The Columnist Music


What's Jazz

A draft proposal for a jazz programme as sent to David Shannon, Radio Producer, in the 1980s.


            David – At last, I’ve roughed out the way I think or feel a show might go – you’ll see that I’ve started with St Louis Blues and gone on in what seems a logical manner, but at the same time dotting around the scenery and getting some names in. I didn’t pursue it to the end, but will do so gladly. Personally, I am not sure if the style is quite right – it was only rough and off the top of my head – but I quite like the content.  I think they’re quite bright out there on Radio 2.
            While thinking about this, I’ve stumbled on a brilliant theory. You know that during the 1930s they didn’t call jazz jazz? They called it swing or hot music or whatever. In the 1940s they called it bop. In the 1950s they called it modern jazz. I’ve worked out why. It’s because jazz is only ever popular for a decade. After that it becomes thought of as old hat. After that it becomes forgotten. After that, it becomes popular again for a decade. Then the same cycle.

In the 1920s Jazz was the thing
In the 1930s Swing was the thing
In the 1940s Bepop
In the 1950s Modern Jazz
In the 1960s Free Form or Modern Jazz
In the 1970s Fusion Music
In the 1980s Jazz again.

            See? Every thirty years. For a proof, you’ll see that bands with the word Jazz in only flourish every 30 years… King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band(1923)… Modern Jazz Quartet, Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers (50s)… Courtney Pine’s Jazz Messengers (80s)… There’s a lot more to it, though, as you’d expect.


Outline script for Radio 2 programme (1988?)


            St Louis Blues, one of the most famous tunes in jazz, was published seventy years ago this year, and since then has been played and recorded by countless bands, while countless singers have told us that they hate to see that evening sun go down. Bing Crosby recorded it with Duke Ellington. The only film ever made by Bessie Smith was called St Louis Blues, and featured her singing the number. A typical jazz number, you might think. It’s not, actually – it’s a very odd jazz number indeed. For a start, it’s not a jazz tune at all. If you played it on the piano as written by WC Handy, you wouldn’t be playing jazz, and you wouldn’t really be playing the blues either. But then, that applies to lots of other so-called jazz numbers – the Gershwin tune most associated with jazz, I Got Rhythm, is not jazz either as written by the composer or indeed as played by the composer.
            A much odder thing about St Louis Blues, actually, is the fact that it falls into two parts. Jazz musicians don’t normally like tunes that fall into two parts. They prefer something straightforward which they can repeat over and over again. But they quite like to play St Louis Blues, probably because there’s a bit of drama in the way one part, a straight 12 bar blues, contrasts with the other part, a Latin American sixteen bar segment. Back in 1918 when it was published the tango was all the rage, and that’s probably why it’s there, this sixteen bars from the south of the border. But 40 years after it was written you can hear how pianist Erroll Garner went to town on the contrast, almost melodramatic, between the two parts, between swinging and playing Latin.


            Erroll Garner, swashbuckling his way through St Louis Blues. But if it’s odd to find two different sections in one jazz tune, there’s an even odder thing about St Louis Blues – as a blues. It has a tune. This is pretty rare in a vocal blues, to find a distinctive, memorable tune that you can sing or hum. Most blues, most of the millions ever written, have no particular tune, just a bluesy sort of vocal line which is pretty much the same from song to song. But St Louis Blues has a handsome little melody line, even if no singer could comfortably sing it at the speed Erroll Garner was taking it at. Still, it’s safe to say that Erroll Garner had not the slightest interest in the words of the song. It’s also safe to say that after the opening section, with the alternation of the two sections, Garner lost all interest in the melody as well. If a musician switched on in the middle of that record, he’d know almost immediately that it was a blues, but he wouldn’t have the faintest idea which blues it was, at least not till the end. When jazz musicians improvise, it isn’t the words or tune they care about – it’s the chords, or the harmony.
            You can see this actually happening in a concert given by the Gerry Mulligan quartet back in 1955. Right at the start of the concert, Mulligan was announced, but the audience wasn’t ready. ‘Maybe I’ll play some blues while you get seated,’ he says, and they do. There’s no tune, no title, no words, nothing except a key and a speed. That’s all musicians need to create the beginning of something, with a 12 bar blues and its chords. 


            Four jazz musicians and not a composer or arranger in sight. Jazz doesn’t really need composers, and some musicians play right through their lives without meeting a composer face to face or even using one. They play songs by composers, yes, but that’s different. It’s not the song that’s important – it’s what the jazz player does to the song that makes the difference. It’s even been said that jazz is not a music – it’s a way of playing music – so that a jazz musician spends a lot of time taking a tune which is not jazz, just a good song, and turning it, almost recomposing it himself, into jazz. I can give you a rather unusual example of that, from the end of the war. One of the most famous partnerships before the war was that between Stephan Grappelli, still playing violin today, and his partner Django Reinhardt. Grappelli was in London all during the war, and Django in occupied France, so they didn’t see each other for five years. On reuniting, in London in 1945, they must have had a surge of patriotism to the head because the first tune they chose to record again was La Marseillaise.


