What's New?
What Makes Modern Jazz Modern , Part I


Mel Martin

Part I

This article will attempt to offer a working definition of modern jazz as an evolving concept. First, let us define the word modern. 1.[Of the present or recent times, up to date. ] 2.[Designating the most recent form of a language,] Going by these definitions, it becomes clear why jazz has not made significant progress in the modern sense of the word. The language itself has not actually evolved. This is not to say that individual contributions to the language of jazz haven't been made or are not continuing to be made. It can be said with certainty that the music of Sonny Rollins has evolved through his personal vocabulary and expression. The music of Ornette Coleman has always maintained a personal expression that is unique. But are these examples being absorbed into the mainstream of the jazz language? There are players out there right now who may be doing just what I am talking about, but will they be heard? Record companies and jazz presenters alike have often been remiss in offering much that's truly new or modern. We have an entire generation of young jazz players whose collective fame is based on a vocabulary that is perhaps 50 years old or older. We have supposed modern jazz players who, in the name of developing roots, are emulating the styles of musicians from the swing era. This is not to imply that the music has to become increasingly far out or bizarre to be called progressive. We need to examine the history of the music in order to see the kind of elements that are absorbed into the mainstream of the music to extend the language.

It would be fair to say that Louis Armstrong elevated the language of jazz out of the dark ages. His style had evolved from the people that proceeded him but he innovated a rhythmic sense to soloing that had never been heard before. His contributions can be heard today in all of jazz and popular music.The lift that he gave the music with his rhythmic buoyancy was an inspiration to musicians for generations to come. He was truly a modernist for his time. Next in the line of progressive players who significantly changed the language of jazz would be Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young. There were others as well such as Herschell Evans, Don Byas, Benny Carter and, certainly, Roy Eldridge but it was Hawkins and Young whose innovations were absorbed into the mainstream. In the case of Lester Young, he not only contributed to the language of jazz but the English language as well. Much of the hip parlance we hear today emanated from Young's special coded way of talking. His light and swinging lines on tenor have been clearly etched into the permanent vocabulary of jazz. Coleman Hawkins worked at the other end of the spectrum by initiating a virtuosic style that began to stretch the harmonic spectrum through heavily arpeggiated and passionate blowing. Roy Eldridge extended the vocabulary of Louis Armstrong by adding more complex rhythmic ideas and longer lines. Benny Carter was also playing lines that were long and flowing and exploring the harmonic concepts of the flatted fifths and II-V progressions at least a decade before they became commonly used. All of these developments led to the bop concepts of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Kenny Clarke, Bud Powell and Max Roach. A case could be made that this was not only the beginning of the modern jazz era but, perhaps, it's zenith as well. All of these players evolved out the swing era and big band period. It is interesting that the concept of swing has been the unifying thread in the history of the music. No matter what developments jazz has taken the element of swing must be present. The innovations of the bop masters include longer and more sophisticated melodic lines and harmonies. Also, a decided change in rhythmic emphasis from the "four on the floor" bass drum style of the swing era where the drums led the rhythm section to a more flowing style where the bass began to lead and the drums played a more contrapuntal, orchestral role. But the feeling of swing remained within the pulse. The innovations of the Count Basie and Duke Ellington bands were important precedents for this music. Papa Jo Jones certainly had a profound influence on Kenny Clarke and Max Roach. Ellington had a decided influence on Monk. Benny Carter and Lester Young clearly can be heard in the graceful lines of Charlie Parker. Bird articulated the language of bop while Dizzy Gillespie was it's prime architect. Monk showed how individualistic the music could be.

The music that followed these innovations can be viewed as an extension of bop. Players such as John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Miles Davis, Jackie McClean, Horace Silver, Clifford Brown, Jimmy Heath and others all developed personal styles that had absorbed the vocabulary of bebop. Freddie Hubbard, Lee Morgan, Wayne Shorter and others were the next generation that extended the vocabulary even further. As John Coltrane unfolded in his incredible expansion of the music, we heard Eric Dolphy and Ornette Coleman take the jazz line to even further development. Perhaps, it was Eric Dolphy who extended the syntax of Charlie Parker to it's highest level. His phrasing on not only alto saxophone but bass clarinet and flute was clearly similar to Parker's but in another dimension. Charles Mingus took jazz composition and performance to a programatic level never before displayed. His compositions contained a great deal of the bebop vocabulary in the context of Twentieth Century contemporary composition. The music of Bill Evans, McCoy Tyner, Chic Corea and Herbie Hancock extended the vocabulary of jazz for, not only piano, but the harmonic approach used by all modern players. This is a rather brief summary of the history of how modern jazz has developed and there are many developments left out as this is not an exclusively historical article. I am using the developments of examples of players whose expression has had an historical impact on the development of the jazz vocabulary. There are clearly whole schools of musical thought that have also had impact.

