Monday, December 10, 2018

The Complete Blue Note Hank Mobley Fifties Sessions by Bob Blumenthal

© -  Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“Possessed of both his own conception, which made Mobley's music readily identifiable, and the equally rare inspiration that also made listening to his work eminently satisfying, Mobley was perpetually eclipsed throughout his career by more extroverted and influential stylists. ...It has only been in the years since he stopped recording (...), and especially since his death in 1986, that the exceptional quality of his playing and writing has begun to receive a commensurate measure of respect.”
- Bob Blumenthal, Jazz author, columnist and critic

"The most lyrical saxophonist I've ever heard. He sang into his horn."
- Benny Golson, tenor saxophonist and composer

At this point, my ongoing Mobley Quest moves away from features that focus on one of Hank’s many recordings as a leader for Blue Note [There were 24 in all.] and reverts back to the larger studies on Hank, all of which have been posted on the blog to date including Simon Spillett pieces -”Hank Mobley’s recordings with Miles Davis - UPDATED” and  “Looking East: Hank Mobley in Europe 1968-1970,” the John Litweiler interview that appeared in Downbeat in 1973, Derek Ansell’s book Workout: The Music of Hank Mobley which was published by Northway in 2008 and the two Jazz Monthly essays by Michael James from 1961 and 1962, respectively.

The only extensive writing on Hank’s career which has not been presented so far in my MobleyQuest are the following booklet notes by Bob Blumenthal’s to the Mosaic Records box set of Hank’s 1950s Blue Note recordings.

An especially beneficial aspect of Bob’s Mobley essay is that it contains many references to MY GROOVE, YOUR MOVE, a limited-edition program compiled by Kimberly Ewing and Don Sickler for a concert of Hank Mobley's music presented in Carnegie Hall's Weill Recital Hall on October 29, 1990.

I’ve said this before but it bears repeating: during the many years that he wrote about Jazz for The Boston Globe, CD Review, The Atlantic Monthly, Downbeat and numerous other publications, Grammy-Award winning author, columnist and critic Bob Blumenthal became one of my most consistent teachers about all-things-Jazz

For his long affiliation with it and studied application of it, Bob knows the music.

Equally important is his ability to communicate this knowledge and awareness in a writing style that is clear, cogent and concise.

Bob’s a mensch and a mentor and it’s always a privilege and a pleasure to represent his work on these pages.

© -  Bob Blumenthal: copyright protected; all rights reserved; used with the author’s permission. [Paragraphing modified in places.]

“On the back cover of MY GROOVE, YOUR MOVE, a limited-edition program compiled by Kimberly Ewing and Don Sickler for a concert of Hank Mobley's music presented in Carnegie Hall's Weill Recital Hall on October 29, 1990, the baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter is quoted about Mobley's aspirations. Most of the tenor saxophonist’s wishes have to do with the conditions performing jazz musicians seek yet find all too rarely — clubs with dressing rooms, good pianos and accommodating acoustics — but Mobley also was looking for an upgrade in listening attitudes. "Somewhere to play where people aren't just comparing you to someone else!" was the way Nica put it.

Few musicians had greater cause to seek such a forum for their playing than Hank Mobley, who could serve as Exhibit A when building a case against the poll-driven, King of the Hill approach to jazz appreciation. Possessed of both his own conception, which made Mobley's music readily identifiable, and the equally rare inspiration that also made listening to his work eminently satisfying, Mobley was perpetually eclipsed throughout his career by more extroverted and influential stylists. Throughout the period represented by the present collection, his work was often downgraded as a lesser version of Sonny Rollins; and in 1960 and '61, when he worked with Miles Davis and recorded what are his greatest sessions under his own name, he was dismissed for not measuring up to his predecessor in the Davis band, John Coltrane. When the avant-garde innovators dominated the attention of jazz critics a few years later, Mobley's playing was often dismissed as old hat and irrelevant. It has only been in the years since he stopped recording (his last session, co-led with Cedar Walton, took place in 1972), and especially since his death in 1986, that the exceptional quality of his playing and writing has begun to receive a commensurate measure of respect.

Mobley may have been doubly cursed. He was a great tenor saxophonist in an era that enjoyed an abundance of great tenor saxophonists, and his particular skills were not as attention-grabbing as those of several peers. Consider his friend John Coltrane, who recorded with Mobley on three occasions during the period covered by the present collection. Even at this stage of his career, when Coltrane's ideas were often partly formed and imperfectly executed, his fervor is often more immediately arresting than Mobley's more subtle approach to harmony and rhythm. Mobley's penchant for doing things his own way only reinforced the difference.

In the invaluable interview/article "The Integrity of the Artist — The Soul of the Man" that Down Beat published in 1973, Mobley told John Litweiler: "When I was about 18, [my uncle] Dave told me ‘if you're with somebody who plays loud, you play soft, if somebody plays fast, you play slow. If you try to play the same thing they're playing you're in trouble.' Contrast. If you play next to Johnny Griffin or Coltrane, that's hard work. You have to out-psych them. They'd say, 'Let's play CHEROKEE,' I'd go, 'Naw naw — ah, how about a little BYE BYE BLACKBIRD?' I put my heavy form on them, then I can double up and do everything I want to do."

