A history of Jazz Music

by Piero Scaruffi
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(These are excerpts from my book "A History of Jazz Music")

Bebop pianists

TM, ®, Copyright © 2003 Piero Scaruffi All rights reserved.

Just like the saxophone revolution had obscured the double-bass revolution during the swing era, the bebop revolution in playing saxophone and trumpet obscured the revolution in playing the piano. However, it was probably the piano that benefited the most from bebop's harmonic freedom. Once the rhythm section had been opened up, the piano regained the prominence that it had in classical music.
Thelonious Monk was not only the most cerebral pianist to enter the history of jazz music but also the greatest composer of the bebop era. Epistrophy (1942) and the immortal Round about Midnight (1944) were composed for the orchestra of Cootie Williams, I Mean You (1946) for Coleman Hawkins' band. 52nd Street Theme (june 1945) became a classic of bebop when it was recorded by Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. At the same time that his compositions were leaving a mark on the transition from swing to bebop, his piano style (in Coleman Hawkins' band that he had joined in 1944) was confusing the audience. It was a style that sounded outside the jazz tradition, not only eccentric but also laconic, almost counterproductive in the way it emphasized the pauses instead of the rhythm, and clustered chords instead of linear development.
His recordings of his own compositions established a higher musical standard than jazz music was used to: Humph (october 1947), based on George Gershwin's I Got Rhythm, and Thelonious (october 1947), that exhibits an almost classical geometry while employing both silence and dissonance, for a piano sextet (Idrees Sulieman on trumpet, Danny Quebec West on alto sax, Billy Smith on tenor sax, Gene Ramey on bass, Art Blakey on drums); Well You Needn't (october 1947), Off Minor (october 1947) and the tender ballad Ruby My Dear (october 1947) for a trio (with Art Blakey on drums); the ballad Monk's Mood (november 1947) for a trumpet-sax-piano quintet; Evidence (july 1948) and the bluesy Misterioso (july 1948) for a piano-based quartet with Milt Jackson on vibraphone.
Monk's art was a calibrated balance of deconstruction and estrangement techniques. On one hand, one could still hear elements of stride jazz, boogie-woogie, blues, even nursery rhymes, although they were diluted in an anarchic patchwork of overtones. On the other hand, the listener was disoriented by the fragile, naked ambiguity of the music. That ambiguity would disappear if one could only appreciate the hidden orchestral quality of Monk's piano playing.
A piano-based quintet with Jackson on vibraphone, Sahib Shihab on alto sax, Blakey on drums, yielded the romantic ballad Ask Me Now (july 1951), the blues Straight No Chaser (july 1951), Four in One (july 1951) and Criss Cross (july 1951).
A quintet with French horn player Julius Watkins, Sonny Rollins on tenor sax, Percy Heath on bass, was immortalized on the album Thelonious Monk and Sonny Rollins (november 1953) with Friday the 13th (1953) and Think of One (1953), based on an ostinato trick similar to Thelonious.
Hackensack (may 1954) and Locomotive (may 1954), with a 20-bar chorus, were due to a quintet of trumpet, tenor sax, piano, drums and bass.
In the piano-trio format favored by his friend Bud Powell, Monk sculpted Bemsha Swing (december 1952), the Caribbean-sounding Monk's Dream (october 1952), Nutty (september 1954), Blue Monk (september 1954) and the dissonant Work (september 1954). Max Roach drummed on the first one, Blakey on all the others.
In the meantime, jazz music had entered the age of the album. his first solo album, Thelonious Monk (1954) offered solo-piano versions of his early classics, including Eronel (1951) and Reflections (1953). After two albums of covers, Monk was allowed to make the album that he was capable of, Brilliant Corners (october 1956), a set of complex chamber pieces for tenor saxophone (Sonny Rollins), alto saxophone (Ernie Henry), bass (Oscar Pettiford), drums (Max Roach) and piano, notably Brilliant Corners and Pannonica, in which Monk played both piano and celeste. This was to remain his masterpiece.
Jazz Connection (may 1957) with Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers revisited several of his classics. Thelonious Himself (april 1957) was mostly solo interpretations.
Another historical collaboration, with the young John Coltrane, documented on Live at the Five Spot (may 1957), only released in 1993, and Thelonious Monk with John Coltrane (july 1957), only released in 1991, that paired two completely opposite souls (the reclusive philosopher and the cosmic virtuoso), yielded a spectacular version of Monk's Trinkle Tinkle and his moving ballad Crepuscule With Nellie.
After Mulligan Meets Monk (august 1957) with white saxophonist Gerry Mulligan and other minor collaborations, Monk joined in a quartet with tenor saxophonist Johnny Griffin that recorded Thelonious in Action (july 1958) and especially Misterioso (august 1958). The repertory was now fossilized: Monk kept repeating his themes of the golden years. TM, ®, Copyright © 2003 Piero Scaruffi All rights reserved.


