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.
There are individual chapters devoted to Jimmy Giuffre, Shorty Rogers, Shelly Manne (what a great, odd, musical drummer he was!), and Art Pepper. All of these people were active in California, yet they displayed a wide range of styles. There is also a chapter devoted to the first recordings of Ornette Coleman. It's easy to forget that Ornette was first recorded out west, with many West Coast players (including Red Mitchell and Shelly Manne). He discusses the significant contributions to Free Jazz made by West Coast musicians, including Coleman, Don Cherry, Eric Dolphy, Charles Mingus, Charlie Haden, Paul Bley, and more. All of these players either came from the west of spent significant time developing their sound our west. This in direct contrast to the image most people have of "West Coast Jazz".
This book does a remarkable job of dispelling myths, and uncovering a fascinating history of jazz on the West Coast, in all its facets. For anyone who would like a deeper understanding of this music's history, or if someone is interested but not sure where to start, this book is highly recommended.
The other book that I found to be valuable was Free Jazz by Ekkehard Jost. This book is not only a history of Free Jazz and it's practitioners, it also contains fairly detailed analysis of the music on a technical level. Again, so much nonsense has been written about what Free Jazz was/is that it's easy to be convinced that this music has nothing to offer you before ever hearing a note of it. Or you're influenced from the other side of the debate, those devotees who feel that Free Jazz is the most important stylistic development in the evolution of jazz, and if you don't hear it then you're just lost. This book manages to be sympathetic to the music without becoming over-zealous. It is an appropriately enthusiastic appraisal of the music, while remaining dispassionate enough to qualify as a work of serious scholarship.
Jost divides his book into ten lengthy chapters, each dealing with a particular player and their contributions to the evolution of Free Jazz (John Coltrane gets 2 chapters, deservedly so). He starts out looking at Coltrane's modal playing, and how this allowed a loosening of the reigns on improvisers. No longer bogged down in be-bop's of post-bop's complex, labyrinthian harmonic progressions, modal playing allowed more focus on melody, and less on "making the changes". This shift of focus from the harmonic to the melodic, which he traces to Miles Davis and the recordings Milestones and Kind of Blue, had tremendous implications for the music that would follow.
The next chapter details Charles Mingus' important contributions, including his expansion of the bassists traditional role from time keeper/harmonic underpinning to a more contrapuntal, dialogue like interaction. While Scott LaFaro is often credited with these types of advances in his work with the Bill Evans Trio, Mingus actually took things farther by letting go of steady temo altogether at times. His advanced sense of form in his compositions, and his frequent use of group improvisation also are discussed.
Next comes a chapter about Ornette Coleman, perhaps the central figure to Free Jazz. Jost presents a clear, lucid discussion of Ornette's music, following from his early recordings for Contemporary which have more traditional characteristics than one would be led to believe, on through his work with his "classic" quartet of Don Cherry, Charlie Haden and Billy Higgins or Ed Blackwell. He gives a detailed analysis of Coleman's use of deviations in pitch to vocalize the sound, working intonation as an expressive element. He also discusses Ornette's compositions, and how they act as a springboard for his improvisations. He also discusses the landmark double quartet recording which gave the style it's name, Free Jazz, and Ornette's later trio and the way he began playing trumpet and violin. The book was written in 1974, so there is no discussion of anything more current. This in no way diminishes the books value, however.
This is followed by a discussion of Cecil Taylor, which gives a measured examination of his music, his aesthetic position, and the techniques he employs. This is a great service to the music. Such devotion to get the information across is noteworthy. For the open minded, who haven't yet found their way into this music, this book is a perfect map.
After this comes the second chapter about Coltrane, specifically the years 1965-1967, when he recorded his most avant-garde works. Much of the chapter is devoted to Ascension, what many see as Coltrane's Free Jazz. Again, there is such a lucid discussion of this music, it is hard not to want to listen to it with new ears, with new information gleaned from reading this book.
The remaining chapters deal with Archie Shepp, Albert Ayler, Don Cherry, "The Chicagoans" (musicians associated with the AACM, the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, including the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Anthony Braxton, and Muhal Richard Abrams), and Sun Ra. All parts of the book serve their subjects well. A wealth of historical and musical information is contained in this work, with many notated musical examples.
Both of these books are works of real scholarship, but which are not only aimed at, or useful to, specialists or musicians. The general listener/reader would benefit greatly from both of these. Free Jazz is the more technical book; West Coast Jazz has more history and personal anecdote. Both have excellent discographies, which do excellent jobs at pointing you towards essential recordings.
If you have ever found yourself put off from West Coast Jazz or Free Jazz because of what you heard about it or read about it, rather than from actually hearing the music itself, you would be well served by giving these books a thorough read. They can go a long way at correcting misconceptions. Of course, reading the books without listening to the music they discuss will be a hollow experience, but the information in these impressive texts will give you the tools to fairly gauge the music in question. Hopefully this will lead to new or perhaps deeper listening experiences, and greater understanding, greater pleasure.
Happy listening in the New Year!