A history of Jazz Music

by Piero Scaruffi
See also the The History of Rock Music and the The History of Pop Music
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TM, ®, Copyright © 2005 Piero Scaruffi. All rights reserved.
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(These are excerpts from my book "A History of Jazz Music")

Free jazz: borderline

In the 1960s a number of instrumental masters remained faithful to the general framework of bebop and hard bop while incorporating the spirit (if not the letter) of free jazz.

Possibly the greatest vibraphonist of the free-jazz generation, Los Angeles-born Bobby Hutcherson, who relocated to New York in 1961, played on Jackie McLean's One Step Beyond (1963) and Destination Out (1963), as well as on Eric Dolphy's Conversations (1963) and Out to Lunch (1964), before making Dialogue (april 1965), the album that set the pace for the rest of his creative career. Hutcherson gathered a sextet featuring trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, saxophonist Sam Rivers, pianist Andrew Hill and drummer Joe Chambers to play music that straddled the border between hard-bop and free-jazz, particularly in Chamber's ten-minute Dialogue. The vibraphonist's split personality emerged clearly from Components (june 1965), performed by a new sextet with Hubbard, James Spaulding replacing Rivers (on alto and flute) Herbie Hancock replacing Hill (on piano and organ), Ron Carter on bass and Chambers: the album was divided between Hutcherson's lyrical compositions and Chamber's free-form pieces. Hutcherson's compositional skills matured with the quartet experience of Happenings (february 1966), with Hancock and Chambers, that ran the whole gamut of influences from hard-bop (Bouquet) to post-bop (Aquarian Moon) to free-jazz (The Omen). His zenith was perhaps Verse, for a quintet with tenor saxophonist Joe Henderson, pianist McCoy Tyner, bassist Herbie Lewis and drummer Billy Higgins, on Stick-Up (july 1966); but then Oblique (july 1967), another quartet with Hancock and Chambers, ventured into Latin jazz (Subtle Neptune) and folk melody (My Joy) while relinquishing the creative leadership to Chambers (Oblique). For a while Hutcherson was to free jazz what Lionel Hampton had been to swing or Milt Jackson to cool jazz: the vibraphone as the exotic and alien timbre of a musical revolution. Not a call to war, but the elegant dress to celebrate the triumph. TM, ®, Copyright © 2006 Piero Scaruffi All rights reserved.

In 1967 San Francisco's tenor saxophonist Dewey Redman, who had already recorded an original Look for the Black Star (january 1966) for piano-based quartet, moved to New York and joined Ornette Coleman's quartet (1967-74). While his huge tenor counterpoint to Coleman's alto was mesmerizing the audience of free-jazz, Redman penned more originals for a trio session with the Art Ensemble of Chicago's bassist Malachi Favors and Don Cherry's drummer Ed Blackwell, Tarik (october 1969), particularly Paris? Oui!, Lop-O-Lop and Related and Unrelated Vibrations. Besides featuring three of the most creative minds of the free-jazz movement, it was moody and emotional music that related even to the audience of traditional jazz. He played alto on The Ear of the Behearer (june 1973), containing the twelve-minute bluesy Boody for a sextet with trumpet, cello, bass (Sirone), drums and percussion, and then also tried his hand on clarinet and zither in the trumpet-sax quartet of Coincide (september 1974), with the ten-minute Qow. Each of these albums was exploring a broad range of moods and styles, but Musics (october 1978), for a piano-based quartet (Mark Helias on bass), with the ten-minute Need to Be and the nine-minute Unknown Tongue, leaned towards the lighter of the spectrum. Soundsigns (october 1978) was its highbrow alter ego, containing a Piece for Tenor and Two Basses (Mark Helias and Charlie Haden on the basses) and the ten-minute Come Earth for harmonica, two basses and a saw. Redman formed a quartet with pianist Charles Eubanks, bassist Mark Helias, and drummer Ed Blackwell and recorded The Struggle Continues (january 1982), perhaps his most balanced album. Capitalizing on that sound, Living on the Edge (september 1989) for a similar quartet with Geri Allen on piano delivered Boo Boodoop and the feverish Mirror Windows, still straddling the line between tradition and avantgarde. Redman introduced his son Joshua on Choices (july 1992), whose highlights are precisely their interactions: the father on musette and the son on tenor in the 14-minute O'Besso, the father on alto and the son on tenor in the nine-minute Le Clit, both on tenor in the 13-minute For Mo. TM, ®, Copyright © 2006 Piero Scaruffi All rights reserved.

