Explaining Grownup Music to Kids: Post-WWII Jazz & Blues

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Adam P. Newton recently became a father for the first time, so he has decided to explain the entirety of post-WWII Western pop music to his new daughter, "Fig"...one genre at a time.

Hello again, Fig! Before we launch into the music of the ‘70s, I wanted to discuss the last few decades of jazz and blues. A lot has changed since we last addressed these two genres, both in stylistic direction and how people interacted with the music. Many of the blues artists we’ve discussed in past installments continued recording and releasing records deep into the ‘50s, ‘60s and beyond, but much of their influence comes from how their music impacted a new generation of artists. As we mentioned in our ‘60s rock conversation, most of the British Invasion bands fell in love with American blues and made music in that image — but with more uproarious results that filled dance floors. The same holds true for several of the bands we’ll discuss in upcoming chats. In fact, my education in the blues came through exploring the roots of hard rock created in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Basically, the blues will never go away — it just gets reinterpreted every few decades. And that’s a very good thing.

Jazz went the other way. After years of getting people on their feet with upbeat tunes and forays into swing and big band, a new class of musicians and bandleaders came along in the ‘40s and ‘50s. While many of them came of age playing for luminaries like Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Louis Armstrong, they actively sought new paradigms and ways of expression for the genre they loved. The result was the combination of jazz tropes with trends in modernist (and eventually postmodernist) classical music. This included experiments with time signatures, key signatures, chromatic scales, meter, timbre, modality, and more.

Jazz left the dance hall and entered the club — things chilled out overtly, but by embracing subtlety and nuance, it opened the floodgates for all manner of permutations for playing the most basic of 12-bar blues licks. Bebop birthed cool jazz, which bled into various strains of bop, and this led to stuff like modal jazz, free jazz, and fusion over the course of barely 30 years. Thus, while I’m certainly leaving some folks off this list — Chick Corea, Max Roach, Elvin Jones, Cannonball Adderly, Sun Ra, and Pharaoh Sanders immediately spring to mind — I wanted to focus upon the folks I feel are the trailblazers of jazz and blues in the middle of the 20th century.

Standing as the transition point between the two spheres of jazz, Gillespie’s sound was anchored in the fields of big band and swing, but he gave his style of trumpet playing and band-leading a very wide birth. His capacity for off-kilter soloing that fell outside the traditional arrangement structure of the era laid the groundwork for what became bebop - especially in terms of where the next guy on our list takes the genre. On “Groovin’ High” from 1945, you’ll hear Gilllespie’s fantastic trumpet bleats take center stage and reach stratospheric heights in terms of ledger lines above the music staff. But it’s most important to detect and understand the form and shape of the swing in the rhythm — the meter might be 4/4, but the emphasis lies outside the formulaic downbeat or upbeat. The roots of bebop can be found in eschewing clear danceable rhythms for arrangements that challenge the listener while retaining big-band energy. Gillespie did this with ease and provided a firm foundation for the next few artists on this list.

The Bird. He is the rock upon which most of second-wave jazz stands. His capacity for experimentation and melodic reassignment was near-legendary — especially since he passed away before his 35th birthday. Parker reclaimed jazz from the safety of the bright dance hall and gave it a chance to breathe again, to push at the boundaries of contemporary music theory. His prowess on alto saxophone merged technical precision with unabashed inventiveness, whether it was engaging contrafact or embracing modernist forms from classical music. A keen example of original bebop is “Ornithology” from 1946 — a trumpet and saxophone form the melodic core of the tune before soloing with modal and chromatic shifts upon the key of the song, even as the piano and bass keep the melody on the straight-and-narrow, and all while the drummer riffs into syncopated snare hits. It’s a rather great song on many levels.

As bebop took hold in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s, artists like Thelonious Monk took those sounds and pushed them into engaging directions that presaged the rise of free jazz a decade later. His unorthodox and intense style of playing the piano was both intensely idiosyncratic yet highly principled, as he danced around form and rhythm with a synchronized feel more akin to a drummer than a piano player. With 1954’s “Blue Monk,” you hear a pianist embrace runs and a sense of timing you more often associate with a saxophone or trumpet. But he’s helped immensely by a sturdy counterpoint from the bassist and a drummer who deftly bounces between playing a straight-up 4/4 pattern and nearly running off the rails with vamping and improvising around the beat. These are the sorts of jazz standards I want you to play when you’re old enough.

With Mingus, you combine the soul of an auteur with that of a consummate showman and skilled bandleader. His abilities with the double bass were unrivaled at their peak, as he preferred to tinker with the melodic core, rather than just pound away at root notes like people expect from most bassists. He was also a badass composer, as you hear on “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” from 1959. Written as an elegy to his friend, the saxophonist Lester Young, the track swings with the grace and elegance of cool jazz turned into a movie soundtrack fit for a James Bond flick, he also gives the lead saxophone ample room to speak and riff with passion. It’s a glorious tune that wears its heart firmly on its sleeve.

The glorious trumpet work of Miles Davis represents so many firsts for me in my jazz education. My first exposure to what jazz truly is came during my freshman year of college when my boss in the theater department work-study job gave me a copy of Bitches Brew to digest. And that delirious double LP of mind-bending jazz fusion opened my eyes to a whole new world of music. But I selected the iconic “Freddie Freeloader” off 1959’s Kind of Blue as it was the first song I ever learned in my first semester of jazz band in college. I’d never seen a jazz chart until then — and this was after 15 years of playing music in some form or fashion. This track won me over with its combination of engaging solos atop Bill Evans' steady root phrases on piano keeping everyone anchored. Miles' opening phrase is legendary, and that’s before he kicks things off with some wickedly bent scales, only to have John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderly then perform searing solos on tenor and alto saxophone, respectively. On the whole, this song it served as my jumping-off point into my exploration of jazz — and it taught me that jazz and Kenny G have nothing in common.

