By February 10, 2013 0 Comments Read More →

Individuality: a lost art, part 3.

Buck Clayton, Hot Lips Page, Rex Stewart, Charlie Shavers, Cootie Williams

Buck Clayton, Hot Lips Page, Rex Stewart, Charlie Shavers, Cootie Williams

We threatened to continue this diatribe, and so we will. Our contention is that creative American music all seemed to die at roughly the same time around 1980. We don’t mean that it disappeared. We simply mean that genres like jazz, country and rock all stopped evolving and either became repertory, classical forms, like jazz, or gave in utterly to their commercial leanings, as in the case of country and rock.

In Part 2 of our “Individuality” series, we discussed how Swing, especially of the big band variety, both helped and hindered the development of personal, recognizable styles among musicians. We also noted, and debunked, the myth that Swing was in fact an evolutionary stop on the development of jazz. Swing, quite to the contrary, was a popular form of dance music that borrowed elements of jazz, notably its rhythm, and coincidentally employed hundreds of jazz players who would have been otherwise unpaid for their efforts.

To confuse matters, there were Swing bands who played a lot of jazz, like those of Count Basie and Benny Goodman. Another confusing issue, especially for those who take an ethnomusicological approach to all things, is the myth that African-American bands played only jazz, or were at least influenced by it to a greater extent than their white counterparts. The reality is that being a black orchestra by no means defined one as a jazz outfit. Bands like that of Cab Calloway, for instance, while employing some of the best jazz musicians in the world, actually played very little in the way of real jazz.

Similarly, Jimmie Lunceford and Chick Webb, who led bands capable of genuinely hot music, also both favored slick arrangements and tight ensemble playing over extended improvisation, and ended up being in that sort of twilight area between jazz and pure dance music. Dance music and jazz have always had a sort of uneasy relationship, despite what some historians tell us. While jazz musicians of that era almost always have fond memories of playing for dancers, the reality is that they all gravitated to jam sessions after their paying gigs to play non-danceable music for their own satisfaction.

Duke Ellington was sort of the opposite case. Well into the late 1930’s, his arrangements mostly ignored Swing, and instead favored his established soloists and his increasingly oblique compositions. It wasn’t really until he hired bassist Jimmy Blanton in 1939 that his band began to swing the way even the best white bands had been doing for a few years. A weird, anomalous case of a jazz genius almost missing the rhythmic boat, because he was too busy letting his musicians play jazz. Go figure.

We mentioned that the rise of these Swing bands fostered the rise of star soloists. Some of these stars weren’t particularly interesting jazz players, but they all had readily-identifiable sounds. Harry James, trumpeter with Goodman’s breakthrough band, is a good example. A dazzling technician, James’ jazz playing certainly wasn’t bad. It was simply ordinary, and his fame seemed to be based more on the color of his skin—and his marriages to starlets like Betty Grable—than on his jazz chops. A better example is Teddy Wilson, the African-American pianist Goodman hired to play in his integrated band-within-a-band, the Benny Goodman Trio. Wilson built upon the single note approach of Earl Hines, and Wilson’s style ultimately replaced Hines’ as the trendsetter for jazz pianists, but this hardly happened in a vacuum. Count Basie, Clyde Hart, Art Tatum, Fats Waller, Jess Stacey and many others were busy recording and touring in the late 1930’s, and each of them sounded utterly unique, and nothing like the others. Waller and Tatum, of course, owed their styles to an earlier era, but at this moment they sounded anything but old-fashioned, and were huge influences.

Even boogie woogie, an older style that suddenly became a pop sensation about 1939, produced pianists of distinctive styles. To the uninitiated, hearing that era’s boogie woogie for the first time is always revelatory, so the differences between Albert Ammons, Pete Johnson and Meade “Lux” Lewis might not be immediately obvious. Once one hears a few tunes, however, it’s apparent that even these players, considered primitives by many of their jazz contemporaries, each had unique and personal approaches. The white players who imitated them to much greater financial reward exhibited something less in the way of distinctive styles.

