A history of Jazz Music

by Piero Scaruffi
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(These are excerpts from my book "A History of Jazz Music")

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TM, ®, Copyright © 2003 Piero Scaruffi All rights reserved.

The "swing" era seemed to last an eternity. It was the first black phenomenon to give a name to an era of the USA (or any western country). Jazz music was acknowledged and imitated throughout the world, even by classical composers such as Stravinsky. But, overall, big bands and swing gave jazz a bad name. Jazz became a "dance craze", a form of light entertainment, a career for musicians who failed at serious music, an industry (not an art) whose only goal was to sell a lot of records (selling a lot of records had become the new trendy way to become rich). Ellington himself was aware of this and was trying to distance himself from swing music.

The first major innovation that destabilized the world order introduced by swing was "bebop".

Swing had been the soundtrack of World War II, a way to vent the angst and to exorcize the fear. It was also a way to capture stability in a time of high instability. At the end of the war, the psychology reverted: swing became a bad memory, and it suddenly sounded anachronistic.

The psychological revolution was particularly felt by the blacks. Before the war, they had tasted success and wealth for the first time in their history. They had discovered that there was money to be made by entertaining white folks. By the end of the war, that capitalist excitement had subsided: blacks wanted to be respected, not only employed. They wanted cultural emancipation to proceed in parallel with material emancipation. (The vast majority, of course, got neither).

At the same time a less visible revolution took place after the end of the Prohibition (december 1933). The "speakeasy" (the club for illicit consumption of alcohol) became legal. By definition, the speakeasy was small and underground (and illegal). It could employ only small combos, and certainly not the big bands that ruled the charts. Thus the speakeasies had been creating a culture of small combos that was alternative to the mainstream culture of big bands. They had been creating a trend without being aware of it. The end of the Prohibition allowed New York's decade-old speakeasies such as the "Onyx Club" (opened in 1927) to cater to a broader audience and to present its musical traditions as more than just "necessity is the mother of necessity".

Whether it was a coincidence or not, bebop also took off in the years of a nation-wide recording ban that affected instrumental jazz. A fight between the union of musicians (the AFM) and the record labels caused a two year ban (from august 1942 till november 1944) on all recordings, an event that certainly did not help the swing orchestras.

The rapid decline of the big bands, and the revival of Tin Pan Alley's pop music, favored the cause of the dissidents within jazz music who were preaching against the commercial sell-out of the big bands. These isolated intellectuals were offering a musical message that did not depend on the taste of the masses. They marked a renewal of the thematic material, away from the (white) pop themes favored by swing orchestras, back to the blues themes of the past and towards original compositions that better reflected the zeitgeist. They marked a regression towards the small club and the small ensemble, and from the big band to the small combo. They also marked a progression towards a more personal, intimate and heartfelt form of music. Bebop was a more "private" form of expression. Bebop was a music to listen to, as opposed to dance to.

Jazz musicians had been, first and foremost, entertainers. Now they became experimenters, explorers, even scientists. Instead of playing what came natural, the bebop improviser tried to play what was not natural. The chamber-jazz detours of the swing era contributed to the advent of bebop, but, mostly, bebop was a completely new phenomenon, that did not quite evolve from the previous tradition but represented a complete subversion of that tradition.

The genre itself was named "bebop" from the nickname of the "flatted fifth", the favorite interval of bebop musicians, but emphasis on it had been virtually unlawful in swing orchestras (the flatted third and seventh were the "blue notes" par excellence, but the flatted fifth wasn't even popular with the blues).

The only reason to consider swing and bebop as branches of the same musical genre is that they shared the same instrumentation and the passion for improvisation (and, mostly, the color of the skin).

The relationship between the new heroes and the old ones was one of estrangement, not inheritance. The new heroes were Benny Goodman's guitarist Charlie Christian, Duke Ellington's bassist Jimmy Blanton, Earl Hines' alto saxophonist Charlie Parker, Cab Calloway's trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, Coleman Hawkins' pianist Thelonious Monk, Count Basie's saxophonist Lester Young, Louis Armstrong's saxophonist Dexter Gordon. They were not the heirs to their masters' orchestras: they were sidemen, who embodied a different aesthetic. In a sense, they were former slaves who, once liberated, turned their back to their masters and migrated to distant virgin lands. (Armstrong publicly ridiculed bebop).

