The World of Jazz - Benny Green


New Orleans


The Pianists and The Blues

Big Band


The first generation of vituosi

The birth of ‘modernism’

New frontiers

The 1960s and beyond


Introduction   [back to "world of jazz" table of contents]

In discussing jazz music, there is one overriding difficulty, which is that nobody has ever defined it to anybody else's satisfaction. But although jazz, like Hegel's beach, is neither land nor sea, it is a very definite musical entity, and is perhaps the most intriguing phenomenon with which the 20th century musicologist has had to come to terms. The two words most frequently applied to it are 'syncopation' and 'improvisation', each of which represents only a half-truth. All jazz is syncopated music, but not all syncopated music is jazz. Even more perversely, jazz is by very definition an improvised music, and yet some of its most brilliant and subtle performances have been achieved at least partly by the stratagems of prearrangement.

If there is a factor common to all jazz performances, it is that the musician is creating his own melodic variations on a given melodic theme, these variations being based on the underlying harmonies of the original material, the whole being conceived against a background of rhythmic syncopation. The student of jazz history can do no better than to concentrate on the harmonic aspect of the music, for only then do the

The story of jazz is in fact a story of harmonic exploration. Its greatest figures have been those adventurers who extended the harmonic territory available to the jazz musician, although it is wise to remember that so far as the history of harmonic advance in music is concerned, jazz has, until very recently, remained strictly within its own confines, so that what is defined in jazz as 'modern' is only modern in the jazz sense. Perhaps the most convincing demonstration of this vital fact is found in the chord of the minor seventh, one of the characteristic effects of the modern movement which transformed the face of jazz in the 19405. Although the minor seventh chord was virtually new to jazz, it was by no means an unfamiliar sound to the world of music at large. As early as 1859, the Russian novelist Turgenev describes one of his characters 'pausing entranced over minor sevenths', and in I907, Maurice Ravel's Introduction and Allegro opens with a comprehensive exposition of the use of the chord precisely as it was later to be deployed by the jazz musicians of the 1940s.

Jazz, then, has not only lived a curious existence isolated from the main body of music, but has lived that existence for no more than sixty or seventy years, which explains the feverish haste which it has evolved from era to era. In those seventy years, it has moved from the crudest primitivism to the most hypersophisticated Neoclassicism; so baffling has the overlapping of styles and generations become that it is possible for a founding father of the music to share the same concert stage with the most ferocious exponent of the avant-garde of the 1960s. And it is only if the rapid progression from style to style is observed in harmonic terms that the history of jazz falls at once into a logical, indeed inevitable pattern.

New Orleans      [back to "world of jazz" table of contents]

The beginnings of the music are obscured by an impenetrable fog, although it seems quite certain that the emancipation of the African Americans after the American Civil War made it inevitable that in time this oppressed minority, dumped in an alien environment, would seek its own forms of artistic self-expression. To the African American of Louisiana at the turn of the century, music was an integral part of his life and experience, and yet the conventional paths to musical accomplishment were closed to him. Not only was it impossible for him to attend a conservatory, or even more humble music lessons, but very often even the conventional musical instruments were beyond his grasp. For this reason much early jazz was vocal, and it was only very gradually that its influence began to stretch out from the church choirs where the seeds of its later stylistic devices were sown.

New Orleans at that time is usually described by the cliche, 'melting pot of the nations' and, like all cliches, that particular one is accurate enough. Old French, New American, Creole, African American and Native American, all races and cultures mingled, until gradually a new musical language arose from the chaos. People there not only thought in terms of making their own music, but also associated it with the mundane episodes of daily life. There was music at weddings, funerals, christenings, confirmations, picnics and birthdays, and because a great deal of this music-making took place out of doors, the loudness of a musician's tone became as important as the subtlety of his ideas or the proficiency of his technical execution. For this reason, bands were always led by trumpeters, and the rivalry between them was intense. The figure who stands on the border between legend and fact is the trumpeter Buddy Bolden, who, around 1900, was the undisputed trumpet champion of the city and, although no recordings of his work survive, it is evident from eye-witness accounts that, with Bolden, the convention of collective improvisation known as New Orleans Style had already evolved.

