One of the most creative endeavors in the arts world is an improvised solo played by an accomplished jazz musician. Over the years that solo has evolved from something that was basically an embellishment of the melody by adding a few notes to something extremely complex and sophisticated. Louis Armstrong is acknowledged as the first musician to turn the trumpet into a solo instrument. Later other instrumentalists followed in his footsteps. So instead of playing the melody exactly as it was written by one of the great American composers, Louis created his own version based on the same time and harmonic structure. The original jazz solo was basically an altered melody. Since the listening audience consciously or unconsciously knew the melodic, harmonic and rhythmic structure, the improvisor had to remain within that structure as he endeavored to spontaneously find a pattern of notes that fit, yet adding something new, something creative. Therefore, he had to think on his feet to create phrases or "licks" that fit the structure. He had to solve a puzzle in real time. If he messed up, if he hit a note that didn't fit the time or harmonic structure, sometimes called a "clinker", the audience knew it.
As the music evolved, musicians added more phrases to the vocabulary of jazz as they listened to Louis Armstrong and others invent more musical sequences that fit in the structure of tunes from the Great American Songbook by such composers as Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Harry Warren, Cole Porter and Richard Rogers. The composers themselves were creating new and challenging harmonic structures which then became challenges for jazz musicians to master. The 12 bar blues progression became a basic tune structure that was morphed into different varieties or flavors but with certain reference points that were well understood by both musician and audience. Gershwin's "I Got Rhythm" consisting of 24 bars became another basic structure that aspiring jazz musicians had to master. As time went on, other musicians imitated original players like Lous Armstrong absorbing his vocabulary into their solos much like a writer might use certain phrases and stylistic devices that he had picked up from his favorite author. Some of them became consolidators taking Armstrong's original work and attempting to execute it in a more polished style but adding nothing new. Then there were others who said "Well, I can add my own individuality to this art form; I can come up with new and original phrases." So they might take a tune like "On the Sunny Side of the Street" and, using the same structure that Armstrong used, attempt to play an improvised solo containing elements that were new and original, that had never been heard before, but yet were based on the same time and harmonic structures that had become well familiarized. Basically, the whole process came about because musicians as well as audiences got tired of hearing or playing the same solos based on well worn time and harmonic structures containing the same elements. What added interest was to hear or play something new, something different, something creative. So the art form progressed and evolved.
Then in the 1940s there was a true revolution. Players like Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie took the art form to a whole new level. First, their virtuosity on their instruments increased to the level where people couldn't believe their ears. The range of the trumpet, for example, increased to the point that left trumpet players shaking their heads. The rapidity with which these innovators could spontaneously string notes together and come up with something that made sense and was esthetically appealing seemed incredible. At first they were playing the same tunes that Louis Armstrong had played but they were doing it in a style and manner that seemingly left Armstrong and players like him in the dust in terms of their technical facility and musical sophistication. They were running circles around contemporary musicians of the time that were still playing in Armstrong's style. They also evolved but did not basically change the basic harmonic structure of these same tunes by adding "passing" chords to the chord progression. So a twelve bar blues that had contained three or four chords, some of them lasting for a couple measures at a time, became in Charlie Parker's hands a harmonic progression containig 12 or 16 chords, none of them lasting more than half a measure. Consequently, the harmonic progression moved a lot faster. Of course this made improvizing a solo a lot more challenging. One had to think on his feet a lot faster. This style, which became known as bebop, required a level of instrumental competence, virtuosity and harmonic sophistication way beyond what musicians of the 1920s or 1930s had aspired to. Yet there were enough familiar reference points that the audience at least was not left completely behind although many listeners couldn't comprehend the revolutionary changes these musicians were making. Jazz went from a danceable music to a concert music and at the same time from popular music to an art form. The listening audience dropped off as bebop was too difficult for the average nonmusicain to comprehend and appreciate.
Although the basic time structure of the tunes bebop musicians improvised on remained the same, they added different rhythmic accents to their vocabulary that gave the music a new flavor and the name bebop. They moved the harmony around by adding new chords staying with the original tonality and based on western classical music which was based on the cycle of fifths. So a G7 chord always resolved to a C major chord. (G is a fifth above C). So anywhere there was a C major chord in the original progression they could add a G7 passing chord proceeding it. Taking this a step farther they could add a D minor seventh before the G7 and so on. Note that all these chords only contain notes which are within the C major scale thus preserving the tonality of C major.
The beboppers advanced the harmonic structure. Instead of adding chords proceeding around the cycle of fifths they substituted chords which proceeded downward by half steps. So instead of the progression D minor seventh to G dominant seventh to C major, they created the progression D minor seventh, D flat dominant seventh, C major seventh. There were still enough reference points so as to not make the original progression unrecognizable, but the new elements added interest, variety, tension and release. The more sophisticated prebop harmonic players like the piano player, Art Tatum, even improvised on the harmonic progression of the tune moving chords around with abandon especially playing solo but always coming back to enough reference points to stay within the original tune. Especially the time structures of the tunes remained constant. A 24 measure AABA tune remained a 24 measure tune. Typically, the A structure was 8 bars which was repeated twice; the B structure was also called the "bridge" and the last 8 bars repeated the original 8 bar structure of the tune. A player like Tatum might acknowledge the beginning of each 8 bar structure by hitting familiar chords and then take off on a flight of fancy until the next 8 bar structure began.