            The French national Anthem, picking its skirts up and doing a gentle jive. It sounds as if I’m trying to prove that jazz doesn’t need composers at all, and actually, if you consulted most jazz musicians for their favourite figures in jazz, you might get that impression from them. They’d name lots of people who blow and strum and hit the keys; it would almost be as an afterthought that they named anyone who sat and scratched at paper with pen and ink. Of course, they might add, if you have a big band you’re going to need a composer or arranger, because there are simply too many people in a big band for them to be allowed to organise themselves; someone’s got to do it for them. This is partly true, though only partly true. If you listen to one of Count Basie’s early pieces like Ham and Eggs, and wait for the tune to come, you’ll have to wait a long time. There is no tune. The band plays a few riffs, it’s true, but I doubt if anyone was hired to write them – the ban usually worked things out at rehearsals. This record glorifies the soloist, not the writer.


            It always seems a bit unlikely that the band worked out a performance like that which seemed pretty polished and organised, but it does happen. I play in a group myself – not a jazz group, but still a group – which has 200 or 300 pieces in the repertoire, and we don’t have a single bit of written music to remind ourselves of the arrangements. So why have a composer in jazz at all? Why not just play nice songs? Why not work out routines in the band? Or why not, like Erroll Garner playing St Louis Blues, pretend to be an orchestra on the piano and orchestrate as you go along?
            The answer becomes clear when you listen to a jazz composer who knows what he is doing. Chalie Mingus played wonderful double bass, led some of the best musician in New york in the 1950s and 1960s, but above all shaped what they played into something grander than a bunch of good musicians playing jazz. Listen to what he got them to do to a piano blues, how he adds colour, and background and depth to it. Listen to Boogie Stop Shuffle, recorded back in 1959, but not sounding thirty years old to me.


            It’s just the 12 bar blues, but turned by Charlie Mingus into something a bit more architectural, a bit more 3D. Still simple, though: the basic structure is not even as ambitious as St Louis Blues was 70 years ago. And here we hit one of the strange paradoxes of jazz, and one that isn’t much noticed: form and structure have tended to get simpler in jazz as everything else has got more complex. It’s one of the things that people notice when they come to jazz for the first time from the direction of classical music. Well used to formal sophistication, they say: Yes, the harmonies are really quite tricky and you’ve got some wonderful techniques and some pretty clever rhythms, but why is it so simple in outline? Why do you repeat the same shape over and over again?
            It’s a good point. The answer partly lies in the fact that it has been tried, and it didn’t work. Back in the 1920s, a lot of jazz compositions, like the ragtime classics before them, had anything up to four or five different sections, in different keys, going from major to minor and back again, providing a quiet interlude or even a complete change of mood. The most famous jazz composer of the 1920s, Jelly Roll Morton, scarcely ever wrote a piece with just one strain, as he called them. He would have considered that pretty poor value for money. Here’s an example of something a classical critic would agree to be a prettily constructed miniature, even if the name didn’t appeal to him: Black Bottom Stomp.


            Jelly Roll Morton did as much for jazz in the 1920s as Charlie Mingus did in the 1950s, and along the same lines; organising musicians to do more than the sum of the parts. But I said just now that that sort of complicated structure didn’t work. It was pretty clear, listening to the record, that it did work. So what do I mean? I mean that it didn’t work for musicians. The more that musicians came to improvise, the less they wanted to have fiddly compositions written by composers who wanted to organise them. Musicians wanted to blow, and the best tunes for blowing on were simple shapes 12,16, or 32 bars long. In jazz, what the musician wants always wins out in the end, even over public taste, or composers’s wishes, or, as in pop music, what the singer wants. The reason that musicians kept recording I Got Rhythm was not that it had good words. It hasn’t. Or that it had a good tune, because it’s only got one clever phrase in it. It was because it had nice simple chords for blowing on, with a middle eight bars that present something a little different. Now, the Gershwin song as written has a little two bar tag on the end, which provides a little variety. Singers always sing it. Dance bands always keep it in. Jazz musicians never play it, except when they’re just playing the tune, because it gets in the way of their improvising, and destroys the symmetry of the 32 bar chorus. What they are saying to Gershwin is: Thanks for the compositional flourish, Mr Gershwin, but no thanks…


The script peters out at this point with a promise of more to come. Was the programme ever made? Somebody reading this script might know…




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