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A Beginner's Guide to Jazz (1940's-1960's)

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An Introduction To Jazz (1940s-1960s)

As intimidating as jazz can seem to the uninitiated, it stands to reason that every music fan can find at least one element of this genre to his liking if properly introduced to the music. Spanning over 100 years and with countless legendary performers, a complete overview of jazz would be too much for one staff writer to conquer. What I've attempted to do here instead, is to focus on the primary question of "what is jazz" and limit myself to exploring 3 major jazz fields which may be discussed or reviewed on this site most frequently, namely: bop, hard bop, and avant/free jazz. (note: fusion will be dealt with separately at a later date)

What is jazz ?- The most basic definition would be that it's music that puts an emphasis on improvisation and retains a feeling of the blues. It can be as diverse as a big band swinging in unison or a soulful saxophonist wailing alone. It can be a singer crooning a standard or a quartet letting loose on a long improvised instrumental. It may at times borrow from other music but so long as it allows the musicians to express themselves freely and take the music to new and exciting directions if inspired to do so, it is jazz.

Where did it originate?- The true beginnings of jazz are nebulous and can be debated endlessly. One popular school of thought is that it originated from the New Orleans brass bands of the late 19th century. Untrained musicians, marching in long parades where they endlessly played the same melodies, would start to improvise with different variations of the musical themes as a way of relieving the boredom.

It grew slowly at first but started to really take off with the advent of recordings in the mid-20s. For a 50 year period thereafter (roughly 1925 to 1975) it evolved from New Orleans jazz and Dixieland, to swing, to bop, to hard bop, to avant-garde, while creating subgenres (Cool, West Coast, Soul jazz, to name a few) along the way. During its most creative period the music quickly discarded one style for another in a constant growth and exploration of new avenues of expression. Today, revivalists have returned to all of these styles and it can be said that virtually all forms of jazz are alive and being performed somewhere around the world.

Where is jazz going ?- The future of jazz is as unpredictable as the music itself. In the late 50s many connoisseurs argued that jazz would somehow merge with classical music. Terms like 'free jazz' and 'fusion' (as we know it today) were not in anybody's vernacular. Although some purists would like to see the music return to its roots and Golden Age, there will always be a fringe movement pushing the boundaries. Today's technology and plethora of instruments and electronics may give rise to completely new and exciting forms of jazz.

Where do I start exploring jazz ?- There are some excellent books on the subject( such as the AMG –All Music Guide To Jazz), which contains an overwhelming amount of information and reviews of all genres. Hopefully, this extremely condensed history of jazz and the subsequent exploration of 3 of the most exciting genres will open your mind and your ears to the exciting world that is jazz.

AMG-All Music Guide to Jazz

PART I- BOP

In the early 40's swing was king. If you played jazz, you belonged to a swing orchestra. Primarily a vehicle for dancing, swing jazz didn't always offer up enough challenges to many aspiring young musicians. The bandleader primarilycalled all of the musical shots so young talents who wanted to push their chops and their musical visions further needed an outlet. Tired of the clichéd riffing and predictable solos of swing, progressive-minded young musicians would gather together after gigs in small combos and bounce ideas of each other (Minton's Playhouse and Monroe's Uptown House in New York City were 2 of the most notable locations). In these cozy confines, the musicians experimented with various chord changes, and more demanding and challenging soloing. This went on, almost in secret, for the first half of the 40s, until in 1945, bop seem to suddenly emerge from out of nowhere. A recording strike, which lasted between 1942 and 1944, kept most musicians off records so the average listener did not have a chance to hear the birth and early development of bop. Thus, the music seemed to spring up all of a sudden, bringing jazz in a new direction. The music seemed a radical departure from the almost predictable patterns of swing. This new music was filled with fast tempos, eccentric rhythms and advanced harmonies.

Although it seemed completely outside of the jazz being heard around America, it was in reality merely a logical step beyond swing. It did differ from swing in certain and important ways. The piano was used in an entirely different manner. Instead of keeping beat with striding from their left hand (alternating between bass notes and chords) while the right hand played variations, bop pianists (with Bud Powell leading the charge) emphasized the left hand less, usually just playing the odd chords while the right hand played almost horn-fast solos (an approach used by nearly all modern jazz pianists to this day). Drumming was also altered as drummers did not always keep the beat with their bass drums and became more involved by accenting the music with more colorful and unpredictable fills. Horn players started soloing more by using the chord structures of the songs and not just the melodies. This form of chordal improvisation allowed them to get rid of the melodies and create their own within the structure of the songs' chords.