The beboppers, by changing the harmonic structure and adding half step downward chord pro-
gressions changed the major tonality of the tune. Previously, if a tune was written in the key of C, a player need not do much more than master the C major scale in order to improvise on it. Now the beboppers were venturing temporarily into other keys and doing it at increasingly faster tempos. The harmonic sophistication required and the instrumental virtuosity had increased by leaps and bounds. However, they were doing all this still based on the same tunes the "swing" players had used. They also wrote different "heads" or melodies based on those same chord progressions. So a tune like "How High the Moon" became the Charlie Parker tune, "Ornithology",the name Ornithology referencing Parker's nickname, Bird. Les Paul and Mary Ford had a popular hit in 1951 with the tune "How High the Moon." "Ornithology" was a tune only appreciated by sophisticated jazz listeners, hence an art audience. It seems that the average listener didn't possess the musical sophistication to appreciate the revolutionary changes Parker, Gillespie, Thelonious Monk and others brought to the music. Monk's music was so original, nonconformist and quirky that only the true jazz aficionado appreciasted his genius.
In addition to the beboppers having to play at increased tempos, with a much expanded vocabulary (Charlie Parker had come up with a whole host of original "licks"), over an expanded range of their instruments and using much more difficult chord progressions, they still had to fit all their notes within a certain structured time and harmonic framework doing all this thinking on their feet in real time. It was still possible to hit a "clinker": and the sophisticated listener would know it. Fitting their phrases into this framework imposed a certain discipline and yet the musicians were still expected to be creative and original. Once musicians had absorbed the style of Charlie Parker, there followed a bunch of imitators and consolidators playing in Charlie Parker's style but adding nothing new. After a while, certain players tired of this and went on a quest to add something new to the art form. They endeavored to create their own original style so that a listener would recognize that it was they who were playing and not just a Charlie Parker imitator. New phrases or licks were invented that became the signatures or hallmarks of different players.
One of the things new generations tried to do was to change the structure of the tunes that Charlie Parker and others had created. Miles Davis came up with a bunch of tunes based on modal harmonies and recorded the all time jazz best seller, "Kind of Blue." This music while retaining the virtuosity of the beboppers introduced a less complex harmonic structure and so was more asscessible to the average unsophisticated listener. Miles also was involved with "Cool Jazz" which attempted to decrease the intensity and demands of hard core bebop and still come up with sophisticated and beautiful music. His collaborations with composer/arranger Gil Evans produced a series of recordings such as "Miles Ahead," "Porgy and Bess" and "Sketches of Spain" that featured sophisticated musical, almost symphonic arrangements with Miles adding plaintive, understated, understandable solos. Jazz Hot became Jazz Cool. Audiences loved it.
Jazz purists entered a new phase in which they attempted to "free up" the harmonic and time requirements of bebop by unstructuring the harmonic structure altogether. This was called "free jazz." In free jazz there was little or no harmonic structure and even little or no time structure. A musician was "free" to play whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted to play it. So while bebop was a very demanding and sophisticated music, free jazz made no demands on the musician at all. It was impossible to play a "clinker" and any musician without any knowledge whatsoever of even a C major scale could play it although, to be fair, he or she was expected to have some degree of virtuosity on his instrument. The only thinking on one's feet that was required was to string a bunch of notes together that made some sort of sense to the musician and the listening audience. The demands on the audience in one sense were drastically reduced in that a listener need not have any conscious or subconscious knowledge of harmony or the time structure of the piece being presented. The discipline that was required of the bebop player to be creative within a specified musical structure was completely abandoned. Part of the interest of jazz to me was how well a musican could play within a certain sophisticated time and harmonic structure and still be creative, still come up with something new. One did not expect a bebopper to come up with something completely new in every solo. One was happy to hear a new twist here, a new turn there while referencing the structure of the music and the phraseology of the vocabulary of other players that had proceeded him going all the way back to Louis Armstrong. Players also included whole phrases or "quotes" from other tunes which the sophisticated listener would instantly recognize. So listening to bebop and its variants required some knowledge of musical history on the part of the listener.
The bebop player had to put the pieces of a puzzle together spontaneously in real time in a way that made sense within the structure of the tune and still come up with something esthetically appealing to himself and the audience and also something interesting and creative. This put a lot of demands on the player and the listener. With free jazz none of these demands were made, not even playing in tune! The only demands made were that the player be a virtuoso on his instrument. The result, as far as I'm concerned, was a music that lost my interest because a lot of my interest in jazz was how well a player could fit the pieces of the puzzle together. A bebopper had to make all the pieces fit and come up with a finished product that resembled the picture that was revealed when a person put all the pieces of a puzzle together so that they all fit. A free jazz musician, after putting all the pieces of the puzzle on the table, could arrange them in any order whatsoever whether they fit together or not and whether they created any pattern or not. This turned a music that was at least comprehensible to a sophisticated listener into chaos. A music that had been built on the foundations of all the players that had attempted to create beautiful and comprehensible improvised solos in the past suddenly became music based upon ... well, nothing at all. The musicians were entirely free and there were no reference points for the audience to observe. There was no referencing of the great musicians of the past or the great tunes from The American Songbook.
