Tuesday, May 31, 2022

"Where's The Melody" By Martin Williams [From the Archives]

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

"A short, model primer on jazz, in which Mr. Williams triumphantly makes a difficult subject seem difficult and absolutely comprehensible. He spells out in an even, shoulder-to-shoulder manner the various kinds of improvisation, the places of the composer and arranger, jazz rhythms, and the like, and along the way he carefully knocks down those distracting and divisive genre terms 'swing/ 'Dixieland/ and 'bebop' by choosing illustrations from every walk of jazz."

". . . a remarkable performance: concise, lucid, and mercifully free of fustian proselytizing. In the opening section, Williams, primarily through the analysis of key available recorded solos, clarifies the basic ways in which jazzmen improvise and the diverse functions of the composer-arranger in jazz.
The book, however, is more than a grammar. Jettisoning the traditional romanticized approach to jazz history by region and river, Williams places the evolution of the language in much more useful perspective by describing the changes in jazz made by its major innovators, from Louis Armstrong to Ornette Coleman."
- Nat Hentoff, BOOKWEEK

I can’t believe I still own a copy of Martin Williams’ Where’s The Melody: A Listener’s Guide to Jazz [New York: Minerva Press, 1963].

Dogged-eared with paper that is yellowing and book spine glue that’s hardening and cracking, it’s been loaned out so many times that it is a miracle that it ever made it back to my bookshelf.

One of the best primer on the process of making Jazz ever written, I thought it might be fun to share the book’s Introduction and Opening Chapter with you on these pages.

© -  Martin Williams, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

"An American Art"

If we know anything about jazz at all, we have probably heard that it is supposed to be an art—our only art according to some; "America's contribution to the arts/' according to certain European commentators. It has also the kind of prestige that goes with praise from the "classical" side of the fence. One of the first men to recognize the artistic qualities of jazz was the outstanding Swiss conductor Ernest Ansermet, who in 1919 wrote a tribute to the great clarinetist and soprano saxophonist Sidney Bechet, adding that perhaps tomorrow the whole world would be moving along his road. And in 1965 the American composer-critic Virgil Thompson said that "jazz is the most astounding spontaneous musical event to take place anywhere since the Reformation/.”

Jazz has its special publications, both here and abroad, its own journalists, reviewers, critics, historians, and scholars. Also, as most of us are aware, our State Department is willing to export jazz to answer for our cultural prestige abroad. Yet here at home, this "American art" is the subject of certain ignorance and certain misunderstandings.

It is possible to approach jazz in several ways. It is more than possible—it is in a sense almost mandatory—to consider jazz as an aspect of Negro American life and of the far-reaching and little understood effect of Negro-American life on American life in general. Jazz is, of course, a product of Negro-American culture, and that means that it represents also a unique coming together of African and European musical traditions.

It is also possible to treat jazz at second hand, as it has influenced our other music. The results of this approach might surprise some of us, for there is hardly a corner of American music that has not been touched somehow by jazz. It has touched most corners of music in Europe as well. To give one rather unexpected example, most of the trumpet players in our symphony orchestras, whether they are performing Bach or Bartok, Grieg or Gershwin, play with a slight vibrato (literally, a vibration to their trumpet sound) that they are not supposed to have, because in the past jazz musicians have generally used one. The symphonists have simply picked it up, some of them perhaps unconsciously.

It is  not surprising that all American  popular music, and some American concert music as well, were once commonly referred to as "jazz,” because the influence of jazz and of pre-jazz Afro-American music is everywhere in our musical life — on Broadway, in musical films, in the hotel dance band, in the "hit parade," in the concert hall. And, in one form or another, this influence has been there for over seventy years. So apparently "square" a popular song as Dancing in the Dark would not have been written without the powerful and pervasive effect of the musical force we call "jazz."

Jazz has also been treated through the biographies of its players, and some writers have treated jazzmen as what they are—creative people, most often functioning as popular entertainers. But jazzmen have also been treated as colorful old characters or as pathetic, aging men, unworthy of the callous caprice with which a delinquent showbiz has shunted them aside. It is possible, after all, for the most interesting of men, or even the most colorful of old characters, to be involved in an activity that need not detain us for its own sake. We might appreciate the personal maturity of a shop steward without being interested in owning a handbook on union organization at the local level or one on the processing of auto parts on a modern assembly line.