The classic New Orleans style was based on the interplay of three front-line instruments, trumpet (or cornet), trombone and clarinet; the trumpet embellished the melody, the clarinet contributing filigree effects above, and the trombone a bass foundation below. There was little or no solo playing as the modern student knows it. Integration of ensemble was everything, and it was even felt in some quarters, and still is among diehards, that solo extravagance stained the purity of a New Orleans performance. Perhaps more to the point is the fact that in Bolden's day individual techniques were so primitive that to avoid long solos was an act of personal prudence rather than of aesthetic morality.

It was evident that this classic style, which concentrated exclusively on ensemble textures, was doomed the moment a virtuoso appeared with the technique and imagination required to produce long bravura passages. This virtuoso arrived in the person of Louis Daniel Armstrong, born in New Orleans in 1900, and a protege of Joe 'King' Oliver, Bolden's successor as the trumpet champion of the bayou. As a teenager Armstrong played second trumpet in Oliver's band, but by his early twenties it was obvious that a whole new concept of jazz technique was evolving. In the face of Armstrong's gathering virtuosity, the New Orleans ensemble style, too restrictive to contain the prolific music of an unquestioned genius, was soon to split at the seams. But apart from the titanic proportions of Armstrong's gift, there was another factor which helped to kill off New Orleans as the center of the new music. In I917 its notorious Red Light district, Storyville, whose bars and brothels gave employment to hundreds of young jazz musicians, was closed by order of the U.S. secretary of the navy, alarmed by the regularity with which his sailors became involved in incidents of violence and dissipation. As we shall see, this was by no means the first time that a social or economic event was to turn the course of jazz history.

With the closing down of New Orleans' Storyville, the first watershed had arrived. Virtually expelled from his own city, the New Orleans jazz musician had now either to turn inward and restrict his music to the proportions of a local dialect, or seek new audiences. Inevitably the music spread, and it did so through two agencies, the northward migration of many of the best players and the riverboats plying their way up the

Mississippi from New Orleans to Memphis, St Louis and points north. All the riverboats employed bands and their importance as an evangelising agency can hardly be exaggerated. For many young white men, the sound of a riverboat band, as the great cumbersome vessels drifted into some small-town levee, was their first experience of the new music. The white cornettist Leon 'Bix' Beiderbecke, destined to make so profound an impact on the jazz art, was only one of thousands of teenagers galvanized by this experience.

The greatest of the New Orleans masters, King Oliver, soon became one of the leading attractions of Chicago nightlife, and it was not long before he sent to New Orleans for young Armstrong to join him. From this point on, the future of jazz as an international music was assured, although nobody suspected it at the time. New York had seen a feeble white imitation of the real thing as early as 1917 with the debut of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, the first group in history to make a commercial jazz recording, but it was not till the supreme art of men like Armstrong began to gather support that jazz really began to move away from its origins.

Chicago   [back to "world of jazz" table of contents]

By 1927 the central base of the music had moved to Chicago. Not surprisingly the jazz style which takes its name from that city was a musical reflection of conditions in Chicago at the time. A brash, coarse and excitable city enjoying its dubious distinction as the capital of Al Capone's bootleg empire, Chicago teemed with gin mills and speakeasies where illegal liquor was consumed to an accompaniment of loud, aggressive music. Chicago style was really no more than a modification of the old New Orleans methods, a compromise between the ensemble convention of the pioneers and the great age of solo virtuosity soon to come. The Chicago groups, composed of fiery, extrovert players who thrived in the brassy, violent environment of the town, usually began and ended each tune with the ensemble effect but filled in the middle with a string of solos, thus following the precepts laid down by Armstrong in a monumental series of recordings with groups he called The Hot Five and The Hot Seven (1927-28). In these remarkable performances Armstrong established once and for all the hegemony of the individual virtuoso over the group, but unfortunately not all who followed his example were able to shoulder the immense responsibilities which solo freedom endows. Most of the Chicago stars were white players whose talents varied from excellent to mediocre, but none remotely approached the heroic stature of Armstrong's music.

The three most interesting products of this school were the clarinettist Benny Goodman, destined to alter the whole social context of the music, Jack Teagarden, a Texas trombonist of sublime melodiousness, and Bix Beiderbecke, perhaps the most intriguing and romantic figure in jazz history. Beiderbecke symbolizes the middle-class white American with a musical aptitude, whose whole course of existence was changed through exposure to the new African American art. Beiderbecke had a harmonic sense which occurs perhaps once or twice in every generation, and had it not been for the fortuitous confluence of this aptitude and the sound of the new music, he would no doubt have been one of thousands of musicians who enjoyed a reasonably successful professional life without ever thinking about jazz at all.