This philosophy plus his talent should have won Mobley more respect in the 1950s; but, then again, it was a golden era for tenor players. Mobley recorded with several of the best — Coltrane and Griffin on the latter's Blue Note album A BLOWING SESSION and Zoot Sims and Al Cohn plus Coltrane on Prestige's TENOR CONCLAVE — not to mention perennial poll winner Stan Getz, the two Sonnys (Rollins and Stitt), Lucky Thompson and still-inspired patriarchs of the horn like Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young and Ben Webster.

Mobley found his own voice amidst these giants, notwithstanding the discernible influence of Rollins in the '50s and Coltrane a decade later. He had a sound on the horn which he himself identified as "round," a gorgeous, centered tone filled with soul and tenderness. "The most lyrical saxophonist I've ever heard," Benny Golson said. "He sang into his horn." Mobley's musical knowledge was highly refined, and emerged with particular clarity in his sophisticated harmonic approach. Horace Silver recalled that "He'd write some different, alternate changes, and they'd always be so inventive and so creative, so beautiful. A very musical mind, a harmonic mind."

As far as his rhythmic concept went, Al Grey captured the impact of Mobley's playing as well as his writing when he noted that "All of [Mobley's] tunes flow so freely, you can really swing with them — I mean really swing!" In addition, Mobley possessed organizational skills unusual in a musician who spent so much of his career as a sideman. He had a special knack for writing material for the blowing sessions of the period, often coming up with compositions in the studio on the spur of the moment. These pieces, frequently containing harmonic wrinkles that set them apart from mere rewrites of standards, were designed with the specific players on the date in mind, to the point that in conversations with Don Sickler, Mobley recalled melodies that Sickler would hum by naming musicians who had played on the original recordings.

He was also a master ensemble player, particularly skilled in blending with talented trumpet partners. This made him highly attractive to the independent jazz labels in the mid-50s, when both the new hard-bop style and the advent of the 12" long-playing album generated a recording boom; and it ultimately won Mobley the role, particularly during 1957, of de facto house tenor for Blue Note Records.

Recalling the busy days in Rudy Van Gelder's original Hackensack, New Jersey studio, Mobley told Litweiler that "Savoy recorded on Fridays, Prestige on Saturdays, Blue Note on Sundays, something like that. They'd buy the whiskey and brandy Saturday night and the food on Sunday — they'd set out salami, liverwurst, bologna, rye bread, the whole bit. Only Blue Note did it; the others were a little stiff. If we had a date Sunday, I'd rehearse the band Tuesday and Thursday in a New York studio.... We'd be making a tape, and sometimes my horn might squeak, and Frank Wolff would say, 'Hank Mobley! You squeaked! You squeaked!' — and the whole band would crack up, we couldn't get back to the tune. And old Alfred Lion would be walking around, (snap) 'Mmm!' (snap) — 'Ooh!' (snap) — 'Now vait a minute, it don't sving, it don't sving!' So we'd stop and laugh, then come back and slow it down just a bit. Then he'd say, (snap) (snap) — 'Fine, fine, dot really svings, ja!'"

Mobley's relationship with Lion, Wolff and Blue Note, which began shortly before the first music included here was recorded and continued through 1970, was as important to the saxophonist's career and his legacy as any hook-up with a fellow musician. During its active life, most people took the pairing of artist and label for granted. Today, when both the sound and the look of Blue Note albums has taken on iconic status, Mobley's music and his visage are at the center of the legend. He graces the cover of The Blue Note Years: The Jazz Photography of Francis Wolff (Rizzoli, 1995), and 13 additional images inside make him the dominant presence in the book.

Mobley loomed large in the recording studio as well, particularly in the incredible 15-month span of 1956-8 that dominates this collection. At the dawn of the 12" era, Lion and Wolff found (albeit in a more harmonically complex and less romantic concept) the focal point for a series of studio jam sessions that Prestige was employing so successfully with Gene Ammons.

Unfortunately, another factor led to the extensive documentation of players like Ammons and Mobley at the time. "I had the knowledge," Mobley confessed to Litweiler in 1973 regarding the heroin habit that frequently interrupted his career. "When I got strung out it was my own fault. A person getting strung out at age 18, that's a problem. He doesn't even have a chance to learn what life is about. By the time I got strung out, I had learned my instrument, I was making money." For great players like Ammons and Mobley, drug addiction left them more inclined than they otherwise might have been to record frequently, and the wealth of material generated allowed jazz labels to sustain the public presence of these musicians when problems physical and legal made them otherwise unavailable. It is tempting (yet hardly fair in the case of such respected producers from the period as Lion, Orrin Keepnews and Lester Koenig) to view this situation as one of record company exploitation; at the same time, the realities that faced musicians like Mohley in the 1950s must be kept in mind lest we ascribe periods of particular inspiration or lack thereof to when albums were recorded. In the present case, Mobley became a key player in the Blue Note orbit at a point when his particular skills and the emerging format for studio jazz recording were in a most complimentary zone.

