A Beginner’s Guide to Jazz – Part 2
Welcome back, dear reader! If you are reading this, we assume you have also read part one of this series. If you haven’t yet, you can find it here, but to quickly recap what we are doing here: as a gateway into jazz, resident tba* jazz expert Markus handpicked ten subcategories of this enigmatic, often inaccessible musical genre, along with ten songs that best exemplify those varieties. To further help newcomers, he asked his good friend Claudius, a.k.a. me, to lend his fairly inexperienced perspective. After Markus’s analyses of the tracks, you will find my reactions in italics. Last week, we made it from ragtime all the way to cool jazz. So without further ado, let’s jazz on (or whatever it is those rascals say)!
- Hard Bop
One thing jazz musicians always seem (or arguably seemed) to busy themselves with is innovation. Bebop was innovative when it came up, but it was only a glimpse at what was to come. After some time, bebop became hard bop, a genre border which is not as distinct as some of the others on this list (jazz musicians didn’t make much of a fuss about what kind of jazz they were making until modal jazz came along, anyways). Credited with the creation of this genre is drummer Art Blakey together with his band, the Jazz Messengers.
Hard bop was an explosion. With three big labels (Verve, Impulse, Blue Note) and more jazz artists being active and collaborative than at any other time, jazz records were released in quantities that could keep you busy for years. It must have been a fun time (if you ignore the racial discrimination that many jazz musicians still faced and the drug problems the whole scene had been dealing with since its inception) to be a jazz musician. All of the legends and demi-legends of jazz had their respective combos and produced some of the best records of all time, reaching a golden ratio of experimentation and fun that allows this to be one of the easiest subgenres of jazz to get into.
Thelonious Monk – Bright Mississippi – Take 1
Thelonious Monk started out rather slowly and after some records with insignificant success, Brilliant Corners finally launched his career in 1957. As a pianist, Monk often chose to perform together with at least one brass player, often choosing the soon-to-be-famous John Coltrane or Sonny Rollins (who appeared in this article before) or, in the case of this song, Charlie Rouse. Monk’s biggest breakthrough was the album from which this track is taken, Monk’s Dream. This was partially due to him appearing on the Time cover the next year (Miles Davis was deemed too political and never made it on there).
Someone once called Monk an “elephant on the piano” and it shows a little when the piano sounds like someone is dropping things onto it every now and then, even if he tries to be a little cleaner as he plays the head (main theme) to start us off. Rouse, meanwhile, does his own variation of the main theme of the song, slowly deviating from it and compellingly improvising as he goes on, and Monk briefly settles for a background role, but steps up to the plate again to play a very rhythmically intricate solo with the usual plinky timbre his playing causes. The bass yet again is on its “no surprises” shit and reliably walks us through the song.
Elephant on the piano sounds about right. While the saxophonist goes his own way, soloing to his heart’s delight, Monk seems to stab at the keys every once in a while, just to keep the song going. Again, steady drums, solid bass, it’s jazz! No real surprises for me on this track. Sadly, with this kind of aimless, very loose structure, my brain tends to switch off after a while. The talent here is undeniable, but the song just loses me at one point.
- Modal Jazz
To understand modal jazz, I recommend just googling what musical modes are – I am not qualified to provide anything that you couldn’t read on Wikipedia or watch in some pop theory video yourself. To give a very basic explanation, a mode is a scale (series of notes) determined around a certain set of distance between the notes. A classic major scale would be called Ionian. And all the modes are rearrangements of the same distances found in this one. I didn’t understand that, you didn’t understand that, let’s go on anyways.
Modal jazz briefly became the most popular style of jazz music about six years after George Russell first coined the concept in his book “Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization”. It uses modes which are different from the usual major and minor scales. This can sound slightly off to you if your ear is only used to major and minor scales, and as with anything that sounds new and a bit strange, jazz was all over it for a while. The solos from this time have a tendency to sound angular or aimless because they didn’t follow the standard laws of resolving harmonies and other rules of western music listeners have become used to. This didn’t mean the style wasn’t popular: Miles Davis’ most popular album, Kind of Blue, was modal jazz, as were albums by Herbie Hancock and John Coltrane. Almost everyone stuck with it until the end of the sixties came around. Of course, even when modal jazz was less of a cultural force, it left an influence on the soloing and composing of jazz musicians in all parts of the genre.