Earl "Bud" Powell was the pianist who adapted the bebop style of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie to the piano. He boldly disposed of the left hand striding and of Art Tatum's baroque embellishments to coin an anti-virtuoso style that relied more on melodic invention and on subtle irregularities, and nonetheless releasing an almost demonic energy. His style crystallized through a number of piano trio performances at the turn of the decade: Bud's Bubble (january 1947), based on Parker's Crazeology, So Sorry Please (february 1950), Celia (february 1949), Strictly Confidential (february 1949) and especially Tempus Fugit (february 1949) with Max Roach on drums and Ray Brown on bass; Un Poco Loco (may 1951) with Curly Russell on bass and Max Roach on drums, one of his artistic peak; and Glass Enclosure (august 1953). Hallucinations (february 1951) and The Fruit (february 1951) were performed solo. He also composed Bouncing with Bud (august 1949) and especially Dance of the Infidels (august 1949), recorded with Theodore "Fats" Navarro on trumpet, Sonny Rollins on tenor saxophone, Tommy Potter on bass and Roy Haynes on drums. These compositions rank among the most refined tunes of the time. His playing was apparently schizophrenic, but in reality Powell was "drumming" with his left hand while unleashing phrases at breakneck speed with the right hand. An alcoholic who had spent several periods of his life in mental hospitals, his major season lasted only those few years. TM, ®, Copyright © 2003 Piero Scaruffi All rights reserved.


Chicago's blind pianist Lennie Tristano, of Italian-American descent, who arrived in New York in 1946, fused bebop and 20th-century classical music in his abstract meditations that wove extended melodies over subdued rhythms, the musical equivalent of a renaissance painting with a complex building in the foreground and a simple, pastoral landscape in the background. He was not a poet but an architect: his pieces relied on several levels of counterpoint and even dissonance. They were frigid and lifeless by the standards of jazz music.
Tristano coined that language in 1947, via a series of uncompromising recordings both solo (Atonement, Spontaneous Combustion) and in a drum-less trio with a guitarist (Billy Bauer) and a bassist (Dissonance, Parallel, Apellation, Abstraction, Palimpsest, Freedom).
Two years later a quintet with Tristano, alto saxophonist Lee Konitz, guitarist Billy Bauer and drummer Shelly Manne laid the foundations for a group version of that art with Konitz's Subconscious-Lee and Tristano's Retrospection , off Lennie Tristano Quintet featuring Lee Konitz (january 1949), as well as Konitz's Tautology on Lee Konitz with Tristano, Marsh and Bauer (january 1949).
Free jazz was invented in 1949 (ten years before the term was coined) when Tristano's sextet (alto saxophonist Lee Konitz, tenor saxophonist Warne Marsh, guitarist Billy Bauer, bass and drums) recorded Intuition and Digression, two completely improvised free-form jams. They were but two of the tracks of Crosscurrents (1949), that also included Wow and Sax of a Kind. That album's austere and elegant improvised counterpoint was as pioneering for cool jazz as Miles Davis' Birth Of The Cool. The dissonant Descent into the Maelstrom (june 1953), for overdubbed pianos, was an even more formidable attack against musical conventions. Two pieces recorded in october 1951 by a piano-bass-drums trio, Ju-Ju and Pastime, were actually assembled in the studio by Tristano, manipulating and overdubbing sections of music.
After a three-year hiatus, the bluesy and fully improvised Requiem, Line Up, for another piano-drums-bass trio and accelerated in the studio, and Turkish Mambo, that overdubbed three tracks in different meters to create a rhythmic effect that a pianist could not achieve, all three off Lennie Tristano (1955), the nine improvisations of Manhattan Studio (1956) for piano trio (with Manhattan Studio and Momentum), Continuity (october 1958), with Warne Marsh, bassist Henry Grimes and drummer Paul Motian, off Continuity, and The New Tristano (1960), a set of breathtaking improvised piano solos (notably Becoming, the spectacular C Minor Complex, the suite Scene and Variations, Deliberation, G Minor Complex) continued to refine his language, which was now widely understood. The dynamic of his compositions was often cyclic, alternating quiet passages and stormy passages, hinting at an endless cycle of rebirths. TM, ®, Copyright © 2003 Piero Scaruffi All rights reserved.

A sort of reaction to bebop came from pianists whose music was far less cerebral and much closer to pop music.


