© - Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
"I want to be a composer-arranger, because when you play, you can only express one idea at a time. When you write, you can say it all."
- Oliver Nelson, saxophonist, composer and arranger
It is always a great honor to represent the writings of Martin Williams, the late Jazz author and critic, on these pages.
When he won the the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award for Music Criticism in 1970 for his The Jazz Tradition, Gunther Schuller praised him as "perhaps the greatest living jazz critic." Gary Giddins called him "one of the most distinguished critics (of anything) this country has produced.”
Martin Williams perceptively chronicled the development of jazz for over four decades. His major books - The Jazz Tradition, Jazz Heritage, Jazz Changes, Where’s The Melody and Jazz in its Time - and his many writings for Down Beat, Harper’s, The New York Times, Evergreen Review, Stereo Review all offered brilliant insights into the constantly changing jazz scene.
Thematic development was one of Martin’s favorite focal points and he returns to it in the following piece about what Jazz composition is and, equally as important, what it is not.
“CHARLIE PARKER was one of the great jazz improvisers. He also contributed many durable pieces to the jazz repertory. But Charlie Parker was not a great jazz composer.
His pieces were melodic lines, lines most frequently written to fit chord changes that were already there, borrowed from popular songs that had become jazz standards. Scrapple from the Apple, one of his best melodies, began with the chords of Honeysuckle Rose, j
melodies, began with the chords of Honeysuckle Rose, with the bridge from I Got Rhythm. It is possible to write poor lines on preset chords, and it is possible to write good ones, but in either case, one is contributing only a succession of melody notes. What this article will consider a jazz composition will be something rather different.
Parker's best piece is Confirmation, a most delightful and ingenious melody. For one thing, it is a continuous linear invention.
Most pop songs and many jazz pieces have two parts, a main strain and a bridge, or middle strain. The main strain is repeated twice before the bridge and once after it. Confirmation skips along beautifully with no repeats (except for one very effective echo phrase) until the last eight bars, which are a kind of repeat in summary.
Moreover, the bridge does not seem an interruption or an interlude that breaks up the flow of the piece but is a part of the continuously developing melody. Finally, if the chord sequence to Confirmation preceded the melody, then the melody became so strong as Parker worked on it that it forced him to alter the chords to fit its developing contours. Vaguely in the background there seem to have been the / Got Rhythm changes, but they are so transformed in Confirmation as to be almost unrecognizable. Confirmation is Parker's approach to what this article is calling composition.
There is another basic point that might be established here. It is that a composition is, in some sense, a piece for instruments. It is not for voice — not a "song."
In its early stages, music begins as rhythm and then becomes vocal melody. But when man begins to use musical instruments, even simple drums, he discovers that the instruments have characteristics and resources the human voice does not have. Songs are written for the voice. The more able and trained the voice gets, the more complex the songs can become. But we write compositions for the specific resources of musical instruments.
The best test is that when we have heard a good song, we are likely to come away singing it ourselves. But when we have heard a good composition, we want to hear the instruments play it again. That explanation is not absolute, of course, because there are plenty of good instrumental melodies that we can sing or hum, and there are plenty of good songs that composers have been able to orchestrate effectively. But it is a good rule of thumb.
JAZZ, LIKE ANY other music, began as rhythm and then became song and chant. And soon this song and chant were imitated on homemade and "legitimate" instruments.
Apparently the whole intention of the early jazz player, as nearly as it can be deduced, was to imitate the human voice. At about the turn of the century, however, there developed a style called ragtime. Many ragtime melodies were derived from songs of various sources, but ragtime was primarily an instrumental music. At first it was a piano music, and simple, optimistic ragtime melodies had a definite instrumental conception, partly because ragtime was heavily influenced by march music.
Ragtime made a contribution in instrumental melody to jazz that is still being felt. Improvisation is not primary to ragtime, and even written variation is comparatively rare. But a ragtime piece is a two-handed composition for piano in which the melody and the harmony exist together.
Take the first really good rag, Scott Joplin's Maple Leaf Rag. The melody has little meaning by itself, and, despite their simplicity, the chord changes belong intrinsically to it. In his later years, in a piece like Euphonic Sounds, Joplin tried to extend the idiom further so that the left hand did not simply make rhythms and harmonies but was given an interweaving melodic function as well.
I believe the great jazz composers have been Jelly Roll Morton and Duke Ellington and that the modern candidates are Thelonious Monk and John Lewis.
