Thursday, July 8, 2010

A Brief History of Jazz (Essay) (by Scott Yanow)


One of the major questions that will go forever unanswered is "How did jazz start?" The first jazz recording was in 1917 but the music existed in at least primitive forms for 20 years before that. Influenced by classical music, marches, spirituals, work songs, ragtime, blues and the popular music of the period, jazz was already a distinctive form of music by the time it was first documented.

The chances are that the earliest jazz was played by unschooled musicians in New Orleans marching bands. Music was a major part of life in New Orleans from at least the 1890's with brass bands hired to play at parades, funerals, parties and dances. It stands to reason that the musicians (who often did not read music) did not simply play the melodies continuously but came up with variations to keep the performances interesting.

Since cornetist Buddy Bolden (the first famous musician to be considered a jazz player) formed his band in 1895, one can use that year as a symbolic birthdate for jazz. During the next two decades the undocumented music progressed but probably at a slow pace. Bolden (whose worsening mental illness led to him being committed in 1906) was succeeded by Freddie Keppard as the top New Orleans cornetist and Keppard was eventually surpassed by King Oliver. Although some New Orleans musicians traveled up North, jazz remained strictly a regional music until the World War I. years.

On Jan. 30, 1917 a white group immodestly called "The Original Dixieland Jazz Band" recorded "Darktown Strutters' Ball" and "Indiana" for Columbia. The often-riotous music was considered too radical to be released at the time so on Feb. 26 the ODJB went to Victor and recorded "Livery Stable Blues" and"'The original Dixieland One Step." The latter performances were immediately released,, "Livery Stable Blues" (which featured the horns imitating animals!) became a best-seller and jazz was discovered, sort of. Within a short period of time other groups were recorded playing in a similar all-ensemble style (the ODJB had virtually no solos). Jazz became a fad for a few years (as promoters rushed to make money off of the new music) and the Original Dixieland Jazz Band in 1919 was a sensation in London. HoweveIr it would be a few years before black jazz musicians were recorded, leading some observers a the time to the false conclusion that whites (and the ODJB in particular) had invented the music! A backlash later on led to others feeling that only blacks could play jazz and that all of the white players were poor imitations. Obviously both beliefs have been proven false many times since then.

In 1920 Mamie Smith recorded the first blues, "Crazy Blues," and the jazz fad was soon supplanted by a blues craze. However jazz continued to progress and the New Orleans Rhythm Kings (one of the first groups to feature short solos) in 1922 sounded a decade ahead of the ODJB. 1923 was a key year for jazz because during that year King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band (which had among its sidemen cornetist Louis Armstrong and clarinetist Johnny Dodds), blues singer Bessie Smith and pianist-composer Jelly Roll Morton all made their recording debuts. While King Oliver's band would be considered the definitive ensemble-oriented New Orleans group, Louis Armstrong would soon permanently change jazz.

In the early 1920's Chicago was the center of jazz. When Louis Armstrong joined Fletcher Henderson's big band in New York in 1924, he found that the Big Apple's musicians (although technically superior) often played with a staccato feeling and without much blues feeling. Armstrong, through his explosive, dramatic and swinging solos with Henderson, was extremely influential in changing the way that jazz musicians phrased and in opening up possibilities for improvisers. In fact it could be argued that Louis Armstrong was chiefly responsible (although it probably would have happened eventually) for jazz's emphasis shifting from collective improvisation to individual solos, setting the stage for the swing era.

The 1920's became known as "The Jazz Age" (although as much for its liberal social attitudes as for its music). Jazz began to greatly influence dance bands and even the most commercial outfits started having short solos and a syncopated rhythm section. Louis Armstrong's remarkable series of Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings inspired other musicians to stretch themselves while his popularization of scat singing and a relaxed vocal phrasing influenced Bing Crosby (who in turn influenced everyone else!). Such players as cornetist Bix Beiderbecke (who had a cooler sound than Armstrong), pianist Jelly Roll Morton (both in solos and with his Red Hot Peppers), pianist James P. Johnson (the king of stride pianists), arranger-composer Duke Ellington and the up-and-coming tenor

Coleman Hawkins became important forces in the jazz world.

By the latter half of the decade, larger jazz-based orchestras had become popular and the collective improvisation to be found in dixieland was going out of style and restricted to smaller groups. When the depression hit, it pushed dixieland almost completely underground for a decade. The general public did not want to be reminded of the carefree days of the 1920's and instead for a few years preferred ballads and dance music. However when Benny Goodman suddenly became popular in 1935, the newer generation showed that they were interested in doing what they could to overlook the Depression by having a good time and dancing to hard-swinging orchestras. The 1935-46 period was accurately known as the big band era for the large orchestras dominated the pop music charts. During this decade jazz was a large part of popular music, not just as an influence as it had been earlier. Glenn Miller and Artie Shaw had million sellers and Benny Goodman, Count Basie and Duke Ellington were household names and celebrities.

During those years jazz developed in several ways. New soloists (such as pianists Art Tatum and Teddy Wilson, tenorsaxophonist Lester Young and trumpeters Roy Eldridge and Bunny Berigan) came up with alternative styles, big band arranging became more sophisticated, dixieland was revived and rediscovered ( Lu Watters' Yerba Buena Jazz Band was a major force) and jazz was celebrated for the first time as an important part of America. However this golden age of popularity would not last.

