Live Jazz and the Beauty of Improvised Performance

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Jazz music is arguably the most unpredictable and visceral performance art that exists. During improvisational bouts, in the flash of a second before an improvising musician’s next note, no one—sometimes not even the musician—knows what will come next. While classical music can be deeply, profoundly expressive, and while theatre and dance can promote tension and resolution, jazz music alone is delivered in a unique way each time it is performed.

Studio recordings are able to capture some of the magic of improvisation, but they by nature reduce the performance down to a single take. It is often an excellent and exciting take, like a well-taken photograph of a beautiful vista, but as is the case with photographs, it can be difficult to convey the scale of a song in a recording. From a single musician, one song on a quiet and thoughtful evening can be wildly different from the same song in a hot and rowdy night club.

As with all performance arts, it is up to the performer to take the audience to the place that the music comes from. Classical music may be composed, theatre may be scripted, dance may be choreographed, but jazz is dependent on the mood, the mind, the energy, and the fire inside the musician. For this reason—while there is certainly nothing wrong with listening to recordings of jazz music—jazz is an art best appreciated live, where the music is in a state of living, breathing relationship with its maker.

Work, Play, and Music

From the moment that jazz was first recorded, the music became subject to commodification. Musicianship was as much a trade as a passion, if not more so at times. Though many musicians hone their craft through live performance and taking creative liberties, studio recording time mandates polished, rehearsed performances that can restrict musicians to a set tempo and timeframe.

Many of the most prominent musicians throughout the 30s and 40s were part of a musician’s union. The unions were a necessary evil for musicians, many of whom faced nearly certain poverty and abuse without its protections. Still, the protection of unions often came at the cost of personal freedoms. Musicians were expected to perform when they were scheduled to perform, practice when they were scheduled to practice, record when they were scheduled to record, and not play when they were not scheduled to be playing.

For many, creative expression was only allowed onstage. As jazz music migrated from large dance halls to small nightclubs, musicianship migrated from performance to improvisation. During the early 40s, this came out in New York in particular, in a movement that would come to be known as bebop. Following an era of jazz music that had become predictable and routine, a handful of musicians decided to make “music for musicians,” outside of the standard.

The Jazz Clubs

While swing music continued to dominate dance halls, opera theatres, and large venues for some time, bebop began to circulate in small night clubs late into the night. Artists such as Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Sonny Rollins, Miles Davis, and John Coltrane began to push back at the industrialized, rigid confinements of unionized work. They would perform all night, and then keep playing long past closing, pushing one another to new and innovative modes of jazz music. And for the audiences who turned up and crowded into the clubs, the music was never more exciting.

As the decade wore on, each musician became famous in their own right, turning jazz as a whole into an individualized expression of thought. Large, ten to twelve-member swing ensembles dwindled in popularity while compact, three to five-member orchestras took familiar jazz songs and twisted them into unique, primarily improvised performances. As these quartets and quintets took to smaller and smaller venues, the jazz club began to dominate the jazz scene at large.

During this time, while bebop musicians did leave behind a fair number of recordings, jazz flourished in the dark of the night. Songs had new life breathed into them with each performance, as musicians sought to outplay one another with a fervor never before seen. Still today, if you want to experience jazz in its truest form, you cannot listen to it filtered through studio time and premeditated polish. You must sit in one of those clubs, follow to the edge of composition, and allow yourself to be taken into the wild and creative unknown.

What are the Main Genres of American Music?

“Good” music means something different to everyone these days, and this is highlighted by the growing number of genres and sub-genres that circulate in both mainstream and underground circles.

Most of these genres have evolved over the years due to several cultural and societal influences, and this is why every region of the world has its own particular “flavour” when it comes to music, from the Latin music of Mexico, to the Goan trance music of Southern India.  

Today, however, we want to focus on the many musical genres of the United States of America.

For a person who has just started to explore the vast reaches of music, it can get very confusing at times learning what’s what, since every major genre does break down into smaller and more select sub-categories.  Upon closer inspection, some of these genres seem fairly ridiculous.  

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To accurately depict the thousands of sub-genres that exist all around the world is a fairly impossible task, so we have learned to generalize into a reasonable number of “main” genres of music.

What Are The Main Genres Of American Music?

Each genre has its own favoured instruments that operate in particular scales or modes, a certain style of vocals (or lack thereof), and a definite rhythmical pattern behind the beats.  An experienced music lover will be able to tell the difference in genres simply by listening to a song, but, from time to time, a new permutation will always surface, eschewing convention.

Blues

What began as the Mississippi Delta Blues quickly became the biggest and most influential American music genre there is.  Adopted by the African-American population from traditional African music, blues became a medium of expressing agony through slow moving rhythms and emotional, and sometimes tragicomic lyrical situations.  The genre attained massive commercial success when artists from Chicago created a variant called Chicago blues.  You’ll find the influence of blues on other genres such as jazz, gospel, RnB, and hip hop.

Jazz

This genre of music evolved in the early 20th century.  The early artists were all African-Americans.  It has also lead to the birth of many genres in its time, but jazz music is primarily associated with the use of blue notes, performed on instruments like the saxophone and the massive double bass.  The boundaries and scope of jazz is something that has lead to various debates in the music community, and the fact is that no one has yet settled for an accurate description that accurately encompasses the entire genre.