There are some interesting similarities among these men. Each is a pianist. Each also has been called a poor pianist — which, in some quite irrelevant way, each may be. Each man, in having an orchestral conception of piano and in terms of the specific techniques of jazz (techniques that jazz does not necessarily have in common with other music), is actually a kind of jazz virtuoso. Each also has, in his own way, a concern for overall form in a performance. That concern goes beyond composition to include exactly the way the soloist is related to the piece and to the total effect of a performance.
Monk, for example, is not the least bit interested in finger dexterity. But in terms of unique sound; of the most subtle sense of rhythm, meter, accent, and time; of the musical worth of each melody note and each note in each chord; of the ability to find endless and fascinating variations on even the simplest idea, Monk is one of the great jazzmen.
One of Morton's best recordings is of a piece he called Dead Man Blues. Like W. C. Handy's blues, and like ragtime pieces before them, Dead Man is built on several themes. These themes obviously need to work well together; they can't be three handy melodies just thrown into the same piece. And they need to be put into some kind of order that gives a musical and emotional development.
In orchestration one concern of the composer is to decide who plays what, who improvises when, and how to bring out the best in the improviser without letting him overpower the whole performance. The whole, in an ideal performance of a great jazz composition, has to be greater than the sum of its parts.
Morton's recording of Dead Man begins with the echo of a funeral, in an introductory bit of Chopin's Funeral March, played on trombone with just the merest hint of humor.
From this point on Dead Man attempts the very difficult task of being sober — even reverent — and at the same time being spirited. The first theme in Dead Man is stated in a dancing polyphony by the trumpet's lead, with the clarinet quietly in a second melody behind it, and a trombone in a rhythmic-melodic bass line. There is a wonderful lightness of melody and sound and rhythm in this chorus. It is quite unlike the heavy, plodding, and strident Dixieland ensembles we so often hear nowadays. Such masterful ensemble playing in the style is perhaps a lost art.
The second section of Dead Man is a series of variations. The first is a chorus by Omer Simeon's clarinet. In the second, trumpeter George Mitchell shapes two lovely, logically developed, simple melodies. Mitchell's second chorus is also a contrast to his first and it further prepares for the entrance of the third Dead Man theme. It is rare that a solo can have such structural uses and still be beautiful in itself, but the great jazz composers can always encourage such playing.
The third part of Dead Man begins simply, with a trio of clarinets playing a lovely, riff-like blues line. As they repeat it, Kid Ory's trombone enters behind them with a deeply sung countermelody. In the third chorus, as if encouraged by Ory, Mitchell and Simeon join the trombonist; the other two clarinets drop out. The three horns play a lovely three-part variation on the theme. Obviously, this section also echos the polyphonic chorus with which the record began, and it beautifully balances the piece with a similar effect at beginning and end.
(Warning: the version of Dead Man currently available is an incongruous composite tape-splice of several takes and that one section is from an obvious warm-up that no one would have wanted issued in any form. It will give you little idea of the real artistry of the final version of Dead Man Blues.)
Morton's best records abound with effects. Pieces like Black Bottom Stomp, Grampa's Spells, Kansas City Stomps have harmony, polyphony, solo, stop-time breaks, alternating 2/4 and 4/4 time, have rhythm instruments dropping out and re-entering, call-and-response patterns, riffs — Smoke House Blues even has a sudden double-time on top of a double-time.
Such a catalog of devices may make Morton's records sound ridiculously cluttered, particularly when it is remembered that most of them use at least three themes! But they are not. They move from beginning to end with a rare purpose, direction, and order.
ELLINGTON'S ACHIEVEMENTS place him beyond style or period to be sure; his stature as an orchestrator alone might assure that. But his is a truly co-operative art. Even the act of composition in the Ellington orchestra is a co-operative thing among the leader and his men. (But it is surely a measure of his stature that the subsequent careers of many Ellington sidemen have been less illustrious after they have left him.)
The important early Ellington-Bubber Miley pieces like Black and Tan Fantasy and East St. Louis Toddle-oo have been thoroughly discussed by Gunther Schuller in Jazz, edited by Nat Hentoff and Albert McCarthy.
Two of the masterpieces from what is perhaps his great period, 1938-1941, Ko-Ko and Concerto for Cootie, have been praised and meticulously analyzed by Andre Hodeir in Jazz: Its Evolution and Essence. There is another piece from the same period, which, if it is not a masterpiece, is excellent Ellington, and that shows the function of Ellington's leadership perhaps even more readily. It is Main Stem.
