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By Tom Piazza
Random HouseTom Piazza
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Foreground and Background
Although it is possible to play jazz music solo (especially on the piano, where one can accompany oneself), most jazz music is played by groups of musicians. Jazz is always, as the great pianist Bill Evans once remarked, "a social situation"; it involves a number of musicians speaking a shared language, but with highly individual sensibilities.
One of the first questions to ask in trying to understand any social situation is, How is it organized? That is, what are the implicit or explicit ground rules that guide the interactions among the members? If we look at the history of jazz, we see an astonishing variety of answers to this question. But underneath those answers run some common threads.
In jazz, or in most music of any type, there is usually some kind of relationship between a lead voice, or voices--whether instrumental or vocal--and an accompaniment, just as in representational painting there is some relationship between the objects that are the main focus of interest and all
the elements that populate the space around those objects. Another way of putting this might be to say that there is a relationship between the voice of the individual and the voice(s) of the community in which the individual operates.
That relationship, or set of relationships, has taken many forms in jazz. It might exist between a clearly defined lead voice and clearly defined accompanists, such as that between Sonny Rollins's tenor saxophone lead and the accompaniment of the piano, bass, and drums on "Moritat" (track 4 on the accompanying CD); or it might be a somewhat more entwined, symbiotic relationship, like that between Stan Getz's tenor saxophone and Kenny Barron's piano on "I Can't Get Started" (track 5); or it might be a solo horn against a written-out ensemble accompaniment, as in the collaboration between Dizzy Gillespie's trumpet and the Duke Ellington Orchestra on "U.M.M.G." (track 3); or any number of other permutations.
Jazz is a music of highly individual sensibilities. A jazz ensemble consists not just of different instruments but of the different, contrasting musical personalities of its players. Much of the craft that jazz musicians acquire is there to help them develop an unmistakable voice. And a jazz group is organized to give those
individual voices the greatest possible opportunity to express themselves while still being coordinated as an ensemble. The group effect depends on the tension among its individual sensibilities.
In fact, even though much jazz places heavy emphasis on the improvisations of a soloist, it is good to learn how to listen to all the instruments in an ensemble at once, to learn to hear the entire group as an interdependent organism. A soloist doesn't exist in a vacuum; the soloist will be responding to everything that is happening while he or she is improvising, just as the accompanists will be responding not only to the soloist but to one another, in an ongoing conversation. The pianist will respond to the drummer's rhythmic accents, the soloist will hear the chords the pianist plays and react harmonically, and so on. The best jazz will reward one's listening to it as if to a unified field of sound, with shifting foreground and background elements.
In jazz's New Orleans beginnings, this fact sits at the center of the music. In classic New Orleans jazz, such as that heard in King Oliver's recording of "Weather Bird Rag" (track 1), there is less made of the distinction between the solo voice and the background than there is in some other types of jazz. Jazz in its early days in New Orleans was the product of a tightly knit yet varied community, and in a sense the music reflects the kinds of situations in which it was used--street parades, dances, community celebrations. Each voice in the group contributes to an overall sound composed of individuals celebrating the same occasion, each in his or her own way. Each horn, rather than playing an individual solo in series, simultaneously plays a series of spontaneous variations on the same theme, organized in a very specific way.
In fact, contemporary ears may be so used to hearing a sharp distinction between foreground and background, between a solo voice and its accompaniment, that a performance such as "Weather Bird Rag" may come as something of a shock. In it, almost every instrumental voice, certainly every wind instrument, seems to be in the foreground at the same time.
King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band was one of the greatest ensembles in jazz history, and it represented the high-water mark of classic New Orleans-style jazz. With its "front line" of two cornets, trombone, and clarinet, and accompaniment by piano, banjo, and drummer Baby Dodds playing woodblocks, it generated an irresistible momentum as well as a profound equilibrium, one in which all the parts contributed to the totality of sound. Recorded in 1923, "Weather Bird Rag" captures the Oliver band at a period when they were influencing every young musician in Chicago, where they presided at the Lincoln Gardens. The leader, cornetist Joseph "King" Oliver, was one of the great instrumentalists to come out of New Orleans, and he surrounded himself with many of the best younger players, especially his protege, the very young Louis Armstrong. Armstrong, in fact, plays cornet alongside Oliver on "Weather Bird Rag," which is Armstrong's composition as well.
Once our ears get used to the limited acoustic range, we can hear something like a musical miracle in progress. All the musicians are playing at once, each is playing something different, and yet the music doesn't sound chaotic. There is a unified effect consisting of very disparate elements. How is this possible?
The New Orleans musicians achieved this alchemy in part by adhering to a specific division of labor among the wind instruments. In the classic New Orleans ensemble, as exemplified by the Oliver band and other early ensembles such as the Original Dixieland Jazz Band and the New Orleans Rhythm Kings, those instruments are typically the trumpet (or cornet), the trombone, and the clarinet. Each is assigned a role in which it contributes a distinct element to the overall musical texture. Within these respective roles there is considerable room for spontaneous variation, or improvisation, but the difference in the nature of each contribution keeps the overall texture from becoming muddy or jumbled. Simply put, here is how they divide things up.
In a New Orleans band, the trumpet or cornet will typically play the main melody, or the lead. The trumpet fills this role for two basic reasons. Being made of brass, the trumpet is very loud--it can be heard over what everyone else is playing--and it is pitched more or less in the range of the human voice, which makes it ideal for, in a sense, "singing" the melody.