Rock n’ Roll

Rock music started hitting the streets in the 1950’s, and it evolved as a subset of rock and roll, rhythm and blues, classical and folk music that had been around since the 1940’s. The primary focus in rock is on the electric guitar, and the many solos that can be created with it.  The bass guitar and drums are also highly in focus here, and, for some time, even synthesizers were the rage (and they’re coming back!).  Today, we relate any music that is slightly ‘heavy’ with it, and this has also lead to the combination of rock with other various sub-genres. 

From rock, we get the birth of folk rock, classic rock, punk rock, blues rock, jazz rock, soft rock, heavy metal, hard rock, alt rock, and prog rock.  

Let’s hear from the puzzled panther himself, Darby Crash, famous punker.

Rock is something that is omnipresent in all cultural references today, and it is no secret that we associate rock musicians with a rebellious lifestyle, incessant substance abuse, tremendous fan bases all around the world, and an ever present sense of self-destruction.

Back when rock started, it was decidedly more light-hearted and fun, with only a slight edge.  

Country Music 

Country music is certainly one of the oldest forms of commercial music.  It originated in the 1920’s in southern parts of the United States, and it has slowly spread to all parts of the world.  It is also known as country & western music, and has been embraced by countless artists, including The King himself, Elvis Presley.  

The defining characteristic of early country music was an acoustic guitar, with just the vocals of the singer to accompany it.  In this way, it is similar to blues music, however, a different group of Americans were responsible for creating it – those who lived south of the Mason-Dixon line.  

These days, country music expresses itself as rock, as pop, or even dance music, but the original version of country music was much simpler and expressed the feelings of those in the south.  

Folk Music

Also called “roots” music, folk music is both similar to country and blues, in that it has historically found its origins in the lower social classes of people in society.  That said, folk music has always had a revolutionary streak, as it has typically been used as a means of protest, telling stories, and providing political commentary.

Instrumentally, folk music can be said to be similar to both country and blues, with the primary instrument of folk music often being an acoustic guitar (mouth harp can also frequently be heard).  However, folk music is not limited to simply just guitar, and there are other specifically instruments which often turn up in folk songs, such as banjos, jugs, spoons, and the accordion.  

In more recent times, folk music has been embraced by anyone who appreciates what the genre stands for.  For instance, when Bob Dylan hit the scene in the early 1960’s, he fancied himself a folk singer like his hero Woody Guthrie, but Dylan didn’t come from poverty, as you might expect a true folkster to be.  By the time Woodstock rolled around in ’69, folk music was practically mainstream, but no less affecting.  

Today, folk music can even refer to a sort of throwback to this hippy movement in the ’60’s.  For example, if you hear mild mannered acoustic music where a male and female are singing “la la la” or “whoa, whoa, whoa” in harmony, you could try to call that folk music, but, by its original meaning, it clearly is not.  

Hip Hop and Rap

Relatively new to the growing list of American musical genres is hip hop, or rap music. The primary focus here with hip hop is on hard beats and DJ scratching, as well as a type of rhythmic spoken word put overtop.  Also, synthetic sounds are a big part of hip hop music, as well as samples, which involves clips from other recordings re-purposed to create new artistic expressions.  

Although hip hop evolved out of the urban ghettos of the United States in the 1970’s, today it has come to symbolize success and has spread far into mainstream culture, not just in the U.S.A., but all around the world.  Hip hop has become a multi-billion dollar industry.

Pop Music

Pop music is perhaps the most confusing of any genre, because it really isn’t a genre at all. Pop is short for popular, and referring to music with popular appeal.  Thus, pop music can refer to any song from any genre, so long as it is popular.  There is, however, a conflicting idea that “pop” is a genre, and has its own characteristics.  For our purposes today, we will go with the former definition.

As it refers to popular music, pop music usually is considered to be offensive to some hipster music fans, who revile anything enjoyed by the masses.  This is almost a fair assessment of pop music, since it often strives to appeal to broadest group of people possible, in order to sell the most records possible.  This is generally done by targeting teenagers, who are the most impressionable fans out there (except for pre-teens, children, and babies).  

Of course, it is possible for well crafted music to be “pop” music, but the basic premise of pop music is that it is meant to please the most people possible.  As such, it is frequently about everyone’s favourite topic – sex, whether it be directly mentioned or implied.

Pop music isn’t just about sex.  In fact, sometimes it can be about violence as well. Actually, whatever it is about, it doesn’t matter.  Pop music is the only genre where the characteristics of the music itself is secondary to its popularity.  Imagine if there were a genre of music called “rich”, where the only quality the music needed to have was being written by rich people.  How obnoxious…

Conclusion

There are, of course, more genres of music out there.  Many of them are sub-genres of the genres we’ve already mentioned, such as soul, gospel, funk, zydeco…the list is practically endless.  

We hope you found this article interesting.  If so, please leave us a comment below!

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A Brief History of Bossa Nova Jazz Music

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Jazz is regularly declared an American art form, referred to as the first truly American contribution to the canon of music. In some ways, this is true. Jazz was born in the US, and it flourished and changed with the tides of the nation.

But to say that jazz is strictly American, that is, US American, is to close one’s eyes to the influences and flavors of jazz that emerged from the rest of the world throughout jazz’s lifetime. When we say that jazz is American, we should also be thinking South America, especially if “The Girl From Ipanema” is drifting through the room.