On the face of it, Main Stem is nothing but a scantly orchestrated fast blues: a theme, a string of solos, and the theme again.
That theme is equally deceptive, because it may sound like a swing-style riff of the 1930s. But a moment's listening shows that it isn't. It is an ingeniously organized rhythmic idea. The solos — Rex Stewart's cornet, Johnny Hodges' alto saxophone, Stewart again, Ray Nance's trumpet, Joe Nanton's trombone, Ben Webster's tenor saxophone, Lawrence Brown's trombone — pass in rapid succession. But there is not the slightest effect of haste or overloading. And it does not become only a series of individual episodes by the players. It is a continuously developing performance, with an overall effect of its own to which each player contributes.
The internal contrasts are lovely, too. For example, Barney Bigard's clarinet is, as usual, used more as an instrument of coloration than as a strong melodic voice. Stewart appears in both guises, once for instrumental color and once for strong melody. Nanton's trombone is for sound and emotion; Brown's is for lyric melody. And so on.
What gives Main Stem its special unity are the details of orchestration, background, transitional scoring. These group effects are essentially simple and almost perfect.
By contrast, a first-rate big-band blues from the same period, like Count Basie's One O'clock Jump, belongs to each soloist in turn, and then to the group for a wrap-up that is again almost a-thing-in-itself. Main Stem belongs to its composer, to its soloists, and to the group throughout.
IF ANY JAZZ composer can be said to have surpassed Ellington in any respect whatever, it probably is Monk in the uniquely instrumental conception of certain of his pieces, particularly Criss Cross.
Monk had to wait a long time to become known, but he wrote and recorded Criss Cross more than 10 years ago. Round Midnight aside, some of the best Monk pieces are those least often played. Examples: Criss Cross, Four in One, Skippy, Eronel, Gallop's Gallop, Epistrophy. Of course, Evidence; Well, You Needn't; Misterioso; and Straight, No Chaser are fine Monk pieces that one does hear done by others.
Certainly, one revealing aspect of Monk the composer is Monk the re-composer. That is, the Monk who takes a popular ditty — which, after all, is a melody that is usually harmonized in the simplest manner. He rephrases that melody, and he reharmonizes it until he has made a real two-handed composition for piano out of it. Excellent examples are things like I Should Care or (of all things) You Took the Words Right out of My Heart.
Another delightful aspect of Monk the composer is the way he will integrate the middle, the bridge, melody into a piece. I Mean You, for example, is in the standard popular-song form, 32 bars, A A B A. But the B melody of I Mean You is a musical development of the A theme. The same is true of many other Monk pieces.
Another delight is the way Monk fills in. His blues Blue Monk sounds almost like the most traditional of blues line. But most older blues (and some newer ones) are organized in four-bar units, and they have rests, open spaces of about three beats at the end of each unit. Blue Monk's melody logically fills in all the empty space with a continuous melody.
Like Monk, John Lewis works with materials that seem simple on the surface. One of his best pieces, for example, is The Golden Striker, which might be called a somewhat modernized Bugle Call Rag. Another Lewis achievement is the blues Two Degrees East, Three Degrees West. It sounds quite traditional and simple perhaps, but it has highly original twists of phrasing in its compellingly logical melody.
Lewis' best single piece is undoubtedly Django, and the Modern Jazz Quartet's performances of it are among the really sustained "extended" jazz performances on records.
The gradations of feeling in Django are also exceptional. It is of course, a memorial to guitarist Django Reinhardt, and its main theme suggests a French gypsy, a guitarist, and jazz, all at once.
It also is a funeral piece. And hovering in the background is the New Orleans tradition that funerals become occasions for rejoicing and reaffirmation of life as well as of reverent sadness. Besides its theme, Django is a chord sequence for the improvisers and not the same as that of the main theme. There is also a little recurring bass figure that is probably as old as jazz and that was used in King Oliver's 1926 blues Snag It.
Lewis has sometimes padded his music with more complex effects and with quite derivative classical devices, and the results have often been stilted and overblown. But when he reassesses the jazz tradition, with fairly simple melodies, Lewis is an eloquent jazz composer.
It should be mentioned that probably the one really successful Lewis piece that has been performed outside the MJQ is Three Little Feelings, written for a brass orchestra and Miles Davis. Lewis' Odds against Tomorrow is also admirable.
Boplicity, by Davis and scored by Gil Evans for the Davis nontet, has been called a first-rate jazz composition. Evans is of course, an excellent orchestrator. But it would seem that Boplicity has a rather indecisive melody, and it is more interesting for its orchestral color and as a framework for soloists.