The core of bebop music was more than just the format: it was an existential mood that almost harked back to the blues. The soloist of bebop was a poet and a philosopher, no longer only an entertainer. Thus the syncopation (meant to facilitate dancing) also became obsolete. In a sense, bebop marked the (temporary) demise of syncopation from jazz music, the emancipation of jazz from the dancehall and its transfer to the loft. It was no longer music for the masses, but music for the elite.

Bebop was structurally and emotionally more complex than swing. Bebop marked a collective growth of awareness within the jazz community. Bebop's looser structure was also another step in the progressive emancipation of jazz from structure.

Bebop downplayed the rhythmic aspect and emphasized the emotional power of the solo. It reduced the complexity of the polyphony and increased the importance of style. It fostered a new degree of melodic invention. Bop phrasing toyed with rhythm in a way that gave meaning even to the pause between two notes. The rhythm section was simplified, anchoring it to bass and drums, thus releasing the guitar and the piano (swing's rhythmic pillars) from their time-keeping duties. As the bass grew in importance (as it had started doing with Jimmy Blanton), the drums began to "accent" the music rather than merely beat a tempo. The rhythm section, that had been the most mechanic part of the ensemble, acquired a new degree of freedom ("no continuity of beat", as Charlie Parker said). This loose, restrained concept of rhythm allowed the soloist to "think". Dissonances, polyrhythms, new tonal colors and irregular phrasing were adopted enthusiastically.

Soloists employed a broad and daring variety of forms, ranges and techniques, and felt bound to melodic themes only in spirit.

For decades jazz music had been moving towards larger and larger orchestras, towards more and more organized music. Bebop made a sharp turn towards smaller ensembles and less organized music.

Even their appearance changed dramatically: the bopper's uniform included a hat, sunglasses and a goatee, not the tuxedo of the swing era.

Among their praxes, the jam session became the equivalent of a religious function, the supernatural moment when art was created.

Ironically, this more sincere and austere strand of black music alienated the original audience of jazz music: the blacks of the ghettos. It attracted a new audience of white intellectuals and eccentrics, an audience that had nothing to do with the historical background of jazz music.

In the 1950s jazz lost its dominant position within the recording industry, first surpassed by the pop vocalists, then by rock music, then even by soul music. The major labels looked elsewhere to increase their profits, while small labels such as Blue Note (founded in 1939), Savoy (founded in 1942) and Prestige (founded in 1949) catered to the niche of jazz fanatics. For the rest of the century, jazz never recovered its prominence.

Jazz and the audience split. Jazz became very much a music about itself, while the audience continued to chase ephemeral fads. Jazz even developed its own iconography. The bebop artist was identified with a "look", a way to dress and a way to speak.

Even more ironically, bebop became "blacker" as it moved away from the big business: while the swing era had been dominated (with few exceptions) by white big bands, the protagonists of the bebop (with the notable exception of Lennie Tristano) era were all black. TM, ®, Copyright © 2003 Piero Scaruffi All rights reserved.

Bebop was born in 1941, when trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, double bass player Milt Hinton, alto saxophonist Charlie Parker, pianist Thelonious Monk and drummer Kenny Clarke began playing informally together. Its official birth place was "Minton's Playhouse", a New York club. Due to a strike by recording artists, very little was documented on record until 1944.

