“There’s no question that being an advocate eclipsed my reputation as a musician” Billy Taylor said in a 2007 interview. “It was my doing. I wanted to prove to people that jazz has an audience. I had to do that for me.”
Taylor’s career spanned nearly 70 years and included collaborations with almost every significant performer in jazz, from Duke Ellington and Charlie Parker to Wynton Marsalis; but he had an even rarer gift for explaining his music and drawing people to it.
With a doctorate in education, Taylor was considered perhaps the foremost jazz educator of his time. He taught in colleges, lectured widely, served on panels, traveled the world as a jazz ambassador, and organized events that took renowned jazz musicians directly to the streets.
Fully conversant as a performer in the complexities of bebop, he was among the few musicians who were comfortable with explaining it to the uninitiated. “It bothered me when Diz and Bird would start talking bebop and giving nonsensical answers to what they were intelligent enough to know was a seriously meant question” he said in 1971. “It bothered me so much that every chance I got, I tried to set the record straight.”
When Clint Eastwood was asked to “play Misty for me” in the classic movie of the same name, the song was played by its composer Erroll Garner, one of jazz’s most popular and prolific artists.
A completely self-taught pianist who never learned to read music, Garner created a unique and idiosyncratic but always accessible style. His musical approach was based on elements of swing and bop, while being harmonically reminiscent of French impressionistic composers such as Debussy and Ravel. This style, combined with a winning stage persona, made him arguably the most successful jazz artist of the 1950s.
Garner composed several songs that went on to become jazz standards, but the one with which he will be linked forever is “Misty” (1954). With lyrics by Johnny Burke, the song became a hit for such artists as Johnny Mathis and Sarah Vaughan.
The critic Leonard Feather eulogized him as a pianist who played “cascades of jubilant chords that seemed to tell you, ‘Boy, am I having a ball!’”
This according to “Garner, Erroll” by Michael R. Ross (Encyclopedia of music in the 20th century [New York: Routledge, 2013] p. 641); this resource is one of many included in RILM music encyclopedias, an ever-expanding full-text compilation of reference works.
Today is Garner’s 10oth birthday! Below, the composer holds forth.
Dave Brubeck helped to rekindle jazz’s mainstream popularity in the 1950s and 1960s with recordings like Time out, the first jazz album to sell a million copies, and Take five, the still instantly recognizable hit single that was that album’s centerpiece.
In a long and successful career, Brubeck brought a distinctive mixture of experimentation and accessibility that won over listeners who had been trained to the sonic dimensions of the three-minute pop single. He experimented with time signatures and polytonality and explored musical theater and the oratorio, Baroque compositional devices, and non-Western modes.
Brubeck did not always please the critics, who often described his music as schematic, bombastic, and—a word he particularly disliked—stolid. But his very stubbornness and strangeness—the blockiness of his playing, the oppositional push-and-pull between his piano and Paul Desmond’s alto saxophone—make the Brubeck quartet’s best work still sound original.
This according to “Dave Brubeck 1920–2012: His music gave jazz new pop” by Ben Ratliff (The New York times 6 December A1; RILM Abstracts 2012-10080).
Sonny Rollins’s extensive use of improvised thematic development in his 1956 recording of Blue 7marked a new level of musical evolution for jazz.
Jazz improvisatory procedures may be divided into two broad and sometimes overlapping categories: paraphrase and chorus improvisation. The former consists mostly of an embellishment or ornamentation technique, while the latter suggests that the soloist has departed completely from a given theme or melody and is improvising freely on nothing but a chord structure.
Most improvisation in the modern jazz era belongs to the second category, and Rollins’s recording is a landmark for maintaining thematic and structural unity in this type of playing.
This according to “Sonny Rollins and the challenge of thematic improvisation” by Gunther Schuller; this foundational work of jazz analysis from 1958 is reprinted in Keeping time: Readings in jazz history (New York: Oxford University Press 2015 193–202; RILM Abstracts 2015-155).
Today is Rollins’s 90th birthday! Above, the artist around the time of the recording; below, the recording itself.
Comments Off on Sonny Rollins and thematic improvisation
Charlie Parker’s three improvisatory choruses in Parker’s mood(1948) can be viewed as one statement; the first is introductory, the second climactic, and the third provides a summary by repeating previous material.
Analyzed as a Schenkerian series of layers, the piece progresses in complexity from the background to the foreground. Parker’s palette of resources includes the blues scale, stock blues melodic figures, bebop-style scale runs, arpeggiated figures derived from substitute progressions, idiosyncratic articulation, and a historic tradition of improvisation.
This according to “Parker’s mood revisited” by Kwatei Jones-Quartey (Annual review of jazz studies X  221–35; RILM Abstracts 1999-13483.