Brazil is the country, and Portuguese the language of the “Garota de Ipanema,” one of the most popular, praised, and lasting compositions of the jazz standards. The style isn’t New Orleans, swing, big band, or bebop.

It’s bossa nova, a purely Brazilian evolution of samba music, and it was born of the same intensity and energy that drives all jazz music.

Joao Gilberto and the Birth of Bossa Nova

“Bossa” is Brazil’s old-fashioned equivalent of “hip” or “trendy.” Therefore, bossa nova signifies quite literally a new and fashionable derivation of samba. In the same way that swing music abandoned rigid march tempos and punchy staccato for playful syncopation and an elastic pulse, bossa nova sways cooly and marks a departure from percussion heavy, dance oriented samba music.

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The actual form and early style was born out of the efforts of a single man: Joao Gilberto. He spent months of his life playing day and night in the bathroom of his sister’s house (for acoustics, as The Beatles would too), forging and perfecting a new style of guitar and vocals.

Gilberto emphasized harmony over rhythm, and began singing in a near whisper, constantly landing somewhere just ahead of or just behind the beat. He abandoned nearly all Afro-Brazilian samba percussion, instead using his hands and guitar as minimally as possible. It was after months of playing this way and rejecting traditional work that he was institutionalized by his father, who suspected mental illness.

A week after entering, he was released. It was then that he returned home to seek out old friends, and one in particular who would lead Gilberto to international fame.

Antonio Carlos “Tom” Jobim, Stan Getz, and Astrud Gilberto

Many know Antonio Carlos Jobim simply as Tom, and you might also know Tom Jobim as the composer of “Desafinado,” “Corvocado,” and of course, “Garota de Ipanema.” When Joao Gilberto approached his old friend, Jobim took an immediate liking to the style and bossa nova was officially born.

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Around the same time, Stan Getz, prominent US saxophonist, toured Brazil and came away with an affinity for samba. His early experiments with jazz and samba fusion made him the perfect point of contact for an American-based bossa nova audience.

The collaboration between Gilberto, Jobim, and Getz was astonishingly groundbreaking, and sparked a bossa nova craze across the US and the world. The album, Getz/Gilberto, was the first jazz album to win the Grammy Award for Album of the Year, and made Gilberto and Jobim the first non-American winners of a Grammy Award.

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Read our full review of this album

Bossa Nova spread rapidly in the years following the release of Getz/Gilberto, and numerous collaborations were recorded alongside American icons such as Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald. Jobim was nominated for a second Grammy with the release of his 1967 collaboration with Frank Sinatra, titled Francis Albert Sinatra & Antonio Carlos Jobim.

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Pay attention next time you find yourself swaying to “One Note Samba,” or “Agua de Beber.” Bossa nova has become an inextricable thread in the fabric of jazz music, and it demonstrates a power of cultural expression that unites all jazz musicians and their audiences.

The Hawk & The Reed

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The tenor saxophone was not generally considered a jazz instrument when Coleman Hawkins took it up at the age of nine. At that time, around 1915, swing music was a developing genre—jazz as a whole was a developing sound, for that matter.

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Coleman Hawkins is a figure who drifts through the history of jazz as though he was there before it was written. By the time big band swing bands had reached their fullest potential, Hawkins had already made numerous appearances in the emergent bebop movement. His rise to power was silent, and his loudest career statement comes in the form of the tender and intelligent “Body and Soul.”

Exploring the trajectory of Hawkins’ diverse career leads to regions of jazz that are still today both novel and relatively unexplored. Beneath each recording and lineup is an ever-present freshness, a signature sound that escapes conventional classification. It is above all else the man who chose the tenor saxophone, the then-unconventional, and today ubiquitous sound of jazz.

From Big Bands to Soloist

Like all prominent jazz musicians through the 20s, Hawkins found stable work and creative potential in the swing movement. In fact, Hawkins spent nearly the entire first decade of his musical career with Fletcher Henderson’s Orchestra, a prominent big band that featured the indisputable champion of swing music, Louis Armstrong.

Fletcher Henderson’s Orchestra

Hawkins played alongside the already legendary Armstrong from the very start of his time with Henderson’s Orchestra. During this time, Hawkins grew in musicianship and style, and perhaps more importantly, in consciousness of jazz and its unexplored potential. Even after Armstrong’s departure in 1925, Hawkins recordings indicate that he was constantly considering the role of the individual in jazz music.

Body And Soul

Though he continued in the vein of swing music and big band up until the 1940s, Hawkins made an indelible mark on jazz music with the recording of his 1939 recording of “Body and Soul.”

As with many revolutionary moments in the history of jazz, the piece was recorded as somewhat of an afterthought, when there was no one to witness or command the trajectory of the music. Hawkins all but abandoned the recognizable melody, opting instead for a completely interpretive improvisation.

The result was a recording that many considered the next evolutionary step in jazz. For Hawkins, it was a recording that only confirmed the direction that he had been heading for quite some time.

Bebop and Beyond

Hawkins’ career took on a solitary note from 1940 onward. He gained a reputation for identifying early talent, including names such as Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, Max Roach, and Oscar Pettiford. Though never quite in the fore of the bebop scene, he can be found on some of bebop’s earliest recordings, including an early project with another preeminent bebop figure, Dizzy Gillespie.

coleman hawkins and dizzy gillespie

Some of Hawkins later works delved into the experimental. Staying true to his pioneering instrumentalist work, Hawkins befriended and recorded alongside Milt Jackson, a player of the vibraphone. Incorporating such an unorthodox instrument into jazz combo music marked the transition into Hawkins later stage of his career, where fame and fortune came secondary to exploring new and untouched territory.