THE FOREGOING, with the exception of Django, are works that, at least on records, last about three or four minutes. Nowadays one is likely to hear a favorite Ellington score and be disappointed. For one thing, it is not being played by the same group of men with whom it was originally worked out. Furthermore, there is likely to be extended soloing, and, thus expanded, the piece may lose its original terseness and force.
However, since at least 1931 and his first (and far more successful) recording of Creole Rhapsody for Brunswick, Ellington has been trying to extend jazz composition in length, in time, and in its musical form.
Most often his efforts have taken the form of suites. And several of the suites have been, in effect, a succession of separate Ellington pieces, some good, some not, some suggesting order, some not. The most nearly sustained, until recently, was Black, Brown, and Beige, but the latter sections of that piece probably can be considered superior, with the Come Sunday theme showing Ellington's sentimental streak off as badly as anything he has done.
These references are not to either recorded version of Black, Brown, and Beige. Both are incomplete. The earlier is the better, and the more recent one largely wastes everyone's talent, including Mahalia Jackson's.
Ellington's more recent Suite Thursday is another matter. After a rather overblown introduction, the opening section of that delightful work states nearly all the musical material on which the rest of it is based. Thereby all four sections of Suite Thursday follow along in a continuously integrated development.
Even a mention of extended jazz works is incomplete without the inclusion of George Russell's three-part variations, based on a children's jingle, which he calls All about Rosie, an exceptional piece of writing.
Russell has spoken more recently of his efforts with his new group to write so that the composition is loose and suggestive and so that the act of playing a piece and playing variations on it becomes one unbroken line — to write so that the soloist is almost forced to re-compose every piece in playing it, and the theme and variations assume a kind of equal status.
One is reminded of Charlie Mingus, for, similarly, some of Mingus' best pieces are the performances of such pieces.
One cannot imagine Pithecanthropus Erectus or Haitian Fight Song or Folk Forms aside from performance. It is as if the performance gave the composition whatever existence it has. A question like, "How does Pithecanthropus go?" is meaningless — it goes the way it is played, and only that way. Composition and collective performance are one.
Mingus often laments not having had a big band to work with all the time. But with achievements like Pithecanthropus and Fight Song, one wonders. Jazz would be poorer without them.”
A Charlie Parker Quintet plays Scrapple from the Apple on Roost 2210. A Parker quartet does Confirmation on Verve MG V-8005.
On Riverside 12-110 is Scott Joplin's Euphonic Sounds. On Riverside 12-134 is Maple Leaf Rag. Both are transcriptions from piano rolls that were run a bit too fast when the job was done.
The faulty composite Dead Man Blues by Jelly Roll Morton is on RCA Victor LP Ml649, but the LP also has Black Bottom Stomp, Grampa's Spells, Kansas City Stomps, and Smoke House Blues.
Victor LP M1715 by Duke Ellington has Ko Ko, Concerto for Cootie, and the better version of Black, Brown, and Beige. Main Stem is a part of Victor LP M 1364. Suite Thursday is half of Columbia CL 1579.
On Blue Note 1509 are Thelonious Monk's classic Criss Cross, Eronel, Misterioso, and Four in One. Blue Note 1510 has Off Minor; Well, You Needn't; I Mean You; and Epistrophy. Blue Note 1511 has Skippy and Straight, No Chaser. Gallop's Gallop is on Savoy 12137. I Should Care is on his solo recital, Riverside 12-235. You Took the Words Right out of My Heart is on the other solo recital, Riverside 12-312. The original (and probably the best) version of Blue Monk is on Prestige 7159.
The Golden Striker is played by the Modern Jazz Quartet on Atlantic 1284. John Lewis' recent version of his blues line Two Degrees East, Three Degrees West on Atlantic 1375 is superb. The quartet has recorded Django on Prestige 7057 (1954 version), on Atlantic 1325 (1959), and on Atlantic 2-603 (1960). Three Little Feelings was on Columbia CL 941 and is currently rather hard to find, unfortunately.
The Miles Davis Nontet performances are on The Birth of the Cool, Capitol T 762.
The original version of All about Rosie was on Columbia WL 127; the Gerry Mulligan Concert Jazz Band plays it on the currently available Verve MG V-8415.
Pithecanthropus Erectus by Charlie Mingus is a part of Atlantic 1237. Haitian Fight Song is on Atlantic 1260 and 1337; it is elaborated as Folk Forms on Candid 8005.
Down Beat Magazine