Swing Jazz phase 2

Swing jazz is extremely popular for weddings. Compared with some jazz forms it is very comfortable and easy to listen to. Swing jazz to rise from the period when jazz had become popular in the film industry and on the radio and when the recording industry began to produce records that were affordable by the masses, and performable by a small jazz trios with a vocalist in jazz caf├ęs and bars. The vocal styles of swing era are people like Frank Sinatra (1915 to 1998), Ella Fitzgerald (1917 to 1996), the great Louis Armstrong whose music even featured in the James Bond films, who lived from 1901 to 1971, Nat King Cole (1919 to 1965).

One thing that makes swing jazz so popular for weddings and parties is that there has been a revival in swing since the 1970s, with bands like Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, Hank Williams popular current performers like Michael Buble. Of course, although we're talking about the history of jazz here, I'm sure that many people who hire a swing band and swing vocalists for their birthday party or wedding reception, and are familiar with present-day performers like Michael Buble, are not aware that much of their music derives from a previous era, and some of the younger ones may be never heard of the great jazz singers who first performed the music. But does it really matter? With currently pop music, you may or may not enjoy various bands and various styles of pop music, but it's virtually impossible to say with any authority which is good music and which is bad music. I would term good music is that which can last, which can stand the test of time. The music of the Beatles has been around long enough, just, to withstand the test of time and prove their greatness as musicians, but recent bands still have to let that time pass. The great swing singers like Sinatra and Fitzgerald, that time is past and only the great music has come down to the present day, to be taken up by modern performers, leaving all the garbage that was around at that time to sink into oblivion. That I think is why, even when we are hiring pop bands for weddings and parties, predominantly people don't want the latest music, they want music that has a little bit of time between when it was first performed and now, so that they can be sure they getting music that is truly good. That's why Abba is so popular for weddings and parties.

So let's look at the evolution of swing, the music that is so popular weddings today. I mentioned the Louis Armstrong's and Nat King Coles, but it was perhaps not the vocalists who started the swing era, not the trumpeters and clarinet players, but the drummers.

The big step was the evolution of'swing' drumming, which produces both a more dynamic, and a subtler, more 'suspended' rhythm, and is the foundation of middle-period jazz. The chief among them are Chick Webb (1907-39), Cozy Cole (born 1909), Sidney Catlett (1910-51), and Lionel Hampton (born 1913) (who also plays virtually every other rhythmic instrument with extraordinary and instinctive mastery). Oddly enough, some of the most successful big jazz bands, notably Duke Ellington's and Jimmy Lunceford's in the 1930s, created considerable swing while relying on far from sensational drummers; but these were orchestras dominated by jazz arrangers of remarkable talent (Ellington and Sy Oliver, born 1910), who could utilise the rhythmic possibilities of all jazz instruments in combination admirably. (Anyway, even a mediocre coloured American drummer is normally very good indeed.)

Swing drumming took the drums to the verge of the revolution achieved by 'modern' jazz, which is the drummers' jazz par excellence. It is doubtful whether a technically more brilliant group of drummers has ever existed in jazz than that of Kenny Clarke (bora 1914), Max Roach (born 1925), Art Blakey (born 1919), Chico Hamilton (born 1921), and the rest of the 'modernists'. At the same time the modern drummers experimented with complex rhythms of the African or Caribbean type, such as were rarely used in jazz. As an experiment, you could try to play, or even to recognise when played, four totally different rhythms simultaneously, on hand- and pedal-operated drums, he may get an idea of the rhythmic complexities involved. Some Cuban drummers, notably Chano Pozo (1920-48), were imported into jazz for this purpose around 1949-50, but American drummers themselves adopted some of this complexity thus, paradoxically, producing the most African of all jazz rhythms out of the most urbanised and sophisticated of jazz styles.