Paving The Way

Though Hawkins recorded late into life, he was eventually eclipsed by other prominent musicians of the era. Players that he had paved the way for—namely, tenor saxophonists—began moving the instrument from accepted, to preferred, to universal in all things jazz. Though he remained prolific in his recordings, most will remember Hawkins’ “Body and Soul” before they think of his Bossa Nova records.

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No matter how far Hawkins travelled into the realm of the improvisational or experimental, he embodied one of the central tenants of jazz music. He taught the world of jazz to never settle for the established, to never follow the hum of the expected, and to never play it the same twice. 

Art Tatum – Striding Through Life

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Some artists are born for their craft. Perhaps the greatest among musicians—whose very name has become synonymous with virtuosity and genius—is Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. This towering, Classical era composer demonstrated a capacity for musical genius at an extremely young age, and in a radical, almost supernatural way.

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The legend regarding Mozart’s transcription of Allegri’s Miserere runs something like this: at 14 years of age, young Mozart is taken to St. Peter’s cathedral at the Vatican for Easter Sunday. Mozart hears Gregorio Allegri’s Miserere for the first time—a sacred and closely guarded hymn reserved solely for performance during Easter. After hearing it only once, Mozart transcribes the entire piece by ear and from memory, making only minor corrections after hearing it once more a few days later.

Next to none have ever come close to the level of musical mastery that Mozart demonstrated at age 14. Still, there are many musicians who have risen above their contemporaries, who rest forever in their legacies and in their contributions to the history of music.

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Art Tatum is one of these. His is most likely not the name that comes first in the mind, at least not before other, more memorable players like Duke Ellington or Thelonious Monk. Sitting humbly, squarely at the fore of prominent jazz piano players, Art Tatum is almost universally recognized by both critics and fellow musicians as the greatest jazz pianist to have ever lived.

Art Tatum – Born to Play

Not much is known about Art Tatum’s life, but one thing that we know for certain about Art Tatum is that he was blind for most of his life. This does not make him the first or last piano player to achieve fame and virtuosity despite being blind—Stevie Wonder and Ray Charles come easily to mind.

The cornerstone of Tatum’s abilities lies in another sensory augmentation. It is said that one day, while Tatum’s mother was cooking, hymns began drifting through the house on the Tatum’s old piano. Thinking that someone from the church had come over, she went into the parlor to greet them. She was stunned upon discovering that it was her son, a young Arthur Tatum, performing the hymns by ear, from memory.

About one in 10,000 people is born with the ability to discern and replicate pitches or lines of music without any external reference point. Even among those born with the ability—called absolute pitch, or perfect pitch—there are different levels of cultivation and ability.

Art Tatum is one of the gifted, a musical anomaly who could listen to a piece once and have it memorized forever, like Mozart before him. When Tatum went to school to study music, he would read braille sheet music with one hand, and play the piece from memory immediately thereafter. These abilities created the potential for musical achievement that the jazz world had not yet, and would not ever see again.

Striding Through Life

There are more legends surrounding Tatum’s character than almost any other jazz musician in history. Other players demonstrated a certain reverence for the Toledo based performer whenever he took the stage.

Tatum’s preferred style of play is known as stride piano, which borrowed structure from the form of ragtime, and then abandoning that structure in favor of improvisation and a wider range of motion. It is said even to this day that Tatum sounds like he is playing two pianos at once. He is known for having the fastest left hand of any pianist before or since.

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Even the founding father of stride piano, James P. Johnson, said that he had never truly heard stride piano until the day he heard Art Tatum perform. Though Tatum’s style was stride first and foremost, he tried to encapsulate all areas of jazz into his performance, often resulting in wildly complicated, fast, and intelligent performances.

Perhaps the most enduring aspect of Tatum’s playing is in his performance. While playing faster than anyone else in the world, Tatum retained a calm and cool posture. He never made faces, and never made a show of performing. In this, he demonstrates the innate, born to play style of performance that makes jazz so interesting. It is a feeling that jazz, no matter where it comes from or where it goes, is directly of the soul.

King Oliver and Louis Armstrong – The Crowning Of Kings

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The music we hear at any given moment is far more than the sound coming through the speakers. We can measure music against everything that has come before it, by the sounds that are familiar and the sounds that are new.

Before Louis Armstrong established himself as one of the most influential musicians in history, there was Joseph Nathan Oliver. He was known by his contemporaries—jazz pioneers all—as King Oliver. The cornet-wielding king emerged from the cradle of jazz music: the Louisiana port city, New Orleans.

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King Oliver & The Origins Of Jazz

Oliver was born in late December, in the year 1881. Ragtime, as a means of perspective, was born around the same time, and lived nearly its entire lifespan in American popular music before Oliver moved to Chicago in 1918. In the time between his birth and his migration north, Oliver established himself as a reputable band leader and composer.

Louis Armstrong credits much of the origin of jazz music to King Oliver, and that is no small tribute. Armstrong is remembered as one of the most influential musicians of all time, as a founding father of jazz music, and as a pioneer of jazz in not one, but several emergent eras of jazz music. Oliver survives as little more than a footnote on Armstrong’s storied career, but the footnote reads universally: mentor and teacher of Louis Armstrong.