Beiderbecke enjoyed a brief and riotous career, beginning in 1923 with a band of college boys called The Wolverines, and ending in bathos with the pseudo- symphonic puerilities of the Paul Whiteman Orchestra. At his peak, around r927, Beiderbecke, through the agency of an exquisite bell-like tone, produced sequences of subtle phrases which made up in introspective intensity what they lacked of the fire and passion of an Armstrong. Bix was also a self-taught pianist and casual composer, and his piano recordings of his own work remain a testimony both to his own gifts and to the twin influences of jazz and the concert hall, which he never resolved. He died in 1931 at the age of twenty-eight.

Recordings of the period give an impression of white and black musicians operating in hermetically sealed compartments, but although a tacit color bar operated both on the bandstand and in the recording studio, by the mutual admiration of Armstrong and Beiderbecke. Towards the end of the decade Armstrong made history with Knockin' a jug, the first jazz record to be created by white and black musicians working together, Jack Teagarden being among the players involved.

The pianists and the Blues   [back to "world of jazz" table of contents]

While the soloists were pursuing their quest for the subtler solo based on more sophisticated harmonies, a parallel development was taking place which was to have enormous influence in the years that followed. The pianist Fletcher Henderson one of the few pioneer jazzmen to have the advantage of an academic musical education had been experimenting with the larger type of jazz orchestra since 1923. His method was to hire outstanding soloists, cushioning their playing with simply conceived, written ensemble figures which might enhance the individual's effectiveness. A few earlier men, especially the New Orleans pianist-composer Ferdinand 'Jelly Roll' Morton, had been working along similar lines with smaller groups, but with Henderson the convention of sections of instruments within the frame of the large orchestra was born. Today, naturally, much of Henderson's scoring sounds crude, but his recordings retain their interest through the superlative work of his soloists, among them Louis Armstrong and the first of the tenor saxophone virtuosi, Coleman Hawkins.

However, in retrospect, by far the most important single event of the later 1920S was the arrival in New York from Washington, D.C. of the pianist-bandleader-composer Edward Kennedy 'Duke' Ellington. In his early New York days Ellington aligned himself with the flourishing school of two-handed pianists headed by James P. Johnson and Willie 'the Lion' Smith. The playing of this school was characterized by the towering rhythmic strength of the left hand and the ten-note harmonies of the right. Johnson and Smith were undisputed masters, but ironically the flower of their school was produced by their two pupils, Ellington and Thomas 'Fats' Waller, both of whom amended Johnson's 'stride' style to their own ends. Within a few years of arriving in New York, Ellington was destined to far outstrip orchestral experimenters like Henderson, but for the moment he contented himself with a mere quintet which grew by the end of the decade to exactly twice the size.Although there is no question that Johnson was one of the most influential as well as one of the most gifted of all the early jazz figures, his style was soon to be superseded by a new piano approach which laid down the precepts followed by jazz pianists to this day. The man responsible for this revolution was Chicago pianist Earl Hines who, through his work with Armstrong, conceived the possibility of the pianist producing right-hand figures consisting of single notes instead of Johnson's two-fisted clusters. Because the lines which Hines produced could be transposed on to any of the instruments able to play only one note at a time, the new style became known as 'Trumpet-style piano', and within a short time it was the Hines approach rather than Johnson's which spread across the face of jazz.

The late 1920S also saw the maturing of perhaps the greatest of all the authentic jazz singers, Bessie Smith, who specialized in countless variations of the traditional twelve-bar blues, singing lyrics whose earthiness and realism stand in stark contrast to the sentimentality of Tin Pan Alley which superseded the Smith repertoire in the 1930s. Bessie Smith interpreted the folk poetry of the blues with incomparable power and pathos. Her successors in the vocal field would find themselves deprived of that poetry and faced instead with the mawkishness of the conventional commercial love song.

Big band   [back to "world of jazz" table of contents]

Throughout the burgeoning period of the late 1920S and early I930S, jazz was tied economically to the prohibition laws which had caused the mushrooming of thousands of illegal drinking rooms, most of them employing a band, or at least a pianist and a jazz-tinged cabaret. And just as the closing of Storyville had brought about a radical amendment in the location of the jazz center, so did the repeal of Prohibition become a prime factor in the next great development in jazz history. It is interesting to note that so far jazz had been more or less the music of illegality, the background effect of the brothel and the speakeasy. Now in the mid-1930s, it was to take the first of its giant steps towards respectability, enjoying in the process its first taste of genuine mass popularity, and also a remarkably brilliant Golden Age of individual virtuosity, when the art of constructing a solo evolved with amazing rapidity.

