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Introduction: A Century of Jazz
"Jazz became many things--frenetic, destructive, hysterical, decadent, venal, alcoholic, saccharine, Lombardish, vapid--it has enriched stuffed bellies; it has corrupted the innocent; it has betrayed and it has traduced; but, everywhere and in all its forms, something jazz acquired at the moment of its origin has profoundly touched all its hearers. What was this thing that set folks dancing and smiling from the slums of New Orleans to all the capitals of the earth?" --Alan Lomax (1950)
The extraordinarily varied nature of jazz can only be understood by considering the exhilarating rapidity with which it has established itself at the forefront of the modern musical world. Like cinema, that other major American contribution to twentieth-century culture, jazz is currently celebrating its one-hundredth birthday (the first ragtime compositions were published in the 1890s). Over the course of its first century of existence jazz has adopted and transformed many of the technical innovations of earlier classical music with astonishing speed, compressing four centuries of musical expertise into a dazzling array of styles and structures. The result is an audience appeal that ranges from the mass pop market to an intellectual cliquishness even more exclusive than that of the 1960s avant-garde in art. Along with these achievements, jazz has managed to summarize most of our instinctive feelings about music and reshape the art for the future.
The story of jazz is one of lively interactions and tensions between performers and composers of widely differing temperaments. The chronological diary at the heart of this book vividly illustrates the exciting andoften unpredictable nature of these creative encounters, tracing the history of jazz from its largely disreputable beginnings, through the height of its popularity in the Swing Era, to its gradual evolution into a serious art music capable of sustaining intellectual and emotional interest on a par with any other modern art form.
Never far below the story's surface are the racial tensions that sparked off the early development of jazz. Slaves transported from West Africa to the New World took their musical traditions with them, and adapted their tribal work songs and dances to sustain them in their forced labors (p. 17). Fundamental elements of jazz were born when the dynamic rhythmic language and expressive pitch-bending of African vocal music became fused with structures and harmonies borrowed from the European music favored by white slave-owners. After universal emancipation in 1865, black religious music (which also synthesized techniques of African and European origin) paved the way for the two genres that would directly lead to the early jazz style: ragtime and the blues, both of which appeared in the 1890s.
Ragtime (p. 20)--"white music played black," as it has been aptly described--derived from white dance forms such as the polka and march, and superimposed a syncopated rhythmic style reminiscent of black banjo music and plantation songs on simple harmonic structures built from western chords. More adventurous ragtime composers (including some white musicians) began to borrow elements from the blues, a vocal form characterized by a greater degree of improvisation and distinctive tonal colorings retained from African music (p. 27). Ragtime began to disappear around 1920, although it had already influenced classical composers such as Debussy (p. 24) and Stravinsky (p. 43). Its style formed the basis for later jazz piano playing and spawned the Harlem stride school of the 1920s and 1930s (p. 46). The blues, which continued to flourish in its own right and led both to the boogie-woogie style of piano playing and ultimately to rock'n'roll in the 1950s, donated to jazz the universally popular twelve-bar harmonic progression, as well as a new emphasis on improvisation.
Ragtime pianists usually eked out a living in brothels and saloons, some of the few employment opportunities open to black musicians after emancipation. Another source of work was provided by the celebrated brass bands that appeared in funeral processions in southern cities such as New Orleans (p. 28) and flourished due to the availability of cheap second-hand instruments abandoned by Civil War military bands. Band marches borrowed the ragtime idiom, often to "jazz up" classical pieces such as Chopin's Funeral March. When this style merged with rougher blues elements, early ensemble jazz in the dixieland style (p. 37) was born.
Jazz recordings first appeared in 1917 and began to proliferate after 1923 (pp. 51-52), by which time the centers of musical activity had moved northward to Chicago (p. 64) and eastward to New York (p. 29). The growing popularity of dances such as the Charleston led to the development of a livelier style in which the original march-like mood was abandoned in favor of headier tempos and snappier rhythms. In the 1920s jazz developed further at the hands of many brilliant pioneers, including the innovative composer Jelly Roll Morton (p. 45) and virtuoso improviser Louis Armstrong (p. 56).
With the work of Duke Ellington at Harlem's Cotton Club (p. 62) in 1927-32, jazz at last found a composer worthy to be hailed as equal in intellectual stature to his counterparts in the field of classical music. Ellington produced a stream of tightly organized masterpieces in the three-minute format ideally suited to the technical limitations of 78rpm recordings. He then broke new ground by constructing pieces of considerably greater length.
In spite of its growing intellectual respectability during the 1930s, jazz had still not quite succeeded in shedding its early links with sex and low living. The music continued to be tarnished by an inevitable association with illicit drinking during the Prohibition years (1919-33) and, later, with the addiction to hard drugs that caused the premature and often impecunious deaths of many a talented musician. Jazz seemed more respectable in Europe, which had not endured social problems of such magnitude as those in the US arising from slavery and racial disharmony. From the early 1930s onward many American jazz musicians opted to emigrate to France, where greater social status and appreciative audiences made them welcome.
In the 1930s the three strands of art music, popular music and jazz came closer together than they had ever been before--or have been since. The growing commercial success of jazz ensured that it became the pop music of the immediate pre-war years, while the distinguished symphonic jazz cultivated by composers such as George Gershwin and Aaron Copland (p. 55) seemed destined to fuse highbrow and lowbrow into a cogent and enduring synthetic idiom. With Benny Goodman's and John Hammond's concerts at Carnegie Hall in 1938 (p. 91), jazz at last proved itself to be an art form worthy of appreciation by critics, scholars and audiences in full evening dress.