Dizzy Gillespie

Three names jump out of the pack of talented bop musicians and stand at the forefront of the genre: Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, and Bud Powell. Parker in particular, whose then unique phrasing, really gave bop the voice it required. Cutting his teeth in Kansas City with pianist Jay McShann's big band, Parker basically wrote the language which countless admirers and contemporaries then imitated around the world in subsequent years. Deeply entrenched in a blues sound, "Bird" was able to play lightning fast, coherent solos filled with highly exploratory improvisations. Gillespie (born John Birks) first gained fame and notoriety while playing for Cab Calloway. He had a knack for purposefully playing a 'wrong' note and making it seem logical. Ideological differences with Mr. Calloway (who accused him of playing "Chinese music") saw Dizzy go his own route where he quickly established himself as one of the most harmonically advanced soloists of his time. Powell's story is one of tragedy. He was beaten on the head by a racist policeman in 1944 and suffered mental illness for the remainder of his life. His contributions to jazz piano are immeasurable despite his brief career.

Aside from these 3 musicians, other exceptional visionaries emerged during the Monroe and Minton late night sessions. Thelonious Monk's idiosyncratic approach, Kenny Clarke's radical innovations (such as keeping time with the cymbals instead of the bass drum) and countless others moved the music through the decade.

Charlie Parker

The early Parker/Gillespie recordings from 1945 brought the genre into prominence. By 1948-1949, major record label executives tried to turn bop into a fad. However, the much more popular 'crooners' took over the market and bop never really took off as it should have. Part of the blame can be shifted onto the musicians themselves, who discouraged their audiences from dancing during their performances. Up until this time, jazz had been a very danceable form of music. Bop did manage to survive the 40's and became the precursor for such subgenres as cool jazz and, of course, hard bop. In a last little bit of irony, when free jazz started to get noticed and it's main practitioners were being condemned, bop; once the bastard child of swing, was considered a traditional, and even conservative form of jazz.

Essential Bop Recordings:

  • Charlie Parker- Yardbird Suite
  • Dizzy Gillespie- Complete RCA Victor Recordings
  • Bud Powell –Complete Blue Note and Roost Recordings
  • Thelonious Monk- Complete Blue Note recordings
  • Coleman Hawkins- Hollywood Stampede

    Thelonius Monk's Complete Blue Note Recordings

    PART II- HARD BOP

    Bop introduced complex chordal structures, rhythms and improvisations, and was not an easy form to grasp.It was founded by giants in the world of jazz who left huge shoes to fill. The 50's jazz musicians tended to want to play faster and solo more often. They sacrificed emotion and precision for speed. Although cool jazz was making itself known at this time, certain musicians wanted to step outside the limitations of that subgenre. Many wanted to introduce gospel and soul music to jazz. This new hybrid came to be known as hard bop. It flourished in the mid to late 50s. The basic formula was to use bop as a template but the tempos were usually much faster and the melodies were much simpler. Rhythm and blues influences were heard through the soloists while the bass players were given more room to roam and even allowed to solo on occasion. The 60's saw the genre start using modal music (which is basically staying in one chord for longer periods of time) and avant-garde influences began to appear.

    The hard bop sound took a while to separate itself from bop so it would be difficult to point to a certain recording as the true origin of the genre. Between 1952 and 1954, Miles Davis recorded for Blue Note (which became the premiere hard bop label) a series of albums that may be viewed as the first truly hard bop records. As the West Coast jazz sound started to die in the mid to late 50's, hard bop became the heir apparent to the jazz crown. Many young jazz players, who had cut their teeth listening to, and imitating, Parker and Gillespie, wanted to show off their chops. The LP, still in its infancy at the time, became hard bop's perfect vehicle as it allowed for 20 minutes of music per side, thus pieces of music of this length could be recorded and sold unedited. As stated earlier, Blue Note (then run by Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff) became the predominate hard bop label. Bands were actually paid to rehearse and encouraged to bring new material to the recording studio for inclusion on albums.