The fundamental rhythm of modern jazz continues the evolution from New Orleans to swing: it marks the four beats quite evenly, superimposing stresses on them as occasion requires. The remainder of the jazz instruments can be briefly dismissed, since their use has so far not been systematic. The strings have virtually never been used collectively in jazz, though jazz musicians, either for the sake of the schmaltz, or the highbrow prestige which they mistakenly believe to attach to string sections, have sometimes had them in the background; always with awful results. It will take some powerful revolutionising to produce a jazz string orchestra. Modern jazz, as one might expect, has tended to experiment with bowed string sounds, both on the bass and lately on the cello (e.g. in the Chico Hamilton Quintet). A number of other instruments have been used from time to time. Nobody has yet succeeded in producing good jazz on the accordion, but several blues singers have played astonishingly rhythmic and expressive stuff on mouth organs and jews' harps.

Now to the singer themselves. Nobody is really prepared to say what makes a good jazz singer, or what he or she sounds like; or more specifically, what distinguishes jazz singing from jazz-tinged popular singing. Critical evaluation is made all the more difficult because the appeal of the best jazz singers is largely non-musical; in the case of the women, sentimental and sexual. This observer is prepared to say that he knows no male jazz singer worthy of note. Frankly, however, it would be unwise to base the claims of jazz to great artistic achievement on any jazz singer, with the possible exception of the incomparable Billie Holiday at her best. The blues are another matter. But blues singing, though a very profound art, is also a very inadaptable one, and the blues singer tackling anything but his or her speciality often makes a sad spectacle.

 

So one can say that jazz has been born as a brand-new musical form. Certainly it has a parentage, but what was born with something more than the sum of its parent. The first thing one needs to do when considering the musical achievement of jazz is to forget that of classical Western music. The two are non-competitive, in spite of the efforts of stubborn adversaries of jazz among the classicists, and of some jazz and classical modernists, to establish that they are not. If we ask: has jazz produced anything like the Beethoven Ninth, or the Bach B Minor Mass, or Don Giovanni, the answer must be a flat no. Nor is it likely to produce music to compete with the Western classical art tradition, except, conceivably in the field of opera. If we judge jazz by the standards of Western art-music, we can say that it has produced a number of beautiful melodies - but no more beautiful ones than Western art, or even light and pop music, a particularly successful genre of accompanied lieder, in the vocal blues, a few suites of the late romantic type, a great variety of formally uncontrolled, but imaginatively most fertile 'variations on a theme', and a few exercises in such forms as fugues and canons. The achievement is a minor one, in terms of absolute and architectural music. If we judge jazz playing by the standards of Western art-playing, the balance-sheet is more impressive, for not even the most stubborn classicist will deny that jazz has vastly extended the range and technical possibilities of every instrument it has touched, with the exception of the smaller stringed ones; and few will even deny that, man for man, the finest jazz players are - perhaps with the exception of the pianists - considerably superior to their classical opposite numbers. But we are, after all, here considering jazz not as a pioneer of novel instrumental combinations and colours and new instrumental possibilities, but as a music with self-contained achievements.

It has achievements but not in terms of art-music, the very concepts of which are alien to it. This does not mean that jazz may not influence art-music, or fuse with it, or become one. Jazz already has its Bizet: George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess, the finest American contribution to opera so far, bears the same sort of relation to jazz as Carmen does to Spain; indeed, a rather closer relation, since a diluted form of jazz belonged to Gershwin's musical idiom. Now jazz simply does not function this way. When it comes to music-hall artists, we admit this freely: a Chaplin or a Marie Lloyd produce great art, even when their subject-matter is, by orthodox standards, minor art or no art at all.

This is the way jazz works - though its supreme contribution to the popular arts is its combination of individualism and collective creation, which has long been forgotten in our orthodox culture. It happens that, thanks to the gramophone, bits and pieces of that continuous process of joint creation which is the life of the jazz musician in employment are separated out as 'works'; even as 'masterpieces'. Moreover, the individual piece is not, for the jazz musician or the jazz lover, the real unit of the art. If there is a 'natural' unit of jazz, it is the 'session' - the evening or night in which one piece after another is played - fast and slow, formal and informal, the whole gamut of emotions. There are, of course, geniuses: Armstrong, Bessie Smith, or Charlie Parker for example. Nobody can draw up a list of the twenty best recorded instrumental blues. Good jazz, like a good cook or couturier, is not judged by producing works which, even in memory, stand out as the best ever, but by the capacity to produce constant variety at a high level of excellence. Jazz, in fact, is 'music for use', to use Hindemith's phrase, not museum music or music for ranking by examiners.