However, jazz is a music, and it is worthy of our attention as a music. Its musical achievements are quite high, perhaps higher than those of any other so-called "folk" or "popular" music in human history. Undoubtedly the musical level of jazz would have had to be high before it could have exerted such a strong and continuing influence upon other musics. But jazz music itself is much more interesting than the subject of its influence. It has a life of its own, growing, developing, and finding its own way, taking what it needs from the European tradition and adding something of its own at each step. And, as the years pass, jazz behaves less and less like a "popular" commercial music, subject to the fads of the moment, and more and more like what we are apt to think of (rightly or wrongly) as an "art music."

Let us assume in looking at jazz that we know little or nothing about the techniques of music and little or nothing about jazz and its history.

We will assume we know little about jazz history because we want to look at it from a musical standpoint, and because very little that we can appreciate has been written on it from that standpoint. And we will assume that we don't know much about music, because many of us don't.

But perhaps lack of a detailed musical background is an advantage. Jazz has taught itself, so to speak. Jazz musicians have often taught themselves and the music as a whole has wended its selective way, almost on its own, through the techniques of European music. If we were to study music, we would of course study a system largely deduced from practice, a theory derived from what the great European composers have actually done when they wrote. But sometimes this musical system and theory applies to jazz only approximately, only insofar as jazz musicians have borrowed it, transmuted it, and used it in their own way. So in listening to a partly self-taught music, we shall probably have the gods on our side if we become self-taught listeners.

We do not learn to listen theoretically or in the abstract, of course, and almost all the comments in this book are attached to specific recordings. We shall begin by going directly to the crux of the matter, to the jazz musician as he plays combinations and sequences of notes that sound sometimes familiar, sometimes only vaguely familiar, and sometimes not familiar at all. And we shall try to understand how] jazz musicians play, what they do with a melody; how much they improvise, make up as they go along, and how much they work out ahead of time; and the kind of musical logic involved in their way of playing.

There is, after all, little point in worrying about the history of an art or the biographies of its players until we have some familiarity with the art itself. As an introduction to how jazz players play, we will look in the first section of this book, "Where's the Melody?" at what they do with more or less familiar popular songs. Then we will turn to an important original musical form that has been used by jazzmen of all styles and periods, the form called "The Blues.' With these basic forms and practices in mind, we can examine "Eight Recorded Solos" in more careful detail.

Having been thus introduced to the work of the jazz soloist, we can turn, in the section called "What Does a Composer Do?" to the jazz composer-arranger, the man who provides the player with basic material or who revises material he finds in the American popular repertory. The composer-arranger orchestrates; he gives the musicians in large and small ensembles written (or sometimes memorized) parts to play and he assigns the soloists space and duration in which to improvise. A soloist is responsible for his portion of a performance; a composer-arranger for the effect of the whole.

In these four introductory sections we have deliberately avoided chronology and avoided the sometimes careless catch-phrases of styles and schools and periods of jazz. The things that Louis Armstrong and Thelonious Monk have in common as players are more important and instructive than differences in the way they make music. Teddy Wilson, a pianist who first rose to prominence in the mid-Thirties, in those days took the same basic approach to improvised invention as did Charlie Parker, the revolutionary figure of the mid-Forties. And the music of the pianist and leader from the "swing period," Count Basie, taught the modernist John Lewis as much as did Charlie Parker's music— perhaps more.

Having examined the basics of jazz this far, we are now in a position to look at its musical history in "Last Trip Up the River." From a musical standpoint that history is made up of the contributions of certain major
jazz players who renew the basic language of the music periodically, men like Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker, and of certain major jazz composers, men like Duke Ellington, who periodically give larger synthesis and summary and form to the music.

After paying this much attention to the music itself, it is perhaps time to have accounts of the players at work on the scene—in nightclubs, in studios, and in private rehearsals. Thus, the second part of this book describes a nightclub evening of a pianist-composer, "Monk at the Five Spot"; a record date by vibraharpist Milt Jackson and a brass ensemble, "Recording with 'Bags'"; another recording session by a Mississippi blues singer of the old school, "Big Joe in the Studio"; and a rehearsal by some of the men who are involved in the avant-garde with "Jimmy Giuffre at Home.”'