The area which jazz now invaded was the ballroom of the Roosevelt era. The phenomenon was born of the touring Big Band, groups of twelve or fourteen musicians, meticulously drilled to meet the demands of strict-tempo dancers and ballroom managers who required the balanced programming of different types of dances. Although the jazz world hardly realized it, the age of innocence was over. The carefree days of the small group with its hit-or-miss approach were passing and, because the technical demands of playing in an orchestral setting were so severe, the jazz musician found himself equipped, for the first time in the music's history, to sell himself in more commercial markets. And most significant of all, the orchestrator now came into his own.

In retrospect the era of the big bands is the most hysterical and least comprehensible of any in jazz history. Orchestras became as keenly supported as football teams, and their individual stars as admired as boxing champions. Audiences were numbered in thousands, Hollywood beckoned to the more successful bandleaders, magazines conducted annual popularity polls evoking response from people all over America. Police had sometimes to be called out to control adoring crowds, and the profits soared into five figures, then six, then seven. Jazz now enjoyed the questionable prestige of its first millionaires.

What had happened was that the general public became aware of the surface excitement of jazz. A new generation of college students was delighted to find that the music it danced to was also an emergent art. Benny Goodman, the Chicago clarinettist who led the march into the ballrooms, later wrote that he and his musicians were totally unprepared for anything like the hysterical response they received. Goodman played for dancing and saw that instead of shuffling round the floor to his music, hundreds of the customers were crowding the bandstand instead, watching with rowdy fascination the feats of his drummer Gene Krupa, or his trumpet soloist Harry James, or his own dazzling pyrotechnics. Others soon followed Goodman, among them Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, a rival clarinet virtuoso to Goodman called Artie Shaw, Woody Herman, James himself, and literally hundreds of others. Eventually the big band boom was to peter out, musically if not commercially, in the decadence of the Glenn Miller Orchestra, which cultivated felicity of dancing rhythms at the expense of the jazz content, but for a long time it was the mastodons of the Swing Age who produced music artistically ingenious as well as commercially viable.

But it must be remembered that now that jazz was a saleable commodity, non-musical considerations were bound to impinge. Although it was Benny Goodman who was referred to as the King of Swing, neither he nor his business rivals were representative of the best in the big band art. Because of the curious tendency to include pigmentation of skin as one of the relevant factors in assessing artistic merit, the truly outstanding bands of the 19305 were placed out of court in the dash for popularity. The orchestras of men like Count Basie, Jimmy Lunceford and Chick Webb, although musically superior to those of Goodman and company, were not eligible for appearances everywhere m America, and so remained far behind in public acclaim. It was the Basie band which included one of the greatest of all sol masters, the saxophonist Lester Young, whose work as virtuoso in this age of the great soloist was to have far reaching consequences among the young men of the generation which followed him.

Young's name is bracketed with that of Coleman Hawkins as the man who gave his instrument complete coherence. Hawkins, rescuing the saxophone from the status of a vaudeville joke, had endowed the tenor with the full, rich sound of the romantic. He favored a hot sensuous tone and a passionate stream of arpeggios grouped together in a way which hinted at an instinctive mastery of form. Young provided an alternative approach in which the tone was distilled to a metallic honk, in which selection of notes superseded a proliferation o notes, and in which silence was used for the first time as a telling weapon in the soloist's armory.

Ellington  [back to "world of jazz" table of contents]

But a greater figure than even Young or Hawkins, and leader of an orchestra far greater than Basie's or Goodman's, was Duke Ellington. By the late 1930S, Ellington's mastery of orchestral textures had 'dowered to the point where his work was no longer in the same category as anyone else's in jazz. Unlike all other jazz orchestral writers, Ellington wrote not for grouped instruments, but for the individuals who played those instruments, so that the number of different effects he could achieve with a simple c major chord was limited only by the number of permutations he could command in a band of fifteen men. Ellington represents the greatest paradox of all for those people who believe that all authentic jazz must be improvised. A truer definition seen in the light of Ellington's prolific achievements, would seem to be that all authentic jazz need not be improvised, but must at any rate create the illusion of improvisation.

