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Rondo

Jeff Fitzgerald, Genius By

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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.

So then.

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.

For the first time, jazz began to fragment into distinctly different styles, or "schools." Aside from established schools, like New Orleans and Swing, schools included Bop and Hard Bop (and also the Soft Bop, or Nerf School, which was years ahead of its time); Dixieland (which sometimes included a banjo, against its better judgment); Cool (always a comfy 72 degrees); Latin (which required excessive conjugation); and Free (which, despite the name, actually cost a then-considerable $.89 a pound). Though composed of various members of the same community of musicians, these individual schools sometimes took on adversarial relationships with one another. In 1952, younger members of the emerging Bop school were able to best seasoned veterans of the Swing school 21-20 on the strength of a late field goal by Charlie Parker. Bop would later get its comeuppance when it would lose the 1958 All Jazz championship to the Free school 27-21, thanks in large part to the inexplicable runs of Cecil "Crazy Knuckles" Taylor.

Moving into the 1960's, the Avant-Garde was fully at the vanguard (that's three) of jazz. Musicians such as John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman dispensed with traditional concepts of jazz and took the music into unexplored territories. Trane believed that overlying melodies need not bear a direct relationship, even in a tonic sense, with the chords beneath them; while Coleman believed that absolute freedom in each instrument beyond the established motive was essential to the creation of truly new and vital music. This relentless sense of exploration changed the face of jazz forever. As the Avant-Garde movement tore down every wall of the old establishment, only one rule that had stood from the very inception of jazz remained: no accordions.

The sixties are a difficult time to explain in any sense. America was in the middle of a social and cultural upheaval, the likes of which it had never seen. Traditions, standards, and social mores were being thrown out the window like the contents of chamber pots in Elizabethan England. Except that instead of contributing to the Bubonic plague, this just contributed to some of the most godawful clothes and silliest haircuts in history.

Jazz was not immune to the effects of the cultural free-for-all. Jazz in the late sixties and early seventies was dedicated to experimentation on a Frankensteinian scale (and if that word passes into common usage, I get credit). A movement called Fusion, spearheaded by that great iconoclast Miles Davis, sought to meld the instrumentation of rock with the free-form spirit of jazz. This effort was in line with Davis' earlier efforts to meld the nutty goodness of peanut butter with the great taste of rich, creamy chocolate (which reminds me, attention Hershey's: corporate sponsorship for this article is still available. Say the word, and those Ovaltine™ references from earlier are gone with a stroke of the delete key. AAJ accepts Visa, Mastercard, Discover, and plain brown bags full of cash).

As a jazz purist, it would be easy for me to dismiss Fusion out of hand and move on to the neo-hard bop revival of the early eighties. But that would detract from some musicians who are worthy of mention, like Pat Metheny, John McLaughlin, and one-time Miles Davis sideman Herbie Hancock. Groups like Weather Report, Spyro Gyra, and Air carried the jazz torch through the Seventies, which was exceedingly difficult to do what with those platform shoes and the inherent fire risk of all that polyester.

Which brings us to the eighties, and the dawn of the Marsalis Age, when a brash young trumpeter named Wynton Marsalis burst onto the scene. A graduate of both Julliard and Art Blakey's jazz boot camp, the Jazz Messengers, and steeped in the New Orleans tradition, Marsalis brought about a return both to acoustic jazz and the zeitgeist (10 pretentiousness points, collect 'em and trade 'em for valuable prizes) of the Golden Age. Equal parts explorer and archivist, Marsalis inspired as much talk about the music as he did the music itself. And regardless of your personal opinion of the man or his work, even his most ardent detractors are forced to admit that he has one of the roundest heads of any individual on the planet.

As for the nineties, well, they are like a just-finished meal. We've almost forgotten the taste already, and are just waiting for them to digest so we can see whether or not they'll agree with us. In the end, we'll purge what we don't need of them, and use the rest with which to build. Please remember to tip the wait staff.

And here we are, at the present day, when the history of jazz winds a serpentine path through the epic maze of Ken Burns' much-discussed documentary and lands in the lap of a functionally insane humorist from Virginia who has somehow managed to pass himself off as some sort of Genius and get himself a gig on a prestigious website called allaboutjazz.com. What will happen next? That's for next month's column.

Till then, exit to your right and enjoy the rest of AAJ.

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