This yielded music that has been doggedly sought out by many jazz fans and has eluded too many more through limited availability. Of the nine albums represented herein, two were never released and four others were never reissued domestically. Those fortunate enough to have tracked down all nine of the original albums (including the two that first appeared in Japan) will find nine alternate takes included (and programmed after the originally issued material, which makes for better casual listening and will not impede any comparison-minded student of the music willing to employ a CD player's program function). This is not all of the music Mobley made during his first recording phase and — given his talent, consistency and ubiquitous presence in so many important bands and on so many labels — it is not all of the best Mobley from the '50s. What we have here is a magnificent overview of the period, with some of the most memorable players of the day giving themselves to the indelible concepts of a musician who is finally getting his due as a magnificent tenor saxophonist and composer.

Hank Mobley was born on July 7, 1930 in Eastman, Georgia, and raised in Elizabeth, New Jersey. There was much music in his family, particularly piano music. The aforementioned uncle, Dave Mobley, played piano among other instruments, and his mother and grandmother also played keyboards (his grandmother was a church organist). Piano became Mobley's first instrument; then he picked up the tenor sax at age 16 and basically taught himself the horn. On his uncle's advice, he listened initially to Lester Young and then to Don Byas, Dexter Gordon and Sonny Stitt. "Anyone who can swing and get a message across," as Mobley explained his influences to Leonard Feather in 1956.

By his late teens, Mobley was working as a professional musician. He was hired by Paul Gayten and worked the rhythm and blues circuit with him between 1949 and '51, having been recommended by Clifford Brown (who had not heard Mobley play at the time but was aware of his growing reputation). "Hank was beautiful, he played alto, tenor and baritone and did a lot of the writing," Gayten recalled. "He took care of business and I could leave things up to him." The Gayten band also included baritone saxophonist Cecil Payne and future Ellingtonians Clark Terry, Aaron Bell and Sam Woodyard. Working with the last three no doubt eased the way for Mobley's two-week stint as Jimmy Hamilton's replacement in the Ellington Orchestra during 1953. ("I didn't play clarinet, but I played some of the clarinet parts on tenor," he later recalled). While the band recorded, the material did not feature Mobley as a soloist.

Mobley's jazz recording debut was the product of a job he held in the house band of a Newark nightclub after leaving Gayten in 1951. Another promising youngster and future Blue Note artist, pianist Walter Davis, Jr., was also a part of the group, and the opportunity to back visiting stars including Miles Davis, Dexter Gordon, Billie Holiday, Bud Powell and Lester Young was invaluable to their rapid development. Max Roach hired both Mobley and Davis after appearing at the Newark club, and brought them into rooms like the Apollo Bar before recording with them for Debut in March 1953. The session (now available on OJC) included both quartet and septet tracks and captures an already recognizable tenor stylist and composer. There were three melodically appealing Mobley originals, including the striking minor-key KISMET, while his imaginative chordal substitutions and fluent shifting of accents also enlivened the standard GLOW WORM and the Charlie Parker blues CHI CHI. Roach reportedly tried to summon both Mobley and Clifford Brown to California to form what would become the Brown/Roach quintet in the summer of 1953, but was only able to locate the trumpeter.

Back on the East Coast, Mohley gained further experience with Davis, Tadd Dameron, Milt Jackson and J.J. Johnson. For much of 1954 he worked with Dizzy Gillespie, and participated in four of the trumpeter's recording sessions. While among the lesser-known items in Gillespie's extensive discography, these tracks show Mobley to good advantage in a rare big-hand setting on Chico O'Farrill’s MANTECA SUITE (where Mobley plays the half-chorus solo on the THEME movement covered by Big Nick Nicholas on the original 1947 recording) and as a clearly formed stylist on the sextet titles RAILS and DEVIL AND THE FISH.

After leaving Gillespie in September 1954, Mobley joined pianist Horace Silver's quartet at Minton's Playhouse, a group completed by bassist Doug Watkins and drummer Arthur Edgehill. "On weekends Art Blakey and Kenny Dorham would come in to jam, 'cause they were right around the corner," Mobley recalled to Litweiler, which led to Silver's first quintet session for Blue Note with Dorham, Mobley, Watkins and Blakey in November 1954. The compositions were all Silver's; but the entire quintet was dazzling, with Mobley's solo catapulting off band breaks on ROOM 608, preaching at medium-slow tempo on CREEPIN' IN, flying against the seesaw momentum of STOP TIME and laying bare the saxophonist's soulful blues conception on DOOLIN’. The session was issued as Horace Silver and the Jazz Messengers, working a variation on the Messengers name that Blakey had employed for a larger ensemble several years earlier; and the five musicians decided to work in a cooperative relationship whenever any one of them was offered work.

It did not take long for the Messengers's blues-and percussion-driven new strain of modern jazz to take hold, or for Mobley to establish himself as one of the music's primary new voices through additional appearances on Blue Note. He recorded in a Dorham sextet that also included Silver and Blakey in January 1955, and with Silver and the Messengers again in February on a session that included the funky hit THE PREACHER (where the audacious entry of the tenor sax is a highlight) and Mobley's own typically "heavy form" HANKERIIN'. In March, Mobley and Blakey participated in Julius Watkins's sextet session, nine days before Blue Note gave the tenor saxophonist his own first opportunity to appear on vinyl as a leader.

