It's all a matter of perspective.

Wednesday, October 30, 2002

I mentioned that I was writing a piece on jazz for one of my classes. The assignment was to write about something as an expert for an interested and uninformed audience. I do not claim to be a jazz expert, and I do not claim that everything in this post is true, but it fulfils the requirements for the course.

A Brief and Incomplete History of Jazz Music


Jazz has often been called the most American of art forms. It was the first piece of American pop culture to cast influence on cultures around the world. Indeed, the scholar Gerald Early once wrote, “I think there are only three things that America will be known for 2,000 years from now when they study this civilization: the Constitution, jazz music and baseball. They're the three most beautifully designed things this culture has ever produced.”
The most productive period in jazz music stretches from around the turn of the century until about the late 1970’s. During this time it morphed into many different sub-genera. It is my goal to list some of the more important of the instrumental styles and provide a brief description of them. Also I will list some of the trendsetters and name some recordings that are examples of each method.

Scott Joplin


Ragtime music was at its most popular around the turn of the century. The musician and composer most associated with ragtime is Scott Joplin. His first published piece, Maple Leaf Rag, was released in August of 1899. This was the most popular piano rag of its time. Joplin’s The Entertainer (1902) experienced a revival when it served as the soundtrack to the 1973 Paul Newman/Robert Redford movie, The Sting. and small ragtime bands

Although Joplin’s music was composed primarily for solo piano, there were also small ragtime bands as well as ragtime musicians who performed unaccompanied on guitar. A typical ragtime combo might have included a small drum kit or even just a bass drummer and/or snare drummer, a banjo, a piano, and a few horns such as cornet, clarinet and perhaps a tuba. Ragtime melodies are marked with cascades of steady sixteenth notes.

Louis Armstrong


Ragtime music made a natural progression into Dixieland. While Joplin lived in the Texas-Arkansas-Missouri area, Dixieland developed a little further south in New Orleans. Joe Oliver played coronet with brass bands in the parades and saloons of New Orleans from 1908-1919. Then in March of 1919 he formed King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band and moved to New Orleans. When Oliver invited a twenty-year-old Louis Armstrong to join the band in 1922, Dixieland music was at its peak.

The instrumentation in King Oliver’s band was two coronets, bass, drums, piano, trombone, and clarinet. Many other Dixieland bands included banjo. The trademark of this style is the way the melodic instruments improvise a different version of the melody over the top of each other at the same time. The Dixieland groups also featured solo improvisation and often vocals.

Louis Armstrong’s playing with King Oliver’s band won him the respect of all the Chicago musicians. In 1925 Armstrong left to form his own group. The recordings he made with Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five and Hot Seven between 1925 and 1928 are considered some of the most influential music of the Twentieth Century. As jazz music moved beyond Dixieland, Armstrong appeared in movies and on television where he went on to become one of the most beloved performers of his day.

Duke Ellington


During the Swing Era, from about 1930 until 1945, jazz music broke out into the mainstream. This was the era of the big band and the great bandleaders. Most of the popular big bands had a rhythm section consisting of drums, bass, piano, and sometimes guitar. The horn section usually included five saxophones (two tenor, two alto, one baritone) four trombones, and four trumpets. Radio and records spread the popularity of the bands that performed in dance halls across the nation.

The three most important bandleaders of the Swing Era were Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Benny Goodman. Benny Goodman is significant as one of the first popular white jazz musicians. Duke Ellington stands alone as perhaps the greatest jazz composer. He wrote beautiful melodies and complex arrangements that are still played by students of jazz to this day.

In swing music, group improvisation, typical of Dixieland, fell out of vogue. Instead the musical focus was both on long tutti sections where the entire band would play together and sections where one of the horn players would solo over the pounding rhythm section. But in all honesty, for most of the people, the focus was not on the musicians at all, but on the pounding beat that the masses had come to dance to. It was this focus away from the musical aspects that led to the next movement in jazz.

Dizzy Gillespie


Bebop was a reaction to swing in the same way that Punk Rock was a reaction to the bloated excesses of 1970’s Arena Rock. After World War II, musicians became dismayed with the musical stagnation of swing and its focus on dancing. It seems to me that the organizing principle of bebop was, “If they can’t dance to us, they’ll have to listen to us.”

Bebop featured small combos of musicians, usually just five or six as opposed to the fifteen or more associated with the swing sound. Most bands consisted of a rhythm section and just one or two horns. The music was fast and chromatic, often dissonant and completely undanceable. The musicians performing bebop were virtuosos. The standard form for a bebop tune is: The horns would play through the head or melody of the song, then the various instruments will play several choruses each of solo improvisation over the basic song structure, finally everyone will play the head together again to end the song.

