Friday, May 11, 2007

Listening to Jazz

Romare Bearden, Profile/Part II, The Thirties: Uptown Sunday Night Session, 1981
collage of various papers with foil, paint, ink, and graphite on fiberboard

The basic difference between classical music and jazz is that in the former the music is always greater than its performance—Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, for instance, is always greater than its performance—whereas the way jazz is performed is always more important than what is being performed. (AndrĂ© Previn)

There are thousands and thousands of wonderful jazz recordings. The following is a very brief list of recommendations; the premise here is that by listening to some of these recordings, or songs like them, we can begin to get a sense of how to listen to just about any jazz recording.

Black Bottom Stomp, Jelly Roll Morton's Red Hot Peppers, September, 1926. Also, Dead Man Blues, Smokehouse Blues, The Chant... Morton's best numbers, and there are many, make for lively listening even today, some eighty years later. He is the first genuine composer of jazz, leading his bands from the piano.

Shag, Sidney Bechet, New Orleans Feetwards, September, 1932, also, Lay Your Racket, China Boy, Blackstick... Bechet's work (on clarinet and soprano saxophone) is less well documented than that of his slightly younger contemporary, Louis Armstrong. His work at its best is as good as any jazz recording - powerful, exciting, vivid. His commanding personality comes through in virtually every performance.

St. Louis Blues, Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong, January, 1925, or others they made together, such as Sobbin' Hearted Blues, Cold in Hand Blues, You've Been a Good Ole Wagon (All from January, 1925) and J.C. Holmes Blues. Both performers are born leaders; the story is that they didn't get along, or, at least, that Bessie felt somewhat cramped by Armstrong's pushy style.

Hotter Than That, Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five, December, 1927, or virtually any of the Hot Five or Hot Seven recordings Louis made in the late 1920s.

Singing the Blues, Bix Beiderbecke and Frankie Trumbauer playing for Frankie Trumbauer and His Orchestra (February, 1927)

Cotton Tail, Duke Ellington and His Orchestra, May, 1940

Body and Soul, Coleman Hawkins Orchestra, 1939

Love is Just Around the Corner, Eddie Condon and His Windy City Seven,

When You're Smiling, Billie Holiday and Lester Young, Teddy Wilson and His Orchestra

You Took Advantage of Me, Jack Teagarden and others in Bud Freeman's Summa Cum Laude Orchestra (July, 1957)

Well, there are thousands more, and these are only from some of the pre-swing and swing idioms, which I do in the classroom because post-bop is too hard for me to both listen to and try to explain.

My goal for this unit is to have students become more familiar with how to listen to jazz and blues recordings and what to listen for. Although I would probably acknowledge the primacy of live performance in jazz aesthetics, this unit is based quite naturally on recordings, some of which were made "live,"with audiences, though most in a studio. I have selected a few recordings from jazz in the New Orleans - Chicago styles (which has many names, including Dixieland (which has pejorative connotations for many), trad jazz, and "red-hot.") and from swing and big band jazz to analyze and listen to closely. The style of jazz discussed here has for decades, in many ways understandably, been given less attention than the more modern-sounding music after the bebop revolution. Those who deride small combo jazz of the first half of the 20th century as traditional and old-fashioned are correct; it was anything but that in its day, however. Jazz was - Jazz is - new, exciting, a little bit scary, and, though it was/is shunned or ignored because of its various challenges it poses to the listener - and in earlier times its natural association with black culture in a predominantly white and racist culture. Jazz meant - means, to me, low-rent, easy and forgiving attitudes, and a far more generous spirit than the main culture, whether musically, culturally, socially, or politically.

As I've said, although I listen to it, I do not include many recordings of the jazz styles after bebop (which began in the 40s from roots in the 30s) in my curriculum for reasons too numerous to mention. The one reason I will give is that it is a LOT more challenging to describe, and not only because the songs are a lot faster and longer, but because the innovations of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, and many more were more musically adventurous, challenging, and sophisticated, involving harmonies and rhythms far more complex - and in some ways, I think, dangerous, or with a dangerous feeling- than in the music I talk about here. There has always been something about great jazz music that teeters on the edge - the greatest performers from any period seem to leap out to the edge to do their best work, and sometimes you might feel they're going to miss a note - and sometimes they do - but that sense of control in the immediate presence of chaos is what jazz is about. To me. (That's maybe why I personally am not a fan of the great Art Tatum; many of his recordings are technically virtuoso performances but as fast and as ornate as the music and the rhythms get, I get no sense that the edges of a musical experience are being explored. There is too much control for me, and not enough chaos.)

Anyway, what I say about jazz of the traditional New Orleans - Chicago style does in many ways reflect what happens when you listen to recordings in later styles, but with those there seems a lot more to listen to and reflect on; I like to keep it simple.

Jazz recordings tend to be all about conversation, when one voice speaks to another who responds in turn and in kind. There can be multiple conversations going on at once, from solo to solo, solo to ensemble, one group of instruments to another group of instruments, and so on. We might not be able to speak that language - I don't play so I don't speak - but by listening we can pick up a lot about tones and feelings, and how these get created. The nature of the conversation in jazz, of course, will depend on the nature of the music itself. As listeners, we learn to eavesdrop - as it were - so that we pick up something of the emotions, often the bravado, the competitive spirit that enlivens the atmosphere, the displays of technical prowess and musical daring, all of which heightens our sense of individual personality in the players in the ensemble as they move through the piece. Each performer in a small combo creates an individual expression that contributes to the whole, often by responding to and developing ideas they pick up from others. The whole is (even) greater than the sum of its parts. The jazz band has been fruitfully compared to a basketball game, as we see below.

