Wednesday, April 4, 2018

A Brief History of Improvising by Whitney Balliett

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

Reeds and woodwinds master player Gary Foster sent this to the editorial offices of JazzProfiles and we thought it too good not to share.

In its original form, it appeared as the first paragraph from Whitney Balliett’s profile of Warne Marsh in the October 14, 1985 edition of The New Yorker Magazine.

It has subsequently been published as part of Whitney’s chapter JAZZ: A TRUE IMPROVISER [Warne Marsh] in his book American Musicians II: Seventy-one Portraits in Jazz [Uni. of Mississippi Press].

The paragraphing has been modified to fit the journalistic format of the blog.

At the conclusion, you’ll find a video montage with Warne Marsh and Pete Christlieb improvising on the changes to Just Friends.

© -  Whitney Balliett, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“A short history of jazz improvisation, the heart and soul of the music, might go like this.

It began in the rural South in the nineteenth century as random gestures of black protest: a bones solo accompanying a buck-and-wing; the field hollers, which formed a secret, constantly evolving code; the endlessly invented and often satirical blues lyrics, and the guitar or banjo variations that decorated them. In short, it began as any kind of Afro-American music that did not go by the white man’s book.  

When Reconstruction faltered and racism closed down again, in the eighties and nineties, black improvisational music had taken a clearer shape. It was played mainly by rough small bands, which in time used cornet or trumpet, a reed instrument, trombone, piano (not always), guitar or banjo, bass or tuba, and drums. These groups, generally made up of day laborers, were offshoots of the New Orleans marching bands, and their improvisations – embellishments, really - were largely collective. It was an ensemble music that parted for occasional solos.

In his autobiography, Treat It Gentle, the great soprano saxophonist and clarinetist Sidney Bechet tried to describe what happened in the early improvisation: “It has to be put inside you and you have to be ready to have it put there. All that happens to you makes a feeling out of your life and you play that feeling. But there’s more than that. There’s the feeling inside the music too. And the final thing, it’s the way those two feelings come together.”

By 1924, two years before Jelly Roll Morton unwittingly memorialized the New Orleans music with the sixteen brilliant Hot Pepper sides he made in Chicago, Louis Armstrong and King Oliver, also recording in Chicago, and Armstrong and Sidney Bechet recording in New York, had demonstrated that they were the first jazz soloists – the first true melodic jazz improvisers.

During the next fifteen years or so, jazz became a music of soloists. And among the greatest were Armstrong and Bechet, Earl Hines, Bix Beiderbecke, Coleman Hawkins, Red Allen, Jack Teagarden, Benny Goodman, Django Reinhardt, Red Norvo, Lester young, Art Tatum and Roy Eldridge.

Their predecessors had worked mostly with the blues and with ragtime materials built on two or three strains. Armstrong and his followers began using as their stepping-off points the new theatre and movie songs of Jerome Kern and Irving Berlin and George Gershwin and Harold Arlen. They reinvented melody. They would take a Kern or Gershwin tune and improvise a parallel song that both freshened and shadowed the original.

By the early forties, they had amassed a body of recordings that were melodically and rhythmically unique and had a spontaneity that had not been heard in Western music since Bach.

But jazz has little patience, and by the mid-forties and new kind of improvisation had appeared, shepherded by Charlie Parker, Bud Powell and Dizzy Gillespie. These three had studied Art Tatum’s giant harmonic edifices, and, borrowing from him, they widened the harmonic base of jazz improvisation by improvising on the chords of a song instead of on the melody. They cast out melody and entered a wilderness of chords, altered chords, expanded chords. Or thought they were casting out melody – their improvisation were in fact highly melodic but in ways that were undanceable and largely unsingable. Called bebop, it was an engulfing, baroque music, through which no silence was allowed to show.

Late in 1959, Ornette Coleman, the Texas alto saxophonist, dropped from the skies, and a third kind of improvisation was born. Its adherents threw everything out – melody, chords, keys, choruses, and steady rhythms. They improvised on themselves, on their moods, on the air around them. They made any kind of noise on their instruments which entered their heads – barnyard sounds, jungle sounds, traffic sounds. This was called “free jazz,” and for a long time it has laid a disquieting hand on the music.”

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