Due to jazz's continual evolution, it was perhaps inevitable that it would eventually advance far ahead of what the general public preferred in its popular music. In the early 1940's many of the younger musicians sought to move beyond swing music (which was bogging down in cliched arrangements and novelties) and develop their own conception of playing. Altoist Charlie Parker and trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie were the main founders of the new music called bebop or bop but they were not alone and were soon joined by dozens of other musicians. Themes were often quickly discarded as the soloists indulged in more advanced chordal improvisations (leading some critics to ask "Wherels the melody?"), harmonies and rhythms became much more complicated and, most seriously of all, the music was performed less and less for dancers. A recording strike during 1942-44, a prohibitive entertainment tax (which closed many dance halls) and the growing popularity of pop singers doomed the big bands, and the elimination of dance floors at many clubs made jazz into a music strictly for listening By being uplifted to the level of an art music, jazz was isolated from the pop music world and saw its audience shrink drastically as other simpler styles rushed in to fill the gap.

However its commercial decline did not slow down jazz's artistic growth. Bop, once considered a radical music (the recording strike stopped many listeners from hearing its gradual growth), became a large part of the jazz mainstream by the 1950's. Cool jazz (or West Coast jazz), which put a greater emphasis on softer tones and arrangements and was at its height in popularity in the mid-50's, and hard bop (which brought out more soulful elements of jazz that were sometimes discarded in bop) were outgrowths of bebop and had their fans. But it was with the rise of the avant-garde (sometimes called free jazz) that improvised music moved a giant step forward, leaving even more listeners behind!

When Ornette Coleman and his quartet were featured at the Five Spot in New York in 1959, many listeners who were just beginning to accept the music of Thelonious Monk were bewildered. Ornette and his sidemen quickly stated a theme in unison and then improvised very freely without using chords at all! During the same period John Coltrane, who had taken bop to its extreme with the endless number of chords he used in "Giant Steps," began to jam passionately over simple repetitive vamps. Pianist Cecil Taylor's percussive atonality owed as much to contemporary classical music as to earlier jazz stylists and Eric Dolphy's wide interval jumps were completely unpredictable. Avant-garde jazz had arrived!

By the mid-1960's free jazz was filled with high-energy improvisers who explored sounds as much as notes. Within a few years with the rise of the Art Ensemble of Chicago and Anthony Braxton, space was utilized much more liberally in the music and by the 1970's many avant-garde artists were spending much of their time integrating improvisations with complex compositions. The music was no long er continuously free form but musicians had complete freedom in their solos to create whatever sounds they felt fit. Although this music has been overshadowed by other styles since the 1970's, it is still a viable option for creative improvisers and its innovations continue to indirectly influence the modern mainstream of jazz.

The 1970's are best remembered as the fusion era, when many jazz musicians integrated aspects of rock, r&b and pop into their music. Until the late 60's, the jazz and rock worlds had stayed pretty much separate but, with the rise of electric keyboards, a great deal of experimentation took place. Miles Davis, who was an innovator in bop, cool jazz, hard bop and his own brand of the avant-garde, became a pacesetter in fusion when he recorded In A Silent Way and Bitches Brew. Groups began to be formed that combined together the improvising and musicianship of jazz with the power and rhythms of rock; most notable were Return To Forever, Weather Report and the Mahavishnu orchestra. By 1975 this movement began to run out of gas artistically but due to its moneymaking potential it has continued up to the present time, often in watered-down form as crossover or instrumental pop and given the inaccurate name of "contemporary jazz."

The history of jazz from 1920-75 was a constant rush forward with new styles considered out of date within five or ten years. In the 1980's it suddenly became acceptable to honor the past and to look back before, bop for inspiration. While dixieland had remained quite active as an underground music for decades (it was at its height of popularity in the 1950's), few in the jazz modern mainstream acknowledged its existence and importance before the 80's. Wynton Marsalis, who symbolized the decade, began as a trumpeter greatly inspired by the playing of Miles Davis of the mid-60's. He eventually found his own sound by going back in time and exploring the music of the pre-bop masters, and the result was that (even when he played modern new music) Marsalis was able to come up with fresh approaches by borrowing and adapting ideas from the distant past.

Many of the young players that have followed Marsalis ignore fusion and even most of the innovations of the avant-garde to use hard bop as the basis for their music. It was a rather unusual development to have so many musicians in their twenties playing in a style that was at its prime before their birth, but by the 1990's many of these "Young Lions" were finally developing their own sounds and starting to build on the earlier innovations.

Nearly all styles of jazz are still active in the 1990's including dixieland, classic jazz, mainstream (essentially small group swing), bop, hard bop, post-bop, the avant-garde and various forms of fusion. Very much an international music (some of the most stimulating sounds of recent times have come from Europe), the evolution of jazz has definitely slowed down during the past 20 years. At this point in time it is not apparent which direction jazz will go in the future (some cynics even think the music has essentially reached the end of its development), but one can bet that as long as recordings exist (along with the need for self-expression), jazz will survive.

Scott Yanow

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