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It is nearly impossible to picture Armstrong in anyone’s shadow, and yet such was the case for Armstrong during the many years that he played under the King Oliver troupe. Still more astounding is the fall from fame that left King Oliver as a dying, penniless janitor. The interplay between the lives of these two musical pioneers are a symbol of the history of jazz itself: a constant rising and falling of the old and the new.

Fighting for the Throne

It stands to reason that the better musician wins the fame, but measuring the standards of musicianship is difficult when the music itself is in the process of being established. Perhaps it is for this reason that Oliver rose so quickly to fame. He was the one writing the music that everyone loved.

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Passing The Torch

When Oliver took Armstrong under his wing, it became clear that he favored the young and budding musician. Armstrong considered Oliver a father figure and role model, something that had been lacking in Armstrong’s life up to that point. As a musician, Armstrong emulated his mentor’s performance, and as pupils often do, soon grew to surpass the model that he was following.

Armstrong gained a reputation for his intensity and endurance of play. There was an element of sheer physical ability Armstrong possessed that was essentially unmatched as he entered adulthood. This alone would not have threatened Oliver, who called Armstrong to play for him in Chicago after leaving New Orleans in 1918.

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Taking Liberties

As a composer, Oliver’s fixation was upon creating the sound and style of music that the American public were only just beginning to understand as jazz music. This is why at first, most likely, Oliver did not think too fondly of Armstrong’s proclivity towards improvisation and creative liberties.

Yet it is precisely this creative liberty that struck a chord with the American public. While the sound and style of Oliver’s compositions reigned primarily as the fixed structure of jazz, it was the improvisational, rhythm-bent element of performance that Armstrong brought to the table that ushered jazz into homes and dance halls across the nation.

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It is for this reason that Armstrong outlived the King of New Orleans, the man who would fade from both memory and record players while he struggled to make ends meet late in life. It is true that jazz would not be what it is today without the composer, without the structure that plays out in the background of every piece. But it is the art of the solo, the act of the individual, and the spirit of the moment that makes Louis Armstrong the enduring King of Jazz. 

A Fight And A Love Supreme

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The late 50s and early 60s were a turbulent time in both American history, and in the history of jazz.  Much of the established culture was being subverted by civil rights activism, and the world at large was turning its attention to the birth of rock & roll.

Here’s a crash course in ’50’s Civil Rights if you want to get a sense of those times before we continue on.

Tensions

In the year 1955, jazz lost bebop pioneer Charlie “Bird” Parker at the age of 34 to heroin and substance abuse. In the same year, 14-year-old Emmet Till was kidnapped, beaten, and murdered by two white men after flirting with a white woman. Following the abrasive photographs and mournful epitaphs that flooded the news, and of no small consequence, 42-year-old Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white man in Montgomery, Alabama. Amidst so many other race tensions and conflicts, the United States was in desperate need of change.

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The year 1956 saw Martin Luther King Jr. leading a 385-day boycott of the Montgomery bus system, while Elvis Presley recorded his first commercial hits in Nashville, Tennessee. The two men were in adjacent states, experiencing radically different Americas. Martin Luther King Jr.’s house was bombed during the boycott. Presley was making live television appearances following record-breaking success.

Jazz In The 1950’s

And what was the jazz community up to at this point in history? For a community of predominantly black musicians struggling through night clubs and demanding gigs, jazz was finding itself relegated to dimly lit spaces of escape and quiet suffering. Still, musicians were finding new and innovative ways to power through creative boundaries.

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Coltrane And Davis Split

At the fore of these creative efforts were—among others—Miles Davis, and John Coltrane. Their respective sagas are in some opinions the greatest culminations of musical expression in the history of music. This story begins at a break in their paths, where the supremely talented Coltrane had fallen into deep substance abuse on Davis’ dollar.

After Coltrane showed up strung out and late to a live performance, probably not for the first time, Davis decided that he had finally had enough of Coltrane’s unreliable, drugged-out lifestyle. In a burst of anger, Davis slapped, then gut-punched Coltrane, who was too high to notice. Davis fired Coltrane from the band and kicked him out onto the streets, where somewhere far away, Coltrane must have felt the weight of what his drug addiction had cost him.

Healing and A Love Supreme

More than one jazz critic has chosen the word “angry” to represent Coltrane’s signature sound. For a young black man in the United States, there was a lot to be angry about. It is impossible to ignore the brutality and the violence of civil rights era America, and for Coltrane, being kicked out of his musical community and must have been terrifying.

coltrane a love supreme

In short, he sobered up. But Coltrane’s sobering up was probably not the primary contributing factor to the new direction that his music took. What we hear in A Love Supreme—Coltrane’s 1965 masterpiece and exploration of modal jazz—is a deeply introspective and guided sound. In a culture of improvisation and response to the surrounding world, A Love Supreme is noticeably absent of the angry external world, and of the angry improvisational jazz that Coltrane belted out during the Davis years.