The esthetics of modernism can be as varied as it's practitioners. One man's art can be another's nightmare so we have to come to terms with an "esthetic standard", if I may be so bold as to use that term. First of all, I am speaking of the beauty found in the art form. Is it merely in the eye of the beholder or is there a universal beauty that speaks to all? If we examine the music of the players previously mentioned, I believe we can determine a common esthetic standard to the music that they play. There is beauty in the melodic line, beauty in the related harmonic extensions and there is beauty in the rhythmic development of the music. Beauty is defined as [the quality of being very pleasing, as in form, color, etc. ] So it is the quality of the form, color and content of the music that needs to have a pleasing, satisfying effect on the listener and performer alike. The performer is often caught up in the struggle to produce the music and may not be able to sense any satisfaction until later but it is the sense of esthetics that needs to be emphasized. An artist has an intuitive understanding of this based on their own experiences of listening and playing. The listener has the opportunity to receive the beauty of the music instantaneously. The player may receive pleasure through the pure fun of performing with players of like minded perceptions and esthetic values and being able to communicate directly to an audience. An audience gathers to witness a performance with all of their senses. They hear, see and sense the general vibes of a performance. Dizzy Gillespie was an artist that had the rare ability to offer high art in an entertaining manner. There is no doubt that the music that he played was as advanced and modern as any ever played. Yet, he consistently was able to relax his audiences with his wonderful humanity and sense of humor.

There must be an element of timelessness in great art. If it is truly great, then it will be as great three hundred years from now as it is today. This seems to be at odds with the concept of modernism but I think not. We don't need to throw out the baby with the bathwater or should I say the father and the mother. Great art doesn't just fall out of the trees although it seems that way sometimes. If you trace any great art, you can see it's historical precedents as I have outlined previously. The difference between Beethoven and DeBussy is a matter of esthetics not quality or timelessness. Each, in his own way has produced art that suspends the concept of time and generation. The difference between Ben Webster and John Coltrane is one of esthetics, although not entirely unrelated. Being modern doesn't necessarily mean throwing away the beauty of the past. Quite the opposite. One can't truly create in the present until they have thoroughly absorbed the lessons of their predecessors. Being merely contemporary is not the same as being modern. Witness the development of the so called [contemporary] styles of jazz. One needs to have developed a sense of appreciation for modern art and it is not merely intellectual. Modern art hits one in the gut just as much as any other form. If one looks at the work of Pablo Picasso, one is immediately struck with the emotional outpouring as well as the intellectual stimulation. If one traces the history of Picasso's art, you can see how he developed through many stages beginning with the emulation of past masters to his furthest out expressions. So, perhaps we can now define modernism in terms of the development of the [extension] of the art form. Art can be revolutionary but it is primarily evolutionary. In this sense, the younger musicians that are exploring past forms in the form of repertory ensembles and emulation of past stylists are correct in that this is part of the process of growth. My only objection is that this is becoming the focus of their music rather than a developmental stage. It's also becoming the focus of marketing strategies but that's another can of worms. Exploration and extension should be the province of new generations coupled with the absorption of past generations. Today, the most modern music is being produced by musicians that have reached the mid point of their lives or beyond. This is somewhat of a generalization but I believe an accurate one. Perhaps we live in more conservative times but where are the esthetics headed? Those old enough to have witnessed the developments of the 'fifties and 'sixties as well as those old enough to have experienced the early development of bebop have related to a certain sense of history and esthetics that seems to have escaped the young players of today. By definition, it is this generation that should be setting the standards for new modernism. In my next article I will offer more specific concepts for a modern approach.

