Published since 2004
Geoff Roach is CEO of San Jose Jazz and a member of the Bay Area Jazz Group Octobop and knows a thing or two about West Coast Jazz.
With the close of the Second World War, jazz underwent a massive transformation. For musical, cultural, technological and economic reasons, the swing era dominated by the big bands drew to a close. To fill the jazz void, the music split into several factions - bebop, hard bop, cool, and even played a role in the development of rhythm and blues and rock and roll. Additionally, the split was more than musical, it was geographic. Bebop and hard bop became centered on New York and the cool school gravitated towards California and gave birth to the term "West Coast Jazz".
The West Coast sound finds it roots in many places. From the ensemble perspective, much of the concepts, sounds, and arrangements come from the work of Gerry Mulligan, Gil Evans, and others that was first heard from the Claude Thornhill band and in the sessions recorded as the Birth of the Cool. One of the defining characteristics about West Coast Jazz is that it is a writer's music, shaped as much by the composers and arrangers as by the players. This early work would influence Shorty Rogers, Marty Paich, Henry Mancini, Bill Holman, Bob Florence, Bob Cooper, and Andre Previn. Marty Paich later went on to score such music as "The Way We Were" for Barbra Streisand. Shorty Rogers wrote for many movies and television programs such as "The Wild One". Bill Holman and Bob Florence remain some of the top composers and arrangers today. The contributions of Henry Mancini and Andre Previn are everywhere in music.
The second contribution came from Lester Young. Emerging from the Count Basie band of the 1930's, his light sound on the tenor saxophone and his concept of improvisation and melody gave rise to a whole legion of followers - Stan Getz, Zoot Sims, Dave Pell, Al Cohn, Jimmy Guiffre, Bob Cooper, Med Flory, Bill Holman and others. More importantly, his sound and concepts spilled over to other instruments and the ensembles themselves. The Gerry Mulligan Quartet with Chet Baker, Howard Rumsey's Lighthouse All Stars, and Shorty Rogers' Giants are typical of the influential groups in West Coast jazz. The impact of these groups reaches further than expected. In a 1991 interview in Keyboard Magazine, Ray Manzarek, the keyboard player with Jim Morrison in the Doors says, "I always think of the Doors as an extension of the California cool jazz school of Gerry Mulligan and Chet Baker."
Another factor was the idea of experimentation with sounds and instrumentation. It is not unusual to find that many of the players are multi-instrumentalists. Bud Shank on alto and flute, Bob Cooper on tenor and oboe, Art Pepper on alto and clarinet, Dave Pell on tenor sax and bass clarinet, and Ted Nash (of Mancini's Peter Gunn fame) on almost all woodwinds. Many of these players later went on to very successful careers in recording studios and Hollywood when the jazz scene dried up in the '60's and '70's. The use of non-standard jazz instruments or instrumentations in ensembles was heard often. From Woody Herman's use of three Lester Young-inspired tenor sax players and one baritone to Stan Kenton's use of one alto, two tenors, and two baritones instead of the standard sax section, experimentation was the rule. Building on the sounds developed by Gerry Mulligan and Gil Evans, ensembles often included French horns, tubas, and even mellophoniums in the case of the Kenton band.
Finally, the last contributing factor may be the environment. As Buddy Collette said in a radio interview with journalist Resse Erlich, "This is California. What do people have to worry about? The sun shines, the weather is great, and life is easy." Present situation in California not withstanding, the contrast in the lifestyles between New York and California is reflected in the more laid-back, cool music of West Coast jazz. Another important environmental factor is the presence of Hollywood. The studios enabled whole generations of very talented musicians to live in one place without the necessity of having to travel on the road to make a living as musicians, composers, writers, and arrangers. Some West Coasters event went on to careers as actors and comedians - Med Flory and Jack Sheldon to name a few. (Remember "I'm Just a Bill" from Schoolhouse Rock? That's Jack Sheldon - trumpet player and an alumnus of many West Coast groups.)
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