Friday, April 9, 2010

Volume Seven: Better Get Hit in Your Soul – Bop, Third Stream, and Chamber Jazz


150. Mose Allison: Back Country Suite (Blues)
(Mose Allison) 1957

151. Dexter Gordon: Love for Sale
(Cole Porter) 1962

152. The Jay and Kai Trombone Octet: Night In Tunisia
(Dizzy Gillespie) 1956

153. Del Close and John Brent: Basic Hip
(Del Close-John Brent) 1959

154. Joe Morello Quartet featuring Art Pepper: Yardbird Suite
(Charlie Parker) 1956

155. Sonny Rollins: St. Thomas
(Sonny Rollins) 1956

156. Moondog: Chaconne in G Major
(Moondog) 1977

157. The Modern Jazz Quartet: Django
(John Lewis) 1954

158. The Jimmy Giuffre 3: The Train and the River
(Jimmy Giuffre) 1956

159. Charles Mingus: Better Git It In Your Soul
(Charles Mingus) 1959

160. Thelonious Monk: Misterioso
(Thelonious Monk) 1948

161. Miles Davis: So What
(Miles Davis) 1959

162. John Coltrane: My Favorite Things
(Richard Rodgers-Oscar Hammerstein) 1960


“Basic to hip is the concept of digging: to dig. Mr. Geets Romo, how would you define ‘dig’?”

“Well, you know, man, like when you dig something.”

-- Del Close and John Brent, “Basic Hip”

Actor and satirist Del Close, in his improvised collaboration (with actor John Brent), How to Speak Hip, explored the innate difficulties of the terminology applied to music and culture within the fifties jazz world (and within mass media understandings of ‘hip culture’). While the singles-oriented rock and roll of the period was splintering into countless subgenres still defined by the catch-all term rock and roll, jazz was splitting into camps with ever-evolving and ever-more-confusing names, most often defined by how they differed from the jazz that had preceded them: (be)bop, post-bop, cool jazz, East Coast, West Coast, chamber jazz, the Third Stream. All of these were lumped together by the post-war, pre-JFK press into a catch-all term of their own: modern jazz.

Modern Jazz, a term almost never used today, was the shorthand for post-Swing (which was still, in some quarters, synonymous with “popular music”), post-World War II jazz that was not traditional, Dixieland jazz (as practiced still, in the fifties, by Louis Armstrong and dozens of professional and amateur musicians). Modern jazz was one of the first, if not the first, movement in popular music to define itself by its inaccessibility to the mainstream, in contradistinction to traditional or Dixieland jazz; Chuck Berry sang, in “Rock and Roll Music”, “I got no kick against modern jazz / Unless they try to play it too darn fast / Lose the beauty of the melody / Until it sounded like a symphony.” Indeed, in the world of modern jazz, building on the achievements of Charlie Parker (speed, unusual and difficult harmonic structures) and Duke Ellington (ambitious, thematic compositions and writing to the strengths of individual virtuoso soloists) through to the overt (The Modern Jazz Quartet) and covert (Charles Mingus) aspirations to symphonic complexity, these were often the very points of the existence of modern jazz. Modern jazz became, in the world of the popular press, along with beat poetry, recreational drugs, bongos, and berets, one of the central accoutrements of beat (more likely rendered “beatnik”) culture.

Jazz traditionalists separated themselves from the growing movement: no less than Louis Armstrong parodied Dizzy Gillespie in song, deriding “flatted fifths” while wearing a beret, and Tommy Dorsey accused the progenitors of bop of being communists. As often would prove the case in the popular culture to come, the outsider form termed modern jazz, would eventually provide the cultural norm; what most contemporary listeners consider jazz is not Dixieland nor swing, but the work of the bop and post-bop masters, Parker and his acolytes, particularly the four major figures: Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Charles Mingus.

With the introduction of the long-playing record in 1948, jazz composers and performers could now record, in their entirety, their lengthy compositions, thus pushing jazz farther from the popular singles/teenage audience. Furthering this separation was the total non-danceability of Parker-influenced bop: signs at Birdland and other jazz clubs appeared, emphatically proclaiming “No Dancing”. Bop, as practiced by Parker, was an intellectual form, demanding to players and listeners alike. While often blinding in its speed, it was subtle in its execution, and required classical-music-like concentration in order to be played or appreciated in full, a tall order for popular music listeners of the day, and one to which its creators did not choose to pander. As the central conceit of Del Close’s “Basic Hip” suggests, modern jazz doesn’t need to be explained: “In other words, the phrase ‘I dig’ not only means ‘I understand’, but ‘I am a special sort of person who understands in a very special sort of way.’”

