When last we left our beloved jazz, Bird and Monk were trapped in an abandoned mine shaft and Lassie was on her way to Sheriff Diz's to get help, but not before stopping to help young Miles and Billie win the twist contest down at the malt shop. Meanwhile, Uncle Louis was helping little Chick get up the courage to ask Ella to the homecoming dance. Will Bessie recover her memory in time to help Duke counter Benny's evil Ray, or did I fall asleep watching Nick at Night again?
It doesn't matter.
Because, if you'll recall (and one of us damn well ought to), we paused the article last month right at the point where jazz was entering its Golden Era, known for its high level of technical invention and rich legacy of great musicians. This is not to be confused with its Little Golden Book Era, known for its simple sentence structure and colorful illustrations.
Here we are in the 1950's. America had won World War II (3-2, in overtime) and was enjoying the prosperity of the post-War boom. Americans everywhere were settling into comfortable suburban existences, TV was making its subtle bid to homogenize American culture, and Ovaltine
™ was just as rich and chocolatey as it is today (this article is not sponsored by Ovaltine™, but that doesn't mean it still couldn't be). This was an era of Pat Boone, Hula hoops and Wonder bread. America was covered with a glossy layer of whitewash, and you don't know how many dead frogs it took for Tom Sawyer to bribe other kids to do that
job for him.
But what I mean to say is.
Jazz in the 1950's was to society as a negative is to a photograph, born of the same elements but quite different in makeup and appearance. The music began to take on a restlessness, reflecting an undercurrent of trepidation lying just beneath the surface. Jazz became more cerebral, more introspective, more likely to get you some leg from a Vassar College undergrad. It was the music of a generation in transition, searching for its identity in a world populated by increasingly invisible, intangible perils. In a world living under the shadow of the atomic bomb and the creeping menace of Communism (not to mention the constant threat of Rock Hudson
movies), and an increasingly automated society feeling the control of its own daily existence slipping away with the push of every button, it is perfectly logical that the music should reflect that nameless angst. And that's as close to real insight as you're likely to get out of me.
At any rate.
It is exactly this newfound consciousness in jazz that began to sequester it from the mainstream. Far removed from the top-tapping feel-good music it had been in eras past, jazz now made certain demands of the listener. It required a trained ear, a willing mind, and a $3 cover or 2-drink minimum. And even the personalities of the musicians now grew more complex. At the forefront, perhaps only Dizzy Gillespie embodied the easygoing, extroverted spirit that had made Louis Armstrong one of jazz's most successful ambassadors. Less accessible performers like Miles Davis, who sometimes played with his back to his audience (jazz historians now feel this was so he wouldn't giggle at the sight of whitebread college kids with flattop haircuts nodding their heads knowingly as he played) and Thelonious Monk, who was so introverted that he had to write down his own internal monologues and mail them to himself so he wouldn't feel awkward with that level of intimacy, were now also in the vanguard.
Jazz venues of the fifties also reflected the changing current of the music. No longer elaborate showplaces of social interaction like the Savoy or the Roseland ballrooms, clubs like the Five Spot and the Village Vanguard (let's see how many times we can work the word vanguard into this article) provided more intimate showcases for the music. Some clubs were so intimate that the audience was virtually indistinguishable from the musicians, which made getting waited on a chancy proposition at best. More than a few musicians began their careers when they went to hear a jazz concert and were actually seated behind a piano or drum kit. This is not how Oscar Peterson and Max Roach got their starts, but wouldn't it be interesting if they had?
I thought as much.