John Coltrane – My Favorite Things
John Coltrane is pretty famous as jazz musicians go. Together with Miles Davis, he forms the duo of the two Jazz LPs your dad has in his collection. Coltrane started out as someone who played for other people and eventually started releasing music under his own name in 1958, coming out with the cool jazz classic Blue Train. Two years later, Coltrane already broke with what was deemed possible in hard bop jazz at the time with his aptly titled record Giant Steps, a record that made harmonic jumps in improvisation that left everyone else (including his own pianist on the title track) in the dust. Coltrane was not trying to slow down the wave of innovation he and everyone else was riding at the time and decided to also get into modal jazz a year later with My Favorite Things.
If the title sounds familiar to you, it’s because this is a highly modified cover of the song from the musical The Sound of Music, most famous in the film version sung by Julie Andrews. I recommend listening to that first and keeping it in mind a little while listening to this piece, especially imaging the words alongside the instrumental. Coltrane liked the first phrase so much he made it the center of this piece (I don’t know if he actually liked the song, maybe he just thought it would be funny). After a brief, slightly jazzified intro, the band (but mostly Coltrane himself) begins to modally travel away from the song and tries some rhythmic variation on it. The pianist also gets his turn at soloing and has some fun trying to break the phrase down to the words “favorite things” only. No matter how far out everyone ventures, they still occasionally return to the main phrase only to venture off again. This song is long and has many great Coltrane solos, including the attempt to imitate a flock of birds by playing very fast.
Hey, I know this guy! Coltrane is one of the few jazz musicians I am actually familiar with, having listened to both A Love Supreme (a wonderfully soulful album) and Ascension (an absolute atonal nightmare). This track veers more towards to the former, taking the highly recognizable Sound of Music phrase as its center and setting out from there, to wonderful results. Coltrane’s virtuoso soloing never loses its footing or its focus, the pianist answers in similarly spirited fashion, and even the drums manage to spice up the basic foundation with occasional rolls and skitters. Focusing so much on one phrase helps anchor the track and avoid the aimless noodling I find in so many other jazz pieces. On the contrary, this track still feels loose, but in a free, airy way that is an absolute delight to witness.
- Spiritual Jazz
I yet have to talk about one of the more important parts of jazz outside of music: heroin. Many musicians were on smack during the fifties and sixties, and while it may have briefly improved their current disposition, heroin isn’t exactly known to be a viable long-term option. Some died trying to get off heroin, Coltrane did something with more potential and found God. So A Love Supreme was written as a demonstration of his newfound faith and his gratitude for not dying of yellow fever or an overdose like many heroin addicts do. And since Coltrane did it, others followed (he was kind of important to the whole scene). Many other spiritual influences were expressed through this genre: Islam, Afro-Centrism, Buddhism and Hinduism. With the incorporation of these ideologies also came the introduction of other musical traditions (most notably African and Hindustani music) and as an expression of the spiritual feelings behind them, drawn-out songs with stellar soloing.
Billy Harper – Call of the Wild and Peaceful Heart
I thought I wouldn’t go into the real hippie shit for an introduction, and not into A Love Supreme either, since that is better enjoyed as an album. Instead, let’s take a look at this Billy Harper song.
Billy Harper is one of the less famous jazz saxophonists (which may be due to the genre amassing sax-players like jazz nerds do with vinyl), influenced (no surprise here) by John Coltrane. Harper played with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers (one of the predominant hard bop acts) and with Max Roach.
The album Black Saint from 1975 features a very standard number of players (five) where other spiritual jazz loved to create ensembles, but firmly adheres to the spiritual jazz trope of making the majority of its songs longer than 10 minutes. This song is 22 minutes. I’m sorry.
