Classical: On The Air

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ANYTHING VAGUELY millennial or 20th century is branded "Sounding the Century" by the BBC and I've thoroughly lost my way among its widely dispersed sub-series, such as The Year and Settling the Score on Radio 3. There seems to be a compulsion to take stock of our cultural baggage as if we're in danger of losing it in 12 months' time, but "Sounding the Century" hasn't - so far - been broadcast, if it has even been planned, in a way the listener can make sense of. Radio 3's first commitment seems to be its inexorable DJ-led sequences; and programmes that are really about something, whose content is deeply considered, are not given scheduling priority.

One hopeful sign of a more focused approach to the millennium was the first of a 52-part history of jazz which Russell Davies launched in the early evening last Saturday. This first 30-minute talk, with generous musical illustrations, was by way of a ground-clearing operation, seeking a definition of jazz.

Of course, everybody knows that jazz is not a matter of what instruments or how many, and Davies merely dismissed that suspicion - at some length - in order to play some cute examples, such as the boogie-woogie player Meade Lux Lewis tickling a celesta. Some great jazz musicians disliked the word "jazz" altogether, protesting that they were simply playing music. Yet when an ad hoc wind quartet, including Coleman Hawkins and John Coltrane on tenor saxes, played "Abide with Me" on a Thelonious Monk album, they were certainly making a statement about musical style. Davies called them "po-faced" - though "insouciant" might have accounted better for their combination of strict tempo, casual ensemble and slipped note-endings to allow for massive intakes of breath. So-called "classical" musicians would have tried, even if they didn't succeed, to play that hymn tune together; and they would have rounded each phrase as if patting it into shape, not ostentatiously left it to take care of itself. But they wouldn't have had such an unshakeable sense of beat.

Davies used this example to show that you couldn't necessarily tell jazz by the names of the players. But even though these musicians were not about their most serious business, they still exuded the spirit of jazz, early definitions of which, Davies pointed out, were "messing around" or "taking liberties". Those aren't trivial interpretations, if considered in a historical context, and though you could hardly argue against the grander description of jazz as "an expression of the American spirit", Davies's most telling insights came at the start of the programme when he analysed the characteristics of a snatch of Louis Armstrong (left)warming up over studio chatter. This allowed him to pinpoint some of the characteristics of jazz - in particular, an aggressive quality of attack, strict pulse, and flexible pitching. To which he added a declamatory character. Even Armstrong's short first note - "a bit like the explosive call of a jackdaw" - proclaimed him a jazz player. If the rest of the series can match this level of enlightenment, it will be unmissable.

`Jazz Century' is repeated at 11.30pm today on Radio 3