Saturday, March 28, 2009

What If? (What Would Jazz Sound Like Today?)

While visiting friends last evening, and watching more jazz videos (Cannonball Adderley, and Sonny Rollins; (007 James Bond in between!)), A question came up. Since Cannonball Adderley died at a relatively young age of 47, how would jazz be different if Cannonball had lived and kept creating music on his last path.
Extrapolating that to other jazz musicians who died tragically young, it would be fascinating to look at other seminal figures in jazz who left us far too soon.

First some background. Throughout the history of jazz, there were several clearly defined periods or styles of the music.There was New Orleans or Traditional style jazz, of which Kid Ory, Sidney Bechet, and Louis Armstrong were the pioneers. Prominent features of the music were the front line which typically consisted of trumpet, clarinet, and trombone; and the rhythm section consisting of a guitar or banjo, tuba, and drums. In later years, the string bass was employed. Key features of the music was the main instrument played the melody, and the other front line instruments improvised around the melody.

The music subsequently migrated to Chicago and New York. The Chicago style jazz featured the guitar and string bass more prominently, and featured a more "Up tempo" pace to the music.
The "Swing" era started around 1930. This was characterized by large orchestras playing very regimented arrangements. Count Basie, and Duke Ellington were prominent during this stretch. This style featured large horn sections, tight rhythm sections featuring bass, guitar, piano and drums, and individual soloists. Prominent musicians in this style included Harry "Sweets" Edison (trumpet), Coleman Hawkins (Saxophone), Lester Young (Saxophone), Johnny Hodges (saxophone), Charlie Christian (Guitar), Buddy Rich (drums), and Jimmy Blanton (Bass). Blanton was the first bass player to take a solo; he was the bassist for the Duke Ellington Orchestra.

After World War II, a new, revolutionary music took hold. Be-Bop was characterized by intricate melodies and improvisation. There were changes in traditional timekeeping; the rhythm section as a whole were more involved with time. Instead of keeping time with the bass drum, the drummers of the day employed the hi-hat for that function. There was more "call and response" between the individual players as well. The underlying chord structure may be the same as any popular tune of the day, but the melody and subsequent improvisation made this style of music unique.
The instrumentation for these groups were typically two horns and three rhythm, piano, bass and drums. Popular be-bop musicians were Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonius Monk, Charlie Parker, and Bud Powell.
Hard Bop developed as the logical extension to this line of music; and was a counter-point to "West Coast" or "Cool Jazz". Hard Bop was characterized by mixing the exciting elements of be-bop, with gospel and soul music in producing a unique style. This was a distinct reaction to West Coast Jazz, which sought to constrain the music with European chamber music influences.
Prominent hard bop musicians were Joe Henderson, Freddie Hubbard, Lee Morgan, Jimmy Smith, Miles Davis (Modal jazz), Paul Chambers, Bill Evans, Sonny Rollins, and Art Blakey. Prominent West Coast Style musicians were Gerry Mulligan, Stan Getz, Dave Brubeck, Paul Desmond and Chet Baker.

In the late 70's and 80's there was the "Post Bop" era, "Free Jazz" (the roots of free jazz were with Ornette Coleman, Don Cherry, and Cecil Taylor in the 60's), electronic jazz, and contemporary or danceable/groove jazz.
Post bop jazz took elements from hard bop and free /avant garde jazz, and incorporated the styles into a new genre. The most prominent musician in this style was Woody Shaw, the outstanding trumpeter. (More on him later). Others include, but are not limited to, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, later Freddie Hubbard, later Lee Morgan, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy, Pharoah Sanders, Billy Harper, Bennie Maupin, Kenny Garrett, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Bobby Hutcherson, and Keith Jarrett.
Prominent Electronic jazz musicians are Chick Corea, Joe Zawinul, Airto, Flora Purim, Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, Jaco Pastorus, Alphonse Mouzon, Larry Coryell, Billy Cobham, and Pat Metheny. Contemporary jazz musicians were/are Grover Washington, Charles Earland, Gerald Albright, Kirk Whalum, Marion Meadows, Ken Navarro, Earl Klugh, David Sandborn, and George Benson among many others today.

Since the late 70's/early 80's new sweeping changes within jazz have not happened. It seems that innovation has been at a standstill since that period; the natural evolution hasn't occurred on a widespread basis. Could it be that some of the most innovative musicians in the history of jazz passed away at a too early age? Or maybe the most innovative musicians are struggling to find an audience due to economics, politics, lack of airplay, or some other unknown factor?
Could today's jazz be markedly different by having certain musicians living longer?

Cannonball Adderley
was on the high end of the age range, passing at age 47 from a stroke. However, in 1975, he was exploring the electronic jazz avant-garde, the soprano saxophone, and other directions. If he had lived perhaps 10 years longer, that vision and direction of his music may have had a chance to come to fruition.

There are five groundbreaking musicians in my opinion that, had they lived, would have changed the trajectory of jazz as we know it now. Some of the musicians are obvious, others not so.

The first musician on the list is Clifford Brown. Clifford Brown was one of the leading figures in be-bop; he and Max Roach led a groundbreaking quintet. Brown had a unique ability to understand musical harmony, melody and improvisation. He taught Lee Morgan early in his career when Lee was a teenager.
He died tragically in 1956 when the car he was riding in slipped off the rain soaked Pennsylvania Turnpike. Also killed in the crash was Richie Powell, his piano player and the brother of Bud Powell. Brown was only 26 years old.
Had Brown lived, he would have been one of the leaders of the post bop movement; he was already transitioning to hard bop from be-bop at the time of his death. It would have been truly fascinating to see Brown in the 60's and 70's; when modal jazz and post bop were coming to fruition. Perhaps he could have taken the music further...