Florida-born trumpeter Charles Tolliver, who had played with a number of luminaries, from Jackie Mclean (1964) to Max Roach (1967-69), gathered pianist Herbie Hancock, bassist Ron Carter, drummer Joe Chambers and alto saxophonist Gary Bartz to cut Paper Man (july 1968), containing the nine-minute Peace With Myself, a demonstration of his aesthetic at the border between hard bop and free jazz. Tolliver honed his compositional skills on The Ringer (june 1969), in a quartet with pianist Stanley Cowell, particularly in the twelve-minute On The Nile. A 17-piece orchestra centered on Tolliver and Cowell debuted on Music Inc Big Band (november 1971) and matured on Impact (january 1975), with Plight and Mourning Variations. Tolliver basically conceived of free jazz as a way to enhance the expressive power of the bebop soloist and found a way to make this sensible within the traditional structure of the big band of swing music. TM, ®, Copyright © 2006 Piero Scaruffi All rights reserved.

Ohio-born and classically-trained pianist Stanley Cowell, who relocated to New York in 1966 and played with Marion Brown (1966-67), Max Roach (1967-70), Bobby Hutcherson (1968-71) and Charles Tolliver (1969-71), crafted cerebral and occasionally romantic compositions that straddled the border between hard bop and free jazz on Blues for the Viet Cong (june 1969), in a trio, such as the seven-minute Departure, the eight-minute The Shuttle and the nine-minute Photon In A Paper World, Brilliant Circles (september 1969), including the 15-minute Brilliant Circles, for a sextet with trumpeter Woody Shaw, Tyrone Washington on tenor, flute and clarinet, vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson, bassist Reggie Workman and drummer Joe Chambers, and Illusion Suite (november 1972), in a trio, containing even more elegant and complex pieces such as Maimoun, Emil Danenberg and Astral Spiritual.
After forming a keyboard ensemble, the Piano Choir Inc, documented on two volumes of Handscapes (1973 and 1974), and wasting a quartet with alto saxophonist Marion Brown, bassist Billy Higgins and drummer Ed Blackwell playing Afro-soul-jazz-rock fusion on Regeneration (april 1975), Cowell returned to the trio format for Equipoise (november 1978), that contained Equipoise and featured bassist Cecil McBee and drummer Roy Haynes, and Sienna (july 1989), with Sienna, Sweet Song and I Think It's Time To Say Goodbye Again. Like Tolliver, Cowell was an adventurous musician steeped in the tradition, who used the momentum of free jazz to increase the expressive potential of bebop. TM, ®, Copyright © 2006 Piero Scaruffi All rights reserved.

An Identity Crisis

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Despite the fact that jazz was mutating rapidly from decade to decade, it managed to remain "jazz", i.e. it always existed some kind of identity of jazz musicians that set them apart from, say, rock musicians, or even blues musicians.

While jazz was credited with a stronger emphasis on "improvisation", blues and rock music were also improvised, to some extent. Worse: the classical avantgarde began to experiment with improvisation (in fact, to a degree that jazz musicians had never even dreamed of). The myth that jazz music was created as it was performed (unlike music that was written) was just that: a myth. Classical conductors also had flexibility on how to conduct a symphony, so much so that one conductor's Beethoven could sound quite different from another conductor's Beethoven. Rock musicians often improvised to much wilder extremes than jazz musicians. And almost all the greatest jazz musicians were also great composers.