Part II

In my previous article, What's New Pt. 1, I spoke of modernism as being a path towards extending the language of an art form based on certain esthetic qualifications. In this article, we will examine the way that the jazz language was expanded by three historically significant bands which is the environment where the jazz language can best be developed. The groups are the Miles Davis Quintet featuring Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams, the John Coltrane Quartet featuring McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones and the Charles Mingus Jazz Workshop groups of various personnel. Although, these groups are by no means the only groups that moved the music forward, I believe they were three of the most significant groups of a very fertile period. I believe that The Ornette Coleman Quartet with Charlie Haden, Don Cherry and Ed Blackwell also should be in this select list of influential bands but I also believe that their collective contribution outweighed their individual contributions unlike the previous mentioned groups whose individual members were all major innovators on their instruments.

As has been proven through the many recordings and, in particular, the release of the live Plugged Nickel Sessions from December 1965, the Miles Davis Quintet from that era was stretching boundaries in a way no other group has before or since. Miles Davis was always a modernist who attracted and spawned like minded talents. The list includes pianists Red Garland, Wynton Kelly, Bill Evans, Chic Corea, Keith Jarrett, Herbie Hancock and Joe Zawinul which, in itself, reads like a "Who's Who" of modern jazz piano. Saxophonists John Coltrane, Hank Mobley, Jackie McClean, Jimmy Heath, Cannonball Adderly, Wayne Shorter, Dave Liebman, Gary Bartz, Bill Evans, Steve Grossman, Joe Henderson, Sam Rivers, Bob Berg and Kenny Garrett also are a formidable grouping. Drummers Art Blakey, Art Taylor, Philly Joe Jones, Jimmy Cobb, Tony Williams, Lenny White, Jack DeJohnette, Billy Cobham along with bassists Paul Chambers, Percy Heath, Ron Carter, Albert Stinson and Gary Peacock make up some of the most modern rhythmic pairings of yesterday and today. Miles functioned as a magnet in drawing these unique talents together. In the '65 quintet he had put together players of startling originality and innovation as well as being great team players. The music they created bridged the older Davis repertoire of standards and originals into new realms of compositions by the talents of Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter as well as Williams and Carter and Davis himself. Once again as he had done numerous times before and since, Davis was the catalyst for the extraordinary energies of these great musicians. But it was he himself that re-invented the vocabulary of modern trumpet, taking the concepts of the younger firebrands in his band and stretching them to new levels of creativity.

Herbie Hancock once remarked that Miles said that he paid them to experiment on the bandstand and, that, they did. They took the standard forms that Miles played previously and stretched, reworked and, occasionally, abandoned them to create, both cool and hot, sometimes in the same breath, music that changed jazz forever and to this day confounds players and listeners alike. It is clear that the individual styles of these players profoundly influenced many players who followed. However, it is their COLLECTIVE work that truly astonishes. What pianist isn't influenced by Herbie Hancock's approach? What drummer or saxophonist isn't influenced by Tony Williams and Wayne Shorter. And, of course, many trumpet players were, and still are, moved by Miles Davis of this period as well as other periods. It seems as if this band were capable of approaching each piece with "the Beginner's Mind", as if they were discovering it for the first time. It was as uncliched as any music played and related closely to contemporary classical music in it's harmonic and rhythmic variety. Hancock's use of impressionistic harmonies was clearly an extension of Bill Evans yet taken to new heights in this very creative group. No drummer had synthesized the elements of all the great drummers and come up with as original a style as Tony Williams. His razor sharp sense of time floated through everything but he was there at all points in the music, from a whisper to a scream. He breathed with the music. Ron Carter's importance to the music must not be underestimated. He had already made a significant contribution to the evolution of the bass through his work with, Eric Dolphy, Jackie Byard and Bobby Hutcherson. His lines rose and fell within the contours of the music, leapin' and lopin' right along to give the other members a base on which to spin their collective creations. The rhythmic cushion that he and Williams provided was, at once, uplifting and compelling. It was the coming together of these extraordinary talents at that point in time that provided the rare opportunity to advance the music as they were able to do.

The playing of Wayne Shorter had a tremendous impact but not in the same manner of his mentor, John Coltrane. Although his work can be viewed as an extension of Coltrane, he developed a subtle sound and style that uniquely represented his own compositional point of view and fit in remarkably well with the styles of the other players, transcending the boundaries of form in a way that continues to amaze. His inventions exceed all expectations and supply an abstract modernism that is like a breath of fresh air.

