Mike’s Monthly Musings – August

Lost Chords: musings on the development of jazz.
Jazz is usually described as the music of the American negro, whether it be in the form of the original sounds which came out of New Orleans with their marching bands, or as the blues developed by prisoners and Southern state cotton pickers, or in the form of bebop through the developments associated with Parker, Gillespie and Monk, or the campaign against racism in the United States during the 1960s and 1970s through to the modern day sounds of people like Cecil Taylor.  Whilst such a picture holds true for the most part, it does ignore the part played by white musicians in spreading the word and developing some of the sounds we take for granted.  This particular piece is brought about by a reading of the late Richard Sudhalter’s book, Lost Chords, which focuses on the role of white musicians in the music’s early development.  At the outset there were those in Chicago who heard the sounds of Louis Armstrong and King Oliver in Chicago in the 1920a – Eddie Condon, Bud Freeman, Pee Wee Russell (surely one of the most original clarinet sounds in jazz), all men who gave rise to a sound much liked even today – Chicago or Dixieland jazz.  These musicians played with their coloured counterparts in jam sessions and clubs.  Alongside them at the same time were people like clarinet player Benny Goodman (the king of swing in the 1930s), his rival Artie Shaw, and the trombonist Glen Miller, whose sweet sounds were amongst first many of us may have heard during the Second World War years if not before.  And there are so many we should not forget – people like Yank Lawson, Bobby Hackett, Wild Bill Davidson, Billy Butterfield – cornet and trumpet players who followed in Louis’ footsteps.  There are piano players like Jess Stacey; Bob Zurke; clarinet players like Matty Matlock and Irving Fazzola, bass players like Bob Haggart, drummers like Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich, all of whom swung the music like the best of their Negro counterparts.
The arrival of bebop did keep some white musicians away: the music was designed to attract only those musicians who could follow the more complicated changes the music involved.  But there were some who grew up with it, if largely in what was known as the cool school of jazz – trumpeter Chet Baker, alto sax players Art Pepper, Paul Desmond and Phil Woods, baritone saxist Gerry Mulligan and the tenor sax player whose sound was most admired, Stan Getz.  European influences were also to be felt, perhaps most notably in the sounds associated with the record label ECM, for which pianist Keith Jarrett is a noted artist.  Then there were those who sought to recapture some of the earlier sounds: cornet player Ruby Braff was an original who worked with people like Goodman, but not duly affected by the music of trumpeter Miles Davis; Scott Hamilton, a tenor sax player who emerged in the 1970s with a sound untouched by the changes brought about by the great John Coltrane, or Warren Vache, another cornet player influenced in part by Braff.
Today the music is truly international with Europeans and Americans crossing the Atlantic to record and play together: one example is Carla Bley’s group, which features Brit tenor player Andy Shepherd alongside Canadian Carla Bley on keyboards and American bass player Steve Swallow, probably the best electric bass player there is.  Another example is the Anglo-American group known as The Impossible Gentlemen, which brings together two outstanding Brits, pianist Gwilym Simcock and guitarist Mike Walker, along with two great American musicians, Steve Rodby on electric bass and drummer Adam Nussbaum.  If you have a chance to hear either of these groups, grab it with both hands: they represent some of the best jazz one can hear today.  Mike Goldsmith.