The trombone, also made of brass, is also very loud, but it is pitched lower than the trumpet; it sits more naturally in a chestier, more guttural register. It is less flexible than the trumpet in terms of execution, due to the necessity of using the slide, a somewhat awkward way of achieving different pitches compared to the trumpet's valves, which are worked with three fingers and can be manipulated more fluidly. So, due to its somewhat cumbersome quality and its lower range, the trombone tends to play simpler phrases in a lower register. The trombone plays held notes as well as short, rhythmic phrases, and acts as a foil for the trumpet melody.
Finally, the clarinet is made of wood and generates its tones by means of a vibrating reed made of cane (as opposed to the brass instruments, in which the player's lips vibrate inside a small, cup-shaped mouthpiece), so it contributes a very distinct tonal coloration against the two brass instruments. In addition, because of its construction, the clarinet can play very fluid, multinote melodic lines with relative ease, and this is what it does most often in the New Orleans ensemble. As the trumpet plays its variations on the main melody and the trombone plays its shorter, simpler phrases, the clarinet spins a lacy filigree of notes that wind all over, under, and around what the other instruments play; its sinuous lines curl, like cigarette smoke, into every available nook and cranny of the music.
As long as these three instruments stay more or less in their respective roles, they are free to contribute a fair amount of individual variation--to improvise--and they can do so without, in a sense, stepping on one another's lines. They are like actors ad-libbing a scene: They know their respective parts so well that they can make spontaneous variations while remaining in character and moving the scene forward.
Of course, in practice, groups rarely adhere to this division of labor all the way through a performance. For the sake of variety, there are times when each instrument may come to the foreground in different ways, as you will hear in "Weather Bird Rag." The two cornets, for example, can plainly be heard playing different things--simultaneous variations on the song's melody. There are times in other Oliver performances when, for variety, the clarinet or the trombone might assume the lead for a while. But the basic arrangement remains the norm. The effect is something like watching a New Orleans parade roll down a street, followed by a long "second line" of dancers, each improvising his or her own steps to the music of the brass band.
And yet the individual parts are not totally subsumed in an ensemble effect. Notice how, at various points, the entire ensemble stops abruptly for several beats while an individual instrument plays a brief statement, and then resumes. This device is called a "break." In "Weather Bird Rag," each instrument except the piano takes a brief break--trombone, clarinet, banjo, even the ticktocky woodblocks played by Baby Dodds. Notice that the two cornets take their breaks (at the 2:09 mark as well as at the very end of the tune) together. Breaks are usually thought of as a way for an instrumentalist to demonstrate quick reflexes, imagination on the spur of the moment, but they can also be planned in advance, as Oliver and Armstrong plainly did here--they play the same melodic figure in harmony. These kinds of breaks, by the way, caused a sensation during the band's reign in Chicago. Still, in general, these performances are about the ensemble rather than about individual solo prowess.
Some musicians in other eras and styles of jazz have been fascinated with the possibilities for group improvisation on the New Orleans model, although not as many as one might think. One of the primary examples was the bassist and composer Charles Mingus, who loved to set his horn players against one another so that they would improvise simultaneously. See "Further Listening" at the end of this chapter for other examples.
For most of jazz's history, though, there has been a sharper and more deliberate distinction drawn between foreground and background elements. To a large extent, this was the result of the stunning example laid down by the flowering of Louis Armstrong's improvising genius in his recordings and performances of the mid-1920s. Inspired by Armstrong's example on his recordings with the big band of Fletcher Henderson as well as his slightly later Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings, musicians became fascinated with the possibilities of playing extended solos. Other musicians besides Armstrong were developing strong individual solo improvising sensibilities in the early 1920s as well, to be sure--among them the clarinetist and soprano saxophonist Sidney Bechet and the cornetist Bix Beiderbecke--but it was Armstrong's influence above all that made it necessary for young musicians to develop the ability to play solos.
Armstrong in effect handed down a kind of improvisational grammar, a logic of fitting certain kinds of phrases to certain kinds of harmonic formations that proved to be so useful that countless musicians--on all instruments, not only the trumpet--constructed distinct and identifiable styles on the basis of that grammar. The latter half of the 1920s saw an explosion of individual improvisational voices based on that language. Trumpeters Joe Smith, Rex Stewart, Muggsy Spanier, Cootie Williams, Jabbo Smith, Wingy Manone, Henry "Red" Allen, Charlie Teagarden, Max Kaminsky and, slightly later, players such as Bunny Berigan, Harry James, and Jonah Jones wove their own styles out of Armstrong's language, much as a later generation would do with the grammar that alto saxophonist Charlie Parker perfected in the 1940s.
During that same period of the 1920s, what might seem like exactly the opposite impulse also came to the fore: a fascination with the possibilities of orchestrating jazz for larger ensembles, in which musicians would play written-out parts that would have the rhythmic impetus of jazz. This approach produced a broad spectrum of work, from Jelly Roll Morton's Red Hot Peppers recordings, in which pianist-composer Morton wrote out parts for a typical New Orleans small-band configuration, to Fletcher Henderson and his arrangers, who took the large dance band of the day, with its division into trumpet, trombone, and woodwind "sections," and turned it to jazz purposes, and to Paul Whiteman's arrangers, especially Bill Challis, who used jazz's syncopations sparingly for a mammoth large orchestra, laced with Impressionist harmony and leaving space for brief solos by jazz musicians.
Still, for most jazz fans, it is the exciting interplay of a soloist spinning spontaneous variations on a form against the commentary and support of a rhythm section that forms the heart of jazz. What jazz musicians call the rhythm section is most commonly the little constellation of piano, bass, and drums. "Rhythm section" is a slightly misleading term for this grouping, since the piano and bass function not just to set the tempo and provide rhythmic accents but also to outline the harmonic background of the song.
Excerpted from Understanding Jazz by Tom Piazza Excerpted by permission.
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