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Jazz : from the Cathouse to Carnegie Hall

February 20, 1987|LEONARD FEATHER

The post-Depression years saw the rise of small-group swing music, most memorably in the 52nd Street clubs where the phenomenal pianist Art Tatum, the violinist Stuff Smith and groups led by Red Norvo and Wingy Manone held forth; and the coalescence of the early orchestral values in the guise of what was soon called swing music--big-band jazz, with Benny Goodman as the Pied Piper.

As a clarinet genius, Goodman became a symbol of what was now evolving from an almost unlettered folk music into a sometimes sophisticated blend of complex composition and do-it-yourself virtuosity. Coinciding with the advent of swing music was the belated and still limited recognition of jazz by the American media. Occasional magazine pieces were devoted to the swing phenomenon, and Down Beat magazine, launched in 1934, became the first U.S. publication devoted to jazz and dance music. The Swing Era was the only period in jazz history when a form of jazz enjoyed mass popularity. Records such as Artie Shaw's "Begin the Beguine," Chick Webb's "A Tisket a Tasket" (with Ella Fitzgerald) and Goodman's "Sing Sing Sing" became best sellers.

Then jazz ran into two major impediments: from 1942-43 and again in 1948, musicians were stopped by their union from making records on the grounds that they were thereby limiting the performance of live music. This prevented some of the great works of those years from being preserved for posterity; it also provided an advantage to singers, who recorded with a cappella groups. But between the two bans, a generation of revolutionaries, determined to find their way out of what they saw as the dead end of swing music, began recording what became the definitive works of the decade. They were Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and a few others.

Violently attacked by most of the critics and even by some musicians, these be-bop pioneers established concepts for the playing and writing of jazz that ultimately made their way into (and are now considered a part of) the mainstream.

By the end of the 1940s the big-band dominance had faded. Ellington had been responsible for many initiatives. His was the first orchestra to give concerts regularly (starting in 1943, annually at Carnegie Hall), the first to build miniature concertos around a particular soloist, and the first to present works that shattered the three or four minute barrier imposed by the 78 disc. His "Black, Brown & Beige," at the first Carnegie concert, running to 48 minutes and incorporating all the values of pure jazz without any pseudo-symphonic trappings, was a milestone.

The chief trends of the 1950s were the growth of the small combos' influence (the Modern Jazz and Dave Brubeck quartets, Gerry Mulligan's various groups), and the escape of jazz, at least partially, from the nightclub to the mass exposure offered by concert halls and (starting in 1954 at Newport) festivals. Jazz became an international phenomenon as George Shearing established his quintet; no longer was France's Hot Club Quintet assumed to have a monopoly on non-domestic jazz.

West Coast Jazz was a phrase often bandied about, and the source of much confusion .The worldwide interest in the music was catered to by the U.S. government as the Voice of America launched a nightly jazz record show, hosted by Willis Conover. The State Department authorized Gillespie to take an all-star band (organized for him by Quincy Jones) on tours of the Middle East and of Latin America.

Beginning in the 1960s, the jazz world splintered into so many factions that the term jazz became harder to define. "That's not jazz!" was a cry hurled at innovators just as Gillespie and Parker had been the objects of contumely two decades before. Miles Davis helped launch the transition from chords to modes (arrangements of a scale) as a basis for improvisation. Ornette Coleman broke loose from the structures of form and harmony that had governed jazz. John Coltrane and his disciples took music into a spiritual, often mystic area marked at times by Indian influences and by improvisations of unprecedented length. It was a far cry from the two-bar "break" of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band to Coltrane's 45-minute solos.

Some musicians certainly transcended the conventional definition of the jazzman. The pianist Cecil Taylor's atonal forays and staggering technical prowess were best classified as avant-garde. Long orchestral works by John Lewis, Gunther Schuller and others were sometimes defined as "Third Stream," the purported result of a confluence of two streams, classical and jazz.

Still later came the use of electronic instruments (with Miles Davis again pioneering, on his "Bitches Brew" LP), the joining of jazz and rock elements under the guise of fusion, and arrival of the impressionistic New Age music.

Listen to any jazz record made 70 or 60 or 50 years ago, then study some of the more successfully adventurous contemporary products. Whether your taste leans to classical music, jazz, rock, or all of the above, and regardless of your personal predilections within the jazz landscape, you will almost certainly agree that jazz has made extraordinary headway in the relatively short space of seven decades. Perhaps no less significantly, its identification by some scholars as "America's Classical Music" has at long last gained credence among all but the most stubborn of reactionaries.

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