The second musician is an obvious choice; John Coltrane. It could be argued that at the time of his death, he had taken the music to its logical ending place. However, when he died at of liver cancer in 1967, he was only 40 years old. It would have been interesting to have Coltrane's unique spin on some of the post bop efforts of the 70's and 80's; not to mention his own exploration into the avant-garde and free jazz.

The third musician on this list is Lee Morgan. At the time of his death at age 33, he was exploring the post bop harmonies, melodies and rhythms with his very forward-looking groups of that time.
Morgan died in February of 1972; had he lived another 20 years, and kept his last group together, we may very well be seeing a new era in jazz now.

The fourth musician on my list is Woody Shaw. Woody Shaw is the personification of the post bop and beyond movement. Shaw tragically died one month after suffering a horrific subway accident in 1989. He was only 44 years old.
Woody Shaw's music was incredibly complex. The ideas he was generating were groundbreaking; and to this day have rarely been duplicated. The musicians of today who are closest to producing new innovative music are Billy Harper and Bennie Maupin.

The fifth and last musician on my list is Scott LaFaro. Scott LaFaro was a bass player who pioneered making the bass a melodic instrument. He typically concentrated on the high end of the instrument; unheard of at the time but commonplace today. He would also improvise throughout the song; not just on his solos.
He was influenced heavily by bassist Leroy Vinegar; he played early on with pianist Hampton Hawes and Tenor player Stan Getz. He came to fame in 1959 with Bill Evans; he subsequently worked extensively with Ornette Coleman. His life was tragically cut short in 1961 at the age of 25 by an auto accident.
Had he lived, he would have influenced modern bass playing for years to come.

So...what do you think? Would music be different now if these musicians had lived into their 70's or 80's? Who knows...
Among today's players there has to be someone who is willing to take the music in a new RELEVANT direction. Not just playing rehashed hard bop or be-bop, but taking elements of all that has come before and creating something new. As long as it respects the underlying tenet of jazz; that is improvisation, then a new genre can be developed for the new millineum.
The non-musicians among us (myself included) can play a role by supporting the music in its current form; that is the only way the musicians will have the courage to try new approaches. The music must continue to grow and evolve.

If you have any other musicians who died too early and would have had a positive impact on the music of today, feel free to let me know. Also, if there are musicians of today who are truly playing innovative music as I described above, let me know that as well. The more we publicize the truly innovative musicians, the more the music will flourish!

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Who Knew? Jazz History in An Unlikely Place

The wonderful thing about jazz is that you never know when you will have the opportunity to witness history. It can be at a concert, or a setting as routine as a jam session. Even a simple conversation can be very enlightening.
I consider myself reasonably familiar with the jazz happenings globally, and uniquely familiar with jazz happenings locally in Cincinnati and the Midwest. So, clearly I did not expect history at the Sunday jam session at Ballet-Tech Cincinnati this past Sunday.
First, some background. I have described the Sunday jam session at the Ballet-Tech Cincinnati in a previous blog (Kids: The Future of Jazz). On this Sunday, the moderators announced that there would be local Cincinnati jazz legends in attendance.
The usual scene was present; great local players playing with the group and several incredibly talented youngsters holding court. A very nice happening overall.
However, during this session, a Cincinnati Jazz legend was called to the stage. What was unusual was that this particular lady, Jay Albright, was a national jazz icon living anonymously in Cincinnati!

Ms Albright grew up in Harlem, NY. She told personal accounts of Billie Holiday befriending her; helping her gain admission to the Apollo Theater, and helping her career in the early days. She also told of her group "Three Dukes and a Duchess"; how this group and the players were helped and encouraged by Max Roach and others in the Harlem jazz scene at the time; and how Charlie Parker and other luminaries were common fixtures in their life.
And then...she sat down at the keyboards and played! Her daughter accompanied her on the drums. It was abundantly clear that she had distilled all the influences and experiences in her playing. Her phrasing; her nuanced, logical, intuitive playing; not flashy, but compelling nonetheless, was quite revealing. Thoroughly wonderful!
The duo played an unknown original, and two standards: "Summertime" and "Take The A Train". These two songs were punctuated by her daughter "Punky" doing a superb job on drums and vocals. The duo joined the jam session group for "Now's The Time".
At the end of their time on stage, I asked her daughter "Punky" where they were playing locally; she explained they mostly do private parties in town....
Someone with such compelling history, talent, and still so much to give being relegated to the cocktail party circuit is sad indeed. Perhaps that will change soon.

This episode reminds me of my time in college at The University of Virginia several (LOL) years ago. At the time, I was the director of jazz music for the campus radio station WUVA; I had a Sunday afternoon jazz show for three years. During one of my many forays to the local record shop (Back Alley Records), I met a gentleman named George "Big Nick" Nicholas. He was the man John Coltrane wrote the song about. Big Nick was living in obscurity in a small apartment on Jefferson Avenue in Charlottesville, Va. We used to listen to many records; he was particularly fond of a singer named Mabel Mercer. He told me great stories about Dizzy Gillespie's big band, Billie Holiday, and others during that time.
I eventually did an interview with him on my radio show; he began to play the Tenor sax again and was invited to give a seminar in my jazz studies class at the university. Much later I learned he eventually went back to New York, and recorded again! He influenced another generation of Tenor sax players....
Jazz history, in obscurity in Charlottesville Va. Who knew?

So, if you have the opportunity to go to a jam session, visit a record store, or go to a concert, you just might be exposed to jazz history!