Ellington's development as orchestrator and composer has been of profound significance, because it alone refutes the otherwise justifiable claim that jazz music, although it can express deep emotions, is strictly limited in the breadth of its sensibilities. Through the agency of orchestral mastery, interpreted by outstanding soloists, Ellington has contrived vastly to extend the area in which jazz can operate with any validity, producing since the 1940s a whole range of extended works running concurrent with his more conventional exercises. These extended works, ranging from a series of Shakespearean vignettes (Such Sweet Thunder, 1957) to paraphrases of Grieg and Tchaikovsky (1959─60) have passed the acid test of remaining faithful to the original programmatic intent without sacrificing the animation and vitality of jazz.

Ellington apart, the musicians of the pre-war years, whether working inside the framework of the big bands or devoting their time to small-group work, were busily involved in the task of assimilating all the harmonic possibilities of the diatonic system. That is to say, whatever they played, there was implicit in every performance a home key, a key center, so that the harmonic conception of each essay in improvisation was strictly conventional in the I8th─century sense. There was to come a time when the limitations of the diatonic approach appeared repressive, but this was only because throughout the 19305 the great soloists plumbed so thoroughly all the diatonic possibilities. It is doubtful whether jazz had ever known before, or ever will again, such a proliferation of brilliant individual talents, ranging through every instrument from trumpet to string bass, and even incorporating one or two new ones, like the vibraphone and the electric guitar.

The first generation of virtuosi   [back to "world of jazz" table of contents]

While Young and Hawkins between them extended the possibilities of the tenor saxophone and unwittingly created a tradition which has endured to this day Ellington's Johnny Hodges was perfecting an elegiac, rhapsodic style on the alto saxophone whose reverse was the dandified elegance of his rival Benny Carter. Although Louis Armstrong had by now succumbed to the fleshpots of Hollywood, and his influence as a developing musician was on the wane, his effectiveness as a player remained enormous. The younger school was represented by the pyrotechnics of Roy Eldridge, the muted ferocity of Cootie Williams, the swaggering romanticism of Bunny Berigan and the quiet felicities of Buck Clayton. Jack Teagarden remained the classical trombonist, and while Thomas 'Fats' Waller became the sunset master of the now all but discredited stride school, disciples of Earl Hines' trumpet-style piano like Teddy Wilson were attaining a degree of technical proficiency which would have astonished the founding fathers of jazz. Belonging to no category and transcending them all was the solo pianist Art Tatum, a blind virtuoso whose technical command was so staggering that he was able to decorate his work with rococo flourishes so complex that even today the debate goes on as to his qualifications as a purely jazz artist. With the big bands came the day of the drummer-showman, symbolized by the frenetic Gene Krupa; while Ellington's string bassist Jimmy Blanton provided the first

proof that the string bass could be a solo instrument as well as a harmonic pulse in the rhythm section.

Perhaps the two greatest figures of this era were the singer who came at the beginning of it and the electric guitarist who symbolizes its close. Billie Holiday, daughter of an itinerant guitarist who had once played in the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra, may be said in one sense to have transcended even the achievements of Bessie Smith. Where Bessie Smith had utilized the genuine poetry of an ancient folk tradition, Billie Holiday had only the depressing pap of the commercial songwriting business at her hand. It is one of the miracles of jazz that, restricted in this way, she should have produced so many recorded masterpieces. It has been said that while Bessie Smith interpreted the poetry of the blues, Billie Holiday had to create her own, and on the evidence of her recorded small-group work, and particularly her exquisite duets with Lester Young, it is doubtful whether her equal will ever be heard.

If she represented the flower of the old diatonic thinking, then the guitarist Charlie Christian stands for its imminent dissolution. Christian was an unknown Mid-West musician who burst suddenly into the ranks of the Benny Goodman band, eclipsing not only all the other musicians in the group, but also every guitarist in jazz. Using an instrument amplified by electric power, Christian overnight transformed the guitar from a rhythm to a front-line instrument as powerful and as exciting as any trumpet or saxophone. But by the time of his advent, in 1939, the diatonic era was already drawing to a close. Men like Hawkins, Young and Carter had extended that system to its limits, and the new wave of players, which included Christian (he died in 1942 in his early twenties), having digested all that the old masters could offer, once again began to chafe at the restrictions of a convention whose widest possibilities had already been explored.

