Reptile Jazz

The roots of jazz lie in the blues that originated in the Deep South, so it’s no wonder that much of this music contains allusions to the scaly critters that inhabit the region. Snakes, lizards, alligators… they pop up so often in jazz and blues lore you have to wonder what it is about reptiles that compels so many artists to name songs after them. Besides from just being “cool” (a sought-after adjective in jazz), reptiles have a lifestyle that I think many jazz artists hope to be aligned with. Reptiles bask in the sun, unmoving, seemingly without a care in the world, until one of two things force action: (1) the urge to eat and (2) the urge to mate. Sounds like a musician to me!

In addition, there are cultural memes that probably lead jazz and blues artists to associate with reptiles. A recurring myth is that of the traveling bluesman who has made a deal with the Devil in exchange for uncanny musical and sexual powers, a la Robert Johnson. These talents are both gift and curse as the blues player walks the earth, unloved by God with no way to get into Heaven. The serpent from the book of Genesis was similarly scorned by the Almighty. Anyway, that’s how it was written in the Good Book. We know that snakes evolved from lizards ca. 100 million years ago 😉

Here are a few of my favorite reptile-themed tracks:

Lee Morgan – “The Sidewinder”

Probably my personal favorite among this list, the track was part of the now classic 1964 session for Blue Note Records produced by the famous Alfred Lion at the Rudy Van Gelder Studio. Opening with a slithery drum/bass/piano blues and featuring an infectious staccato horn line, this is one of the funkiest jazz tunes ever. I dare you to listen to it once and forget about it (not gonna happen)!

Herbie Hancock – “King Cobra”

It was the early 1960s and jazz was about to make a huge leap forward – breaking from the confines of the straight blues of bop and swing and into the possibilities of alternative modalities and open times. Miles Davis had not yet assembled his famous groundbreaking 60s quintet yet, which would eventually include Hancock and the young drummer Tony Williams (who is 17 on this record). The drum solo at the end – dark and minimalist – is a sign of things to come.

Lou Donaldson – “Alligator Boogaloo”

This is an awesome swamp-water-filled bayou romp. Organ jazz at it s finest.

Herbie Hancock – “Chameleon”

Herbie is back on the list again with a seminal track. The ten years between the early 60s and 70s surged jazz forward, mostly due to the contributions of Miles Davis in his 60s quintet and then the “Bitches Brew” sessions – essentially inventing jazz fusion. Herbie was Miles’ pianist for much of that time,and in 1973 when Herbie put the funk in fusion with the mind-blowing “Chameleon”.

John Lee Hooker – “Crawlin’ King Snake”

Unfortunately, the blues is no stranger to misogyny. This king snake is not docile like any herper knows Lampropeltis to be. He is territorial, jealous, and mean.


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