Today is Charlier Parker’s 100th birthday! Below, the recording in question.
The Jazzomat Research Project takes up the challenge of jazz research in the age of digitalization, opening up a new field of analytical exploration by providing computational tools as well as a comprehensive corpus of improvisations with MeloSpyGUI and the Weimar Jazz Database.
The volume Inside the Jazzomat: New perspectives for jazz research (Mainz: Schott, 2017; RILM Abstracts 2017-48411) presents the main concepts and approaches of the ongoing project, and includes several case studies that demonstrate how these approaches can be included in jazz analysis in various ways.
“It’s about a woman trying to get through a concert performance, which I know something about, and she’s doing it at a time when her liver was pickled and she was still doing heroin regularly.”
“I might have been a little judgmental about Billie Holiday early on in my life, but what I’ve come to admire most about her—and what is fascinating in this show—is that there is never any self-pity. She’s almost laughing at how horrible her life has been. I don’t think she sees herself as a victim. And she feels an incredible connection to her music—she can’t sing a song if she doesn’t have some emotional connection to it, which I really understand.”
“One wonderful thing for me is there are tons of recordings of Billie that I’ve been listening to and watching, even audio of her talking about certain songs, so I have a lot to draw on.”
Quoted in “Audra McDonald to return to Broadway as Billie Holiday” by Patrick Healey (The New York times 26 February 2014; RILM Abstracts 2014-89300).
Today is McDonald’s 50th birthday! Below, excerpts from her Tony Awards performance.
In an interview, Ornette Coleman discussed the musical philosophy and compositional/improvisational method that he called harmolodics.
“Harmolodics is a base of expanding the melody, the harmonic structure, the rhythm, and above all the free improvised structure of a composition beyond what they would be if they were just played as a regular 2-5-1 structure, or if they were played with the concept of a melody having a certain arrangement to know when to start and stop.”
“If a word means something else in another language, and it’s spelled and sounds the same, that’s very harmolodic. So, when you’re able to play like that, it expresses what sounds could be if they weren’t programmed to represent a certain territory. It has to do with what you base a concept of unity on. Unity in Europe comes from shared territories, not like America where unity is created out of shared conditions.”
“Harmolodics doesn’t change something from its original state. It expresses the information a melody has within its structure without taking it apart to find out why its sounds that way.”
James Reese Europe was a composer, conductor, and organizer of the Black community. A pioneer in jazz, he led the Clef Club Orchestra and other organizations in New York, and during World War I his 369th Infantry Regiment “Hellfighters” band was among the first exporters of jazz to Europe.
While he was perhaps the most famous and adept practitioner of American jazz in Europe during the 1930s and 1940s, the Manouche guitarist Django Reinhardt was an outsider—both culturally and geographically—to the U.S. jazz scene. For this reason, scholars have had difficulty placing him securely in American jazz history.
Reinhardt only visited the U.S. once, in 1946, as a guest of the Duke Ellington Orchestra. A recording made during that tour, A blues riff, presents a complex musical negotiation of contrasting musical and cultural values. What is heard in this performance is not just a debate over what notes to play when, but over what the philosopher Henri Lefebvre called representational spaces. The task of locating Reinhardt in jazz history requires a new theoretical appreciation for the material importance of space and place in the shaping of musical performance.
This according to “Negotiating A blues riff: Listening for Django Reinhardt’s place in American jazz” by Andrew Berish (Jazz perspectives III/3 [December 2009] pp. 233–64).
Today is Reinhardt’s 110th birthday!
Above, Reinhardt in 1946, the year of the recording; below, the recording itself.
For it [the Walkman] permits the possibility…of imposing your soundscape on the surrounding aural environment and thereby domesticating the external world: for a moment, it can all be brought under the STOP/START, FAST FOWARD, PAUSE and REWIND buttons. –Iain Chambers, “The … Continue reading →
In 1947 Ella Fitzgerald, already an acclaimed singer of jazz standards, toured with Dizzy Gillespie, immersing herself in the new style known as bebop. Like Dizzy, Ella responded to bebop’s complex harmonies with an infallible ear, and easily translated its … Continue reading →
Gertrude “Ma” Rainey’s Prove it on me blues affirms her independence from orthodox norms by boldly celebrating her lesbianism. Rainey’s sexual involvement with women was no secret with both colleagues and audiences. The advertisement for the song (above, click to … Continue reading →
The American traditional song Go tell Aunt Rhody originated as a gavotte composed by Jean-Jacques Rousseau for his opera Le devin du village (1752). An English version of the opera was produced in London in 1766; subsequently the melody attracted … Continue reading →