Many musicians faced with the chaos of free jazz started walking back from it including more structured elements in their performances. Some used strict time structures while relatively free harmonic structures or included some passages of free playing interspersed with more structured passages. They started again to show an appreciation of the rich musical history that preceded them. They started to practive their scales and chords again. They started trying to come up with new licks, new ways of fitting the pieces of the puzzle together. Others, recoiling from the chaos of free jazz, went all out trying to win a commercial audience simplifying the music to the point of being uninteresting to the sophisticated listener but appealing to an audience with little or no appreciation of the musical elements of melody, harmony and time structure. Some tried to include classical or folk music elements while still retaining improvisation.
Ideally, an artist would have a lifetime to develop his or her art to higher degrees of sophistication. A listener would be able to follow and appreciate an artist's growth and development by comparing earlier and later recordings. The artist would bring the audience along with him as both developed their ears to a higher level. The musician, him or herself, would be on a quest to develop musically which is to say to get to the point where he or she is spontaneously creating new and interesting phraseology in the course of an improvised solo while encompassing enough reference points to make the music intelligible to a sophisticated listener. One of the few artists to accomplish anything resembling this ideal scenario was John Coltrane. Coltrane from his earliest days was an interesting and unusal player. His solos were different from those of the average consolidator of Charlie Parker's music. And then Coltrane went on from there to record "Giant Steps" which represented one of the true advances and departures from bebop that introduced a new harmonic structure into jazz. This music was so advanced that it took Coltrtane himself quite a while to master his own invention before he committed it to record. This was jazz at its best. All the elements of jazz history were there but there was a new inventiveness, a new creativity, a new intensity that went beyond what had come before. Coltrane went on to record another groundbreaking album, "My Favorite Things," which, while introducing no radically new advances to familiar elements, was recorded with such intensity and masterfullness that one appreciated the artist's musical development while at the same time hearing a tune which was part of the lexicon. Coltrane's last major album, "A Love Supreme" was hailed by some as another step in the advancement of a major jazz artist although it left me a little cold in terms of its repetitiveness and Coltrane's all out quest for stringing together novel musical phrases at any cost. It seemed to me that Coltrane's spiritual journey had put his musical quest on the back burner to some extent.
So where is jazz today? Jazz has morphed into so many variegated forms that there is no one centralized and focused understanding of what jazz is. It has dispersed into cultures all over the world, better appreciated in many others than in the land of its origin. There are many talented musicians out there all seeking enough of an audience so that they don't have to do a day job in addition to playing the music they love. This is hard to do and remain true to any conceptual calling of being an artist and to your own musical development. It seems that the more advanced and sophisticated you get as a musician, the more of the audience you lose. There are some who are trying to remain true to the musical tradition of Louis Armstrong, Art Tatum, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie and John Coltrane. The greatest advocate of this tradition is the trumpet player and educator, Wynton Marsalis whose broadcasts on satellite radio of the history of jazz and promotion of the players that are out there "who can play" is much appreciated. Jazz as a true art form is still alive and well although the connection to making a living is nebulous. In the old days record companies such as Columbia would pick a Miles Davis to promote making him a major jazz musician in the process. Now since jazz has been more democratized, there are many players out there vying for a top slot but no major labels to promote them.
There are many others who have abandoned the jazz tradition altogether. They are playing jacuzzi jazz or some other variant which requires little artistic development or knowledge of the jazz tradition or of their instrument really since jazz is first and foremost an instrumental as opposed to a vocal music. Of course vocal music is more accessible than instrumental music and the success of the jazz artist Diana Krall and quite a few other female vocalists following in her footsteps attests to that. Jazz has also gone down many side alleys and entered many a cul de sac in an attempt to go all out to attract a listening audience by watering down the demands on the listener, to make the music more accessible to the listening audience. Most of these attempts are calculated corruptions and subversions of the jazz tradition in order to achieve commercial success. Keep in mind that jazz traditionalists are expected to not just play the music as it was played in some past era, but to remain true to the tradition of jazz esthetically while advancing the art form by coming up with something creative and new. However, jazz at its best is not expected to come up with something new with every jazz performance. Most jazz improvisation at its best is based on licks accumulated from the great players of the past or invented by the artist him or herself. All the sophisticated listener really wants or expects to hear is some new twist or turn which is truly creative and novel, something not heard before in quite the same way. It could be something as simple as the placement of an accent as Charlie Parker made clear. That's when the jazz aficionado says "Yeah!"