Miles Davis' playing also became more daring and abstract during this period. His dark sound and increasingly chromatic lines etched their way into the brains of many musicians, not just trumpet players. He led with his horn which is the sign of a true leader but never at the expense of the other musicians. Like Charlie Parker before him, his sound and ideas have been widely absorbed into the jazz vocabulary. (Simply witness the automobile commercials of today) In my mind this band personified the collective creative process in the most profound way.

The famed John Coltrane Quartet featuring McCoy Tyner, Elvin Jones and Jimmy Garrison can be viewed as an offshoot of previous Miles Davis groups in that John Coltrane was a significant member of Davis' bands and that they explored many modal pieces a style which was initiated by Davis on the recording [Kind of Blue] of which Coltrane was a significant contributor. However the music they played and the innovations that occurred were of an entirely different character from the Miles Davis groups. In fact, once Miles was said to have tried to sit in with 'Trane's quartet after coming to listen for several nights but literally could not find space for himself in the music, so different was the density of the group. The individual contributions of the members were as strong as their collective work which was phenomenal by any standard. McCoy Tyner singularly influenced the piano vocabulary in such a way that anyone using harmony built in fourths immediately invokes McCoy's conception. Elvin Jones' fantastic drumming set entirely new and exciting standards for all drummers. His style was so unique that it could be spotted immediately. Jimmy Garrison's bass was the essence of percussive playing and meshed perfectly with Jones and Tyner, although it was difficult to hear him at times because this was prior to bassists using amps and most club sound systems couldn't adequately amplify him. But he could be felt. I had the pleasure of hearing this group live and could only marvel at their stamina and endurance.

John Coltrane clearly expanded the vocabulary for the tenor saxophone and added some new touches to the old "fishorn" sound of the soprano. He was more than just a modern saxophonist. His presence invoked a spiritual feeling and unfolding unprecedented in the music. He permanently changed the sound of the tenor saxophone just as Davis had done with the trumpet. To this day, saxophonists go out of their way to emulate him. He took the harmonic vocabulary and extended it as far as any musician ever had through compositions like [Giant Steps]. He then proceeded to expand the vocabulary of what was then termed "the Avant Garde" through recordings like "Om" and "Ascension".

But it was in the setting of the quartet that Coltrane, Tyner, Garrison and Jones were able to define the direction of the way modern jazz quartet playing would go. Today, many fine musicians perform in what could be called "the post-Coltrane" idiom, utilizing the intense forms and hard hitting style of the original Coltrane Quartet. The zenith of that group came with the release of [A Love Supreme] where Coltrane's spiritual leanings took on a new dimension. The music became larger than the performers themselves and that's going some given the stature of these players. Coltrane showed a fierce determination to go forward that eventually drove the other quartet members out of the band because he would bring in musicians that were taking the music further and further out. There were times that he would show up with up to thirteen musicians when four or five were expected. Just as in the Davis quintet, that original quartet was a special coming together of truly amazing talents and they crystallized a particular sound and style of playing that stayed in the minds of musicians for generations to come. Also, as with the Davis group, the music changed and moved on to other areas, some of which were ultimately radically different than the sounds that many became attached to.