Fine and Mellow Billie Holiday and the All Stars is a recording made late in Billie Holiday's career, a rare television recording of her work, in the company of some very distinguished soloist all-stars. Listen to it, or, better yet, watch the tape, which is available on YouTube. The tape opens with an announcer, and then Billie says a few words about the blues and sings a blues chorus:

My man don't love me, he treats me all so mean
My man, he don't love me, he treats me awful mean
He's the lowest man that I've ever seen.

As we listen to her sing, we can learn to pay attention to how the blues chorus breaks into parts - three lines - the verses - the first verse repeating in the second - notice the significant variations here - and the final verse responding to the couplet itself. Furthermore, as discussed here, each of the lines has a built in call-and-response type mechanism between the line and the fill. The blues chorus is a truly elegant device for conveying musical feeling and ideas.

Next, up steps Coleman Hawkins who takes the second chorus. Coleman Hawkins is one of the towering figures in the history of jazz - he invented the role of the tenor sax as a jazz instrument - and his performance here is excellent. The third chorus goes to Lester Young, who steps up to play - he's been sitting down until now; he's old and tired. If Coleman Hawkins was the creator of the tenor sax in jazz, Lester Young was the great innovator on this instrument. Each is associated with a different school or style of playing, a different sound: Hawk sounds deep, darkly expressive, harmonically sophisticated. Lester sounds lighter, not as rich or resonating; words like feathery and lemony have been used to describe the tone. The comparison - contrast between Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young is critical to jazz. So, too, is the admiring musical relationship between the incomparable Billie Holiday and Lester Young, whom she called Pres. Here, we have to include as well the great differences in the style of this old (and dying) Lester Young and his younger style, exemplified in so many great recordings he made with Lady Day, and Teddy Wilson on the piano.

Back to our performance. Listen to the chorus itself, and and read Gunther Schuller's comments:

The document of that television show demonstrates the triumph of soul over matter. For Lester, so sick that he could hardly stand, barely able to draw enough breath to sustain even a short phrase, nonetheless rose to the occasion and played a canticle of such overwhelming expressiveness as to put all the other playing into distance perspective. I think that Lester was dimly yet deeply aware of the fact that even some of his best friends and colleagues in the studio had given up on him. But he was to teach them all a lesson—a lesson particularly in economy and what he meant by “telling a story.” In his twelve halting, recitative-like bars he played a bare forty-five notes (not counting another eighteen embellishmental or passing tones), this about half of Webster’s majestic and ornate solo and one-third of Gerry Mulligan’s double-time chorus. This was, of course, not some statistical game to see who could play the fewest notes. But Lester showed them, and showed for all times—as he had so often done in the past—that sometimes one singly deeply expressed note could say more than a hundred skillfully executed others. Lester was undoubtedly also expressing his feelings for Billie—perhaps he sensed it would be his last chance to do so—and kept his solo, like her singing, pared-down to essentials.
In any case, in Lester’s brief solo here we have one of the truly profound moments in jazz. It stands as a monument to the music, beyond categorization and beyond analysis. It was perhaps at once Lester’s testament and epitaph. (Gunther Schuller, The Swing Era)

So, one of the most fundamental things we listen for in jazz recordings is the improvised solo - what it sounds like and what it does. Its connection to the particular performer is, of course, primary; that's how we identify them - Coleman Hawkins in all the choruses of Body and Soul, Pres on the x chorus of Billie Holiday's When You're Smiling. I like to think of the improvised solo as a form of acting, and of dancing. That is, players improvise solos in these songs to fit the music, and to express the music more than their own particular emotions at any one time. That there is much feeling in improvised solos in jazz is undeniable; these performers employ their technical skills to create an enormous range of feeling.

The following three passages make apt analogies between jazz and other experiences.

The structure of a jazz performance is, like that of the New York skyline, a tension of cross-purposes. In jazz at its characteristic best, each player seems to be—and has the sense of being—on his own. Each goes his own way, inventing rhythmic and melodic patterns which, superficially, seem to have as little relevance to one another as the United Nations building does to the Empire State. And yet the outcome is a dazzlingly precise creative unity. (John A. Kouwenhoven)

The analogy between baseball fans and jazz fans is closer, it seems to me, than that between other audiences. The aficionados are aware of and concerned with the refinements of performance and the particular kinds of poetry in both solo and ensemble performances. (A beautifully executed double steal is as elegant as a Goodman arpeggio.) Like baseball fans, jazz fans know who played where and with whom and to what effect; they talk a rarefied language and drop the names of clarinetists and percussionists as baseball fans do the names of long-forgotten (except by them) shortstops and spitballers. Their retention of detail is prodigious. (Russell Lynes)

Teams move in patterns, in rhythms, at high velocity; one must watch the game abstractly, not focusing on any single individual alone, but upon, as it were, the blurred and intricate designs woven by the paths through which all five together cast a spell upon the opposition. The eye watches five men at once, delighting in their unity, groaning at their lapses of concentration. Yet basketball moves so rapidly and so depends on the versatility of each individual in escaping from the defense intended to contain him that the game cannot be choreographed in advance. Twelve men are constantly in movement (counting two referees), the rebounds of the ball are unpredictable, the occasions for passing or dribbling, or shooting must be decided instantaneously; basketball players must be improvisers. They have a score, a melody; each team has its own appropriate tempo, a style of the game best suited to its talents; but within and around that general score, each individual is free to elaborate as the spirit moves him. Basketball is jazz: improvisatory, free, individualistic, corporate, sweaty, fast, exulting, screeching, torrid, explosive, exquisitely designed for letting first the trumpet, then the sax, then the drummer, then the trombonist soar away in virtuoso excellence. (Michael Novak)