Farewell to all that jazz

We are drifting away from America's only original contribution to Western music.
Thomas C. Reeves | Jun 29 2010 | comment  

Jazz is America's only original contribution to the music of Western civilization. For most of the past century it moved audiences here and all across the globe, sold countless millions of records, tapes, and CDs, and was regularly featured on radio and television. Today it has practically disappeared. The remnants, with a few exceptions, barely resemble the greatness that once reigned in the jazz world.

Jazz fans, aging and always a tiny minority of the culture, depend on recordings from the past to feed their musical taste. They cringe a lot at the low-talent and uncreative music that now wholly dominate the media and the lives of virtually all young people. For the true jazz fan, every trip to a public place requires ear plugs, and the half-time program at the Super Bowl is torture.

Jazz is an art form that emphasizes "swinging" rhythms (listen to the music to define and feel the varieties of "swing"), often unique chord patterns, and, above all, improvisation. The latter word means that a musician playing a jazz solo is free to construct patterns of music that follow the chords and rhythms of a given tune or theme, often a popular song from the "golden age" of American popular music, the 1930s and 1940s.

The demands of modern jazz are formidable, especially the solo work. College jazz bands today can sometimes soar and swing and exhibit power and subtlety in compliance with a good arrangement. But when it comes time to play solos... well, that is best left to a relatively few first-class professional musicians who sometimes serve as "guest stars" on campus.

With roots in the South at the turn of the 20th century, jazz began to flourish nationally, especially in big cities, in the 1920s, the "Jazz Age." In the late 1930s, major developments in the art form began to appear, and arrangers and soloists created music that appealed to musicians and fans alike. Carnegie Hall opened its doors to the Benny Goodman band. The Harry James band was soon featured in several major studio films. The bands of Artie Shaw, Duke Ellington, and Woody Herman were also seen in movies.

In the mid-1940s, jazz expanded into what was called "be-bop." In doing so, it lost many of its fans, who were unable to deal with the unorthodox complexities, daring, and drive of such musicians as Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, Max Roach, and Theolonious Monk. But this was to be the style of jazz that would dominate the music throughout its most creative years.

From roughly 1945 and throughout the next 20 years, first-rate jazz was readily available in the media, and touring groups appeared in clubs and dance halls all across the nation and in Europe and Japan. But the cultural revolution of what has been called the "Dreadful Decade", 1965-75, cemented public taste to rock (which first became popular in the early 1950s), and jazz began its steady march to oblivion. Several major jazz musicians decided to abandon their first love and get rich by pandering to the new craze. See the history of Quincy Jones and Michael Jackson.

The important and rarely asked question is: was the move from jazz to rock inevitable? And if so, why? I know of no hard evidence to refer to, but here are a few personal and inevitably controversial speculations gleaned from some 60 years of listening, playing, and loving jazz.

First, there is the fact that jazz was never very popular. The crowds that went to "Jazz at the Philharmonic" in the 1940s and 1950s screamed and cheered at the one-note antics of tenor saxophonist Flip Phillips and the screeching of trumpeter Roy Eldridge. The beautiful, subtle, and sophisticated music within these famed concerts seemed not to phase the vast majority of attendees. They cheered, as was the custom, for the loudest drummer -- in the middle of his solo! The crowds of the "Big Band Era" of the 1930s and 1940s came largely to dance and preferred music that didn't interrupt. Ask any band leader.

What about the jazz clubs? I've been in almost all of them, and on any given night you could count the dedicated fans -- quiet, thrilled, concentrating, sitting in the front row -- on one hand. The late night partygoers almost always dominated. I suppose it's sexist to state a blatantly obvious fact: jazz seems to be a male thing: about 99.9 percent of players were and are male. Women in clubs seemed especially inattentive to the music. Many live record albums are damaged by unruly partygoers, of both sexes, in the background. Loud blending machines at the bars caused many musicians considerable mental anguish.

Then there is the issue of rhythm. It is the lifeblood of jazz, and true fans literally need to hear it, sometimes daily. Is it an addiction? Probably; it certainly is in my case, even though I also cannot live without Mozart, Brahms, and Wagner. My educated guess is that no more than a tenth of one percent of Americans can follow, let alone appreciate, most of the swinging and complex rhythms of jazz.

The dull thud, thud of the rock drummer seems to satisfy almost everyone. And as for singing in the context of such primitive rhythms, the vast majority of people seem satisfied with painted and costumed performers who scream and gyrate, accompanied by blasting loudspeakers, light shows, and fireworks. It's all very unlike, say, the musical delicacies of jazz pianist Bill Evans performing with singer Tony Bennett.

Thirdly, jazz in its be-bop form takes hard work to master, even for the gifted; the rudiments are difficult for most of us to learn. If modern jazz eludes many musicians, it seems clear that it mystifies most listeners. Without a market for jazz, as is the case today, it's simply easier and far more profitable to learn two or three chords on the guitar and start prancing and howling. (You'll notice that I've not mentioned the ever-popular country-western style of American music. The slight is deliberate. I also choose not to discuss line dancing or Roy Rogers.)

Here are some of my jazz favorites:

Trumpet: Dizzy Gillespie, Clifford Brown, Miles Davis, Freddie Hubbard, Woody Shaw, and Maynard Ferguson.

Piano: Keith Jarrett, Oscar Peterson, Denny Zeitlin, Cedar Walton, Monty Alexander, and Bill Charlap.

Tenor sax: Stan Getz, John Coltrane, Don Menza, Dexter Gordon, Zoot Sims, and Ben Webster.

Alto sax: Charlie Parker, Phil Woods, Sonny Stitt, Paul Desmond, Art Pepper, Lee Konitz, and Johnny Hodges.

Baritone sax: Gerry Mulligan and Harry Carney.

Trombone: Frank Rosolino, Bill Harris, Dick Shearer, and Wayne Henderson.

Drums: Buddy Rich, Mel Lewis, Louis Bellson, Jack De Johnette, Mickey Roker, and Art Blakey.

Guitar: Joe Pass, Wes Montgomery, Russell Malone, and Pat Martino.

Bass: Ray Brown, Buster Williams, Gary Peacock, and Eddy Gomez.

Vibraphone: Milt Jackson, Bobby Hutcherson, Terry Gibbs, and Steve Nelson.

Female vocalists: Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Carmen McRae, and Irene Kral.

Male vocalists: Mel Torme, Billy Eckstine, and Johnny Hartman.

Road bands: Stan Kenton, Woody Herman, Count Basie, and Duke Ellington.

Regional bands: Bob Florence (Los Angeles) and Thad Jones-Mel Lewis (New York).

Composers: Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn, Ken Hanna, and Ralph Burns.

Arrangers: Bob Florence, Marty Paich, Quincy Jones, Gil Evans, and Bill Holman.

You've never heard of these artists? Well, true jazz fans know them, and a great many others, recording by recording. Perhaps one day this rich treasury of music will regain at least a measure of popularity. (In a world like this, it helps to be an unflinching optimist.) Our increasingly vulgar and debilitating culture is much the less without it, I think.

Explore. You may be one of the very few to find yourself hooked. And what joy and beauty await.

Thomas C. Reeves writes from Wisconsin. Among his dozen books are Twentieth Century America: A Brief History, and biographies of John F. Kennedy, Joseph R. McCarthy, Fulton Sheen, Walter J. Kohler, Jr and Chester A. Arthur.

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