The final part of this book, "Comment by a Listener," represents an effort to return to the music and its musicians with the knowledge so far acquired. In comments (some brief and some more comprehensive) on figures like Horace Silver, Billie Holiday, and Roy Eldridge, I have expanded on some of the points of jazz history described in the first part of the book and have tried to show, in a more or less casual sampling, how some exceptional musicians have developed the ideas of the great figures and have also made contributions of their own. I have also dealt with the work of some less creative figures who water down and popularize the musical ideas of others. I have used as examples some recorded performances which do not seem to me successful; the value in this is not in pointing the finger at failure (or my idea of failure) but rather in discussing how and why performances may fail. Finally, I have commented on recent developments and the jazz avant-garde as exemplified by Ornette Coleman.

I have not tried in this book to disguise my enthusiasm for jazz and for most of the players and performers I have discussed. But I have tried not to include too many of my own specific emotional responses to the musicians and their work. My purpose in this book has been to clear the way, to help listeners discover their own responses by putting them more directly in touch with the music itself. I have suggested my own feelings about jazz, I trust, largely as a means to such an end.

Finally, I think that each reader should undertake a book of this sort at his own pace—even at his own leisure—and that for some a gradual alternation of reading and listening can be the most rewarding. With that purpose in mind, I have included suggestions for a "Basic Library of Jazz" and have, in various sections, added "Record Notes" which list representative works of the artists discussed. The reader will, I hope, take it from there. …

Where's the Melody?

Let us assume that we are following two men as they enter a jazz nightclub or arrive, a few minutes late, at a jazz concert. One of them is an avid fan, an insider who has been following the music enthusiastically for years. His friend is not an insider; he is curious and sympathetic but a little puzzled. As they move inside the club or concert hall, the music is underway. The novice turns to the insider and asks, "What are they playing, do you know?"

The master replies, 'That's A Foggy Day"

At this point we can discern puzzlement, and perhaps despair, on the face of our novice. He knows perfectly well what A Foggy Day in London Town sounds like, and he hears nothing whatever like its melody coming from the musicians in front of him. Yet his friend is sure that it's A Foggy Day.
Jazz must be some kind of musical puzzle.

In effect, our novice has asked a prevalent question, "Where's the melody?" Or, to put it more crudely, "What are those musicians doing up there?" It is a question that is considered so square by some jazz fans, and even some musicians, that they refuse to answer—or even hear it. Yet I think it is a perfectly valid question, and answering it can be enlightening. For what those musicians are "doing up there" is not very obscure. It is not wholly unprecedented in the Western European music from which American music partly derives. And it is certainly no kind of musical game or puzzle.

Most of us probably know that jazz musicians make variations on a theme and that these variations are often improvised, invented on the spot as they play. For many people the primary quality in jazz is its rhythm—jazz is a particular rhythmic way of playing music. And anyone who has ever watched a group of jazz fans will be led to suspect that more than a few of them are responding to jazz rhythm—and very little else. There is nothing invalid about such a response, for its particular way of handling rhythm is indeed one of the unique things and one of the most compelling things about jazz music. But on the other hand, jazz rhythm, on the surface at least, is a readily recognizable quality. For our novice it is probably the thing that for him makes jazz jazz. He hears it, he feels it, and he says, "That's jazz." He may not always be right and he may not sense the fine details of whether the musicians are handling jazz rhythms well (that is, whether they are "swinging"), but he will be right most of the time.

Let's take a familiar popular song, which is what jazzmen do about half the time. There is nothing in the popular song that necessarily makes it jazz. It may have been influenced by jazz, even heavily influenced, as most American popular music has. But if a jazz musician plays it, he will play it with jazz rhythm. He will make it "swing/' give it a particular kind of momentum and movement. Thus, a jazz musician has already made a rhythmic variation on a piece by performing it at all. But so far he has given us no problems, for he has used the familiar melody in a recognizable way— let us say it is A Foggy Day or Pennies from Heaven or Embraceable You or any of thousands of American popular songs that are familiar to most of us and that are commonly used by jazz musicians.

Almost any jazz performance of familiar pieces like those will have at least an opening chorus based on the familiar melody itself. However, many jazz musicians use the melody not just for their opening statements, but as a basis of everything they do. There are players from every style and school of jazz who play that way; if you came in in the middle of one of their performances you would probably know right away what they were playing.
But such performances are not a matter of playing the same thing over and over again. These players make variations. For example, they will embellish the melody in various ways: they will add decorative notes and phrases, they will fill in in places where the melody comes to rest, and they will make slight changes in the notes as written.