Motifs

The central motif of the album is a verbal chant which reappears throughout the album in a sometimes haunting, sometimes longing, sometimes desperate, and sometimes peaceful way. Many have pointed out that the motif appears in all 12 keys towards the end of the first movement, a feat which is not so much improvised as it is coordinated. There is an inescapable, tangible feeling of spirit throughout the album. And not the energetic, lively state that the word “spirited” often evokes.

john coltrane live

What A Love Supreme ultimately evokes is a paradoxical state of both external struggle, and internal surrender. It is a state of supreme peace within a state of extreme conflict. The album has been explored many times over the past few decades, but in every context, it retains an unconquerable spirit that is almost too subtle to be identified.

Perhaps we can learn to apply Coltrane’s resolutions to this age of conflict and civil unrest.

The Famous 1938 Carnegie Hall Jazz Concert

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On May 11, 1937, New York City’s Savoy Ballroom experienced the Battle of the Bands of the century. Chick Webb, a man from East Baltimore, led the Savoy house band. He was famous in his own right, and was widely respected by the jazz community at large. On the opposing bandstand, wearing the crown title of the “King of Swing,” was Benny Goodman.

famous 1938 carnegie hall jazz concert benny goodman

The two bandleaders were charismatic opposites, and their respective paths leading up to the 1937 showdown could not have been more different. Chick Webb (pictured below) experienced early success after leaving home at the age of 17, overcoming a severe disfigurement and establishing himself as an accomplished bandleader in New York by age 21.

chick webb

Goodman’s career, on the other hand, was marked by early struggle and uncertainty. He was regularly met with varying periods of successes and failures, struggling to get by until a tour of the West coast in 1935 earned him recognition and financial success. For 28-year-old Goodman (pictured below, the Savoy on May 11th was merely a stepping stone in the making of his career and of history.

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Precursor

That night at the Savoy, though Goodman’s band was as dialed-in and lively as ever, many gave the victory to Webb. Goodman’s drummer, Gene Kruppa, acknowledged defeat to the superior performance and energy that Webb delivered. Reportedly, there were approximately 9,000 people both inside and outside the venue. This moment in history, though not often recounted, prefaces one of the most famous concerts in jazz history. It came less than nine months before Goodman and his swing band performed at Carnegie Hall—the first time ever, that jazz was performed there.

Live at Carnegie Hall

Goodman’s initial response to playing at Carnegie Hall was hesitant. He had experienced a lot of safe success in the previous months, and the idea was pitched to him as a publicity stunt. He was already wearing the title, “King of Swing,” and Carnegie Hall was at the time primarily reserved for classical performance. Still, the incentive for Goodman was strong. No jazz bandleader at that point in time had ever performed on that stage.

sing sing sing from carnegie hall 1938 newsreel footage

Introduction To Jazz

The concert was sold out far in advance, and was filled to capacity on the night of the performance. As Goodman and his troupe ventured out onto the stage, both performers and audience members alike were unsure of the trajectory of the evening.

Goodman’s band opened with a punch. Within the first few seconds of the opening number, “Don’t Be That Way,” audience members broke out into energetic albeit subdued applause. Throughout the first three songs, solos were met with bursts of unsteady and sporadic applause. As the band played on, and as the music settled over the venue, the crowd became more responsive and lively.

Benny-Goodman-and-his-orc-007

Swing Steals The Show

The uncertainty was by no means the mark of any degree of negative response. In the occasionally awkward, surprised bursts of cheering and applause, a new dialogue was opening between jazz and the mainstream musical consumers of the era. For decades following the 1938 Jazz Concert, the performance would be remembered as the introduction of jazz into the American musical narrative at large.

By the end of the night, and after many calls for encore and reprise, swing music had stolen the hearts of every individual in the crowd. Complete with guest appearances, vocal numbers, impromptu solos, and cast changes—Goodman’s 1938 jazz concert was both a tribute to, and the making of, history.

Yet forever beneath the fabric of mainstream history, Chick Webb holds the victory over Goodman’s band in their epic showdown. Perhaps that night at the Savoy is a suggestion that the heart of jazz music and the American mainstream were always fundamentally at odds. After Goodman’s concert, Carnegie Hall would become known for regularly featuring dominant swing bands and jazz icons. Perhaps, in full acknowledgement of the crowning talent of the Goodman band, there is a deeper legacy of jazz beneath the era’s preeminent Kings and Queens.

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Who Is Louis Armstrong And Why Is He Important To Jazz Music?

who is louis armstrong and why is he important

If you were to ask a non-jazz listener to name one jazz musician, especially a trumpeter, that they know of by name, then chances are they would state ‘Louis Armstrong!’ boldly and confidently. However, if you ask many members of inner jazz circles to speak on great trumpet players and jazz musicians, it seems that Louis Armstrong’s name is left out of the conversation or merely added in as an afterthought without too much detail included. Here in this article, we’ll make an attempt to dissect the reasons behind this and explain what made Louis Armstrong so influential and popular in the world of jazz.

But first, let’s start out with a tune…

Early Life

Born in the birthplace and jazz capital of the world, New Orleans, in 1901, Louis Armstrong was able to capitalize on the eclectic sounds and transformative music that exuded forth from that area. Similar to present day, much of Louisiana was in dire economic straits, and Louis Armstrong’s birthplace was no exception. To make matters worse, his father left him immediately following his birth and his mother resorted to prostitution in order to make ends’ meet. As a result, he was frequently left in the custody of his maternal grandmother during his mother’s excursions and trapped within a financial situation that forced him to leave school in just the 5th grade to begin seeking a working wage.1

young louis armstrong as a child

Trumpet

It was at this point that fate intervened with Louis Armstrong and pushed him towards the trumpet. A Jewish family that acted as surrogates for Louis Armstrong presented him with his first cornet right around the age of 10 years old. This gift, coupled with Louis Armstrong’s already present affinity for the musical sounds of the local New Orleans street bands and brass players that lingered around, helped to brew the perfect storm that would create one of the most prolific players of the 20th century.

