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Genius Guide to Jazz

Ebony and Ivory and Ted and Alice

By Published: August 29, 2004
It is here that we inevitably must come to Duke Ellington. Some of Ellington's over 2,000 compositions are considered to be among the greatest works ever produced by an American composer. More renowned for his prolific and masterful compositions than his accomplishments as a pianist, I am nonetheless compelled to mention him here because, thanks to Ken Burns, it is now Federal law that all articles on jazz must make reverential note of Ellington (statement of compliance on file. Michael Ricci, keeper of records).

I don't mean to detract from Ellington's legacy, and in all seriousness, he is underrated as a pianist. Also underrated is the great Mary Lou Williams, considered by many to be the most important female jazz musician in history. Long regarded more as an oddity, Williams was an extremely important swing pianist and composer who worked for a time as staff arranger for Ellington's orchestra. I had a "staff arranger" gag planned for right here, but had to abandon it because it came out naughty no matter how I phrased it.

Skipping over the big band era because I am in charge here and can, we come to Thelonious Monk. Actually, first we come to the corner of 14th and Jefferson, but you don't get off there. Monk is often described as the "mid-wife" of be-bop; he was present at the birth, but the baby looks nothing like him. Though influenced by Stride, his style remains one of the most unorthodox in jazz history. At times jangling and discordant, at other times haunting and otherworldly, Monk seemed to have an ear for a music that was both familiar and unexpected. An introverted and enigmatic man, Monk may well have been one of the most unusual individuals in jazz history (which is saying something, since I include myself in that appraisal). But emerging from Monk's considerable legacy was a veritable cornucopia of great pianists. I say a veritable cornucopia, because I am being paid by the syllable.

But what I mean to say is.

Building on the roots first established by ragtime, watered by early jazz musicians, brought to bloom by Stride masters, cultivated by great composers, and finally given a mind-altering tinge by Monk, we are brought inevitably to Bud Powell. Powell took all that had come before him and put it all in one staggeringly influential style. If Monk sounded like no one else that came after him, it might be said that almost everyone who came after Powell sounded like him or at least owed a debt to his innovation. Much of what we know as bop piano is directly from Powell, his Tatum-like technical ability and progressive rhythmic permutation created a blueprint for the way the instrument was to be approached for decades. Powell is also, with Bix Beiderbecke, one of the great tragic figures of jazz. Suffering neurological damage in a race-related assault in the forties, Powell was in and out of institutions his entire adult life. The degenerative effect on both his emotional well-being and musical abilities was heartbreaking to watch, played out over more than 20 years.

Let's pause for a moment and let the tide of pathos wash over this piece, then on with the nonsense.

From the succeeding era comes a who's who of pianists. Wynton Kelly (for whom actress Tatum O'Neil is also not named), McCoy Tyner, Cedar Walton, Bill Evans, Gil Evans, Dave Brubeck, Cecil "Crazy Knuckles" Taylor; any one of whom deserves their own bubblegum card. Yet, Topps steadfastly refuses to issue a set of Jazz Pianist bubblegum cards. Upper Deck won't return my calls and as for Fleer, well, the less said about them the better. And I bet you thought this little tangent was just another little device of mine to distract you from the fact that I am glossing over some very important musicians. Shows what you know.

Perhaps the zenith of jazz piano occurred in the late fifties and early sixties. As a wave of intellectualism swept over jazz, causing an estimated $3.2 billion in damage, pianists were suddenly in vogue for the myriad of sounds and the seemingly limitless ambiance they could bring to the music. McCoy Tyner's remarkably prescient contributions to Coltrane's classic works helped to create a timeless sound, as did the works of pianist-composer Gil Evans and pianist Bill Evans (no relation) to some of the seminal works of Miles Davis. Dave Brubeck's cerebral variation on the West Coast school produced recordings that have not waned in popularity since they were released. And Vince Guaraldi's work for the enduring Peanuts specials of the sixties has exposed generations of youngsters to jazz, and added instantly recognizable jazz motives to the collective American musician lexicon. Start whistling Linus and Lucy around anyone under 50 and see if they don't start dancing around like all the kids in A Charlie Brown Christmas (bonus points if someone does that weird, sixties-vintage thing the one unnamed kid does. You know the one I'm talking about).

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