(A) MARCH 27, 1955

Mobley considered his debut session - The Hank Mobley Quartet [BLP 5066] to be his best early recording and indicated that significant preparation had preceded the actual visit to Van Gelder's studio. The date features his tenor sax with the Messengers rhythm section, and has been particularly hard to find since its 1955 release as Blue Note 10" LP 5066. United Artists reissued the session in a rare facsimile edition 20 years later and it was sold only in Japan and Europe. Otherwise, it has been available as one side of a Japanese 12" LP (sharing a disc with George Wallington's Blue Note session) and on a Japanese compact disc where the two alternate takes first appeared.

At this point in the insert booklet annotations, Bob launches into a detailed, track-by-track descriptions of the nine LPs [and three CD reissues] that form the Mosaic Complete Blue Note Hank Mobley Fifties Sessions [MD6-181] and concludes with this statement:

“When it came to music, Hank Mobley was extremely sure-footed in this period. If his drug problem created a less than steady personal life and slowed his recording activities significantly for much of 1958 and 1959, he was able to bounce back with Blue Note, when he entered a truly golden age on albums like Soul Station, Roll Call and Workout.”

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Gordon Beck: From Two Perspectives – Solo & Duo

© -  Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“It concerns me that, now, at the time of his passing, he won't be accorded the place he's so clearly earned. The proof is there in the records. The literature exists. It's self evident.

… his music is all about color and light, shards of amazing brilliance, real earthy moving soulfulness and fire  - and he did have that glorious and singing keyboard sound.

Gordon Beck was a musician apart, he was special and he was great.”
- Colm “Red” Sullivan, 01/09/2012

“There cannot be many jazz musicians who have simultaneously possessed a flying phobia and a pilot's license. That has long been a favorite anecdote about Gordon Beck, the lean, stonily impassive and technically awesome pianist, who has died aged 76.

Beck had the license because his first career was in aeronautical engineering, and the phobia because his complex personality mixed deep-seated anxieties with a fearless appetite for freefall adventures, evident in his jazz improvisations.”
- John Fordham – The Guardian, Nov. 14, 2011

“Gordon Beck can do it all!
- Phil Woods, alto saxophonist

By the late 1960s, Jazz was on a collision course with anonymity.

The Halcyon Days were waning, the music was slipping into obscurity and Jazz musicians were sliding into the recording studios to make TV commercials, radio jingles and “full orchestra” albums for rock stars. As the late alto saxophonist and flutist Bud Shank remarked about this transition from performing in clubs to on-call playing in the studios: “It was a matter of survival: you gotta eat and pay the rent.”

Clubs like Shelly’s Manne Hole and The Lighthouse had moved away from resident groups to book “big names” such as Miles Davis and Cannonball Adderley in order to keep the clientele flowing and their doors open.

One such marquis appearance occurred at Shelly’s in the Fall of 1969 when alto saxophonist Phil Woods came to town for a week-long stint at the club.

I should say of Phil’s visit that is was more a triumphal return to the states with his European-based quartet as he had left the country a few years earlier to take up residence in Paris after becoming totally disgusted with what he saw as Jazz’s march into oblivion.

Phil named his quartet “The European Rhythm Machine” and I suspect that he may have chosen this appellation to quiet the critics who were always disparaging the quality of European rhythm sections. The Irishman in Phil never ran away from a good argument or failed to stand its ground to make a point.

“The European Rhythm Machine” was a quite exceptional rhythm section with George Gruntz on piano, Henri Texier on bass and Daniel Humair on drums. I couldn’t wait to hear it in person.

Except when I got to Shelly’s on opening night [along, it seems, with every alto saxophone player in the city], Phil introduced his pianist as “Gordon Beck” and his bassist as “Ron Mathewson.”

Changes in the personnel that make-up Jazz groups are very common, and Daniel Humair, one of my all-time favorite drummers was still a part of the group, so I just sat back with my glass of vino and waited for Phil and the group to let it happen.

And boy, did it happen, but not in the way I expected.

Phil called a blues to open the set, a not uncommon occurrence as playing on its simple structure is a typical method to get the group to relax and into the flow of things.

Making music isn’t like making anything else: you have to adopt a mind-set that follows its conventions but, most of all, you have to concentrate.

Phil took the first solo, but instead of Gordon Beck being up next, the solo order moved on to Ron Mathewson on bass and to trading 12-bar breaks with Daniel before Gordon took over.

And did he ever – take over!

The rhythm section laid-out and Gordon played a series of unaccompanied 12-bar choruses that were at once - riotous, rollicking and riveting – he totally knocked us out.

It was one of the most gripping performances I had ever heard by any musician, anywhere.

I may not have known who “Gordon Beck” was when I went into Shelly’s that night, but I never forgot who he was afterwards.

Gordon went on to make two recordings with Phil’s Group Phil Woods And His European Rhythm Machine [Inner City 1002] and Phil Woods And His European Rhythm Machine At The Frankfurt Jazz Festival [Embryo SD-530].

