Wednesday, January 27, 2021


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

“The vibraphone invites overplaying almost by its very nature. … Unlike a horn player, the vibraphonist is unable to sustain notes for very long, even with the help of vibrato and pedal. The vibes invite overplaying to compensate for such limitations. Added to these difficulties is the fact that … [they are played with] a hitting motion powered by the wrists. With the mastery of a steady drum roll, the aspiring vibraphonist is already capable of flinging out a flurry of notes and, given the repetitive motions used to build up drum technique, the vibes player is tempted to lock into a ‘steady stream’… [of notes].
- Ted Gioia, West Coast Jazz: Modern Jazz in California, 1945-1960].

Don DeMicheal wrote about Jazz the way I like to write about it - by placing the theme or the focus of a piece into a historical context. I think that doing so helps the reader appreciate the topic under consideration from a variety of perspectives and also helps in gaining an understanding of how the music evolved dynamically.

Such is the case with the following essay by Don which provides an insightful retrospective of the first three decades of the Jazz vibes or vibraphone or vibraharp - take your pick.

The only exception I take with Don’s piece is its omission of the work of Larry Bunker, one of the instrument's most sublime and superlative players. But then, situated as he was in Chicago, Don didn’t have access to Larry’s playing which took place mostly in the clubs on the West Coast and on  legions of anonymous studios recordings [the exception being those he made with Hank Mancini for the Peter Gunn TV series].

Don’s article does give pianist George Shearing his due for his role in the development of vibes in a Jazz setting and it is also nice to see some commentary about a group of fine vibist who are rarely mentioned in discussions about the instrument including Teddy Charles, Buddy Montgomery, Don Elliott, Jack Brokensha and Tommy Vig.

Fortunately, today’s Jazz world is blessed with many fine vibes players including Joe Locke, Steve Nelson, , Mark Sherman, Jim Hart, Warren Wolff and Frits Landesbergen and Mike Freeman, and Warren Wolf among man others.

“THE INSTRUMENT that Lionel Hampton, Red Norvo, Milt Jackson, and Terry Gibbs, among others, play is one without a name of its own. Is it a vibraphone? Vibraharp? Vibe? Vibes? Almost everybody knows what it is, but not many are sure what to call it.

The problem of what to call it began in the late 1920s when the vibraphone and vibraharp — both trade names — were introduced. The name confusion was later compounded as other versions of the same instrument appeared on the market.

Musicians who play today's instrument usually refer to it as a set of vibes or as a vibraharp, the oldest trade name still in use. The uninformed continue to be confused, however, and continue to irritate vibists by calling the instrument xylophone, marimba, "that thing," and, even, Hammond organ.

However it is referred to, the instrument made little impression on jazzmen at the time it was introduced. Used mostly for saccharine and ghostly effects, usually in the form of ringing arpeggios, it became another of the complete drummer's doubles, along with tympani, bells, chimes, and other mallet instruments.

But the vibraharp was a "natural" jazz instrument — it could be played melodically and percussively. The instrument's duality allowed for at least two approaches, that of a drummer or that of a pianist.

The first time it was used on a jazz recording was in 1931.

Louis Armstrong, fronting Les Hite's band, heard the band's drummer experimenting with a set of vibes during a break in the recording date. Armstrong, partial at this time to sugary introductions for his records (he used steel guitar and celeste as well as Guy Lombardo-like saxes to add sugar to his spice), urged the drummer to play an introduction to Memories of You, one of the tunes to be recorded that day. The drummer complied, playing a short, simple solo.

It was prophetic that the percussionist was Lionel Hampton. Prophetic, because it was Hampton who was to establish the vibraharp as a jazz instrument in 1936, when he expanded the Benny Goodman Trio to a quartet. (It is true that Adrian Rollini was known as a vibes player earlier than Hampton, but Rollini's playing, while interesting technically, constituted more cocktail-lounge music than jazz.)

Hampton's background as a drummer is important. By the time he joined Goodman, his style of playing vibes was fully developed, though it was to undergo some tempering in later years. The manner in which Hampton played in the '30s, his most important period, was percussive; in effect, he drummed on the instrument, which engendered great excitement among his listeners as well as in himself.

Hampton's work with Goodman's quartet, and later his sextet, was explosive.
In several ways, the rhythmic characteristics of Hampton's playing were almost stereotypically those of the swing era. At slow and medium tempos, his choruses were mostly in a forms of 12/8, even in double-time passages; at the extremely fast tempos that the Goodman groups often used, his solos generally fell into an eighth-note pattern. His heavy accenting also was characteristic of the era. What was not characteristic was Hampton's use of long rests between phrases to heighten the dramatic effect.

What made — and makes — Hampton an excellent jazz musician is his zestful fire and drive. Guilty of abominable taste at times, Hampton nevertheless remains one of the most important vibes players jazz has produced. For every Fly ‘n Home there is a Memories of You, a Stardust, a Deep Purple.