It is tempting, then, to associate modern jazz with earlier artistic movements termed modernist. Certainly, its difficulty and often seemingly abstract quality, prompted the untrained to liken this jazz to Jackson Pollock’s paintings, The Waste Land, and Stravinski’s Rite of Spring. And a case could be made that, in terms of intentional elitism, the modernists of jazz share with their literary forbears an affinity for complex allusions to earlier work (dropping bars or themes from the classical canon, popular song, and Dixieland standard into their compositions with equal ease), but the comparison strains under further scrutiny. Mingus’s and Coltrane’s work, particularly, are better likened to the later works of T.S. Eliot (Mingus, late in life, toyed with creating a musical version of Eliot’s Four Quartets, and enlisted Joni Mitchell to assist in that very purpose), attempting to rebuild a structure out of the broken “shards” of the past, with Mingus eventually returning to quasi-classical structures and themes (Pre-Bird) that he first explored as a teenage composer and Coltrane relentlessly pursuing spiritual aims within his music.

What jazz musicians and composers drew from the innovations of Charlie Parker, in addition to a propensity for lightning-fast playing and heroin addiction, was a questing for the next big development, a pushing against any and all barriers that produced the most fertile period in jazz history, one in which all genres of jazz were intermingled, in the best of the era, in bewildering and sublime displays of both technique and soulfulness. It is not an accident that many of the major figures of the fifties apprenticed with Parker or Dizzy Gillespie (“bop’s chief organizer”, as he is called in Ken Burns’ Jazz). It is also not an accident that many of the leading figures were finally catching up to the compositional innovations of Duke Ellington, himself still producing challenging works throughout the fifties; Ellington’s unconventional chord voicings and his trademark of providing solo space within otherwise tightly-structured compositions inspired Monk, Mingus, and other bop veterans not only to cover standards in Parker-like deconstruction, but to write their own ambitious pieces.

Initially, the post-Parker jazz landscape divided itself into East Coast and West Coast schools, much as hip-hop would do forty or so years later. East Coast jazzers favored fast-played, technically dazzling emulations of Parker; West Coast jazzers, who were predominantly, but not exclusively, white, preferred to play cool – laid back, but still harmonically complex, often including motifs and arrangements drawn from classical music or the late-period jazz-classical fusions of Artie Shaw or Stan Kenton. The era’s best musicians (especially Mingus and Davis) straddled these lines, eventually obliterating them. Parker’s greatest pupils, the saxophonists Art Pepper and Sonny Rollins carried Parker’s legacy in different ways, Pepper as stylistic imitator, Rollins continuing Parker’s sense of the innate possibilities of jazz (and particularly, the saxophone) as tool for personal exploration and expression. Tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon, a contemporary of Parker’s in the early bop era, took Lester Young’s influence and big, bold tone through the post-bop era and, in turn, influenced John Coltrane, who would prove to rival Parker in influence and popularity.

In the wake of Parker’s death in 1955 at age thirty-four, from the accumulated damage of years of substance abuse, the jazz innovation most lauded in the jazz press was The Third Stream. The Third Stream, a term coined by composer Gunther Schuller, described a music that was neither jazz nor classical music, but combined and “required proficiency” in both. Schuller was adamant that “classical music played on jazz instruments” and “jazz played by traditionally classical instruments” were not Third Stream jazz. Today, the term is often applied to the collaborations of Miles Davis and arranger Gil Evans, to the orchestral works of Charles Mingus, and to the “Bach meets bop” approach of John Lewis’s Modern Jazz Quartet. A rather more efficient and descriptive term is “chamber jazz”, that is, jazz that, like chamber music, is played by small ensembles, often drawing inspiration from classical (usually baroque) music.

While the Third Stream momentarily enchanted some critics, few works found great popular success, although Miles Davis and Gil Evans’s Sketches of Spain and the elegant Modern Jazz Quartet did. The MJQ, all veterans of Dizzy Gillespie’s big band usually wore tuxedos in performance and didn’t interact with their audiences, aspiring to not only classical forms, but also classical decorum, often exhibiting, even in their tribute to Django Reinhardt, a humorlessness most foreign to jazz. Jimmy Giuffre, a West Coast proponent of the Third Stream, called his music “blues-based folk jazz”; Giuffre’s trio, which included guitarist Jim Hall, was a major influence on the British folk-blues revival, and particularly on guitarist Davy Graham. J. J. Johnson, a trombonist who had played with Parker and with Miles Davis, was also classed among the Third Stream musicians, though his most popular success occurred with a series of Parker-influenced big band recordings with fellow trombonist Kai Winding, and, at times, up to six other trombonists; their reworking of Gillespie’s “Night in Tunisia” is perhaps that song’s definitive version. Ironically, the most perfect fusion of classical form and jazz spirit, including its humor, belonged to Moondog, a blind, homeless, New York composer who dressed in homemade Viking-inspired clothing and whose compositions, like those of Thelonious Monk, bear an instantly recognizable signature and a joyousness redolent of Dixieland.