South Carolina's trumpeter John "Dizzy" Gillespie, also an accomplished songwriter, was hired in 1939 by Cab Calloway's orchestra, where he developed a style very influenced by Roy Eldridge (but hardly so in his Pickin' the Cabbage of 1940). In 1942 he joined Earl Hines, where in 1943 he played alongside alto saxophonist Charlie Parker and vocalist Sarah Vaughan, and began to display a much more personal style, expanding his habit of improvising new chord changes on a melody to an almost manic form of art, turning dynamics into the very essence of jazz at the expense of intimacy (sometimes replaced by overtones of melodrama and euphoria). Gillespie's A Night In Tunisia (composed in 1942 as Interlude) was first sung by Vaughan. In 1944 the three young talents (Parker, Gillespie and Vaughan) followed Hines' male vocalist Billy Eckstine when he started his own band. At the same time, in 1944, Dizzy Gillespie's quintet, featuring Max Roach on drums and Oscar Pettiford on bass, and later Charlie Parker, began performing at New York's "Onyx Club" (the first time that the word "bebop" was used to promote a band). Gillespie's first major recordings (january 1945), in a piano-based sextet with Trummy Young on trombone, Pettiford on bass and Don Byas on tenor instead of Parker, showed Gillespie's textural dexterity applied to both material specifically composed for bebop performers, such as Salt Peanuts, Be Bop and Tadd Dameron's Good Bait, and reworked swing classics, such as Vernon Duke's I Can't Get Started (january 1945). Another sextet with Dexter Gordon and white pianist Frank Paparelli recorded Blue 'n' Boogie (february 1945). The new aesthetic was fully implemented in the tunes (mostly composed by Gillespie) recorded by the All Stars, namely a quintet with Parker on tenor and Al Haig on piano: Groovin' High (february 1945), Dizzy Atmosphere (february 1945), Shaw 'Nuff (may 1945) and Tadd Dameron's Hot House (may 1945), based on Cole Porter's What Is This Thing Called Love. The Jazzmen, a sextet with Eli "Lucky" Thompson on tenor instead of Parker, Haig on piano and Milt Jackson on vibraphone, debuted Confirmation (february 1946). In 1945 Gillespie organized his own band, that lasted till 1950. Hits such as Things to Come (june 1946) were arranged by Gil Fuller. Gillespie's band pioneered Cuban bop, a genre born of the wedding between Cuban rhythms and bebop. His association with Cuban conga player Chano Pozo yielded George Russell's Cubana Be Cubana Bop (december 1947), possibly the first modal improvisation on record, and their Manteca (december 1947). Gillespie's rhythm section of 1947 consisted of John Lewis, Milt Jackson, Kenny Clarke and Ray Brown, that would soon form the Modern Jazz Quartet. After a mediocre decade, Gillespie converted to "third stream" music. Argentinian pianist Boris "Lalo" Schifrin composed for him the five-movement Gillespiana Suite (november 1960) and the six-movement suite The New Continent (1962), while Perceptions (may 1961) came from trombonist James "J.J." Johnson, and Arturo "Chico" O'Farrill scored Afro-Cuban Jazz Moods (june 1975). TM, ®, Copyright © 2003 Piero Scaruffi All rights reserved.

