Jazz in Sicily: “Don’t bullshit, just play”

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“Jazz stirs the possibilities for creativity in the moment. Jazz is about human character. Jazz is about feeling, not just about entertainment. Jazz is healing.” — Herbie Hancock


Jazz in Sicily seems unlikely. The form found its way there and flourishes for reasons having strong parallels in America. Jazz caught on in Sicily because it was/is a remedy to lies. It is an authentic response among musicians and their audiences to a culture full of double-speak and suppression.

That jazz is now a more vibrant form in Sicily than in the land of its birth is not so surprising. For the island’s three-thousand-year history, Sicilians have endured struggles with diversity, suppression, and a culture of falsehoods. Through the lens of these struggles and the ubiquity of music as part of both religious and civic life, we can see how immigration and war brought an American musical form to Sicily where it now flourishes.

While speaking at Harvard, New Orleans-born trumpeter Wynton Marsalis called jazz ”a gumbo of sensitivities.” Many Sicilians entered the United States through New Orleans, and they loved that jazz gumbo from their very first taste.

In Sicilian villages, festa bands performed for Saints’ Day processions, funerals, weddings, and so on. (The bands still exist in many towns.) Through festa bands, Sicily produced a ready-made talent pool of passionate and creative musicians who took to jazz innovations with great enthusiasm.

Immigration and war fostered more exchange between Sicily and America. The big names of Sicilian-American jazz musicians are now well documented.  American Jazz fans celebrate the likes of Nick LaRocca, Louie Prima, Joe Venuti, Joe Marsala, and, of course, Frank Sinatra, and so many more.

Jazz in Sicily
Giorgio Gaslini

Yet there are other Sicilian jazz musicians who deserve notoriety, including Enzo Rao, Giorgio Gaslini, Lelio Luttazzi, and Franco Cerri.

Again, to quote Marsalis, “Don’t bullshit, just play.” Marsalis affirms jazz as an irrefutable fact. Theories may link identity and social change to catalysts for creativity, but it is Jazz’s very undeniability that is the message.

Through Jazz, Sicilians have learned a lesson from the New World now mostly lost on the New World. Edward Albee’s character Jerry from Zoo Story says, “Sometimes it’s necessary to go a long distance out of the way in order to come back a short distance correctly.”