Thursday Nov 23

A is for Armstrong

In our formative years, ABC books helped us learn our letters and also introduced us to information about the world. A trip from A to Z remains fun for almost everybody, typically blending the familiar with the unexpected. Thus, the ABCs of Jazz which follows.  [Originally published as a "Jazz Tracks" column in CD Review, 10/1992.]

A is for Armstrong. When the great Louis unleashed the jazz genie of solo virtuosity with a tip of his cornet toward the blues, he created jazz as we know it. As if that weren't enough, he then applied his genius to singing and did the same for adult pop.

B is for Brubeck. Pianist Dave helped make jazz socially acceptable in the '50s through his college concerts and provided a stable platform from which alto sax master Paul Desmond could fly.

C is for Charlie Christian. He electrified the jazz world with his amplified guitar. Born in Texas and reared in Oklahoma City, Christian heard tenor sax genius Lester Young with the Blue Devils and Leon McAuliffe with Bob Wills' Texas Playboys. So he was ready when guitarist/trombonist/arranger Eddie Durham came through town with the Basie band and laid an electric guitar on him. Christian joined Benny Goodman in 1939 and jammed with Thelonious Monk in '41. Charlie's sparkling melodic lines, ripping riffs, pulsating rhythm, and blues-drenched harmonies laid the foundation for building the bop annex onto jazz's swing wing.

D is for Davis. Miles's career and modern jazz history are one and the same. As Charlie Parker's foil, he carefully traversed the minefield of Bird's extravagant creativity. Soon after he gave birth to the cool. Then Miles and John Coltrane heated it up in the classic quintet. Coltrane was still around for the sextet that recorded Kind of Blue, which codified the modal influence in jazz. In a Silent Way began a break with jazz tradition by emphasizing ensemble creativity rather over individual virtuosity and gave Miles an entry point into the jazz-funk-fusion-pop bubble that kept him afloat until the end of his career.

E is for Edward Kennedy Ellington--the immortal Duke--who in 1932 promulgated the First Law of Jazz: "It Don't Mean a Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing." Ellington often pronounced himself the world's greatest listener. He was referring, of course, to his orchestra and the compositions (his own, Billy Strayhorn's, and those of others) that they all performed.

F is for Freeman. His given name was Lawrence but everyone knew him as Bud. Place him near the top of the list of people born to play the tenor sax. He started with the Austin High Gang in Chicago in the late '20s and kept swinging for more than six decades

G is for Goodman. That's Benny, the King of Swing. In spite of his own fear that real improvised jazz was inherently uncommercial, he made a form of jazz the predominant popular music in America for a few years. The basic formula was to supply a polished big band with hot arrangements of familiar pop tunes and spice the mix with many original compositions by Fletcher Henderson, Jimmy Mundy, Edgar Sampson, Eddie Sauter, Mel Powell, and others. Goodman's technical facility on the clarinet was such that brilliance became commonplace in his work and he needed occasional inspiration from the likes of Lionel Hampton, Charlie Christian, Red Norvo, the aforementioned Mel Powell, and even Bela Bartok.

H is for Holiday--Lady Day. Some people think of her a blues singer, but Holiday's unique readings of blues tunes (usually her own compositions) made up only a small part of her work. Her gift was to place vocal jazz at the same level as the instrumental variety using Tin Pan Alley tunes as her raw material. A dreary movie and sensationalized autobiography made Holiday's psycho-sociological profile more familiar to many people than her musical one. Clear your mind of all that when you listen to Lady.

I is for International Sweethearts of Rhythm, the powerhouse '40s big band featuring the rocking tenor sax work of Violet Burnside and the searing trumpet of Ernestine "Tiny" Davis. You'd have heard more about the band if it hadn't been made up of jazz's most undervalued and even oppressed minority: female instrumentalists.

J is for Jones. In this case we'll take that to mean the musical brothers from Detroit: Hank (piano), Thad (cornet, composer, arranger), and Elvin (drums). This might be a good time for a nod in the direction of some of jazz's other celebrated siblings: Percy, Jimmy, and Albert Heath (bass, sax, drums); Jack, Norma, and Charlie Teagarden (trombone, piano, and trumpet); Cannonball and Nat Adderly (alto sax and cornet); Chuck and Gap Mangione (trumpet and pianist/arranger) and of course the Marsalises: Wynton, Barnford, and Delfeayo (trumpet, sax, and trombone).

K is for Kenton. That would be Searching Stan, the Artistry Man, jazz's roundest square. Kenton's progressive neophonic contemporary innovations reverberate only on recordings these days, but his highly personal approach to jazz (he was quite anti-swing) still attracts attention.

L is for Lewis--John Lewis.  He was the pianist and musical director of the Modern Jazz Quartet. The energetic melodicism of the southwestern blues and swing tradition energized Lewis's music. He was a native of Albuquerque, NM and he listed Lester Young, Harry Edison, and Dicky Wells--in other words the core of the 1939 Count Basie Band--as his heroes. Lewis also drew on European concert music, particularly of the baroque and rococo periods, for inspiration.