The birth of 'modernism'  [back to "world of jazz" table of contents]

The introduction of conscription in the United States in 1 942 dealt the big band boom its death blow, and this accident, combined with the effect of revolutionary thinkers like Christian, was to change the face of jazz so dramatically that within a few years diehards would be denying that the new music was jazz at all. Christian is a vitally significant figure in the emergence of the new modernism, not because he played a very dominant part, but because he is the sole figure who could be said to link the diatonic and modern ages of jazz, the one instrumentalist of great stature to bestride the two eras. His partners in the experimentalism of the 19405, Bebop as it was then called, were all strange young men with unfamiliar names, whose acceptance was to be a protracted and harrowing affair for all concerned.

Assessment of the new modernism of the 19405 is always made difficult by the fact that its outstanding figure, the alto saxophonist Charlie Parker, was the greatest improvising genius since Louis Armstrong and would unquestionably have excelled himself no matter which era he had been born into. A staggering technician with a tone of wild beauty, Parker's great achievement was to resolve the deep complexities of his harmonic thought into melodic patterns of the most ravishing beauty. Where his early partner in the modern revolution, the trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, was a shrewd and calculating musician with a professional grasp of harmony, Parker was much more the instinctive jazzman able to improvise on any theme, from the most sophisticated ballads to the basic blues formula. Several of his blues recordings, Now's The Time, Billie's Bounce, Parker's Mood, Chi Chi and dozens of others, rank among the finest versions in the entire jazz repertoire.

The Parker-Gillespie generation, by grasping the nettle of chromatic harmony, at one blow increased the size of the jazz musician's harmonic vocabulary tenfold. The dream of Bix Beiderbecke, that one day the jazzman would have at his disposal the complete harmonic palette used by the formal composer, had come true. But at a terrible price. Even the most indifferent layman can listen to a performance by anyone from Armstrong to Christian and recognize in it the same language with which he has been made familiar since birth, by lullabies, by nursery rhymes, by national anthems, and the rest of the daily diet of music to which Western man is exposed. But the new musicians, almost as interested in the thought processes of Debussy and Bartok as in those of any of their jazz predecessors, divorced the music once and for all from the mass ear. From here on jazz was to be a musician's music, its harmonic conventions so convoluted that it became increasingly difficult for the untrained ear to distinguish the justified neologism from the unjustified solecism.

What was most surprising of all about the new chromatic jazz was the incredible speed with which its implications were grasped by the younger musicians. Instead of a long period of digestion, by the mid-l950s musicians were once again showing impatience at the restrictions of the new harmony. Only this time the dilemma was a far more baffling one. The old diatonic player had at least chromaticism to look forward to. What was the chromatic thinker to do, now that disenchantment had set in once again ? The modern movement in jazz gradually evolved into a campaign to free the soloist once and for all from the tyranny of discord and resolution, to win what one or two of its younger theorists called 'freedom', by which they appear to have meant anarchy.

New frontiers    [back to "world of jazz" table of contents]

The break away from the conventions of harmonic structure was not sudden but slow and steady. One of the key figures in the early days of this movement was the trumpeter Miles Davis, an exquisite soloist whose introspective melancholia introduced a new mood into the jazz context. In a highly significant album, Kind of Blue, Davis probed the possibilities of improvising on a modal instead of a harmonic base, with the soloist guided not by chords but by scales. But even this revolutionary step did not endow the soloist with his hypothetical freedom. The great break was made around the end of the 19505 by the saxophonist Ornette Coleman who explained that a musician must be free to create any sound at any given time, and then produce quartet recordings to prove his intense seriousness about his theory.

The great paradox which has outfaced the attempt' by Coleman and the avant-gardists who followed him to create coherent jazz that was yet utterly free (Coleman's music has been referred to as 'free form') is that although jazz is the one musical art which glorifies the individual performer, it is by its very nature a communal enterprise, so that the moment any two jazzmen come together, they either have to agree on some prearranged pattern, or drift into chaos. Coleman's dialectics would be more to the point if he and his followers were each satisfied to play alone in a room.