None of this means that jazz is minor art in the way in which light and pop music is; merely that it gets its effects as major art in a different, and formally more economical, way from art-music. Kreisler playing Caprice Viennois merely shows off a dazzling technique in a pleasant tune; but Louis Armstrong playing It's Tight Like This takes us into the emotional realms of Macbeth's soliloquies. Admittedly the relatively small scale on which jazz operates as art limits its scope: after all, a single speech ofPhedre, which is quite within the compass of jazz, is not the whole tragedy, which is not. But what there is of jazz at its best is heavy stuff: it is small, but made of uranium.

The pleasures of jazz are therefore first and foremost in the emotion it generates, which cannot be isolated from the actual music. This may be illustrated by the persistent prejudice of everybody connected with the music, players, critics and fans, in favour of improvisation. There is very little doubt that the most powerful effects of jazz lie in the intensified communication of human emotion. That is why the primitive sung blues has retained its unchallenged place in it, and why the technically imperfect and primitive discs of New Orleans jazz hold their own, so long as they 'blow out', while the orchestrations and compositions often date. This is true even of modern jazz, in spite of the claims of some of its supporters. Jazz is thus players' music and music directly expressing emotions, and its technical forms of creation and musical possibilities reflect both facts. For instance, it does not depend on a 'composer'- for we can hardly call the collection of simple themes which make up the general jazz repertoire (the so-called 'standards') compositions. They may be good tunes or bad, folk-blues or pop ballads, or some other themes, but their

 Of course the jazz composer - i.e. every creative player - does consider and revise, but in the process of playing his parts over and over again, and, as it were, working them slowly into their finished form; that is, assuming he does not change his ideas and want to turn an elaborated piece into something else. The original jazz 'composition' - i.e. performance - emerged simply from the interplay of various musicians on a given theme, according to certain rough rules of convenience or tradition. A 'new' composition could come into being in three ways: by playing a different theme, by getting together a different group of players - provided always they knew one another well enough to co-operate smoothly -and by playing the same theme with the same musicians another time, when one or more of the players had different ideas. This 'accidental' factor remains strong, even when jazz composition becomes somewhat more systematic with the 'arrangement'. The most intelligent jazz composers have always recognised that jazz is not composed with notes or instruments but with creative men and women. As M. Hodeir, the best of the classically trained critics has put it, in jazz the 'fusion of individualities' takes 'the place of architecture'. The good jazz composer-arranger either imagines his sound and then looks for particular individual players whose personal voice comes nearest to his ideas, or derives his ideas from the personalities of his actual team. This is why the successful jazz composer has almost invariably been a band-leader, or at least permanently attached to a band; and why the most elaborate jazz compositions (for instance Ellington's) have rarely been taken up - except as straight imitations - elsewhere. As soon as they are played by other players they change. Jazz composition has only slowly emancipated itself from this dependence on the individual personalities of its players. Perhaps this is a major reason why so far no full-scale jazz composition, e.g. a jazz opera, has emerged. If jazz composition is limited technically by the need to compose men rather than notes, it is equally limited by the nature of jazz creation, as we have sketched it above.

The most intelligent jazz composers have instinctively recognised these limitations. Jelly-Roll Morton gave New Orleans music deliberate shape and elegance, but did not attempt to change it. Modern jazz composers have found their most fruitful field in incidental music to films, in which the jazz gift for mood-expression and music-painting is used to great effect, as in Chico Hamilton's music for Sweet Smell of Success and John Lewis's for Sait-on Jamais. There is plenty of precedent for serious music which buttresses its own architectural weaknesses by leaning on other arts, and strengthens these in turn. In the composite work of art - the ballet, the opera, the film - there is wide scope for jazz, and indeed this seems the most natural way of further development for a music which emerges from the popular arts, whose more elaborate achievements have always been in the nature of 'mixed' entertainments - 'variety' at the lowest level, the composite pantomime-allegory-ballet-opera at its highest.