    Many musicians answered the call of hard bop. Probably the most important for promoting the genre was drummer Art Blakey. His Jazz Messengers (which he co-formed with Horace Silver) became a revolving door of great musicians. It could be regarded as a sort of hard bop school where young talent was encouraged to express itself in order to gain the necessary chops and confidence to pursue solo careers. The list of Messengers alumni reads as a who's who of hard bop and includes notables such as: Hank Mobley, Johnnie Griffin, Wayne Shorter, Jackie MacLean, Branford and Wynton Marsalis, Keith Jarrett, and Freddie Hubbard.

    Miles Davis

    Between 1955 and 1968, hard bop was the most dominant form of jazz, at least so far as to the quantity of records being recorded. It started to run out of steam by the mid 60s however. The most telling blow came with the sale of Blue Note records to Liberty, and then later to United Artists. Hard bop had lost its most important label. It managed to stay alive though and was resuscitated in the early 1980s when certain second generation jazz musicians (baptized the Young Lions by some) used hard bop as a major inspiration. Art Blakey and his Messengers were still alive and so a new generation of musicians (most notably the Marsalis brothers) made a new generation discover this genre.

    Essential Hard Bop Recordings:

  • Miles Davis- Volume I
  • Sonny Rollins- A Night At The Village Vanguard
  • Art Blakey- Moanin
  • Horace Silver- And The Jazz Messengers
  • Freddie Hubbard- Ready For Freddie
  • Wes Montgomery- Full House

    Art Blakey's Moanin'

    PART III- AVANT GARDE/ FREE JAZZ

    Free jazz is easily the most controversial and misunderstood genre that jazz has ever produced during its evolution. Free jazz is the severing of the ties of jazz as a popular form of music, and the casting of jazz as an alternative, experimental, artsy form of music. Free jazz musicians were obsessed with moving the music forward, even at the expense of having the audience understand it and appreciate it. The very foundation of jazz, namely its rhythms and harmonies, were all but tossed aside. The introduction of unfamiliar musical values left many fans and many old school musicians perplexed and angry.

    Free jazz does have roots in bop and hard bop. The first recordings date back as far as 1949, made by pianist Lennie Tristano (one of jazz's unsung visionaries). His band was possibly the first to use counterpoint in both the compositional and the improvisational aspects of jazz. The genre remained dormant until 1958 when the most famous (or infamous) free jazz musician burst onto the scene. I am referring to Ornette Coleman and his first album entitled Something Else!. A year later, he released the first of his monumental recordings for Atlantic records, The Shape Of Jazz To Come, which introduced to a wider audience his band mates Don Cherry (trumpet), Charlie Haden (bass) and Billy Higgins (drums). Coleman released stellar discs for Atlantic as well as for Blue Note. Recordings such as Change Of The Century and Free Jazz would forever alter the jazz landscape. What made his music so different than any other's at the time was the way in which he handled jazz's most basic elements, particularly tonality. His songs were fairly simple (some in 4/4), but Coleman utilized chromatic phrasings. By keeping the harmonies simple, he allowed himself maximum freedom to improvise. Not needing to make the changes of more complex melodies left him free to be as creative as required, based on the performance and not on the compositional exigencies of the music.

    Ornette Coleman's Free Jazz

    Although controversial, Ornette did have followers as other musical visionaries saw the unlimited potential of his approach and how they could adapt it to the development of their own styles. Pianist Cecil Taylor developed an approach that basically did away with both the tempo and the operative harmony. His unique and unbelievable technique produced some of the most dynamic atonal improvisations ever recorded.

    While free players like Coleman and Taylor worked primarily in obscurity, one of free jazz's greatest innovators was an already established figure in the world of contemporary jazz. John Coltrane had already made a name for himself in the world of hard bop, most notably as the tenor saxophonist for Miles Davis' quintet (baptized The Quintet) during the mid 50s. Coltrane constantly innovated during his career and contributed a lot to the vocabulary of jazz by continually pushing his harmonic, rhythmic, and melodic techniques during his improvisations. He seemed to be the antithesis of Coleman, as he kept creating more complex harmonies while Coleman was simplifying his. This striving for complexity probably reached it's apogee in 1960 with the landmark Giants Steps album. Coltrane then wanted to simplify his approach in order to gain more freedom to release his spirituality through his improvisations. He returned to modal jazz, which he'd explored briefly with Miles Davis in the 50s. He then proceeded to release a series of landmark modally inclined records in the early 60s with his quartet featuring McCoy Tyner (piano), Jimmy Garrison (bass) and Elvin Jones (drums), which culminated with A Love Supreme, viewed by many jazz enthusiasts as a masterpiece. 1965 saw him veer towards an even freer period and resulted in more landmark recordings such as Transition, Kulu se Ma, and Meditations. Coltrane continued to explore and advance jazz music until his untimely death in 1967 at the age of 40. Throughout his career, Coltrane's manner of improvising never varied greatly. It was always built upon his intensity and superlative chops. What did change later in his career are his musical surroundings. He experimented with various instrumentations and structures. His band went through personnel changes, which saw the inclusion of his wife Alice on piano and Pharaoh Sanders on tenor sax. The music he produced at the end of his career was very asymmetrical and built almost solely upon emotion.