While the Third Stream and chamber jazz aspired to a pseudo-European seriousness of purpose, Mississippi-born singer-songwriter-pianist Mose Allison was moving in the opposite direction, embracing the form and humor of the blues, as filtered through the fierce technique of bop. Allison’s major influences were Armstrong, Hoagy Carmichael, Ray Charles, and Hank Williams, and his laconic, verbally-complex, self-aware, if not self conscious, blues songs went on to influence more rock performers than jazz ones: Bob Dylan, the Who, the Yardbirds, Van Morrison, Tom Waits, and Elvis Costello among them.

The figures most difficult to classify generically, finally, are the best remembered of the period. The works of Monk, Mingus, Davis, and Coltrane, among non-jazz listeners today, are the figures most often heard, and their albums the most frequent to appear in non-jazz collections. Pianist-composer Thelonious Monk appeared at the height of bop in the late forties, seemingly fully-formed as personality and composer, and continued until the late sixties, often re-recording the same set of highly-logical, mathematically-complex, eminently catchy and humorous compositions until the general public caught up enough to appreciate his percussive, impressionistic style. Bassist-composer Charles Mingus, who apprenticed with Armstrong, Ellington, and Lionel Hampton, wrote and recorded prodigious amounts of material from the forties to the seventies, drawing from nearly all of jazz’s styles within his sprawling, episodic compositions and “group improvisations.” Accused by the press of writing works that were too cerebral, Mingus responded with the album Blues and Roots, the songs “Haitian Fight Song” (from The Clown) and “Better Git It in Your Soul” (from Mingus Ah Um), shattering fusions of gospel, blues, and hard bop that convinced all doubters of Mingus’s pedigree in all forms of American music.

Miles Davis, impeccably dressed and personally unapproachable, technically brilliant and taciturn, who began with Parker, was one of the first players of cool jazz, exhausted the possibilities of the Third Stream, developed modal (non-chord-change-based jazz) from ideas of Mingus’s and pianist Ahmad Jamal’s, perfected hard bop, essentially invented jazz-rock fusion, and ended his career with popular, though critically-derided pop-jazz that birthed today’s smooth jazz. He is, for many people, the face of jazz. Kind of Blue, the highest selling album in jazz history, with “So What” as its opening track, is usually the first jazz album recommended to non-jazz listeners who want to explore the genre.

In many ways, the jazz of the fifties represents a generation of musicians coming to terms with the legacy of Charlie Parker, and with the rapidly-changing role of jazz in popular culture. Saxophonist-composer John Coltrane, who had played with Parker and Monk became a part of Davis’s quintet (and appeared on Kind of Blue) before taking Parker’s mantle as the guiding force of jazz. Stylistically, he drew speed and fearsome technique from Parker, but his “sheets of sound” style was overpowering where Parker’s was precise, substituting metallic howls of ecstacy and agony for Parker’s intellect and humor. His covers, especially of the Rodgers and Hart “My Favorite Things”, were not so much deconstructions or reinventions as explorations, pushing the harmonic and rhythmic structures of songs through endless inventive variations and straining the songs’ structures close to, but not past, the breaking point. His relentless quest, eventually giving birth to free jazz, and inspiring jazz’s infatuation with India, mysticism, and Afro-centrism, was ultimately, the truest heir to Parker’s spirit, harnessing its technique to his own spiritual concerns, while moving jazz further still from the mainstream of American popular music, and, closer, without the stated pretensions of the Third Stream or chamber jazz, to something like art.



Christopher said...

This is the stuff. I could listen to it always. And the timing of your posting makes me feel really bad for passing up a chance to see Sonny Rollins on Sunday in favor of a Heavy Trash show. That said, everyone should listen to both Rollins and Heavy Trash more than they do. I hope there's some posting of West Coast and Cool Jazz to come.

History of Pop said...

Chris: I agree. This is one of my favorite segments of the blog list, and a genre I return to again and again. And, yes, there's more West Coast and Cool in future postings, along with more hard bop and free stuff in a few posts.