Jazz certainly possesses a 'natural' bent towards 'pure' music, but even this must not be confused with the tendencies of art-music. It emerges from the ordinary player's pride in his technical expertise, which makes good players vie with one another to play increasingly 'difficult' things. Modern jazz is largely the product of such technical experimenting. Left to themselves, jazz players or composers formed in jazz will experiment with everything except musical forms. If they play fugues or canons it is because they are trying to imitate classical music. Anyone anxious to tell the difference between a 'pure' jazz composition and a jazz composition borrowing from classical music should compare, say, Brilliant Corners by Thelonious Monk with, say, John Lewis's Concorde. In the second place it is a perfectly reasonable thing, both for classical composers and for jazz musicians with ambition for more complex things, to break through the technical limitations of jazz. After all, it may be plausibly held that a genuine American classical music will only emerge when American composers have assimilated the idiom of their native folk-music (i.e. of jazz) as Spanish, Hungarian, Russian, Czech, Finnish and English composers have in their own time assimilated theirs. In the third place, it is no doubt a good thing for the self-respect of jazz musicians (especially of coloured ones) that their music should prove its ability to satisfy even the intellectually more ambitious listener.There is an  important distinction between the sort of jazz which evolves towards more elaborate and 'legitimate' music in its own way, and the sort which results from the crossing of jazz and 'straight' music: the distinction between Jelly-Roll Morton's Deep Creek Blues and Paul Whiteman's 'symphonic jazz' in the 1920s, or between Thelonious Monk and Dave Brubeck in the 1950s. What, then, are the musical achievements of jazz? Its major, perhaps its only real achievement, is that it exists: a music which has rescued the qualities of folk-music in a world which is designed to extirpate them; and which has so far maintained them against the dual blandishments of pop musu and art-music. Taken in isolation, no recorded version of tht blues How Long is a great work of art, in the serious sense though many of them are extremely moving, and though the tune is beautiful and the poetry good.

The important, and artistically valid, thing is that this theme should produce works as different as Count Basic's orchestral-cum-vocal version, the late Jimmy Yancey's beautiful piano solo, or Joe Turner's shouting blues; and that it should remain alive, and capable of stimulating every group of players who touch it to produce their own music: some good, some mediocre, some poor, but, given a certain competence and feeling, all of it genuinely touching and genuine music. Whatever other and higher merits it has or may acquire, its chiei merit is that of proving that genuine music, even in the twentieth century, can avoid both the blind-alleys of commercial pop music, which establishes its rapport with the public at the expense of art, and avant-garde art-music, which develops its art at the expense of cutting itself off from all but a chosen public of experts.

 

Admittedly, all this is small-scale work. Jazz is 'little music', and not 'big music' in the same sense as lyrics are little poetry and epics big poetry; pottery little art and cathedrals big art. Jazz has many merits, and a large number of people have derived from it consistent and intense and self-respecting pleasure, and have been profoundly, and justifiably, moved by it. But there are things which jazz cannot do (as conversely, there are things which modern classical music cannot do), and no purpose is served by pretending otherwise, except to butter up the self-esteem of people who are too lazy or ignorant to understand the more complex forms of art. It has demonstrated the vitality, and the possibilities of evolution, of a people's music; and if ever a way is to be found out of the impasse into which the orthodox arts have penetrated in our age, it may well be found by studying the nature of jazz, its creators and its public.

The list of works influenced by, or inspired by, or 'about' jazz is extensive. Only in America, and there mainly on the verges of popular and light music, can we detect a more persistent jazz influence, notably in the musicals (Gershwin's Porgy and Bess, Marc Blitzstein's The Cradle Will Rock, Leonard Bernstein). Frankly, the record is modest. The history of modern classical music can still be written virtually without reference to jazz. Among the major contemporary composers - such as Schoenberg, Berg, Webern, Stravinsky, Bartok, Prokofiev, perhaps Shostakovitch, Vaughan Williams, Sibelius and Hindemith - only one has shown any signs of jazz influence, so that when Stravinsky made history when he wrote Le Sucre du Printemps; he placed himself on the margin of history when he wrote Ragtime 6078 ignorant.