At the same time they may improvise with the harmony of a piece (particularly if they are pianists) altering the simple chords that you and I would find on a piece of sheet music and even adding to the chords.

Now, of course, these things can be done badly. Some decorations can be cluttering and affected. The point of the melodic embellishments and of the richer harmony is to enhance the piece, to bring out its good qualities or modify its poor ones, and, at best, to discover hidden qualities and make a better piece of music of it. The great master of this particular embellishment approach to jazz improving was the pianist Art Tatum whose additions and fills were often dazzling, and whose sense of rich, improvised harmony was probably the most developed that our popular music has ever seen.

But besides filling out and elaborating the melody, a jazz musician can subtract from it, can reduce it to a kind of outline with fascinating musical experience thereby. Thelonious Monk,  because of his exceptional and subtle sense of rhythm, can take even a silly popular ditty and make it sound like a first-rate composition for piano — his version of You Took the Words Right Out of My Heart is a good example, or, to take a better song, his rephrasing of I Should Care.

Another player who uses this melodic approach to variations is Erroll Garner. And there are horn players, particularly from older generations, who are excellent at this kind of paraphrase of familiar melodies.

The greatest of all is Louis Armstrong, who can work with good popular material like I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues and improve it, or who can work with poor material like That's My Home and make it sound like deathless melody.

Thus a great deal of jazz variation is recognizably made on a familiar melody, and there are players from all styles and schools who use this approach. They may elaborate the melody, they may decorate it, or they may reduce it and simplify it (basically, these are what a classicist would call kinds of "melodic variation"), and they may re-harmonize it. But it is — always there somewhere. The art lies in how well they transmute it, in how good a paraphrase they come up with while transforming what was written.

Now let's go back to our jazz fan and his novice friend who were entering the club or concert. Let's assume that now they are comfortably in their seats, that the Miles Davis ensemble is performing, and that they begin Bye Bye, Blackbird. In the first chorus of this piece our novice would hear a transmutation of a familiar, perhaps appealing, but obviously and deliberately lightweight popular ditty from the Twenties. He will realize that there is indeed a sea change taking place, however, for although Davis' trumpet is keeping recognizably to the written melody, he has transformed it, making it a kind of buoyant dirge. Then, in Davis' second chorus, there suddenly seems to be no more Bye Bye, Blackbird. What is going on?

What is going on is that Miles Davis is offering a new melody, one which he is improvising on the spot. This melody does continue the mood and the musical implications he was sketching in his first chorus, but it offers some very new ideas of melody.

Davis is using as his guide for this new melody what we may call an "outline" or "framework" of Bye Bye, Blackbird. Technically speaking, he is using what musicians call the “chord changes, the harmonic understructure of Bye Bye, Blackbird as the basis for this melody of his own. (Classicists would call this a harmonic variation, incidentally.)

The way to listen to him now is to listen not for something we already know or have already heard, but for the music that Miles Davis is making as we hear him. If we also hear, or sense unconsciously, that "outline," that related chord structure the player is using as his guide, fine. But we don't have to. Jazz is not a musical game or puzzle.

Sometimes jazz musicians will a familiar structure, a familiar set of chord changes from a standard popular song, without using the theme melody at all, even for their opening chorus. They simply invent, from the very beginning, without any theme statement or paraphrase. Classic examples are Lester Young's 1944 version of These Foolish Things and Charlie Parker's Embraceable You. In each case the player is using the familiar harmonic outline for his guide — but not necessarily for ours. Again, jazz variation is not a guessing game or a puzzle. Where's the melody? Well, again, the melody is the one that Lester Young or Charlie Parker is making up, the one he is playing. It is not something we have heard before; it may even seem to be like nothing we have heard before. It is what he is playing. Hear it, enjoy it. And hear it well, for it may not exist again.

Similarly, jazz musicians sometimes introduce their improvising with new themes, written or memorized, which are also patterned to old chord structures.  Thus, Ornithology takes its outline from the How High The Moon; Count Basie’s Roseland Shuffle came from Shoeshine Boy; Moten Swing came from You’re Driving' Me Crazy; and there are probably at least two thousand jazz originals, from Sidney Bechet's Shag through Ornette Coleman's Angel Voice, based on the chords to Gershwin's I Got Rhythm. An obvious reason for this is that the new themes have a more jazzlike melodic character than the popular songs which were their harmonic origin.

