It's winter. In all its magnificent bleakness. Short days, followed by long, cold nights. I'm in full hibernation mode. All I want to do is eat and sleep - add that layer of fat (like I really need ANOTHER layer) to keep me warm and set the alarm for early spring.
Of course, this leads to a certain slowing of one's intellectual faculties (like mine could get ANY slower). But I'm committed to sharing some thoughts with everyone here on a monthly basis, so I have to come up with something. I keep a long list of topics I want to write about, so that I don't have to scramble for ideas. The problem this month is that most of the topics I want to get to would require a fair amount of background work on my part. Sadly I have to admit it just didn't happen this month. There was just so much sleeping I had to do.
So I started to look for a topic which wouldn't require lots of preparation. I thought, "I know! I'll do one of those year end things that I loathe". Somehow, my enthusiasm for that idea faded. "Maybe a list of the years best". Let's all gather 'round, sing "Auld Lang Syne" and remind ourselves of our failures large and small over the past year. I'll pass - thank you very much.
But as I was thinking about some of the things I heard and saw this past year, I remembered two books which I had read, and which I thought I could recommend to anyone interested. Seemingly from opposite ends of the jazz spectrum, they discuss styles that have ardent supporters and vociferous detractors. Styles about which much nonsense has been written, so it was refreshing to find books covering them that gave clear and convincing explanations, and detailed accountings of their respective histories.
The first book I'd like to suggest is West Coast Jazz by Ted Gioia. Subtitled "Modern Jazz in California, 1945-1960", this book does a marvelous job at blowing away many of the myths associated with this music. Not content to use the phrase "West Coast Jazz" to mean the emotionally cool, often contrapuntal style which was associated mainly with white musicians on the left coast during the era, he examines all facets of jazz in California. The early chapters deal with Howard McGhee and Dodo Mamarosa, Parker and Gillespie's early visit to California, and Wardell Gray and Dexter Gordon. He paints a vivid picture of what the music scene was like at the time.
He then goes on to discuss Dave Brubeck's early career, and first attempts to bring a classical compositional ethic to jazz. This book, in fact, led me to search out The Dave Brubeck Octet, early recordings that sound remarkably like Miles Davis' Birth of the Cool, but which predates it considerably. I can't say what impact, if any, these recordings had on the musicians who participated in Miles' project, but as someone who always loved BOTC, and who regretted the fact that this group was such a short lived and under-recorded outfit, finding these early Brubeck sides was a happy discovery. He follows Brubeck's career, as his group eventually evolved into the famous quartet with Paul Desmond, and the impact they had.
There is a discussion on the early days of Fantasy Records, Cal Tjader's adoption of Latin and Afro-Cuban rhythms in his music (he was the drummer in Brubeck's octet), Hampton Hawes' and Red Mitchell's early work. All things which are a part of the history of West Coast jazz, but which don't fit neatly into what people think of stylistically as "West Coast Jazz". He spends a fair amount of time discussing the Stan Kenton big band, and the players who evolved out of it. Whether successful or not, Kenton certainly worked hard at pushing the boundaries of what a big band was and what big band music was.
There is, as one would expect, a sizable chapter on Chet Baker, perhaps the poster boy for "West Coast Jazz" as a style. Anyone who, for whatever reason (and if you read much of what is written about it, you would have plenty of reasons) has avoided listening to much Chet Baker, in particular his early work with Gerry Mulligan's piano-less quartet, would do well to explore this music some. It is as it's often described, yet less so. Compared to say Blakey's Messengers, they were softer, they didn't swing as hard, they were somewhat more cerebral where Blakey could be visceral. But they still swung. After Baker left the group and Bob Brookmeyer took over, they continued to make wonderful music. All of these players were capable of much stylistic diversity, yet there was some type of almost stigma associated with being "West Coast" players. Do yourself a favor - forget your preconceptions and listen to some of the music. There is much music of substance there.