IF HAMPTON represents the percussive side of the vibraharp, Red Norvo must be considered representative of the instrument's other face — the pianistic, or, in Norvo's case, the xylophonic — though it should be understood that no one vibes player is either completely one way or the other.

Norvo was well-known as a xylophonist by the time Hampton burst upon the jazz world. In fact, it was 1944 before Norvo switched to vibes. Disdaining a vibrato, he plays today more or less as he did when he started—in much the tasty and quiet way Teddy Wilson plays piano. The Wilson-Norvo empathy is seen in two of the latter's best xylophone solos on record, both in the company of Wilson: Blues in Eb under his own name, and Just a Mood, under Wilson's.

Norvo's years of xylophone playing prepared him with a technique and conception quite different from Hampton's. For example, to sustain a note on vibes, the player depresses the damper bar with his foot after the note is struck, allowing the note to ring; but to sustain a note on xylophone, the player must execute a single-stroke roll, a rapid alteration of the mallets. This rolling has been a characteristic of Norvo's vibes playing from the beginning. He often laces his work with delicately placed two-note chords, usually rolled fourths and fifths. He also employs many octave passages.

But a pianistic vibes approach includes more than tremolos and octaves, which are more personal Norvo characteristics than characteristics of the approach.

The approach involves an arpeggiated, vertical manner of improvising, usually taking an eighth-note form; a light touch but great speed; and a chordal way of thinking about the instrument, often times to the point of using four mallets in solo and accompaniment.

These are all qualities of Norvo's work, especially the four-mallet device, of which he is a master, and make him the most pianistic of vibraharpists, something most clearly discernable in the trio records he made in the '50s.

FROM 1936 to '46, Hampton and Norvo, and their different approaches, were the either-or of the instrument, though Hampton's approach proved the stronger of the two. In fact, there were few vibraharpists active during these years; Norvo and Hampton remained the only important ones until the emergence of Terry Gibbs and Milt Jackson in the mid-'40s.

Besides both being the same age and appearing on the jazz scene at approximately the same time, there are other parallels to be drawn between Gibbs and Jackson.

Both were closer to Hampton than to Norvo, though each was less percussive and more pianistic than Hampton. Each, in time, influenced the other: some of Jackson's early work, particularly his solo on Dizzy Gillespie's Victor version of Anthropology was Gibbs-like, though it should be said that at the time (1946) Jackson had not fully developed his style and was often erratic, sometimes sounding more eclectic than original.

Gibbs, in turn, took on some of characteristics of the fully developed Jackson, as did most vibes men, including even Hampton.

Gibbs was the first of the two to gain popularity among jazz listeners and influence among vibists. His playing over the years, though it has mellowed and matured, has always been notable for a joie de vivre and a heat just a few degrees cooler than Hampton's. Possessed of an excellent technique, he often brought it to bear on ballads, doubling the tempo and spewing forth rapid cascades of notes, much in the manner of Hampton, though their concepts differed in the use of favorite intervals and scales.

But it was Jackson who became the most influential vibraharpist since Hampton. By the early '50s, his manner of playing had fully developed; it has not changed essentially since.

The surface characteristics of Jackson's playing have been widely imitated: a great use of blue notes (Jackson is one of the best blues players in jazz); single grace notes, turns, and mordants; and a pervading minor-key feeling.

Jackson is, however, much more than the sum of these easily imitated parts. Though many vibists caught his minor-key feeling, none has been able to create the feeling of sadness, sometimes bordering on world-weariness and despondency, that Jackson is capable of. And no one has reproduced an ingredient often present, even in his most serious playing — a subtle, dry humor.            ,

His time conception is unique on the instrument. Lazy sounding and relaxed, his playing nonetheless is marked by astute rhythmic awareness, the lope of his playing resulting from strong accenting and the mixing of duple and triple meters. Jackson also has the rare ability to create the tension-building effect of slowing the tempo without upsetting the rhythm section.

As in the years when the vibraharp was dominated by Hampton and Norvo, the acceptance of Jackson and Gibbs produced another period of two-man domination. And as before, one, Jackson, has proved the stronger. But unlike the time of the Hampton-Norvo ascendancy, the Gibbs-Jackson years saw an increase in the number of vibists.

The growth of the instrument's popularity, however, cannot be attributed wholly to the two chief practitioners. The popularity of the George Shearing Quintet did much to bring the instrument before a larger audience.

Shearing, often berated these days by dyed-in-the-wool jazz fans, always has had good sidemen, including excellent vibes players — Margie Hyams, now retired from music but with Shearing a tasty Norvo-ish player; Don Elliott, better known for his mellophone work but a vibraharpist of merit as well; Joe Roland, who replaced Elliott; Cal Tjader, originally a vibes-doubling drummer (with Dave Brubeck most notably) but one of the best of the Jackson-influenced vibraharpists; Johnnie Rae, usually under a Jackson spell but a soloist of more-than-casual interest; and Emil Richards, of whom more later.