Jazz is not only a way of making music, but also one of making a living. Few of the popular arts have been subsidised, whether by public or private patronage. Mostly, like jazz, they have been forms of commercial entertainment by professional artists hired by various kinds of private entrepreneurs. What the jazz lover hears, therefore, depends not only on the creative urges of the musicians and other imponderables, but on the way jazz is organised as a business. Jazz musicians are professionals. The prejudice against 'commercialism' among a large section of the jazz public makes it necessary to repeat this obvious truth. Jazz may be in its origins and character a folk-music, but this does not mean that it is an art of amateurs.

The folk-artists who made jazz had no romantic nonsense about the virtues of amateurism in them. They became professionals as soon as they could earn a living at their music, when they did not already come from show-business families. In the early days of New Orleans we can still see this group of professionals emerging from part-time music. As we have seen, this development, the competition of craftsmen within their community and their separation from the rest of the people have affected the actual musical evolution of jazz very considerably.

These professionals have earned their living in three different, but related, types of economic setting: pre-industrial entertainment, the modern entertainments industry, and the specialised jazz business. The first two of these have no particular connexions with jazz, except that of selling it to the public if there is a demand for it, as they sell the spectacle of bearded ladies imitating steam whistles, girls with big busts kicking or not kicking their legs, the latest mass murderer, or musical genius. The last deals exclusively in jazz, for it has developed out of the discovery that there is a paying public for this specific type of entertainment. Most of the European jazz musician's living today comes out of the jazz business, though in the USA this is probably not the case. Here we shall confine ourselves to the general setting of commercial entertainment into which jazz belongs as a popular city art.

The main source of early employment for jazz musicians and singers were therefore: (1) the band-playing for dances, marches or other entertainment, static and on tour; (2) the vaudeville theatre or touring show; and (3) the modesi bar room ('barrel-house'), the 'honky-tonk'- it would be too pretentious to call it a night club yet - the brothel and the like, which provided for solos and perhaps small groups. How modest the scale on which such entertainment operated is suggested by the size of the jazz band, which still reflects it. The full New Orleans bands were perhaps seven men strong, and to this day a 'big' band in jazz is one of fourteen to fifteen men. Show business either sold old and tried lines, or songs and music which, because they emerged directly from the life of the poor, were what the poor wanted. This phase of show business is the only one in modern times to produce what can fairly be called (professionalised) urban folk-art: flamenco in Southern Spain, the classic music-hall singer and comedian in Britain, the chansonnier in France, the variety theatre and melodrama, the Neopolitan canzone, and, for our purposes, the three original pillars of developed jazz: the instrumental (piano) solo, art of bar room and brothel; the classic blues, art of the music-hall; and the instrumental combination, the jazz band.

The big changes began with what we may call the 'industrial revolution' in popular entertainment, which is, in the main, contemporary with jazz-i.e. a product of the past half-century. This creation of the modem entertainment industry out of the old show business was in some respects a good thing for popular music, though it cheated, sweated and exploited the musicians. In so far as it turned a local music into a national one - as it did with jazz - it brought great artists before a wide public, secured the easy mutual stimulation of styles and ideas.

It was the industry which (through Frank Walker, the Columbia A. and R. man in the 1920s) decided that Southern folk-blues now had a African American market, and sent out scouts for a really good blues singer. It was the industry which made her first record, Down-hearted Blues, and when the demand for it proved big, recorded her in between one hundred and two hundred numbers, and put her in the theatrical big time. Formally, the pop song is retooled for mass production and then turned out on the assembly line. The construction of assembly-line production in music, one of the few really original and appalling achievements of our century in the arts, may best be illustrated by the standard pop song.

Unfamiliar or adventurous melodies are cut out, or smoothed down to the required pattern, as may be seen by comparing, for melody, not a folk-blues, but a pre-industrial music-hall blues like Bessie Smith's Young Woman's Slues with a number like Birth of the Blues - not at all bad of its kind - run up in Tin Pan Alley when it was discovered that something like the blues had become saleable among the pop public. Jelly-Roll Morton sings in Mamie's Blues:

When the revolutionary and highly anti-commercial bebop phase of jazz started in the 1940s, it met with very much less resistance from the sharper and more wide-awake section of American pop entrepreneurs (and nobody can be quite as sharp as a Brooklyn youngster ready for the sweet smell of success) than from the established jazz intelligentsia.