Thus, there are three kinds of variations—those that involve rhythm, which are intrinsic in jazz performances, as we have seen; those that involve embellishing or paraphrasing a written melody, either decorating it or subtracting from it or both; and those that involve the invention of new melodies within a harmonic outline. They are all found, alone or more often in combination, in all styles and schools of jazz except the most recent.

At this point, let's try a summary by example. Let us assume that we play a little bit of piano and read a little bit of music. We are attracted to a particular popular song and purchase a piece of sheet music for that song to try it out on the parlor spinet. The sheet music will probably present the song in a fairly simple manner. The right-hand piano part, the treble, will give its melody. The left-hand part, the bass, will give simple chords that fit that melody; usually the chords given on sheet music are simple, and often they are quite simple. We take the piece home and play it over a few times until we've got it, as written down, fairly smoothly.

For most people this is the end of the matter. They have learned to play the song as the sheet music presents it. But let us assume that there is a jazz musician inside us and he takes over. The first step would be to play the piece with jazz rhythm. Automatically, this will mean at least some changes in the values of the notes and some personal interpretations of the accents. We have begun to make the piece "swing." Actually, an authentic "swing" is not an easy matter, but let's assume we're getting one fairly well.

Incidentally, in doing this we have discovered that making a piece of music "swing" has nothing to do with playing it fast or loud. It is a matter of giving it a particular kind of rhythm. It can be done slowly and quietly. (Actually, it is very difficult to swing at extremely slow tempo or at extremely fast tempo—but that technicality needn't detain us now.)

Now let's say that under the impetus of that swing and its unique momentum, we begin to try changing certain of the melody notes more boldly. What we have already changed suggests more changes, and we extend some, we shorten others, we leave out some, we add others. We begin to get a different piece of music. At the same time, perhaps we hear more interesting harmonies for the left hand. We change a few of the chords to make them richer, and, in passing, we perhaps add a few appropriate tones that weren't there.

Now, the final step: suppose we gradually diminish the original right-hand part—the treble, the melody notes—altogether. We keep the left-hand part (or our version of it) and with the right hand we make up a new melody part that fits that left-hand part.

It used to be said that modern jazzmen, of the generation of the Forties, began the business of writing new themes to old structures and of inventing new solo melodies to chords alone. But this is obviously untrue. It is untrue of the blues form, as we shall see. Furthermore, our example of Moten Swing comes from 1932, and there are earlier examples of jazz originals with their chords borrowed from, let's say, After You've Gone, or I Ain't Got Nobody, or Sweet Sue, or a dozen others. And, almost all of the great players of the late Thirties—men like pianist Teddy Wilson; tenor saxophonists Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, and Lester Young; alto saxophonists Johnny Hodges and Benny Carter; guitarist Charlie Christian —did much of their playing on chord structures alone, with little or no reference to a theme. Indeed, even earlier players were capable of it, and there are many recorded examples of "non-thematic" variations, of variations that invent original melodies, by Bix Beiderbecke, Louis Armstrong, Earl Hines, Jack Teagarden, Sidney Bechet, and even by Bunk Johnson whose style dates from the early days of New Orleans jazz.

Only the youngest players have broken away from using either the melody of a piece or its chords as direct guides for making their variations.

A good paraphrase of a melody by a good jazz musician is frequently quite superior to its point of departure, the original popular song in the standard repertory. And a good melodic invention by a great jazz musician is a piece of spontaneous composition that may be miles ahead of its point of departure. 1 would not denigrate George Gershwin's achievements; he was one of our best popular composers— indeed, one of our best musicians. But Gershwin was usually writing songs, fairly simple melodies intended to be sung, usually by relatively untrained voices. And Charlie Parker's recorded variations on Gershwin's Embraceable You and Lady Be Good are instrumentally brilliant in a way that Gershwin's songs are not and were not intended to be.

However, Parker, like most great jazzmen, was also a melodist. He was a great instrumental melodist when judged by quite exacting musical standards. When we remember that Parker (again, like most great jazzmen) was a player and did his "composing" as he played, by improvisation, then we realize how astonishing his achievement was.

And so, we come back again to our question and our answer. Where's the melody? The melody is the one the player is making. Hear it well, for it probably will not exist again. And it may well be extraordinary.”

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