Another jazz composer to take cues from classical music, Dave Brubeck meshed his flair for inspired cool jazz with off-kilter time signatures to create decades of innovative music. A pianist by trade, he worked with a range of small groups to bring his tunes to life. Eschewing involved solos (especially in comparison to his contemporaries), he made his mark crafting what could be considered “concept albums” exploring non-standard time signatures and bringing the music of non-Western cultures into the world of jazz. On “Take Five” off his 1959 record Time Out, the song works in 5/4 time (five quarter notes in a measure, with the quarter note equaling one beat), and uses Brubeck’s piano to set the mood so that the lilting alto saxophone work of Paul Desmond and rich bass runs of Eugene Wright can work their magic. It’s such a lush and multi-layered tune on so many levels.

Considered by many to be the father of “free jazz,” Ornette Coleman was still an old-school jazz cat at heart. The Fort Worth native's saxophone work was so very expressive, as he treated it like the lead vocalist in an evocative, down-on-your-luck blues tune. Like many musical innovators, his work was rarely appreciated when initially released to the public, but jazz aficionados now understand his ability to blur and ignore the margins of traditional composition to be fascinating and inspired. “Lonely Woman,” from the 1959 release The Shape of Jazz to Come, presages this development. Operating without a piano (which was rather typical of Coleman), the bassist lays down a solid groove over which the trumpet and Coleman’s saxophone could explore interesting chord progressions and the bluest of notes. And I remain enamored of any drummer who can operate in such an environment, especially when you’re expected to somehow maintain the meter and timing of the tune while still contributing to the avant-garde aesthetic.

The sole person on this list still making music, Hancock has been blazing trails in jazz for 75 years now. He cut his teeth playing piano for Miles Davis on some classic bop records in the ‘60s, and then stretched his talents to new heights by combining jazz with ‘70s funk, modernist classical music, and pop melodies. With a track like “Cantaloupe Island” off his 1964 album Empyrean Isles, you’re initially entranced by Hancock’s groovy arrangement and the syncopated way he performs those chords. It’s then you fall under the spell of Freddie Hubbard’s warm cornet as it acts more like a scatting lounge singer than a blistering soloist. The entire effect feels like a pop tune turned on its ear as a way to introduce jazz to a skeptic — and I mean that as a high compliment.

My fondness for jazz comes down to the career of John Coltrane. From his early days in bebop playing with Miles Davis in his “First Great Quintet” to his untimely passing in 1967 while exploring the farthest reaches of jazz composition, ‘Trane exemplifies the breadth and depth of all the genre has to offer. He put together groups who knew how to swing (My Favorite Things), he tweaked those sounds to challenge bebop and free jazz aficionados (Giant Steps), and he created far-out tunes that bent the rules of Western music to their nth degree (Interstellar Space). Ultimately, I will always turn to 1965’s A Love Supreme and the opening track on that album — “Acknowledgement.” Coltrane’s tenor saxophone prowess never sounded so effortless or so powerful as it does here, and there’s an urgency to his tone and the runs he performs that is undeniably brilliant and compelling. And when he intones the name of the record like a mantra to end the tune, it’s as if you’re transported to another world.

It would be foolish of me to not mention the impact Albert King had upon rock and hard rock in the ‘60s and ‘70s. He represented the flipside of B.B. King (no relation) in that both men sang quintessential blues tunes, but Albert performed with a much rougher grit than B.B., both in terms of how he delivered his lyrics and the tone of his guitar licks. Thus, it’s kind of obvious to choose “Born Under a Bad Sign,” the title track from his 1967 record of the same name — it’s been covered by Cream (where I first heard it on your Gramma’s record player in middle school), Jimi Hendrix, Etta James, and more. But King’s version reigns supreme for a couple of reasons: 1) You really believe the pain in his voice; and 2) He keeps things taut and pointed by keeping the playing time under three minutes. The tune rocks and rolls with passion and purpose, while giving him plenty of room to bend searing notes that complement his voice.

One of the more underappreciated artists from her era, Odetta was lauded by her contemporaries for her soulful alto and ability to merge blues, vocal jazz, and protest folk music into an organic whole. She spent time with political musicians and activists throughout her 50-plus-year career, including Dylan, Bellafonte, Baez, and Dr. King. “Hit or Miss” from her 1970 album Odetta Sings serves as an excellent introduction to her aesthetic — the searching lyrics come right out of first-wave blues, but she meshes them with accessible folk-pop straight out of the Brill Building. Her abilities as a songwriter and guitar player created a strong template for folks like Tracy Chapman and Neneh Cherry to follow.

The wife of John Coltrane, Alice deserves her own place on this list as both a harpist and purveyor of spiritually minded avant-garde jazz of the highest order. She was already an accomplished jazz pianist before she met and married John, but they definitely impacted the trajectory of each other’s careers. Alice played on several records late in John’s life, though her direction skyrocketed into the Sun Ra direction with the advent of the ‘70s. As you can hear on “Battle at Armageddon” — released in 1971 on her Universal Consciousness record, her organ progressions brimmed with life and energy, as they danced, pulsed, and swayed in conjunction with the brash free-jazz drumming of Rashied Ali. Her music was both intoxicating and rapturous, as she explored the outer limits of human consciousness via music.

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