Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Jazz World: Bird Words

Coleman Hawkins

In early dance bands, the saxophone was mainly used as a novelty instrument that made all sorts of squeaky, funny noises. That lasted until Coleman Hawkins came on the scene. Hawkins was the first man to tame the unwieldy tenor saxophone and turn it into a vehicle for melodic improvisation.  His big, robust sound was the standard for the instrument. He was one of the two most influential of the great tenor players, continually refining his sound for over forty years even to the point of collaborating  with younger stars like Dizzy Gillespie and Sonny Rollins.

The most famous example of what Hawkins' powers is his 1939 improvisation on his biggest commercial hit "Body And Soul", a textbook example of how to turn a familiar melody into something dazzlingly fresh:

Lester Young

I said there was another very influential early tenor player. That would be Lester Young whose singing, laid back sound was often the polar opposite of Hawkins' brawny serenading. He floated over rhythms with a relaxed, soulful grace made him a star in the Count Basie orchestra and a great compliment to the singing of Billie Holiday.  He would also be an inspiration to later saxophonists like Stan Getz and Al Cohn who would refine his lighter sound into their own individual conceptions. Here he is in 1942 playing "Tea For Two":

In the 1940's a generation of musicians began to emerge with new ideas who experimented with chords, meter and time and created a newer, more cerebral sort of jazz that was often fast, complex and alienating to more traditional fans. This music came to be known as bebop and it produced some of the music's greatest figures.

Charlie Parker

First above all there was Charlie "Yardbird" or "Bird" Parker. Parker played alto sax but picked up a lot from Lester Young, putting that floating beauty through exponential increases in time and speed and creating a revolutionary sound. Here he is living up to his nickname, chirping like a madman on "Koko":

Parker fell into a cadre of like-minded musicians in New York like Dizzy Gillespie, Curly Russell, Bud Powell, Kenny Clarke and Max Roach who worked on their ideas on night club bandstands and developed a devoted following. Parker himself was subject to personal demons, especially heroin, but always tried to stretch himself and develop new concepts.  He was fascinated by the music of Igor Stravinsky and recorded with a string orchestra, something jazz musicians rarely did back then.  Fans have always been divided on this work but I've always thought that Parker's quicksilver alto really blossomed in these interesting arrangements./ Here is "April In Paris":

Dizzy Gillespie

Parker died in 1955 at the age of 34 but his colleagues kept the bop revolution going.  The most important was trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie who was just as keen on intellectual experimentation of the music as Parker but had a more outgoing and humorous personality that helped make him a star with the general public. He could play with incendiary speed and power or blow the coolest of blues both in small groups or forceful big bands.

Here he is in 1965 with one of his small groups featuring James Moody on sax and flute and Kenny Barron on piano:

One of Dizzy's other achievements was to help create Afro-Cuban jazz in his 1940's big band when he added Cuban conga player Chano Pozo to his orchestra. This is one of the big songs that came out of that influence, "Manteca", performed by an international big band in 1970:

Next: The Cool

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