In a previous article, I presented what I believe to be a brief, but nonetheless representative compilation of the classical tradition. In this article, I’ll present an analogous compilation of Jazz music, again focusing on the history. However, because Jazz is in some sense defined by its technical traditions, I will discuss some of the very basic musical concepts and aspects that distinguish Jazz as an art form from the classical tradition.
Take the “A” Train (1939)
Like any history, the starting point is not obvious, and is in some sense arbitrary. This is especially the case for Jazz, which is the product of a totally intractable set of facts. I’m not a scholar, but I know enough to say that as a practical matter, 1939 works, and so does Duke Ellington. The brand of Jazz where we’ll end up is the one that I’m most familiar with, which is Bebop Jazz, where a canon of standard songs is studied, practiced, and ultimately improvised over in all twelve keys. This is not that type of Jazz: this is a song, written by Duke Ellington, that I’m sure involves a decent amount of improvisation, but is nonetheless being performed by a large band, that probably sticks to a fairly regimented performance, save for the soloists.
At a high level, you could say that it just doesn’t sound like classical music, which is correct, but we can do better. One of the first things you should notice is that there’s a drummer, as opposed to a percussion section. This is a hallmark of modern music, and pop music wouldn’t exist at all as we know it, without the notion of a drummer, as opposed to a percussion section in an orchestra –
Jazz music took the entire percussion section, and made it one guy’s job.
You can imagine that this was probably the result of economic constraints, where you didn’t have access to timpani drums, but instead had only smaller tom drums, and perhaps a few cymbals, that you then combined into a single, standalone instrument. It’s really difficult to overstate this change in format, because the notion of a drummer ended up being a corner stone of rock music, which was ultimately abstracted into the electronic percussion that defines most modern pop music.
The next observation is that the bass is all pizzicato – i.e., he’s plucking, and not using a bow. This creates a persistent thumping, rhythmic, low-end sound. Classical composers have always made use of pizzicato, but it’s not this persistent, as you’ll note that the bass player doesn’t even seem to have a bow that’s visible on set. The expectations have therefore been reversed: pizzicato is the standard, and the bow is the exception.
Lastly, I’ll note that the orchestra is almost exclusively comprised of brass instruments. You might wonder why this is the case, and I can’t be completely sure, but by parable –
When I was a teenager, I was hanging out at Smalls, which is a Jazz club in New York City, but also a bar, and I accidentally kicked over Wynton Marsalis’ trumpet. Now, Wynton Marsalis is a very successful guy, and his trumpet is super expensive, but he didn’t care. Why? Perhaps it’s because I was a kid, and he knew that it was an accident, but also note that a trumpet is made of brass, unlike a violin, which is made of wood, and therefore probably doesn’t do as well in rough conditions, like the bars and clubs that Jazz originally developed in.
Jack Strachey (Composer) and Eric Maschwitz (Lyricist), These Foolish Things (1935)
Though the high energy of early big band Jazz undoubtedly influenced later Bebop Jazz musicians, the big band format is not where things ended up. Instead, the Bebop format ended up closer to the more intimate, small band format that was typical of artists like Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday, where you had a handful of performers, as opposed to a giant brass band. Ella Fitzgerald typifies the charm of this early brand of Jazz, that is almost ready-made for live performance in some Art Deco bar. For some reason, that I honestly don’t understand, other than as a product of history, Bebop artists made heavy use of songs like this, that really were originally intended for a popular audience –
But they completely transformed them into totally bizarre works of art.
The Jazz Standard
John Coltrane, Blue Train (1957)
Bebop Jazz is a unique format of music that arguably doesn’t have much precedent, outside of the obvious, that it’s rooted in the classical, twelve tone system. Though improvisation is not unique to Jazz, and plenty of classical composers improvised, and certainly when entertaining friends, and drinking; and while the origins of Jazz clearly involve a history of bars, clubs, alcohol, and even drugs, Bebop musicians are phenomenally competitive artists, that turned improvisation into a high art form, with an extremely high barrier to any meaningful participation in the genre.