A poetic and reverberating piano solo starts off this song. Since no one can do that forever, the piano recedes into a more rhythmic pattern and the rest of the band joins. Billy Harper and his trumpeter decide to take the lead. In subsequent solos, they slowly try to ascend from this mortal coil through more and more advanced playing. Harper parps (running out of vocabulary here a little) in the low ends, squeaks in the higher ends, changes tone and texture like it’s his calling (which is likely) and generally has a fun time. In between, they play some lines together for the sake of some structure. This really goes on for the whole 22 minutes, but it’s one good solo after the next, so I’m not complaining. We even get a nice piano solo sixteen minutes in.
22 minutes? Bring it on. Yes, a song of this length might sound intimidating. But for someone who counts an album consisting only of a single 83-minute doom metal song among his favorites, this is child’s play. It’s me, I’m someone. Still, this track is, to put it mildly, a lot. Solo after solo after solo, one ascending more quickly than the last one – despite the palpable soul in every note, it feels almost overcrowded, claustrophobic to me. It earns its extended runtime through the sheer number of mindboggling solos and passages (not to mention the nice use of cowbell), but maybe, less is more for me.
- Jazz Fusion
The next important introduction into the world of jazz wasn’t as highbrow a principle as modal improvisation, it was electricity. Jazz had escaped the reality of other music around it for a long time by just reimagining a song every now and then, now it was time to learn from other genres. This change brought with it the introduction of electric guitars, electric pianos, electric basses and other things starting with e. Along with the instruments, jazz also garnered some song writing influence from genres such as rhythm & blues (which was a pretty catch-all term for black pop music after blues and after “race music” as a term fell out of fashion), rock (which was just plain inescapable at the time) and funk, which slowly became a force to reckon with in black music.
This genre caused a pretty hefty rupture in jazz history. For Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock, people have come to refer to their discography in terms of pre-fusion and fusion eras. This new genre caused a whole new style of arranging and playing, going back to bigger bands and with that, denser instrumentation. Not everyone liked it. Bill Evans thought it would get in the way of innovation and passed it off. I love Bill, but he couldn’t have been more wrong, especially in the case of his fellow musician Miles Davis, who went off on adventures that are among the most complex but still acclaimed jazz, as anyone who dared to listen to Bitches Brew will confirm.
Herbie Hancock – Sly
An example of the fusion of jazz with funk is Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters. Hancock had of course performed some amazing feats in hard bop and modal jazz before, but the advent of fusion brought a new option to him as a pianist. With synthesizers slowly becoming a thing and electromechanical pianos already being one, the sonic range one could express playing key instruments became enormous. On Headhunters, Hancock uses a clavinet (supposedly built as an emulation of clavichord and famous for its usage in funk), a Fender Rhodes (which uses metal tines which conduct a signal instead of the strings a piano would use), and an ARP Odyssey (a small portable synth) along with other synthesizers. Along with an electric bass and some African percussion, this makes sure the album sounds more like (afro-)funk than jazz.
Yet again there is a call-and-response pattern in the beginning of this song, this time consisting of the saxophone and the Wurlitzer, forming a point of orientation for the music. But shortly after, Herbie changes to the clavinet and the song as a whole become funkier, with the croaking clavinet and the laid-back bass forming a groove for the stellar sax to fly over. The entirety of the song at this point becomes a jam session with some layers of overdubbing providing density especially in the percussion department. Everyone except the current soloist is locked into a repetitive trance. Herbie’s Wurlitzer solo uses the slight distortion the instrument naturally provides for some nice dissonance in all of the fast-paced playing. The last part goes back to a more relaxed feel and recalls the first part again.
Now we’re talking. The propulsive, frenetic drums; the wonderful synthesizer textures; the overall spy movie atmosphere giving way to funky interludes – this track is, as the kids say, extremely my shit. Jazz fusion heavily influenced the genesis of one of my favorite genres of music, progressive rock, and the similarities are blindingly obvious. The song certainly earns its title and puts an irresistible swagger in your step. Yes, please!
- Free Jazz
There is a final form of jazz, the logical conclusion of all the freedom that more and more outlandish improvisation brought with it: just abandoning traditional rules of harmony, rhythm, and in some cases even song structure – basically, doing whatever the fuck you want.