Unfortunately, tragedy soon struck and Louis Armstrong was apprehended for the simple celebration of shooting a pistol up into the air. It was at this point that the local courts in New Orleans had determined that his mother was unfit to raise him and pronounced him a ward of the state.2 Louis Armstrong was also sentenced to reform school. While on the outlook, this appeared to be a major setback it actually was the catalyst that served to boost Louis Armstrong into his career as a professional trumpeter and composer. He received some degree of formal training on the bugle and easily outshined the other students there on the instrument, becoming the leader of the school’s band.3 

louis armstrong jazz trumpet

Reform

After finishing his tenure in reform school, Louis Armstrong subsequently took to the streets to begin his career as a musician. At first, he ran into significant trouble until he was taken under the tutelage of Joe ‘King’ Oliver. When Joe moved to Chicago, he was able to somehow convince Louis Armstrong to undertake the pilgrimage with him. At this point, Armstrong met his wife ‘Lil Hardin’. While this may not seem like a big deal, it was substantial for his career. His wife received a great deal of formal education and training in music, graduating from Fisk University and establishing herself as an acclaimed pianist.4 She bestowed a great deal of this knowledge directly onto Louis Armstrong and he benefited in a great way.

louis armstrong and wife

Growth

Despite the great strides that Louis Armstrong made developmentally in music, the Great Depression served as a major impediment to his financial progression, consequentially resulting in a struggle to gain steam in his career. However, the 30’s served as a much more promising decade for him, musically and financially. He relocated to Los Angeles during 1930 and served a small tenure at the Cotton Club, rubbing shoulders with some of the rich and famous that were located there at the time. Afterward, Louis Armstrong trekked back out to Chicago to continue establishing his career and building his growing popularity. Throughout this decade he traveled all over the world, taking in information from various cultures and sharing his musical talents with all sorts of people who would grow to appreciate his genius.

louis armstrong jazz band uniform

As band leader, he was able to curate opportunities for himself to serve as band leader for various motion pictures such as ‘Pennies from Heaven’ in 1936, making himself the first African-American to receive featured billing in a major movie from Hollywood.5

Limelight

This was far from the pinnacle of success for Louis Armstrong though. He was still able to grow his astonishing popularity throughout the rest of the 30’s and carried this momentum with him through the 40’s. It is said that during this time, Louis Armstrong had consistently carried on one of the most gruelling tours that had ever been seen with artists. It was perhaps his extensive tour schedule, coupled with his Hollywood cameos, virtuoso talent, and knack for creating timeless hits that propelled Louis Armstrong to the starlight and critical acclaim that he enjoyed throughout his later career. It is also of note that Louis Armstrong was one of the first prominent soloists in the genre of jazz and as such served as one of its first and foremost ambassadors to the world at large.6 In addition, Louis Armstrong’s bands were filled with nothing but pure all-stars with names such as; Earl Hines, Jack Teagarden and the famous Barney Bigard.

louis armstrong in the movies

Voice

After the 40’s, many thought that Louis Armstrong’s career was over and that he would begin to taper down as many jazz artists had after their ‘prime’ or height. However, Louis Armstrong’s work ethic and motivation served as a primary driving force for him throughout the next decade. In the 50’s he was able to rejuvenate his career with a re-emphasized focus on public appearances as well as his singing ability. It was at this that Louis Armstrong began to collaborate with other great jazz vocalists at the time such as, Ella Fitzgerald. For those unfamiliar, this was right around the time that Louis Armstrong had composed Salt and Peanuts as well as his subsequent smash hit ‘What a Wonderful World’.

Therefore, whenever anyone questions what exactly made Louis Armstrong so great and prominent in jazz, its best to tell them about his incredible popularity throughout his lifetime. By strength of his sheer talent and knack for marketing himself in such an effective fashion, Louis Armstrong was able to build himself into a household name in a way that many other jazz artists had and could not. Rather than appealing simply to the crowd of already established jazz lovers, Louis Armstrong was effective at bridging the gap and reaching out to those that may not have been as familiar with the genre and effectively serving as one of the best ambassadors that the jazz world has ever known. 

Sources:

  1. http://www.biography.com/people/louis-armstrong-9188912#younger-years
  2. http://www.biography.com/news/louis-armstrong-biography-facts
  3. http://www.allmusic.com/artist/louis-armstrong-mn0000234518/biography
  4. http://www.louisarmstrongfoundation.org/louis.php
  5. http://www.thefamouspeople.com/profiles/louis-armstrong-302.php
  6. http://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/louis-armstrong-about-louis-armstrong/528/

Who Is Charles Mingus?