And in 1978, I came across Gordon’s The French Connection which Jean-Jacques Pussiau produced for Owl Records [#11], the same producer and label that was to issue some of the recordings involving Gordon’s famous collaboration with singer Helen Merrill.

It is a solo piano album and it contains many examples of the brilliance and originality that Gordon put on display that night at Shelly’s as a member of the Phil Woods European Rhythm Machine.

Almost twenty years later, I “met up” with Phil and Gordon again this time courtesy of their two CD “Complete Concert: Live at the Wigmore Hall in London” [JMS 18686-2] for which Phil wrote the following insert notes.

“I first met and played with Gordon Beck in April, 1968. Gordon led the house trio at Ronnie Scott’s London club that included Tony Oxley on drums and Jeff Clyne on bass. Ronnie’s was my first stop when I began my five-year expatriate existence.

The European Rhythm Machine was formed right after this gig and George Gruntz was the first pianist. When he left after the first year, Daniel Humair our drummer, and bassist Henri Texier, both agreed with me that Gordon was the perfect choice to replace George.

And he was the perfect choice!

Gordon and I have shared many musical and life adventures. We always dined with [tenor saxophonist] Ben Webster when we were in Ben’s neighborhood, we hung with Dizzy [Gillespie] and Dexter [Gordon], we triumphed at the Palermo Pop Festival, no mean feat in the early seventies.

We recorded with [vocalist] Lena Horne playing the arrangements of the master, Robert Farnon, and with Mel Torme playing the exquisite orchestrations of one of England’s best, Chris Gunning.

Gordon also played on three of my albums done in London with a large orchestra. Gordon can do it all!

We were together at the last riot-torn Newport Festival and most memorable to me, we hung with Shelly Manne when the European Rhythm Machine played his great club and I saw GB make his first dive in Shelly’s swimming pool, a perfect one and a half gainer that garnered a perfect 6.

If you don’t believe me call Ron Mathewson, he has the films to prove it. Yes Gordon and I have been around the block a few times.

Our friendship has withstood the test of time and, at last, we are able to realize one of our dreams, and dear listener, you hold the results of our warm encounter in your hands.

This concert is complete and unedited. What you hear is what happened. We did not “fix” anything.

Perhaps, a seam shows, but to these old ears, it sounds like two old friends [who have plied their craft for decades] getting together to share in one of life’s greatest pleasures, improvising music.

There are great moments on this CD. When I used to ask Dizzy how he was doing he would disarmingly reply: ‘Well, I don’t think I’m getting any worse.” I think the same could be said for Gordon and me.

Thank you Gordon. Thank you Jean- Marie [Salhani, the producer of the CD for JMS Records] for documenting our humble efforts and than you for buying this CD.

June 18, 1996

Phil Woods”

Saturday, December 8, 2018

"What Is Jazz" - From Jazz Americana by Woody Woodward

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“Frenchmen call it Le Jazz Hot. If you want a hot argument, just ask two
or more jazz enthusiasts to define it for you.”

“The jazz musician begins as such. He does not simply graduate to it as his taste dictates. Jazz is there from the beginning of his musical awareness.”          
- Woody Woodward

The record label that was the California equivalent of Blue Note Records during the post world War II years was Pacific Jazz. It was established by Richard Bock in the early 1950s, initially to record the new Gerry Mulligan - Chet Baker Quartet

In the case of Pacific Jazz, Richard Bock was blessed at the outset to have the brilliant photographic work of William Claxton form the basis for most of his album cover art.  Ray Avery, a contemporary, once said of Claxton work: “Some of us take photographs of Jazz musicians, but Bill does much more than that: he is an artist with a camera.”

In fairness, Dick Bock’s Pacific Jazz label gave Bill Claxton a place to learn and practice his art as a photographer so the creative purposes of each were well-served through their business relationship.

Acknowledgement should also be made of the skills of Woody Woodward, who designed many of the Pacific Jazz covers, and without whose logistical and technical contributions, Dick Bock’s Pacific Jazz would have been even more disorganized, and of Dotty Woodward, the firm’s accountant and the person who managed the royalties for the musicians and composers.

Thanks to a close friend who is pretty much the unofficial historian of all things Pacific Jazz [and all things West Coast Jazz, too], I recently learned that Woody Woodward was also somewhat of a Jazz historian and the author of Jazz Americana: The Story of Jazz and All Time Jazz Greats from Basin Street to Carnegie Hall.

Jazz Americana was published in 1956 in a 6.5” x 9” magazine format by Trend Books and sold for 75 cents. Fortunately, I was able to track down a fairly serviceable copy at a reasonable price and I thought it would be fun to share some excerpts with you.

Let’s begin at the with Chapter 1 - What Is Jazz - which Woody subtitles: “Here It Is! The First Good Definition of Jazz”

Despite this imposing assertion, Woody put a great deal of thought into his definition of what Jazz is including, what it isn’t.

In many ways, it is one of the more coherent and cogent definitions of Jazz that I’ve ever come across, one that is especially helped by the clear and direct writing style in which it is presented.

In retrospect, given when it was written, Woody’s definition of Jazz stands the test of time and holds up very well.