    Both Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane were vital parts of free jazz, but weren't the entire movement onto themselves. Another prolific multi-reeds player was LA-born Eric Dolphy. Proficient on alto sax, flute, and bass clarinet, Dolphy began his career by playing within the framework of more traditional jazz. He even played with Coltrane for a brief period and the 4-disc Coltrane release Live At The Village Vanguard remains an eternal testimony to the melding of sounds and ideas of these two musical icons. Dolphy then struck out on his own and released some superb modal/free records that saw him peak with 1964's Out To Lunch. He died just a few months after that release so the true measure of his greatness will never be known.

    John Coltrane's A Love Supreme

    While the Coleman/Coltrane axis of musicians was primarily based in New York, free jazz was also being heard in Chicago. The Association for the Advancement of creative Musicians (AACM), born from pianist Muhal Richard Abram's Experimental Band was also pushing the boundaries of jazz composition and performance. The band saw notables such as Anthony Braxton and Jack Dejohnette come through its ranks. Its alumni also formed groups such as the Art Ensemble of Chicago, which became one of free jazz's better-known bands. Free jazz also started to appear all over the world. Musicians such as English saxophonist Evan Parker, Norway's Jan Garbarek, and Germany's Peter Brotzman all gained a certain notoriety in the 70s and beyond.

    Radically different from the mainstream jazz from which it was born, free jazz has always been a vital, albeit controversial form of music. It will always remain on the fringes of mainstream jazz where it will continue to flourish and push the boundaries of music like few genres have or can.

    Essential Free and Avant Jazz Recordings:

  • Lennie Tristano- Intuition
  • Ornette Coleman: The Shape of Jazz to Come/ Free Jazz
  • John Coltrane: Ascension/The Complete 1961 Village Vanguard Recordings/ Live In Japan
  • Cecil Taylor: Jazz Advance
  • Eric Dolphy: Out To Lunch
  • Art Ensemble of Chicago: Full Force

    Eric Dolphy's Out to Lunch

    CLOSING THOUGHTS

    In writing this essay I tried to remain as concise as I could. For the sake of brevity, I skimmed over and even ignored many genres and notable musicians. Some of my favorite musicians were left out of the loop so these closing thoughts are primarily to get their names out so that those of you who've yet to dive into the unfathomable depths of jazz will not overlook them.

    Charles Mingus was a brilliant composer, bass player, and equal rights activist. His career produced some of the finest jazz recordings ever and we owe standards like "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat" to his vision and talent. He was seen as being belligerent by both fans and fellow musicians. Equally at ease on piano as he was on bass, he was an enormous (in all senses of the word) talent and no study of jazz through the 50s and 60s would be complete without mentioning his name.

    Many of the sidemen for the brilliant visionaries mentioned were also very capable front men in their own right. Miles Davis' 2nd quintet introduced the world to great musicians such as pianist Herbie Hancock, whose music seemed all over the map as he constantly experimented with acoustic and electric bands throughout his career. Trumpeter Freddie Hubbard should also be mentioned here. He has played with many of the giants of jazz and can be heard on seminal recordings such as Coltrane's Ascension, Dolphy's Out To Lunch, and was also a part of Coleman's octet on Free Jazz. He too has recorded some memorable discs as a front man. McToy Tyner can be seen as one of jazz's best pianists, alongside such notables as Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk. Having been an intrical part of John Coltrane's quartet from the early 60s, his career remained fairly prolific after being replaced as Coltrane's keys man.

    I hope my brief introduction into the world of jazz will prompt some of you to take a chance on at least one recording or one artist mentioned herein. Of course, only purchasing one recording is not enough to make up one's mind on a genre as vast as jazz, but the journey of a thousand miles always begins by taking that first step.

    Yves Dubé

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