The core concept is to learn a song in all twelve keys, to the point that you can spontaneously create improvised versions of the piece. Transposing a piece of music on guitar can be annoying, but transposing a piece on piano is a serious undertaking, and Bebop Jazz musicians can not only do this in all twelve key signatures, over an enormous canon of music, but they can also improvise while doing so, effectively making up brand new music in any key signature, on the spot, without warning.
This is serious stuff, and these are serious musicians, and many of them are simply astonishing geniuses. I love the actual underlying standard Jazz songs, and think they’re some of the most charming songs I’ve ever heard, irrespective of genre. But Bebop entered an entirely new realm of seriousness, where even though the music is often extremely beautiful, the musicianship is so extreme, that it’s difficult to describe as charming, since the intellectual athleticism required to pull it off borders on disturbing.
Because the focus of Bebop is on improvisation, the specific instance of the song in question is arguably paramount, since the underlying song is now in essence treated as an abstraction –
I.e., it’s a set of chord changes, and a melody, used as a guide.
Bud Powell, performing Anthropology, by Charlie Parker and Dizzie Gillespie (1945)
So when you talk about the performance of a Bebop song, it’s not just the song that you’re referencing, it’s the specific performance of the song that you’re referencing. As a result, the genre inherently places great emphasis on performance, arguably over composition, since these musicians are so brilliant, they can take anything, and turn it into a science project.
Sergei Prokofiev, Cello Sonata in C major, Op. 119 (1949)
Classical composers were certainly interested in Jazz, and Jazz musicians, in particular Jazz pianists, were certainly students of the classical repertoire. Gershwin was arguably a Jazz composer, and Dvořák was known to have been influenced by Jazz music. But you don’t really hear that in Dvořák’s music. In contrast, if you listen to Cello Sonata in C major, Op. 119 by Sergei Prokofiev, it’s obvious that he was heavily influenced by Jazz music. He makes use of the same longwinded, preposterously busy melodies that are exemplified in Anthropology above. And this shows up in a lot of Prokofiev’s work, but this song in particular even includes a blatant use of pizzicato in the third movement that could easily be an excerpt from a Bebop Jazz performance.
Alexander Scriabin, Piano Sonata No. 2, Mov. 1 (“Sonata Fantasy”) (1898)
I know from my personal experiences, that Bebop Jazz pianists were heavily influenced by Scriabin, but I’ve never heard anyone make the connection to Prokofiev, but to me it’s totally obvious, but perhaps that’s because I spent most of my life around cerebral Bebop artists, as opposed to the more stereotypical Jazz you find in movies, and T.V. shows. What is to me most interesting, is that Prokofiev’s Cello Sonata was written in 1949, which is arguably contemporaneous with Bebop Jazz artists making use of these same stylistic techniques in the U.S. The point being, that two very different traditions, in two totally different locations, ended up producing remarkably similar artifacts.
Bart Howard, Fly Me to the Moon (arr. by Quincy Jones) (1964)
As Jazz developed in America, it achieved a significant degree of commercial success, and arguably defined the careers of household names like Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Junior, Doris Day, and others, all of whom used the genre to produce legitimate popular hits. “Fly me to the Moon” is a classic, and I’ve been listening to it for years, but it wasn’t until a few months ago that I realized that it was actually arranged by Quincy Jones. It turns out, that in addition to a spectacularly successful career as a pop music producer, Quincy was a fairly prolific composer, and had a simply unbelievable career, including time studying and composing in Paris.
Essence of Sapphire (1965)
I think of Dorothy Ashby’s music as coming full circle, back to the original song format of early Jazz, but rich with improvisation, and the worldliness and intellectualism of Bebop Jazz. You can clearly hear Ravel in her music, and you can also clearly hear the heavy handed influence of earlier Bebop Jazz artists, particularly in the quality of her performance, which is academic in caliber. The net result is a more approachable product, that anyone can appreciate, that is nonetheless rich with opportunities for musicians to unpack. It’s also just a simply wonderful piece of music, that I just happened to stumble upon, while I was living in Stockholm.