Perhaps the best bass player of all time and one of the most influential composers the jazz genre has ever seen, Charles “Chuck” Mingus successfully left a permanent imprint on the jazz genre for generations to come. 

who is charles mingus

Background

Born in Arizona in 1922, Charles Mingus lead a relatively unassuming childhood as the son of an Army Sgt. with a multi-racial mother.1 Shortly after his birth, his family moved over to Watts, California, where he was raised for the duration of his young adult life. In later interviews at an older age, Charles remarked that his early inspiration, love, and fascination with music was partially borne out of his exposure to church music as well as hearing the wondrous works of Duke Ellington over the radio.2 This exposure would serve as instrumental to his future progression and development as he would greatly incorporate elements from Ellington himself, gospel music, as well as blues and other popular genres at the time into his future compositions.

Before we go any further, let’s hear some Mingus!

As with many other jazz legends throughout time, Charles Mingus was given formal training on his instrument of choice at a very early age and showed exceptional promise at it as well. He was initially trained on the double bass with H. Rheinshagen, a world renown bassist, along with a few other notable teachers on the instrument when he was just a young child.

Bass Prodigy

It became clear when Mingus was around high-school age that he was a prodigy at the bass. Thus, in the early 40’s, he was awarded opportunities to play with Kid Ory in the Barney Bigard group in 1942 as well as the famous Louis Armstrong in the year following.3 Despite gaining acclaim and notoriety in jazz circles, Mingus was not yet known as the famous ‘Chuck Mingus’ that we currently remember him as.

All throughout the decade, Mingus was still performing under several names that played on the variation of ‘Mingus’. By the early 50’s, Mingus was beginning to really get his name out in a prominent way in the jazz industry as he featured at bassist for Red Norvo’s group. From that point, Mingus was awarded more opportunities to play with many more great musicians and composers such as; Charlie Parker, Max Roach, and Dizzy Gillespie among others.

young charles mingus

Dreams

Perhaps one of his biggest accomplishments and failures came at the hands of Duke Ellington’s big band orchestra. In 1953, Charles Mingus was awarded the honor of playing in Duke Ellington’s orchestra, an honor that he no doubt had been dreaming of since a child.

He was given the role of substitute for the band’s regular bassist.  However, Mingus was aware that if he performed well in his role that he could possibly be up for the role of permanent bassist with the band, an extremely promising position for a 21-year old to be in.

However, just a few weeks after he was offered this amazing once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, Mingus gained the unfortunate notoriety of being the first and only individual to be formally fired from a Duke Ellington band. His dismissal came about as a result of his altercation with another band member, Juan Tizol.4

This story wouldn’t be complete if we didn’t include what made Chuck Mingus feel the need to engage himself in an altercation with another band member and what made Juan important. Juan Tizol, was a long-time friend of Duke Ellington.

In fact, the two had known each other and performed together for approximately two decades by the time Chuck Mingus had joined the band. Juan Tizon and his wife were also personal friends of Duke Ellington as well and they offered each other consolation during tough points in each other’s lives.

Short Fuse

According to Mingus, Juan Tizol used racial slurs towards Mingus when he believed that Mingus did not satisfactorily play an excerpt of music that he had requested.

firing of mingus from ellington's band

If you are unaware of the type of person that Charles Mingus was, know that he had a very, very short fuse. In fact, one of the primary characteristics of Charles Mingus was his volatile temper. As you can imagine, if Charles Mingus alleged version of events is accurate, then the ensuing altercation between him and Juan Tizol was something that was nearly inevitable at that point. It was alleged that Juan brandished a knife at one point during their spat and from there it became physical. Of course, given Duke’s extensive history with Juan Tizol and Charles Mingus’ relative newcomer status in the band and in jazz as a whole, the decision was made to ask Chuck to leave.

Acclaim

Fortunately, this was far from the ending point of Charles Mingus’ career and he would go on to receive a great deal of critical acclaim and success as a composer in the field of jazz. By the mid 50’s, Charles Mingus was able to really hone in his skills as a producer, with the release of ‘Pitecanthropus Erectus’ and other timeless works that would serve to stand the test of time.

Charles_Mingus_1976_cropped

However, Charles Mingus’ temperament and unresolved mental issues would unfortunately serve as his undoing. His tumultuous personality may have been the catalyst for amazing music, but it created much chaos and disruption in his personal life and relationships.

Hardship

As a result, he frequently found himself the victim of financial hardship and unsuccessful business ventures within the industry of music and was rendered essentially defunct by the mid-60’s. Incidents such as the destruction of trombonist Jimmy Knepper’s embouchure due to a punch in the face as well as the attempt to destroy Toshiko Akiyoshi’s hands with a piano cover during a live concert are just a few of the highlighted incidents of his volatile temper that drew ire and disdain from many musicians.

chuck mingus

Unrivalled

Despite Chuck Mingus’ character flaws, it cannot be understated how gifted he was as a composer and bassist. Known as nothing short of a virtuoso, his skill as an instrumentalist were unrivalled. He was also widely regarded as the heir apparent to Duke Ellington’s throne as jazz’s top composer. Hits such as ‘Moanin’ and other classics composed by Chuck Mingus will always be remembered in Jazz history for their booming sounds and creative and eclectic mixture of sounds and intonations. Often misunderstood, frequently appreciated, Charles Mingus will forever have a reserved spot in Jazz history.

Sources:

  1. http://www.biography.com/people/charles-mingus-9409527
  2. http://mingusmingusmingus.com/mingus
  3. http://www.allmusic.com/artist/charles-mingus-mn0000009680/biography
  4. https://medium.com/cuepoint/the-eloquent-firing-of-charles-mingus-by-duke-ellington-a20dc350e4fa#.vgpdjygx4