One of the most interesting vibes players to develop during the Jackson-Gibbs dominance was Teddy Charles.

Slightly Baggish in concept, Charles experimented with the instrument more than did Jackson, especially in the use of four mallets. But Charles has made greater strides in composition than he has as a vibist; his New Directions albums on Prestige attest to this. Nonetheless, Charles is one of the vibists of distinction to appear since the '40s.

The formation of the Modern Jazz Quartet as a permanent group in 1954 and its ensuing popularity, though it has never gained the general-public acceptance of Shearing, also brought the instrument, and Jackson, to greater attention. By the mid-50s, Jackson dominated jazz vibes.

In the MJQ's wake sprang several like groups, two of which, the Master-sounds and the Australian Jazz Quintet, featured very good vibraharpists. Buddy Montgomery's playing with the Mastersounds was strongly Jacksonian, though lately, he has shown signs of becoming more his own man. Jack Brokensha, originally of the Australians, has become a powerful swinger in a Gibbsian vein.

The vibraharpist who was the most provocative of the Jacksonians and who seemed the one to extend and elaborate on the Jackson style was Lem Winchester.

Taking inspiration originally from Hampton as well as Jackson, Winchester in his early work combined the two. As he developed, however, Winchester began more and more to employ pianistic devices but of a different sort from those of Norvo or other pianistic vibists.

Winchester used two-note chords made up of intervals of minor and major thirds, fourths, flatted and perfect fifths, and sixths. The effect was that of blues piano. His death a year ago stilled what could have been a major voice.

[As of this writing in 1962] WE ARE STILL in the period of Jackson's domination, but there are several vibraharpists who have come to the fore in the last two years who, while having absorbed the practically inescapable influence of Jackson, show signs of collectively turning the direction of the jazz vibraharp, though no one dominates as yet and each follows his own path.

There are pianistic overtones in their playing generally, but it would seem that instead of depending, consciously or not, on the approach related to another instrument these men are exploring the possibilities of the vibraharp as an instrument unto itself.

Two of the men, Vic Feldman and Emil Richards, have been known and appreciated by the jazz public longer than the rest. In a way, they are transitional figures between the Jackson and new eras.

Feldman's ability as a pianist undoubtedly has had an effect on his vibes work, and though he reflects bits of Jackson, Norvo, and Gibbs, he must be counted with those who play vibraharpic — if there is such a word — a manner of playing that owes little discernible allegiance to the sound or spirit of any other instrument.

Seemingly unencumbered by any influences, Richards has evolved a quite personal, somewhat modish style. His early years of xylophone playing may account for his freshness.

Among the escape-from-Jackson group are four young musicians: Mike Mainieri, Dave Pike, Tommy Vig, and Gary Burton.

Mainieri is probably the fastest of all vibists. He is certainly the most pianistic since Norvo. His most outstanding work so far has been on ballads, on which he usually manipulates four mallets in such a manner that the two in his right hand seem completely independent of those in his left. He displays little or no traces of other vibists.

Pike seems to have taken at least some of his inspiration from pianist Bud Powell, his playing being quite boppish. A spirited and invigorating player, he has attempted to play unaccompanied, solo vibes. And though the solo venture as heard in his recent Riverside album did not quite come off, it is indicative of an ability that someday may bring the instrument to this point.

Buried in the exoticism of the Martin Denny Group, Vig is a jazz talent of no small proportions. His jazz work has the undulating, spiraling character of some of Bela Bartok's writing. Vig is an excellent technician, utilizing a clean attack and lightning speed. While his approach is vibraharpic, his speed, like Mainieri's, could be his own worst enemy, permitting playing of flash but not light.

At 18, Burton shows great promise not only as a vibraharpist but also as a writer. His vibes technique is ample, his use of four mallets especially deft, though he tends to overplay the instrument. His concept so far reflects no other vibist; his approach is that of a vibraharpist, not that of a pianist, drummer, or saxophonist. At his age, there is plenty of time to mature — the seed is there.

While no one man dominates the new vibists, one does stand out — Walt Dickerson. Of indeterminate age (he refuses to give his age, saying only that he is "ageless"), Dickerson is the most mature of the new group.

Possessed of a good technique, the technical does not dominate his work. Instead of solos made up of one related note following another, Dickerson often builds areas of sound, placing them one on the other, creating a total effect. His solos have an asymmetrical shape, much as do, say, John Coltrane's.

In his way, Dickerson can be thought of as a metallic Coltrane. The adjective "metallic" is the key, for Dickerson does not deny the instrument's metallic character in his playing, but, instead, utilizes it brazenly. It well could be that Dickerson is the most important vibraharpist since Jackson.

As much as many of us respect and revere Jackson — and Gibbs and Hampton and Norvo — we are entering a new era of the jazz vibraharp.”               

Down Beat Magazine
January 4, 1962

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