See what you think.

“ I find myself confronted with the task of writing an entire book on a subject that hasn't even the advantage of an adequate definition. In 50 years, all the articulate and learned men whose opinions and observations have been placed before the public have failed collectively to produce a generally accepted definition for the common everyday word jazz. A more compatible relationship between jazz and its public might have been achieved sooner if it had been possible to offer the inquirer a useful definition. So little agreement has existed on informed levels that the question, "What is jazz?", too often remains unanswered. In its place comes a thin, superior smile and a condescending shrug — inferring, "... if you don't know what it is I can't tell you." Small wonder that the public has been so often confused, especially when one considers that there have been as many personal concepts as there are experts. As might be expected this leads to a great many misconceptions about jazz, made worse by the cliquish groups "in the know" who seemed quite satisfied to keep the whole business about jazz a mystery.

Time has shown us that the public has been a great deal more willing to accept jazz than they've been given credit for and jazz musicians considerably more interested in being accepted then they’ve been given credit for. The jazz musician wants very much to have his music understood and be respected as a professional. In the main, he believes this can be done without subverting his integrity. This has been made difficult for him since most of the media of mass communications - radio, television, motion pictures, and the written word  -have consistently caricatured him as an inarticulate ne'er-do-well. A typical motion picture approach shows the jazzman, after years of struggling, at the heights of achievement when his jazz concerto is presented in Carnegie Hall. This is usually showcased by a hundred-piece symphony orchestra with the composer conducting, especially sobered for the occasion. Being allowed on the stage of a concert hall is symbolic of his emancipation from so coarse and useless an existence as being a jazz musician. The inference is, "See, jazz musicians aren't so bad after all. They even read music and wear formal clothes."

This is rather a negative approach and reveals almost nothing of the nature of jazz; however the movies are not alone in promoting the Big Fable. On highly dramatic New York television plays or Hollywood films, it is currently very fashionable to play jazz records behind any act of violence. The slick magazines' preoccupation with anthropology, antiquated jazz slang, and endless intellectual dissertations, while less damaging, add to the confusion. It is something of a testimony to the taste and good sense of the public that people are presently supporting jazz in the manner to which it is unaccustomed. Despite the difficulty of getting much in the way of intelligent information on jazz from the usual sources, the public and jazz are getting together. This is something of a testimony to the strength of the music and the men who make it. Not so long ago sentiments were so strong in camps of the cultists that none could condone the existence of the others. Each group imposed confining limitations on the jazz of its choice. Each maintained his jazz was the true jazz. Dixieland People scorned Swing People, Swing People fought verbal battles with Bebop People, and Beboppers depreciated both. In the past few years, jazz has begun to emerge from this fog of music prejudice. Visibility could be improved but the haze is lifting; today Louis Armstrong, Count Basie and Dave Brubeck can stand side by side, offering their art to all whom will listen.

Be it Dixieland, Swing, or the embracing horns of the .Mulligan Quartet, to a steadily increasing hundreds of thousands, jazz is a new found source of pleasure, a multifaceted, infectious music as calm and organized as a Bach fugue, as extroverted and exciting as the Mardi Gras.

I mentioned the absence of an adequate definition of jazz. This is not to say that none has been attempted. A few have found their way into print, some of them rendered by knowledgeable men. However, nearly all that have come to my attention have been more in the way of a description. One of the best of these was written by Wilder Hobson for the 1956 ENCYCLOPEDIA   BRITANNICA.  As it contains several thousand words, Hobson's offering is not useful in the normal dictionary limitation of perhaps 50 or 60 words. Be that as it may, I recommend it to all concerned with the subject.

A better example of what's available might be a typical dictionary definition. Webster's New School and Office Dictionary, ordinarily a source of accurate definitions, says: "JAZZ (jaz) noun—Negro term for syncopated music or ragtime played discordantly on various instruments: a boisterous dance to such." This definition is very misleading. It infers that jazz is played unharmoniously, and implies that it is the product of a number of instruments presumably played simultaneously. It further suggests that jazz is attended by dancing. While any or all of these conditions may be present in jazz, none are required.

Jazz is not exclusive to the Negro. Many other races have produced and supported it. Jazz does not have to be discordant . . . and rarely is. The playing of jazz need involve no more than one musician. He may be the soloist in a large orchestra which features no other jazz musicians, or a lone musician playing in an empty ballroom.

Barry Ulanov, former editor of Metronome, an excellent magazine with a strong dedication to jazz, has referred to "freshness, profundity and skill", as important requisites for good jazz. These are qualities that may separate the mediocre performance from the outstanding, but this phrase is not helpful in defining jazz, as all three qualities may be absent from a performance and yet be jazz.

One problem Is that jazz does not fall within the confines of definite form like the symphony which is traditionally presented in four movements, or the fugue which utilizes its moving melodic lines in a predetermined manner. Jazz is without movements and is not constructed like a fugue. Jazz. musicians may use these devices but they are not peculiar to the medium. The closest we come to this in jazz is in the case of the blues, where a 12 bar tune is involved, using a specific set of chord progressions. However this is not form in the strict sense. It is rather a framework on which to drape a series of improvisations. The elements of form, so far as classical music is concerned, involve the traditionally-accepted manner of presenting music in a particular way. While a jazz composer may avail himself of these forms, the use of them actually has nothing to do with jazz itself. It's simply another way of presenting and expanding jazz.

