I like jazz. The best stuff is from the 1940s to the early 1960s, in my humble opinion.
But aside from the ridiculously inherent amazingness of bebop, the music itself is more than just elevator music (which was ’80s jazz mostly) and music for old people. Instead, jazz is really the only unique American contribution to music culture. The music is political because it reflects the tensions of the times they lived in and the people who made it possible, it contributes to overall musical progression, and it is uniquely American in its conduct, structure, and values.
Now that you music fanatics are riled up, read on and FEEL THE PAIN!
Listen to this as you read:
So, I’m copping out and kind of doing a chronological narrative of jazz music … but it’s kind of necessary to explain how jazz is SUPER AMERICAN.
At first, jazz was all ragtime, New Orleans-y, Depression-era, sleazy entertainment music, mostly catering to white people (who else had money at that time!?). Whenever you thought of jazz, you thought of dark, sleazy bars.
Quickly moving ahead (I want to get to bebop):
These musicians continued to entertain, and formed bands to make orchestral jazz (think Louis Armstrong). Then, white people mimicked this approach (Glen Miller). The idea for blending orchestral music with jazz was pretty brilliant. It was swingin’, classy, and the orchestra was able to articulate emotion while the band leader either sang, or played their instrument (mainly trumpet).
But then came Charlie Parker, the rebel and drug addict. Listen to Charlie Parker play, and you can hear why they called him “Bird.” Parker fragmented musical lines, and broke them down into individual notes, and played them only while dancing around that note’s tonal signatures. This was the invention of jazz improvisation, and the invention of a movement called bebop. Unfortunately, Parker was addicted to heroin and alcohol. If I’m not mistaken, I believe he helped to influence a generation of musicians to take heroin, including Miles Davis and John Coltrane (though both were able to kick the habit).
However, like all great art, movements occur when there is a watershed artist who inspires a following of dedicated idealists seeking to expand the method.
Essentially, Parker was the Picasso for jazz music, and he invented bebop.
Everybody who was interested in jazz music knew Parker.
Politically, there was a pretty big development in the US right after World War II (1945). The Montgomery GI bill allowed returning soldiers go to school on the VA’s tab. I myself have used the Montgomery GI bill, as well as the updated post-9/11 GI bill … and they’re both good deals (but the new one is better).
But, back in those days, segregation was a real thing. Thus returning black soldiers were able to get an education at limited institutions (women were still out of luck for school and such, for the most part). A handful of these returning soldiers were playing together while in service, and went to school for music. A lot of these “cats” followed Parker’s technique, and continued down that path.
In addition, lots of musicians had connections to jazz musicians playing the circuits in all those seedy bars and such. Some musicians were vetted into the jazz world, others studied jazz theory (because it had been developing so long, and was intertwined with blues music).
The ’40s and ’50s were the golden era for bebop. Artists like John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, Clifford Johnson, Fats Navarro, Bud Powell, and Max Roach, to name a small few, were taking Parker’s initial approach and blending it with what had already been done.
These artists parsed down the “orchestral” approach, and played in trios or quartets. There would be a leader (usually sax or trumpet), bassist, and drummer (sometimes a pianist, or trombonist). By parsing down the sheer number of people, you could focus on the technique of each individual musician.
Amazingly, most bebop kept “movements” in their music, the same as European orchestral or chamber music. Generally, there are two to three movements in an orchestra. If you look at early bebop, these musicians would have two “movements” on one side of an LP, and two or three on the other side. The idea was that this music would be marketed towards higher class listeners who enjoyed orchestral music. By preserving the structure of traditional, European-oriented orchestra, jazz musicians wanted to be legitimized as artists, and not simple bar players.
The technique, building on Parker’s approach, was a mixture of concerted quartet melodies and individual improvisational solos. In this way, the listener is able to hear how the band plays together, and how each is unique. … it’s an interesting mix of teamwork and individual pursuit.
Round ’bout Midnight
Jazz became an intellectual activity for a handful of progressive Americans living in urban cities. This is why jazz is most commonly associated with city life. Marketed as more complex, intricate, and difficult to grasp, white intellectuals latched onto it. This gave artistic license to the musicians to continue to progress jazz (though, in my opinion, it went down hill during the ’70s and beyond).