Another attempt to find a way out of the impasse has been the quite different movement to integrate the vitality and stylistic devices of jazz with the formal conventions of concert music. This has taken several forms, from the austere Europeanisation of jazz by the pianist John Lewis and the Modern Jazz Quartet, to the use of flamboyant Afro-Cuban rhythms and textures by Dizzy Gillespie, the experiments in arcane time signatures by Dave Brubeck, and the 'third stream' movement involving the brass player Gunther Schuller and the trombonist Bill Russo. So far the wedding has been barren. Lewis, in attempting to refine the coarsenesses of the jazz muse, has thrown out the baby with the bath water; Gillespie's rhythmic eccentricities are really the old modernism hiding behind a battery of percussive exotica; while Brubeck's thumping platitudes, when seen in the light of the grace of Tatum or Hines, are reduced to very minor proportions.

Third stream experiments have shown so far that after all the soloist, happy or not with the old-fashioned business of resolving his discords, sounds more effective inside the frame of a jazz unit than in the ranks of a classical orchestra. To what extent the instrumental mannerisms of jazz will eventually influence the classical composer remains to be seen, but there is no question that the modern orchestral writer will ignore the innovations of jazz at his own peril. From the jazz standpoint there are parallel dangers. Evidence so far suggests that, in his attempts to merge with the main stream of Western orchestral music, the jazzman is exposing himself to the possibility of losing the one property of his art which justifies its existence, its vigor. The jazz soloist is, after all, an impromptu composer, and the degree to which he can subordinate this talent to the notes on the printed sheet is problematical.

The I960s and beyond   [back to "world of jazz" table of contents]

In the meantime the influence of jazz continues to grow. In the 19605 there is no film score entirely free of its presence. Indeed, a few jazz figures, among them Ellington, Miles Davis and John Lewis, have already composed full film scores of their own with a considerable degree of success. Television commercials, popular music, operetta, musical comedy, all now bear the stamp of the jazz influence, and it is extremely doubtful whether in fifty years time any composer of music in the world will be considered to know his craft without at least an elementary grasp of the processes of making jazz.

However, the most serious question currently faced by the jazz world concerns its very existence. Jazz is based on the principles of improvisation on a given harmonic base. Already the jazz musician, frustrated by the limitations of harmony, is rejecting this convention and in the process of destroying the frame which has lent coherence to his art in the past. It may well be that jazz music is, after all, a finite art, that all practical possibilities have now been exhausted, that the intrepid explorer, having crossed a whole continent of harmonic thought, has finally reached the sea. But if no new styles seem imminent, the jazz follower of the 19605 can at least console himself with two thoughts; first, that jazz has always proved in the past to be an utterly unpredictable form, and second, that masters of all styles coexist today in an atmosphere of healthy exchange. As to the unpredictability of jazz developments, the history of the music contains too much proof to be denied. Who could have predicted that a contemporary of Louis Armstrong, the soprano saxophonist Sidney Bechet, would emigrate in old age to Paris and there enjoy a new career of such staggering brilliance that those who never saw him in the flesh could not credit the fact that he was a septuagenarian? Who could have predicted that jazz, an essentially Black American art form, would find in the music of a Basque gypsy called Django Reinhardt some of its finest moments, or that Reinhardt would reverse the order of things and cause American guitarists to copy him?

Above all, who could have known that jazz, the art of the improviser, would achieve its apotheosis in the work of Duke Ellington, a musician who for fifty years has been committing jazz to manuscript without impaling its vitality on the end of his pen-nib? Posterity may well come to acknowledge that Ellington, who started out as a primitive stride pianist, ranks among the great orchestral innovators of 20th─century music, and that his jazz label is irrelevant.

Jazz is now an eclectic affair. Stan Getz, a stylistic descendant of Lester Young, co-exists with Sonny Rollins, a saxophonist whose work shows jazz extended as far as it can go without abandoning entirely the harmonic frame. The pianist Oscar Peterson has developed the findings of Earl Hines to the very highest point of sophistication, while Parker's old contemporary Thelonious Monk, with his fetish for jagged dissonance, has contrived to preserve much of the primitive fire of the early pianists. That it is still possible for the young player to achieve originality of style without either pillaging the works of the past or throwing formal discipline out of the window is proved by the young vibraphonist Gary Burton, perhaps the strongest candidate for greatness among the new generation. What is quite certain is that whether the future of jazz lies in the wedding with formal music, or in its reckless pursuit of free form, there can be no turning back. One of the essential acts of the harmonic explorer is that he burns all his bridges. The jazz musician today is a hypersophisticated animal, versed in every harmonic subtlety. Whether he has left himself any fresh fields to conquer remains to be seen.

Larousse Encyclopedia of Music

[back to "world of jazz" table of contents]