Another element that further complicates matters is the fact that the jazz musician is not required to produce what might be termed a standardized tone or sound from his instrument. In classical music, each instrumentalist strives to produce a standard or uniform sound; a trumpeter from Paris, France, will produce a quality of sound almost the same as a trumpeter from Indianapolis, Indiana, assuming that each has had the advantage of similar training. With slight exception, there is only one way to play the instrument correctly, by classical standards. The very nature of jazz encourages the individual to express himself differently, though the musician may have the technical background to play in the classically accepted manner.

If jazz is not dependent on definite form and uniform sound, as with classical music, in what manner are we able to detect its existence? How are we able to separate jazz from all other types of non-classical music? I should preface this by mentioning that very few qualified sources have ever agreed completely on the important elements of jazz. However there are several components arrived at more frequently than any others. These are: (1) improvisation, (2) a rhythmic conception exclusive to jazz, and (3) a range of sounds distinguished by individuality. The disagreement between the experts is not whether or not the above elements are important, but to what degree each should exist in relation to the others. Some feel that improvisation is the most important and that rhythm and sound are lesser things. Others believe that rhythm plays the dominant role, and so forth. At any rate, it's the balance of all three elements that constitutes the individual style of a jazzman. It is the existence of these three elements and the way in which they are combined that separates jazz from other music.


Improvisation is the ability of a musician to "make up" a tune in a spontaneous fashion, or to play a series of variations on a melody without consulting written music, and without prearrangement. Generally a specific set of chord changes are agreed upon in advance by the participating musicians. This establishes a format and a sequence, but allows the freedom necessary for improvisation. Often several musicians improvise simultaneously, producing counterpoint, a second melody line sympathetic to the first.

This has been a common practice since the very beginning of jazz. Early New Orleans bands frequently utilized three improvisational lines at the same time; the trumpet played the melody, the clarinet played an obligato or second line, and the trombone punctuated rhythmically or produced a series of tones very close to the chords. The results were similar to the melodic styles of the barbershop quartets so far as the harmonics were concerned.

Because of this collective improvisation, a performance was produced that could never be completely duplicated even though a group of jazzmen might play the same tune many times during their association. This is also true today. Even at a recording session, where a piece of material is played six or eight times in a row in an effort to get the best performance, the collective improvisation produces a wide variety of renditions to choose from.

Improvisation is not limited to jazz. Almost any skilled musician is capable of making up a tune as he goes along. A knowledge of the chord progressions of a tune and familiarity with the melody is sufficient to enable a musician to embellish the composition. Improvisation to some degree exists in most popular musics. It is also employed in classical music occasionally, particularly when showcasing a soloist with an orchestra; certain parts of the orchestrated composition provide for this.

In the Seventeenth Century, improvisation was more common than in today's classical music. In Bach's and Mozart's time, it was quite frequently used in chamber music. The elements of improvisation can be taught but, for the most part, it is instinctive rather than learned. Since improvisation plays a major role in his music, the spontaneous improvisation of the jazz musician is quite unique and manifests itself differently; when two or more jazz musicians improvise together, a rapport can be established that finds a parallel nowhere else in the world of music.


The rhythmic conception in jazz is perhaps its most unusual feature. Generally, a syncopated beat is used in 4/4 time. Like improvisation, 4/4 time and syncopation are not limited to jazz; 4/4 time is common to most American and European music and syncopation is found in almost all musics to some extent. However, its occurrences outside jazz are in a more formal manner, occurring in a regular pattern and on the same beats of every bar. In jazz, the musician plays unexpected accents with great freedom, syncopating in an irregular manner. He often plays with no strict adherence to time value at all, other than tempo; some play right on the beat, some behind the beat, and some anticipate or play a little ahead of the beat. It's not uncommon to hear a soloist demonstrate all these rhythmic variations within the course of a single chorus. He may enter the chorus anticipating, then fall behind the beat or produce any other combination of time values. This particular ability seems to be the one element that can't be taught. It can be developed if the latent ability is present, but in its accepted usage it is a native talent. The musician either possesses the ability to generate this rhythmic force or he fails completely to play with a jazz pulse.


The sounds of jazz are the most difficult to describe and are perhaps the easiest of the three basic jazz elements for non-jazz musicians to affect. Jazz sound is distinguished by the absence of regulation. It is a broad unconfined sound that can be likened to the human voice; each voice possessing a timber not entirely like any other. Jazz sound is a personal utterance, carrying with it the peculiarities of the individual. Almost any sound an instrument is capable of producing, within the realm of good taste, is acceptable in jazz.

Despite this, a characteristic does exist; the general absence of a "legitimate" attack. The jazz musician tends not to hit a note right on pitch. He is inclined more to slur or slide up to a note then slide on to the next without much more than passing through the pitch. Of course, when the need to hold a note occurs, the jazz musician, like all other, holds to proper pitch.