Predominant in these years was the swing band, its extended instrumentation exploiting the contrast between massed saxophone and brass sections as a background to exciting improvised passages performed by featured soloists, many of whom became international stars. The most successful swing bands were based in New York; although some originated in Kansas City (p. 64), where Bennie Moten's work influenced the young Count Basie (p. 86). Alongside the hot and inventive style of the black swing bands, white ensembles, such as that led by Paul Whiteman (p. 55), produced a more restrained but suavely polished dance music. The virtuosity and commercial success of the more enterprising white bands, notably those led by Benny Goodman (p. 84) and Glenn Miller (p. 107), were spectacular, and did much to spur on the growth of jazz in Europe.
White commercialization of jazz seemed at its height in the later 1930s, and the attempts of black musicians to regain the artistic initiative ultimately led to the decline of the swing band after World War II. The "be-bop" (or bop) revolution began around 1941 when rebellious musicians like Charlie Parker (p. 136), Dizzy Gillespie (p. 219) and Thelonious Monk (p. 154) began experimenting with a new style in which outmoded harmonic progressions were replaced by more startling chord sequences, and melodic improvisations became increasingly characterized by distortion, fragmentation and metrical ambiguity. Traditionalists lamented the alarmingly esoteric and abstract nature of bop. It was described by poet and jazz critic Philip Larkin as "bloodless note patterns," and Duke Ellington likened it to "playing scrabble with all the vowels missing." The modernistic forcefulness of this new sound in jazz (later to become the hard bop of Art Blakey and countless imitators) was allied to a political need to reclaim jazz for the black Americans who had invented it in the first place: as with modernism in the other arts, the deliberate inaccessibility of the idiom protected it from a casual audience.
After his early work in bop, Miles Davis (p. 216) rapidly established himself as the most creative figure in post-war jazz. His achievement in developing not one but several new styles has remained unparalleled, and has largely accounted for the profusion of possibilities available to the contemporary jazz musician. Seeking first to temper the unfortunate aggressiveness of bop, Davis initiated the cool style in the late 1940s (p. 120), in which dark instrumentation was coupled with a laid-back mood and sophisticated harmonies. This new restraint proved to be influential on the emerging west coast style (p. 134), which grew up in Los Angeles in the 1950s and was dominated by white musicians. Next came Davis's experiments with modal jazz (p. 146), which abandoned chord progressions altogether and consisted of extended improvisation on unchanging groups of notes. Davis's sidemen in the 1950s included pianist Bill Evans (p. 156) and tenor saxophonist John Coltrane (p. 160), both of whom later revolutionized the styles associated with their instruments.
A serious crisis in the mid-1960s was caused by the wholesale defection of a new generation of potential jazz fans to the relatively fresh pop and rock markets. Disaster was partly averted by Davis's canny synthesis of rock and jazz elements into a new hybrid style: fusion (p. 170). This became the characteristic (and largely electronic) sound of jazz in the 1970s, and scored exactly the commercial success jazz then so desperately needed to survive. Fusion also rescued jazz from the avant-garde dead-end into which the eccentric talents of performers such as saxophonist Ornette Coleman (p. 150) seemed in danger of leading it in the 1960s. Radical departures from fundamental concepts in earlier jazz included the rejection of tonality, a move not likely to guarantee popularity. The growth of avant-garde jazz paralleled that of avant-garde classical music prominent in the same period, but was potently symbolic in likening its lack of formal constraints to the spiritual and political freedom that African Americans still found it necessary to demand.
By the early 1980s, fusion seemed to have run its course and many musicians who had made their names in the synthetic arena returned to playing a brand of jazz that (sometimes self-consciously) resurrected elements borrowed from earlier styles. Since the 1940s, when the obsolete genres of ragtime and dixieland were systematically revived by both performers and scholars, jazz has had its own "classic" idioms that survive in a healthy state today. Sometimes these early genres are pursued authentically in liberal doses of musical nostalgia, and in other cases they are modified from a modern perspective in a kind of jazz "neo-classicism." The young virtuoso trumpeter Wynton Marsalis (p. 196) has been an outspoken advocate of this return to wholesome musical values, lamenting the commercialism behind the entire jazz-rock fusion movement.
But jazz has always had a concern for popularity at its very heart, and attempts to place it on an elitist pedestal have always been doomed to failure. Ever since the 1930s, when Louis Armstrong was criticized for "selling out" to commercial interests, the feud between the elitists and the populists in jazz has been as vitriolic as that between black and white. And Marsalis's own commercial success has, ironically enough, been partly secured by the untiring promotional efforts of CBS (now Sony)--the same company that pushed Miles Davis in the direction of fusion nearly three decades ago.
The plurality of jazz styles with which the often perplexed listener is surrounded today is almost as diverse as that in classical music: in just one hundred years, jazz has caught up with its illustrious musical forebears, both in quality and quantity. As they have in the past, jazz musicians today move in and out of each other's spheres of influence, the only difference now being the international flavor these migrations have acquired. Styles continue to be transmitted and transformed through an exciting process of musical osmosis that, in essence, is comparable to that which spawned the beginnings of jazz not so very long ago.