The most important innovators in bebop were trumpet player Dizzy Gillespie, alto saxophonist Charlie Parker, and pianist Thelonious Monk. The music that they created represents the technical peak of jazz. Jazz has progressed since bebop principally by working through the advances of bebop or by grafting other musical traditions, such as bossa nova or rock, with modern jazz.

Chet Baker

Cool Jazz

The cool school of jazz was flowering at about the same time as bebop and is exemplified by the 1948 Miles Davis recording, The Birth of the Cool. Miles had moved to New York to play with and study under his idol, Charlie Parker. He became frustrated trying to play bebop because he did not have the technical skills necessary to play that fast. Davis’ response was to slow the music down and make it lush and harmonically complex. Davis’ band was larger than Charlie Parker’s, but smaller than the big bands of the Swing Era, and he included instruments that were new to jazz like the Harp and French Horn.

Cool jazz is the music that we associate with the coffee house, beatnik culture of the fifties. Other influential artists from the cool school include: trumpeter and vocalist Chet Baker, pianist Gil Evans, and pianist Dave Brubeck.


Modal Jazz

A reoccurring scene throughout the next thirty years was Miles Davis at the forefront of a new movement in jazz. This was certainly the case when he almost single-handedly started the modal approach to jazz. The modal approach uses a small combo playing simple head tunes with short, undemanding melodies. In the solo section, the musicians are given only one or two chords to work with. As this uncomplicated framework does not necessarily infer a specific harmony, (or key) the soloist is allowed to work within several scales or modes.

Davis’ 1959 recording, Kind of Blue is the gold standard for modal jazz. His band on that album: John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderly, Bill Evans, Jimmy Cobb, and Paul Chambers, was the next generation of jazz heavyweights.

Stan Getz

Latin Jazz

Latin music has had an influence over jazz since the early years of the Swing Era. One of the most popular bandleaders of the 1940’s and 50’s was Puerto Rican percussionist Tito Puente. It was his influence that led bebop stylist Dizzy Gillespie to write the Latin sounding hits Manteca and A Night in Tunisia in the late fifties. These songs would go on to be played by thousands of jazz bands and become considered as jazz “standards.” Latin jazz finally came into it’s own in 1962 when tenor saxophonist Stan Getz introduced the world to the bossa nova through the music of Brazilians Antonio Carlos Jobim and Joao Gilberto. Their hits Girl From Impanema and Desafinado are the consummate 1960’s Latin jazz tunes.

John Coltrane

Free Jazz

If bebop was a reaction to swing that took the music and made it more complex and less pretty, then free jazz took that idea as far as it could go. Combos playing free jazz improvised simultaneously and independently without the framework of a chord progression. The music was dissonant, experimental, provocative, and hard to listen to. Horn players manipulated their instruments to produce shrieks, squeaks, growls, and wails. Even for the late 1960’s, this music was too much for most jazz audiences. Many jazz musicians and critics, however, love free jazz and feel that its “organized chaos” was an inevitable moment in music’s evolution. Alto saxophonist Ornette Coleman, Tenor saxophonist John Coletrane, (from Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue band) and pianist Cecil Taylor made important free jazz records that college music students are still getting headaches from today.

Herbie Hancock


Once again Miles Davis spawned a new movement in jazz music in the 1960’s. This time he combined jazz improvisation and harmonic sensibility with the rhythms and attitude of rock. Davis’ bands from this era contained the jazz all-stars of the next fifteen years. His albums Bitches Brew, Live-Evil, and Paraphernalia introduced the world to musicians like saxophonist Wayne Shorter, keyboardists Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock, guitarist John McLaughlin, and Bassist Ron Carter. These players separated over the next few years to form the most important fusion bands of the 1970’s: groups such as Weather Report, The Headhunters, and The Mahavishnu Orchestra. Fusion bands use mostly electric instruments. In a typical fusion tune the rhythm section will set up a groove and the musicians will take turns improvising over it.

Opinionated Conclusion

Jazz has advanced little since the mid-70’s heyday of fusion. Most of what passes for mainstream jazz these days is little more than a mildly talented soloist improvising simple melodies over a drum machine driven band-in-a-box. There are still enjoyable jazz artists, (Wynton and Branford Marsalis, Diana Krall, Soulive) but they are typically working in the styles I have already listed. Indeed, a trip to the recently released jazz listings at showed mostly re-releases of old material by the masters that I have named. There are innovators out there, carrying the torch improvisational instrumental music. Groups like Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, John Scofield, moe., and the now defunct Phish form a genus of music that is more often referred to as ‘Jam Bands.’ For the most part, these innovators are not to be found on the radio and their music is rarely called jazz.

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