Montreal's pianist Oscar Peterson was a virtuoso (worthy of Art Tatum) in the age of bebop, the antithesis of virtuosity. He mastered the techniques of stride piano, boogie-woogie and pop balladry, and rarely challenged his audience. By 1950 he was widely considered the greatest jazz pianist. 1951 (march 1951) was a collaboration with trumpeter Austin Roberts. Pastel Moods (january 1952) was his first trio album, a typical set of atmospheric themes for piano, guitar and bass. The trio he formed in 1953 with guitarist Herb Ellis and bassist Ray Brown refined that idea via Recital (april 1954), At Zardi's (november 1955) while Peterson also engaged in countless tedious tribute albums, collaborations with Lionel Hampton, Benny Carter, Roy Eldridge, etc. The subsequent trio of 1958 with only bass (Brown) and drums (Ed Thigpen) started out with Affinity (september 1962) and Night Train (december 1962), with Hymn To Freedom, and perhaps peaked on Trio Plus One (august 1964) with trumpeter Clark Terry. They also recorded Peterson's first major composition: the eight-song Canadiana Suite (september 1964). Then the classic trio lost its drummer, and the line-up began to fluctuate, although albums such as Blues Etude (december 1965) were not much different from the previous ones. After many years of vegetating next to other dinosaurs, a rebirth of sort led Peterson to a handful of inspired recordings: The Trio (may 1973) with Joe Pass on guitar and Niels-Henning Orsted Pedersen on bass, five elegant pieces that summarize his style (Blues Etude, Chicago Blues, Easy Listening Blues, Come Sunday, Secret Love); Night Child (1979) with Pass, Pedersen and a drummer; Nigerian Marketplace (1981) with Pedersen on bass and Terry Clark on drums; If You Could See Me Now (1983), again with Pedersen, Pass and a drummer; as well as to (finally) composing a few orchestral suites: African Suite (1979), A Royal Wedding Suite (april 1981) for piano and orchestra; Easter Suite (1984), Trail of Dreams (april 2000). TM, ®, Copyright © 2003 Piero Scaruffi All rights reserved.


British blind pianist George Shearing represented pop-jazz at its most melodious. His quintet (piano, guitar, bass, drums and Margorie Hyams' vibraphone) scored huge hits with Harry Warren's September In The Rain february 1949) and his own Lullaby Of Birdland (july 1952). His best album was probably Spell (april 1955). He was the epitome of the "light" chamber sound.


New York's pianist Erroll Garner was another master of melody, penning Laura (september 1945), Fantasy on Frankie and Johnny (june 1947), the pop hit Misty (july 1954) and a Concert by the Sea (september 1955). While still rooted in swing music and gentle to the point of sounding superficial, Garner's flowing style represented a meeting of the jazz tradition and the impressionistic tradition of classical music, evoking Claude Debussy more than the jazz pioneers.


A follower of Garner's "impressionistic" school, Chicago's pianist Frederick "Ahmad Jamal" Jones (1930) was a master of ambience and dynamics. A sense of existential suspense scars the catchy melodies of Ahmad's Blues (may 1952), and, after the fashionable conversion to Islam (1952), New Rhumba (may 1955), and the two hits from the live album But Not for Me (january 1958), Nat Simon's Poinciana (october 1955) and George Gershwin's But Not for Me.


The only pianist-composer to stand up to Thelonious Monk during the bebop era was Herbie Nichols, but in his case the composition prevailed over the performance. Nichols pioneered cross-over fusion between jazz music (both the traditional kind and the bop kind) and classical music (the traditional, tonal kind). In fact, he also added doses of Caribbean folk music. He only recorded four albums as a leader, between 1955 and 1957, notably The Third World (may 1955), with Art Blakey on drums, containing Third World, Dance Line, Cro-Magnon Nights, Amoeba's Dance and 2300 Skidoo, and two volumes of Herbie Nichols Trio (august 1955 and april 1956), with Max Roach on drums, containing The Gig, House Party Starting and Lady Sings the Blues (Billie Holiday's theme song). Their unorthodox, whimsical pieces could sound like parodies of the ruling canons or like deconstruction of the pop song.


Hardly a trivial pop-jazz evangelist, California's white pianist Dave Brubeck managed the feat of reconnecting the masses with jazz music. His compositions, such as The Duke (august 1955) and In Your Own Sweet Way (february 1956), were steeped in jazz tradition but often make him sound like a predecessor of the "third stream". His piano playing, best displayed on Solo (april 1956), could be angular and subversive. The classic Quartet (Brubeck, alto saxophonist Paul Desmond, drummer Joe Morello, black bassist Eugene Wright) crafted Time Out (august 1959), the first million-selling jazz record, but both the hits, Desmond's Take Five (in 5/4 time) and Blue Rondo a la Turk (in 9/8), indulged in odd time signatures. Brubeck proved his musical ambitions by scoring the ballet Points on Jazz (composed in 1960), the oratorio The Light In The Wilderness (march 1968), the cantatas The Gates of Justice (october 1969), Truth is Fallen (august 1971) and La Fiesta de la Posada (1976), and the mass To Hope (june 1995). TM, ®, Copyright © 2003 Piero Scaruffi All rights reserved.

Other noteworthy pianists of the bebop era were Al Haig, Elmo Hope and Richard Twardzik. In Europe, the main bebop pianist was probably the French-based pianist Martial Solal.


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TM, ®, Copyright © 2005 Piero Scaruffi. All rights reserved.