Real jazz, as we alluded, was more often being made in this era at jam sessions, those impromptu gatherings of players and aficionados at after-hours joints of all kinds. As we’ve emphasized, jazz wasn’t a viable way to make a living in the 1930’s, but that didn’t stop the musicians from playing and growing the art form in any way they could. If jazz mostly existed in spite of Swing, it also existed in some cases because of it. There is, of course, some recorded evidence of this. Occasionally, as in the stated case of Count Basie, it’s on a Swing record. More often, it’s on a small group recording, utilizing members of prominent big bands, and recorded either on the cheap by a small, dedicated label, or more often on the budget labels of the major companies. The former included labels like Milt Gabler’s Commodore Records, and Blue Note, which started in 1939 as something like a labor of love for Alfred Lion and Francis Wolf. The latter group included RCA’s Bluebird and Columbia’s Okeh lines. In addition to being a budget label, Okeh—and many other labels of its type—were what were called “race record” labels. So deep was segregation in America that it was deemed inappropriate for whites and blacks to even mix on a record label. Luckily, occasionally you can fix stupid.

These small band sides allow us to hear what was really going on in the jazz scene in the late 1930’s and early 1940’s, and allow us to marvel at the different musical personalities that flourished under less-than-ideal circumstances. We’ve talked about the variety of styles then extant among piano players, and the same held true for that era’s trumpeters. Seminal geniuses like Roy Eldridge and Buck Clayton, as well as wonderfully unique trumpeters like Harry “Sweets” Edison, Bunny Berrigan, Hot Lips Page, Rex Stewart, Cootie Williams, Charlie Shavers, Bill Coleman and so many others developed styles that are readily identifiable, and utterly unlike one another. Other than the fountainhead that was Lester Young, most tenor sax players owed at least some debt to the established jazz master of that horn, Coleman Hawkins. But the best of them each took a unique approach, and we can still easily tell Ben Webster, Chu Berry, Don Byas, Bud Freeman, George Auld, Vido MussoHerschel Evans, Buddy Tate, Illinois Jacquet, Ike Quebec and any number of other players apart with no prompting. Typically, one needs about four measures to identify these players. That became less and less true of jazz in the years after that, for reasons to which we’ve alluded.

The best of these small group sessions include those under Teddy Wilson’s name, which include all of Billie Holiday’s best early vocals, those put together by various members of Duke Ellington’s band, and those by the Kansas City Seven, a small group made up of members of Basie’s band. The most prominent white bandleaders took note of these, and many of them formed smaller bands-within-bands to showcase the talents of their soloists. The best of these included Benny Goodman’s Trio, Quartet and Sextet—which variously employed the talents of Wilson, Gene Krupa, Lionel Hampton and pioneering electric guitarist Charlie Christian, Artie Shaw’s Gramercy Five, and Bob Crosby’s Bobcats, one of the first groups to engage in a “revival” of traditional, early jazz, a trend which later became a happy, if occasionally divisive, post-war fad known as “Dixieland”. In the case of Goodman’s small groups, they even contributed mightily to the revolution that was brewing in jazz during World War II.

This was a time, then, where nuanced, subtle twists of tone, phrase and color were valued above pyrotechnics and training among those on the path to a purely jazz ethos. Perhaps inevitably, this emphasis on personal expression proved to be its own undoing. Quickly, the music evolved away from individuality, and set itself in motion exploring other forms with more complex vocabularies. But, for a brief moment in time, the music paused, and personality triumphed over mere technical prowess. Of course, not every player of this era—and certainly not the minor ones—exhibited this sort of idiosyncratic development of style. But certainly the best of them did, unlike even the best of today’s players.

Only a few contemporary jazz artists, and fewer still in other genres, make individuality a priority anymore. We celebrate these past performers partly because of their individuality, but especially because this sort of approach has become a lost art not only in jazz, but in the American creative process in general. Perhaps it’s an increasingly pervasive design-by-committee mentality, or perhaps it’s a proliferation of conservatory training and European ideals of group-think and tradition, but there was a certain madness and anarchy that allowed these players to develop their unique voices, a madness and anarchy that has sadly disappeared. A prosaic view is that it was a uniquely American phenomenon, and perhaps it was. If that’s the case, then we should be lamenting more than just the demise of individuality in music.

 

Posted in: Jazz, Rants

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