Jazz musicians came up with a concept while playing in bars, and it’s really quite interesting. The idea was that you only had a few hours to play, and your best playing would occur around, or should occur by, midnight. If not, you lost the crowd. Thus midnight became a metaphor for all of bebop. What happens after midnight, when the crowd doesn’t care anymore?
Miles Davis answered the question by making an album of the same title, Round Bout Midnight. This album was dubbed “hardbop,” meaning it was a new kind of music where jazz absorbed elements of blues, rhythm, and gospel in the tonal quality. Prior to this, Davis helped pioneer “postbop,” which was AMAZING music that essentially marked the end of bebop music. The story is Davis had to get out of a contract with Prestige records, so his quartet at the time recorded several albums over a few days, which turned out to be THE albums for the postbop subgenre, they are Workin’, Relaxin’, Cookin’, and Steamin’. Now go listen to them now on YouTube. NOW. Also, Davis ended up blending jazz and rock in the ’70s, which, despite my hatred of ’70s jazz, is very interesting.
So, there was an intellectual debate about what jazz is, where it was going, and, most importantly, the music was legitimized as contemporary, and meaningful, music for Americans. It was high-class, urban, challenging, emotive, technically difficult to perform, and artistic.
So this is a nice story and all, but how is it THE American music?
I pretty much would say that jazz is the only real contribution to musical tradition that Americans have made.
Country music emotes difficulties in living in rural areas, blues music is essentially a derivative of American folk tradition (with rock as a derivative of blues), rap started as a political statement, electronic music showcases innovation with technology and tone manipulation. But, if you look at huge, sweeping musical traditions and contributions, jazz has it.
First, churches contributed tonal, base chorus music, which developed into chanting. Playwrights and poets developed actual lyrical singing, and these are all important foundational developments for music. But Orchestral music from Europe is probably the most-impressive achievement, and that approach really reflected distinctly European values. Europeans valued progress, national achievement (which is really human achievement), the ability for people to engineer highly articulate, complex movements, and translate that into coherent stories, or movements. If you’ve ever heard a live, professional orchestra, you’ll know just how impressive it really is. I would say that, while genre-centric innovation in music is quite impressive, it’s quite another thing to help shape and form a contribution to musical form, because it truly has to encompass the times, environment, and values of the people you are playing for.
So, while there are plenty of innovations in music, jazz not only reflects the times that Americans lived in, it also relays the values of Americans, and the complexity of American life. Bebop jazz, just as varied as American citizens themselves, can be sleazy, refined, complex, simple, tonal, anti-tonal, violent, gentle, can be grouped with three people, or an army of people. In jazz, specifically bebop, there is a constant tension between group interaction, teamwork, and individual contributions. This is the perfect blend of American values. As the band provides an aggregate of solid rhythm backing, allowing one individual the ability to perform, shine, articulate their view of what the theme, or concept, really is, and allows space for others to take the reins as well.
I know, rock (I would say a derivative of blues) has guitar solos, but that’s usually to showcase the talent of the player, rather than expand their individualistic views of something. Most jazz songs, by contrast, try to emote something, or conceive of a thing. Say one song is called “I’m Old Fashioned;” what does that statement sound like? It’s up to the musicians to tell you (and John Coltrane does in his album Blue Train). Most rock songs have to do with love lost, youthfulness, or something similar. While it’s great music, it certainly isn’t a momentous contribution to musical development, in the grand scheme of things. Also, while most genre’s of music target a locality, or age group, jazz does not. Instead, it’s an interpretation of music across races, locality, and age. There is most likely some type of jazz that speaks to each person in some way, and that’s pretty American.
(Bebop) jazz is THE American cultural contribution to musical inquiry. You won’t find another musical genre that showcases America’s complex history with racial tensions, individualism, intellectual pursuit, struggles for validation, religion (listen to Coltrane’s A Love Supreme), and substance abuse (do yourself a favor, and listen to Parker’s Lover Man, and then read the story behind it). Wrapped into the music is a complex American story, which reflects the people and values that surround it.
Finally, jazz showcases some of the finest examples of typography, graphic design, and straight up art ever made on the covers of the albums.
Look at some of these amazing examples (even Andy Warhol made jazz covers):