Kansas City's alto saxophonist Charlie "Bird" Parker grew up in Jay McShann's band, at first influenced by the style of Lester Young. In 1942 he joined Earl Hines and played with Dizzy Gillespie and Sarah Vaughan, and in 1943 the trio (Parker, Gillespie and Vaughan) formed the nucleus of Billy Eckstine's new band. In 1945, besides recording the milestone performances with Gillespie, he formed his own group and proceeded to develop a new tonal vocabulary via Ko Ko, a reworking of Ray Noble's Cherokee, and his classic compositions Billie's Bounce, Anthropology/ Thriving on a Riff, Meandering and Now's the Time, all five recorded in november with Miles Davis, Gillespie and Roach. Parker extended both the melodic and the rhythmic range of jazz music in a systematic way. His solos seemed to have no rule, occasionally sounding arbitrary in the context of the group's playing. Thus each solo appeared to be unique in nature, not the repetition of a distinctive pattern. The polyrhythmic essence of his playing was emphasized by the detours of his rhythm section, but made possible by his melodies, that toyed with beats and with the space between beats. Parker was an oxymoron of sorts: the player of a melodic instrument who indirectly focused on rhythm. His music was revolutionary because it was based on discontinuity instead of harmonious flow. His phrasing sounded hysterical and contradictory. His playing did obey a meta-rule, though: emotion. Whatever he was doing with the saxophone, he was trying to secrete as much emotion as possible.
The ambitious Yardbird Suite and Ornithology were first recorded in march 1946 by a septet (alto, tenor, trumpet, piano, guitar, drums, bass) that included Davis.
In 1947 he formed a New York-based Quintet with Miles Davis on trumpet, Duke Jordan (and later Bud Powell) on piano, Tommy Potter on bass, Max Roach on drums, that recorded spectacular performances of Miles Davis' Donna Lee (may), and Bird's own compositions Dexterity (october), Bird of Paradise (october), The Hymn (october), Klactoveedsedstene (november), plus Crazeology, based on George Gershwin's I Got Rhythm, and Drifting On A Reed (both december) with trombonist James "J.J." Johnson added to the quintet. The bluesy Parker's Mood (september 1948), featuring John Lewis on piano, stood out as his artistic manifesto, and Constellation (same session) was his dizziest group improvisation.
In 1947 Parker's jazz band toured with a philharmonic orchestra, and later three albums titled Bird With Strings (1950-52) were made with a small string ensemble. An alcoholic and drug addict, Parker died in 1955 at the age of 35, after having tried twice to commit suicide. TM, ®, Copyright © 2003 Piero Scaruffi All rights reserved.

Tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon adapted Charlie Parker's alto style to the tenor saxophone on Long Tall Dexter (january 1946), Rides Again (october 1945) and The Chase (june 1947), mostly based on his own themes. He was not shy to employ dissonance. His specialty was the piano-based quartet, starting with Go (august 1962) to the European recordings of the 1970s, mostly with Niels Pedersen on bass, notably The Apartment (september 1974), containing his Candlelight Lady and The Apartment, Bouncing' with Dex (september 1975), featuring pianist Tete Montoliu, bassist Niels Pedersen and drummer Billy Higgins, and containing Benji's Bounce and Catalonian Nights, and Biting the Apple (november 1976), containing Apple Jump and A La Modal. He usually failed to master the same energy in other formats, with the notable exception of Something Different (september 1975), that did not include a pianist (guitarist Philip Catherine, bassist Niels Pedersen, drummer Billy Higgins) and contained his Winther's Calling. TM, ®, Copyright © 2003 Piero Scaruffi All rights reserved.

Other notable soloists of the era include drummer Kenny Clarke, famous for his polyrhythmic tricks and for using the cymbal as the timekeeping instrument (like Jo Jones) so as to free the rest of the drum kit; trumpeter Theodore "Fats" Navarro, a prodigy who in january 1945 replaced Dizzy Gillespie in Billy Eckstine's band but who died at the age of 26; trombonist Bennie Green; vocalist Sarah Vaughan, whose greatest hit was Broken Hearted Melody (january 1958); tenor and alto saxophonist Edward "Sonny" Stitt; bassist and cellist Oscar Pettiford, who also composed Swingin' Till the Girls Come Home (april 1951), Tamalpais Love Song (december 1953), Tricotism (march 1954), Bohemia After Dark (december 1954), Laverne Walk (september 1958).

James "J.J." Johnson, the trombonist of Benny Carter's band (1942-45) and Charlie Parker's quintet (1947), adapted the trombone to the style (if not the mood) of the bebop era. His acrobatic style was documented on Mad Be Bop (june 1946), credited to the Beboppers, a quintet with Bud Powell on piano and Max Roach on drums, as well as on the summits of Trombone By Three (october 1951) with Bennie Green and Kai Winding and Four Trombones (september 1953) with Green, Winding and Willie Dennis. In 1954 he formed a two-trombone quintet with Kai Winding, but his apex were First Place (april 1957) and especially Blue Trombone (may 1957) both recorded by a quartet with pianist Tommy Flanagan, bassist Paul Chambers and drummer Max Roach.

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