Charles Mingus moved the music forward in a number of ways. He led many classic groups, usually in the company of the great drummer Danny Richmond. It would be difficult to single out any one of these groups, as with the Coltrane and Davis bands because there were many great combinations but, unlike those bands, the common thread was Mingus' extraordinary composing and arranging for groups of varying sizes from quintet to big band. It was through these amazing compositions that Mingus was able to not only expand and move the music forward, but to look back and pay tribute to many of the jazz masters. Compositions like [Jump Monk, Reincarnation of a Lovebird, Goodbye Pork Pie Hat, My Jelly Roll Soul] and others would pay homage to past innovators and their legacies. Mingus' other great contribution to the music was to infuse the sounds of the Baptist church and the blues in pieces like [Better Get Hit In Your Soul] and [Nostalgia in Times Square]. These elements had always been in the vocabulary but he brought them front and center. Fortunately, his music was well documented and continues today in projects like the Mingus Big Band at the Fez in New York city, Epitaph and the Mingus Dynasty. To me, the single recording that epitomizes Mingus' contributions was the famous [Mingus Ah Um] session on Columbia. Utilizing the talents of Richmond, Booker Ervin, John Handy, Horace Parlan, Shafi Hadi, Willie Dennis and Jimmy Knepper, Mingus struck a balance of elements that were so varied that it was as if he were creating portraits on huge canvases. The compositions such as the previously mentioned [Better Git Hit in Your Soul, Goodbye Pork Pie Hat] as well as [Boogie Stop Shuffle, Self Portrait in Three Colors, Open Letter to Duke, Bird Calls, Fables of Faubus, Pussy Cat Dues and Jelly Roll] were programatic pieces of the highest order, created with a sense of spontaneity that fit the performers like a well tailored suit. The players all made terrific individual and collective contributions. At least one of the tracks has become an all time jazz classic, the somber [Goodbye Pork Pie Hat] featuring a rare but sensitive tenor solo by John Handy. To my mind, the entire album is a classic and a work of high art. Of Mingus' larger works, I veer toward [Black Saint and Sinner Lady] featuring alto great Charlie Mariano and [Let My Children Hear Music] featuring another alto great Charles McPherson. Both of these recordings epitomize the way Mingus could add complex layers of dense writing and collective improvisation to the near breaking point. The human mind can tolerate only so much chaos and Mingus would push the envelope.

Certainly, Mingus as a bassist was a major force in the development of that instrument. I remember hearing him in San Francisco in the 'sixties and, literally, every serious bassist in town would be there every night. He picked up from the work of Pettiford and Blanton and developed an incredible virtuosic style on the bass that also reflected his work with Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, Art Tatum and Max Roach. One of his biggest musical influences was Duke Ellington and he made one unbelievable trio recording with him and Max Roach on drums. All of his bands had Ellington's sounds firmly implanted in their vocabulary. One of my favorite Mingus groups featured Eric Dolphy, Johnny Coles and Jackie Byard as well as Mingus and Richmond. Coupled with Dolphy's extension's of Bird's vocabulary and the very lyrical talents of Coles and the exciting explorations of Byard, this group made some very important recordings. I believe that Mingus' music advanced the vocabulary as used in bands such as the David Murray Big Band, The World Saxophone Quartet and many other so called "cutting Edge" groups. I don't think that we have seen the end of Mingus' influence either. His sounds were so all prevailing that they will be heard well into the next century.

It may seem a little paradoxical for me to be writing about what's new in jazz by looking back at groups that made innovative music thirty five years ago but that is precisely the point of this article. The music is best advanced in collaborative settings featuring major talents. This explains why we don't see music progressing the way it did in the era that these great bands existed. There are many fine players out there but where are the truly great bands? Where is the vision? It's not their fault that the only thing that is left for them to do is to look back and dwell on styles largely innovated by these great artists and others. Those situations did not evolve out of nowhere. They evolved out of the collective experiences of great players living and working through some intense times. The times and the players are clearly different now. Even the groups that are supposed to be innovating new forms are largely reiterating what was done by the leading avant garde musicians of the 'sixties and out of context at that. But if jazz is to become "modern" again, it will have to do more than represent what's been done and done better by previous generations. Yes, to progress one must learn, and learn, well the lessons of the past but to this must come an artistic vision and that can only come from the life force itself. All the proclamations of the great hype machines, record companies and jazz press will never replace that fact. Even in the era of these great musical developments, many time times the press was way off base. They called Coltrane angry and piercing. They said Monk couldn't play the piano and didn't swing. They were surrounded by so much music that was truly great that they became complacent about it. To this day, there is an almost unspoken expectation that some young lion will be the next ................... you name it. That the music will always progress in a modern manner. In the history of Western Music, this hasn't always been the case and I don't think that it will be the case for jazz either. Just because it's based on improvisation, does not mean that it is advanced or particularly modern. In fact, this makes it even more difficult because for an improvisation to be truly great and classic, it has to say something that has never been said before. As time passes, this becomes more and more difficult. Personally, I'm looking forward to the next true revolution in the music because it would have to top what came before or, at the very least, be of equal greatness. As that great modernist and pop composer, Duke Ellington once said: "There are only two kinds of music, good and bad."

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