Moreover, from the 1930s there has existed in all countries the devoted and fanatical band of jazz enthusiasts, discovering or rediscovering musicians, styles and repertoires, launching them through their own, virtually non-profitmaking clubs, concerts and semi-private gramophone records, or urging them personally on the attention of the businessmen. For it has been characteristic of jazz that men and women obliged to earn their living in the musical sausage factory have always been among its most devoted and disinterested supporters. Jazz and the pop industry therefore live in an odd sort of symbiosis. The pop industry has needed jazz, at any rate since the later 1890s, when the basis of its economy changed from

 What applies to jazz applies also to all other pre-industrialised types of music on which the pop industry may draw, whether, like other American kinds of folk-music, they have affinities with jazz or, like Latin-American, Hungarian or Yiddish music, are more remota from it. But the links between pop music and jazz, which is already urbanised and 'commercial', are particularly close.

For such dance tunes and dance styles African American and African-influenced music, chiefly in the North, Central and South American forms, has been virtually the only source of importance in our century, doubtless because of its rhythmical qualities. At all events, Tin Pan Alley took over the cakewalks and rags en masse from about 1900, blues and jazz (in a rather diluted form) from about 1914, swing, a much less diluted but also formally a much more commercially negotiable, jazz from 1935, and the most primitive and pre-commercial blues under the trade-name of rock-and-roll from the middle 1950s. Without jazz, for instance, it is difficult to see how the pop industry could have mined the rich seam it discovered in the post-war years, the market of teenagers with money.

On the other hand, jazz musicians need the pop industry. Pop music is sufficiently close to jazz for the jazz player to adapt his style to it, though he could not, without special training, adapt it to the classical orchestra. (Conversely, a classically trained clarinet or piano would not last long in a jazz band without retraining.) The old pre-industrial kind of show business still supplies a market for jazz, and in the past decades the jazz business can provide a living, but economically jazz musicians cannot do without the ordinary dance band, the studio orchestra, and the other pop outlets. Moreover, the pop business alone can provide really big money and really wide fame, and jazz musicians, like other artists, prefer making money and being famous by their art to not making money by it.

Why should an Armstrong, an Ellington, a Count Basie, all whose lives have been spent in show business, object to getting out of small-time show business into the big-time? Being professional entertainers, they rarely even make the sharp distinction between pop music and jazz which haunts the critics and strict jazz lovers. As Mr Rex Stewart of the Ellington band once said, voicing the feelings of a very large number of older jazz players:

It is the critics and fans who are the 'purists', not the professional players, whose persistent taste for pop music the critics cannot understand and try vainly to explain away. Jazz has therefore flowed into pop music, and pop music into jazz, with considerable ease. Pieces of jazz music, traditional or composed, become part of the repertoire of pop and light music: the St Louis Blues or Fats Waller's Honeysuckle Rose and Ain't Misbehavin'. But in even greater numbers pop songs become jazz 'standards', i.e. permanent parts of the jazz repertoire. Pop music borrows the instrumentation and musical devices of jazz, but that instrumentation and some of those devices are themselves partly derived from the pop dance band. It was not jazz but the pop band which made the saxophone into a regular dance-music instrument before the First World War. Similarly the jazz band almost certainly borrowed the vocalist, especially, after 1930, the girl vocalist, from pop music, probably via the night club. A great deal of jazz is essentially the product of the cross between earlier jazz and Tin Pan Alley. Jazz overlaps and interpenetrates with pop music, lives within it as waterlilies live in ponds and stagnant streams; it may even, without ostensible change, become pop music, if sufficient people are moved to buy it. When this happens it will be subject to exactly the same temptations of mass producing its material and 'processing' its material to make it more palatable to the widest possible audience as Tin Pan Alley, as may be observed with the most successful 'traditionalist' jazz bands in Britain and the most successful 'skiffle' singers and groups.

By the standards of the entertainment industry jazz has hitherto rarely been big, or even medium-sized, business, though a jazz tinge in popular entertainment has been a very paying proposition. A great many jazz musicians and bands have therefore been left alone (sometimes to their regret) to play what they felt like. Virtually no blues singer of the older generation has been other than a disaster when tackling pop ballads.

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