Initially the white audience could distinguish blues and jazz simply based on the pace (blues music was slow, jazz music was fast) and the function (jazz music was for dancing). But bebop changed that too, while rhythm'n'blues accelerated the blues and made it consumable by dancehalls.

And if rock music was almost totally white, jazz became less and less black as it spread to California and to Europe.

If the color of the skin or the pace were not enough to distinguish jazz from blues, and improvisation was not enough to distinguish jazz from any other contemporary genre, it was often left to the instrumentation to label the music. A clarinet solo was "jazz" because it was a clarinet solo, whereas a guitar solo could also be (and most likely was) rock. But, again, rhythm'n'blues and rock music started using jazz instruments, while jazz started using electrical instruments. Sure, rock bands were unlikely to include a brass section, and jazz bands were unlikely to include the banjo, fiddle and mandolin section of country music, but there were too many instrumental duplications across the various genres to allow for easy categorization based on instruments.

During the early decades of jazz, it was rhythm that helped discriminate between jazz music and other kinds of music. But the evolution of jazz went precisely against that dogma, and rhythm soon became one of the many fluctuating variables rather than a stable reference point.

There was something about a jazz musician's quest for the perfect timbre that was truly a feature of jazz music. Classical musicians strove for the perfect tone, but not for a "personal" tone: in fact, they were supposed to sound as "impersonal" as possible. Blues and rock musicians were not so much interested in the timbre as on the narrative structure, of which the timbre was just an element. But jazz musicians were obsessed with the timbre of their instrument. Jazz was a music of vanity, each musician trying to play the same theme in an ever more sophisticated manner. Each musician sounded different because s/he "was" a different person. It was important in jazz to channel one's personality into an instrumental "style". Thus the "style" of the improvising soloist was something that truly set jazz apart: jazz music was the art of creating a personal, distinctive style at an instrument. While rock musicians also did that, it rarely became an obsession among rock musicians.
Jazz musicians were, fundamentally, musical peacocks, spreading their tails to an audience that was made, first and foremost, of the other peacocks: the competing soloists. From the beginning, jazz was a competitive form of music. New Orleans' bands competed in city-wide contests, and the swing bands of New York competed in clubs such as the "Savoy" that boasted the most sophisticated audience (mostly black). The best jazz soloists engaged in "battles" too. Blues music had never been so competitive, because style had never been so important.

Thus one can view the history of jazz as the history of musicians (of African, European and soon even Far Eastern descent) who continuously reinvented the art of crafting a personal sound while assimilating styles and instrumentation that they were exposed to, from ragtime to rock to ethnic folk, from the trumpet to electronic and digital equipment.

Finally there was the ultimate identity test: the music industry, which was in turn the creator and a reflection of the audience. It was the record industry that labeled music. Jimi Hendrix was a "rock" musician because it was labeled "rock" by his record label. Had he been labeled "jazz", he would have still been a revolutionary musician, but of a completely different kind: a hard-rocking jazz musician, instead of an improvising rock musician. An artist who recorded for a company specializing in jazz was a "jazz" artist. Many artists might have as well recorded for rock or blues or classical companies.

In a sense, it was not the musicians who created a symbiosis with the audience, but the labels who did it. A label created a symbiosis with a segment of the audience by providing that audience with artists that were similar enough that they could all be labeled with the same term. The audience, in turn, bought records based on similarity, and therefore demanded that the industry categorized musicians based on similarity of style. It was this loop from the industry to the audience back to the industry that was, ultimately, responsible for the consolidation of musical genres.

However, all of these elements (more or less in ascending order of importance) constituted the real definition of jazz music. TM, ®, Copyright © 2006 Piero Scaruffi All rights reserved.

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TM, ®, Copyright © 2005 Piero Scaruffi. All rights reserved.