The record that is credited for the invention of this genre is titled Free Jazz (in an act of nonchalance) and is by the Ornette Coleman Double Quartet (which featured to drummers, two bassists, two trumpeters, one saxophonist and one clarinetist), which may go into history as the most stacked jazz album, player-wise. Later efforts followed the “formula” that this record built which is the following:
The advice the composition gives to the players is minimal to non-existent, no-one is willing to do whatever they used to be supposed to, and everyone just … plays. As anyone who has ever heard the noise that ensues when a class full of students is given instruments and inevitably follows their inner child’s demands to play those instruments can imagine, this can get hard on the ears. Atonality and polyphony tend to be exhausting to anyone with ears not used to them (which is basically everyone growing up around regular pop music), and while these were in use in jazz before, often you could catch at least the semblance of a melody or a rhythm, something to hold onto. Free jazz on the other hand mostly feels like another compound phrase with free, that being free fall. And if free fall doesn’t sound exciting to you, there’s also shrieking saxophone accompanying your fall.
Art Ensemble of Chicago – Thème Libre
Formed by members of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), the Art Ensemble of Chicago quickly became a force in avant-garde jazz. As an ensemble, they were organized fairly loosely and often brought guests into their music. The album from which the Thème Libre originates is the soundtrack to a French film by the name of Les Stances a Sophie (which I know literally nothing about). But it is interesting to mention nonetheless since the Art Ensemble came up with some of its most regarded material in France such as the collaboration Comme à la Radio (with Avant-chanson artist Brigitte Fontaine) and the incredibly abstract People in Sorrow. In contrast to these more avant-garde efforts, the soundtrack album contains many vocal jazz, rhythm & blues and swing tracks, but it also contains one free jazz track.
This track is a mess. Especially the multitude of percussion is very irritating, and it doesn’t get better when the sax first feels like you’re standing on ground that is slowly tilting and then sounds like a call for help while everyone is busy throwing their own personal fits (which is what counts as musical expression in free jazz). Occasionally, everything suddenly goes silent only to start off again. The more instruments appear, the more arrhythmic and disharmonic everything becomes. To add to that, everyone tries to be louder than the other instruments, giving you a sonic emulation of city traffic. It’s marvelous.
I tried, okay? I really did. But free jazz and me should probably just stay friends, maybe not even that. This track sounds like three bands playing at once inside the mind of a toddler who is experiencing their first sugar rush, and I don’t enjoy a second of it. It’s not that I don’t like chaotic music, but I need some kind of payoff, some kind of goal all this mayhem is working towards, and I simply cannot find that here. For all the unexpected joy I found with other subgenres, free jazz is exactly what I expected it to be: too much, too loose, too jazzy.
So now it is done. You, the attentive (and in no way bored) reader of much ado about jazz, know some jazz now. I hope I was able to express some of the passion I feel for this genre, gave appropriate and correct historical context (cause my mind is a mess and I surely messed something up, do your own research) while also easing you into trying at least some of this music. If you have some time to spare, listen to the songs on the playlist that interest you. If you have even more time to spare, listen to the albums they come from and feel free to discover more. You’re not going to get or like everything, but neither do a lot of self-proclaimed experts on this matter.
I say this because there is a lot more out there. I talked about ten subgenres and focused on the USA, which leaves a lot of interesting genres out. To only name a few, there are Third Stream, Post-Bop, Chamber Jazz, ECM-style Jazz, Afro-Cuban Jazz, Ethiopian Jazz, European Free Jazz and a dozen more styles to explore. There is so much to listen to, a world of this wonderful music in all of its facets. Have fun, don’t get lost, don’t become snobbish, help spreading your fascination instead of putting up obstacles for others.
If you want to have all of Markus’s chosen tracks in one convenient place, check out the Spotify playlist below. Thank you so much for reading and we hope you found some corners in the weird world of jazz that you feel comfortable in.
– Markus and Claudius were listening to an unhealthy amount of jazz while writing this article.