As was mentioned before, a classical musician must produce a sound traditionally associated with his instrument. Most of the music he plays is written and orchestrated in such a way as to take advantage of the sound his instrument customarily produces. Any marked deviation from this is very undesirable. In jazz the same instrument seldom sounds the same. One musician might play with a light vibrato-less tone, another dynamically, with a robust strident tone. The myriad of sounds that lies between these two extremes are as numerous as the musicians playing jazz. Even with a large jazz orchestra of i5 or 20 men, where group compatibility is essential, it's the combined styles of the men involved that give each orchestra its characteristic sound. The same arrangements, under the direction of the same leader, will never sound quite the same if different musicians are involved.


Any attempt to define jazz must be arbitrary; the absolute is not found in this medium. It must be further realized that any useful definition of jazz must encompass all styles and concepts within that medium from the very beginning to the present, with the additional capacity to include and anticipate all that jazz may produce in the future. With this in mind, and the further knowledge that the definition I offer here, may fail to meet universal acceptance (as the many attempts that preceded it) I submit the following definition for jazz:

JAZZ (jaz) n. a native American music, a popular art form, begun by the negro, originally influenced by African and Caribbean rhythms and popular musics available to the negro around the turn of the twentieth century. A product of the instantaneous rather than the premeditated, characterized from the beginning to the present by three basic elements: Improvisation, a unique time conception, and a range of sounds distinguished by their individuality.

The 1956 jazz picture encompasses such a wide range of styles and means of presentation that it is far more difficult for the layman to recognize jazz than it was 20 or 30 years ago. In 1926, jazz meant pretty much the same thing to everyone; there were fewer styles then and these were closely related. Ten years later the Swing Era was well underway and big dance bands were gaining prominence. Still, the situation remained uncomplicated. Whatever jazz acceptance went with the dance bands was mostly for the soloists. To most people, jazz still meant Dixieland.

By the end of World War II the big bands had received recognition. They took their place alongside earlier jazz developments. At the same time, a number of brilliant young jazz musicians were busy shaping a whole new approach which came to be known as Bebop, Progressive, and several other confusing names. From the standpoint of jazz activity, this movement was to overshadow all but three or four of the most firmly entrenched big bands. The Swing Era had come to a close and in it's place there was a return to small groups and a re-emphasis on improvisation.

In 1956 we have access to the accumulation of more than 50 years of individuality. Today, it's possible for us to hear in concert, club, or on record, all the styles in the Dixieland Tradition from the turn of the century through the Twenties; the products of the Swing Era; and the multitude of jazz concepts that developed following the second World War.

It scarcely seems possible that these many jazz styles are more than slightly related —  yet, they are. All result from steady and continual evolution. None could have developed without that which preceded it. Jazz draws always from its heritage. Honest and spirited mainstream jazz never loses its luster and appeal. Because jazz is so much a product of the moments during which it is played, it undergoes constant change as the moments pass into days and the days into years. This is why jazz of different decades seems so unrelated. Today's jazz is minutely different from last week's jazz. It is a reflection of the life and times contemporary with its performance. The past can never be completely recaptured, even by those who were among the molders of jazz past. Even men whose concepts have matured, whose styles have crystallized, arc subject to the changing times.

But how do we distinguish between that which is jazz and that which is not? At what point does a musician cross the threshold into jazz? The answer lies in this basic premise: if the musicians involved are jazz musicians and the material being performed does not require the participants to subvert their musical identity, then the product is jazz. This is in direct proportion to the number of jazz musicians participating. If five members of a 15-piece band are not jazz musicians, then the performance suffers to that degree.

The composition being played can be a waitz, mambo, foxtrot or anything else that allows the jazzmen to apply their art. Structurally, it can be a 12 bar blues, a popular tune or a fugue. In short, a jazz composition can be anything that does not require the jazzmen to sacrifice their individuality.

Because of the need to preserve the basic jazz elements, certain approaches to composing and arranging are more conducive to the medium than others. The material must be compatible with the musicians involved to be successful. This has led to a whole new field within jazz — that of composing and arranging material especially for jazz.

This began during the late Twenties when musicians realized a need for more challenging material and a larger framework for their improvisation. Then, too, the emergence of larger bands required more organization than the five- and six-piece groups that preceded them. The use of arrangements was the answer to these problems and grew from the same needs for individual expression that brought jazz forth. Composition and jazz could not be better suited. All jazz musicians are endowed with the ability to compose, though not all possess the technical knowledge to write their compositions. They compose whenever they improvise. The difference between those who actually write and those who are unable, is the ability to organize music on a more extensive scale — not the lack of compositional talent.

The one thing that remains unchanged is the fact that jazz musicians are required to play jazz. It cannot be produced by others.

This seems to be a rather obvious factor; however, a widespread misconception is that virtually any young musician associated witli a dance band is a jazz musician. Since jazz has become so much an integral part of American popular music, most popular musicians and singers display some jazz influence. Obviously, mere influence does not make a jazz musician. The jazz musician begins as such. He does not simply graduate to it as his taste dictates. Jazz is there from the beginning of his musical awareness.”