dance moves are almost completely interchangeable despite the fact that cajun rhythms are often very different than swing rhythms. Cajun dancers just change the footwork to follow the different beat while incorporating all of the upper body turns and variations standard to big band swing dancing.
Similarly I find it easy to make the transition from playing swing piano in the Swing Pirates to playing cajun/zydeco tunes on my accordion with the Crawdad Wranglers. I'm biased. I like to dance. I like dance music. I like music with lots of improvisation. I like insistent, pulsating, repetitive rhythms. I like Count Basie's rhythm section. I like sizzling zydeco rubboard rhythm. I like to express myself with open ended soaring solos. Is cajun music jazz? I'll let the scholars and festival promoters decide. Would I perform cajun music again at the jazz festival? Easy answer.
Will I keep on playing swing piano and cajun accordion and calling them both jazz? Yes, as long as my finger tips can keep striking the keys, I keep getting gigs, and until the great goddess of jazz strikes me dead!
Ryan Thomson leads two bands: The Swing Pirates, who play 30's and 40's swing music for jitterbug dances, and the Crawdad Wranglers, who perform cajun and zydeco dance music from Louisiana. He teaches both swing and cajun dancing to beginners and has recently published a book: "Swing Fiddle, an Introduction," which surveys the field of early jazz and western swing violin playing. ISBN 978-0-931877-19-3.