M is for Mulligan. We can also call him Mr. Mainstream. Gerry Mulligan's pianoless quartet recordings sound as fresh today as they did in the '50s, and his energetic Concert Jazz Band offered a nearly perfect balance of improvisation and composition. Mulligan's contributions as a sitter-in easily match his achievements as leader and composer. Every time he'd show up with his baritone sax, his enthusiasm and artistry would inspire his colleagues and elevate the proceedings.

N is for Norvo. Red Norvo played jazz from Bix to Bird and beyond. He used the xylophone until about 1943. Then he switched to vibes. He played with Paul Whiteman, Woody Herman, and Benny Goodman. When Norvo put together a band for a quick recording session in 1945, he chose Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie as part of his "Selected Sextet." Norvo's fleet, tight, almost vibratoless vibraharp playing was as good a fit with beboppers as it was with traditionalists. His working groups nurtured Charles Mingus, Jimmy Raney, Tal Farlow, Tony Scott, and Shorty Rogers.

O is for Ornette, the harmolodic Mr. Coleman. He turned away from the post-bop technical dexterity that often seemed to be an end in itself, creating his own brand of melodic freedom. Some thought it approached chaos. We know better now. Ornette's methods, message, melodies, and madness have survived and prospered.

P is for Powell, pianist Bud. His virtuosity matched Art Tatum's and was so fully at the service of his art that it was all but invisible--unless he was challenged. Legend has it that Powell's response to a tin-eared listener's comment that "you don't have much of a left hand" was to burn through the next set with his right hand resting on his lap.

Q is for Quintette of the Hot Club of France. Assembled for a concert in Paris in 1934, it was the first real jazz band whose members weren't Americans. It made international stars of guitarist (and occasional violinist) Django Reinhardt and violinist (and occasional pianist) Stephane Grappelli. Reinhardt's career was cut short by an early death but Grappelli was still packing concert halls and clubs in the late 1990s.

R is for Rollins, Theodore Walter "Sonny." The tenor sax is the voice of jazz and Rollins's rhetoric was the prototype for modernists in the pre-Coltrane years and well after that, too. He's still playing and has reestablished an eloquent manner that holds on to many old fans and attracts new ones.

S is for the Smiths. They're not necessarily related, but they share in the jazz heritage. They include Bessie, Mamie, Jabbo, Tab, Buster, Carl, Willie, Willie "The Lion," Bill, Jimmy, Jimmie, Pinetop, Leroy Hezekiah "Stuff," Dr. Lonnie, Lonnie Liston, Johnny, Johnny "Hammond," Derek, Marvin "Smitty," Tommy, and Floyd. You could look them up.

T is for Big T. Jack Teagarden put Texas blues through a trombone and it came out jazz. He claimed that he was too lazy to reach for notes in the conventional way and came up with a technique of his own that enabled incredible flights. "Man, I don't like workin' that hard," he said, "I just use my lip." His laconic bluesy vocals sprang from the same sources as his trombone playing.

U is for Ulmer, James "Blood" Ulmer who melds potent elements of rock and jazz into a heady avant garde blend. Ulmer's "fusion" is substantial--not decorative--music.

V is for Venuti and his violin. There have been few jazz fiddlers. Joe Venuti was the daddy of them all and possibly the greatest of them all. His recordings with guitarist Eddie Lang in the '20s and '30s set the standard for swinging chamber jazz. These figured prominently among the discs that carried hot music across the Atlantic. (Record labels considered black artists even hotter than European sensibilities could handle at that time.) Without Venuti and Lang, there may not have been Reinhardt and Grappelli.

W is for Waller. The immortal Fats drank deep at the source of piano jazz, James P. Johnson. Then he passed the cup to Count Basie and Art Tatum. Duke Ellington took a sip, too. From there, it passed to Oscar Peterson, Bud Powell, and even Thelonious Monk.

X is for X-tine. That's Billy Eckstine, of course. I'm not making that spelling up. Mr. B used it for a short time at the behest of agent Billy Shaw. Eckstine's smooth vocals and outrageous good looks made him a star, but Dizzy Gillespie remembers him as the best bandleader he ever worked for. In addition to Dizzy, Mr. B's band included (at one time or another) Charlie Parker, Fats Navarro, Miles Davis, Art Blakey, Dexter Gordon, Sarah Vaughan, Gene Ammons, Budd Johnson, and Lucky Thompson. 'Nuff said.

Y is for Young. The tenor sax giant picked up the nickname Pres, short for the President, from Billie Holiday in return for the Lady Day sobriquet that he bestowed on her. Not only did he expand and recreate the jazz language with his light, melodic, and always swinging tenor sax inventions, but his hip verbal articulations made lasting contributions to American English. If you "feel a draft," your way of expressing your sensitivity came from Young.

Z is for Zawinul. Born in Vienna, pianist-composer Joe Zawinul goes by Josef or Joe depending on the situation. He's been part of various significant jazz movements. With Cannonball Adderley's quintet, he worked in the blues-funk-soul field and composed the Grammy winning "Mercy, Mercy, Mercy." He also wrote "In a Silent Way" for Miles davis and played on the Bitches Brew sessions. Zawinul's "Birdland" was a major hit for Weather Report (which he co-founded) and later on his Zawinul Syndicate produced a heady blend of world music and jazz.