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Music: A Flourish of Jazzz

7 minute read

Any jazz musician who is worth a toot knows what July 4 means. July 4 is the birthday of one of America’s great founding fathers: Louis Armstrong. The life of the incomparable Satchmo spanned virtually the entire development of jazz, but that uniquely American music did not disappear with Armstrong’s passing at age 71 five years ago. Indeed what is remarkable about jazz is that its original face has never been lost. The music is no older than the century, and many of its fathers are still alive and playing. Painting and classical music progress sequentially, discarding earlier styles and forms in pursuit of the new (nobody, for example, paints like Giotto today, or composes like Haydn), but jazz continues to flower cumulatively, taking on and transforming the new without ever abandoning the old. It is a fugue with a life of its own, endlessly recapitulating itself. If its vitality dims from time to time under the onslaught of fads or sheer noise, jazz simply sits out a few sets, catches its breath and comes back refreshed.

Also refurbished—so much so that a new Jazz Age has dawned again in America. Record manufacturers have a boomlet on their hands. In the next year 20 labels will spin out more than 350 reissues alone, in addition to new jazz. The buyers are clamoring for Jelly Roll Morton, Fats Waller, Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman, as well as Keith Jarrett and George Benson. Jazz disks that once were counted hot numbers if they sold 20,000 copies now find a market for 200,000 or more. There is scarcely a major college campus that does not offer a jazz course or harbor student combos. The Newport and Monterey jazz festivals have become the Bayreuth and Glyndebourne of jazz in the U.S.—and attract knowledgeable, sophisticated crowds.

One sure sign of jazz’s new vitality is the recent proliferation of clubs. In San Francisco, the Keystone Korner, El Matador and the Great American Music Hall are jumping nightly with finger snappers. Boston has a floating musical bistro called Jazzboat plying the harbor on two sold-out weekly cruises. Around New Orleans’ Bourbon Street the crowds wander in and out of clubs that open onto the sidewalk. They can hear anything from driving Dixieland to the attenuated sounds of progressive jazz. In New York there are more clubs than at any time since the ’40s.

Tempo and Tenor. The New York scene, in fact, dramatically illustrates the tempo and tenor of today’s music. All the old greats—and all tomorrow’s stars—are filling the nights with once and future jazz. A season’s billboard reads like an arpeggio of jazz excitement: Teddy Wilson, Benny Carter, Charles Mingus, Count Basie, Thelonius Monk, Milt Hinton, Cootie Williams, Maynard Ferguson, Buddy Rich, Stan Getz, Earl Hines, Herbie Hancock, Dizzy Gillespie. They are playing blues, bop, jazz rock, honky tonk and ethereal moondust. The newest jazz center is in SoHo lofts, where young audiences gather to hear warm, contrapuntal, richly melodic explorations. “We never repeat,” says Sam Rivers, founder of Studio Rivbea. “For three hours straight, ideas keep flourishing.”

There has been a flourishing in instrumentation too. Anything that whistles or bleats has been electrified—flute, string bass, tenor sax. There are wah-wah pedals on trombones, electronic keyboards, Moog Synthesizers, Mini Moogs, Micro-Mini Moogs, and last —and perhaps least—the Alembic Bass with Instant Flanger.* The new machinery is just one more example of how jazz keeps expanding. Says Deejay Charlie Perkins of Boston’s WBUR, “Jazz is borrowing the whole electrical thing.”

The growth of jazz, however, has not always been so assured. In the 1960s jazz became ingrown and uncertain. Musicians have always regarded each other suspiciously across the generations. In the ’30s, Dixieland distrusted swing. In the ’40s, swing mocked bop. In the ’50s, when people like Stan Kenton and Dave Brubeck were experimenting with progressive harmonies and other far-out ideas, many audiences found the music too cerebral.

Best of Rock. With the eruption of the ’60s, jazz succumbed almost entirely to rock. “Rock was popular because it was easy,” recalls jazz-rock pianist Herbie Hancock. “The jazz of the ’60s was complicated, atonal and difficult, if not impossible, to sing. There was no way to participate in it as there was in rock. You could dance to rock, but not to the jazz of that period; jazz did evoke a certain feeling, but it was hard to pinpoint it in those dense sound clusters and complex rhythms. And so people walked away with a feeling, but not with a remembrance. They had nothing to touch.”

By the end of the ’60s it seemed to some serious musicians and sated (if not bored) audiences that much of rock lacked any redeeming value beyond offering the opportunity to an appalling number of untalented children to become millionaires simply by raising an electronically amplified ruckus. In the early ’70s, jazz, with its capacity for self-renewal, began to use the best of rock. Trumpeter Miles Davis launched the era of jazz rock with an LP album, Bitches Brew, that combined his avant-garde jazz style with rock’s electronic sounds and driving rhythms. Davis’ daring not only kindled a new form but also reawakened audiences. Jazz had arrived once more, its scope more eclectic than ever. “As we became more mature with our music,” says Dizzy Gillespie, “we suddenly realized that music is one, and that we can use anything. Jazz is big enough to use any influence.”

Thus, older jazz musicians today no longer hesitate to participate in the evolutionary process. Zoot Sims, 50, the veteran tenor saxophonist, now straddles all styles. Benny Carter, 68, has lent the silken sounds of his alto sax to the torchy voice of thirtyish pop singer Maria Muldaur. Drummer Grady Tate, 44, pounds out extraordinary admixtures of jazz beats and shifting, rocky rhythms.

The younger musicians are also engaged in this kind of cross-fertilization. Chick Corea, 35, a Miles Davis alumnus with a reputation for lyrical introspection on the piano, now leads a group called Return to Forever, one of the first electronic jazz bands to reach a mass rock audience. Bassist Stanley Clarke, 25, trained in the classics, combines breathtaking technical acrobatics with Coltrane-style solos. British-born John McLaughlin, 34, plays America’s most supercharged guitar, pouring out majestic chords at breakneck tempos in a hybrid concoction of hard rock, Indian music and 32-bar blues. Weather Report, a five-man combo, mixes improvisitory jazz techniques with rhythmically powerful rock, and comes out sounding like a 120-piece orchestra. Hancock, 36, who once played a lyrical jazz piano, turned funky and three years ago issued a jazz-rock LP, Head Hunters, that has since sold more than 870,000 copies (TIME, July 8,1974).

Scarlatti Romp. If contemporary jazz has a new cynosure, it is Pianist Keith Jarrett, 31. A virtuoso performer who was trained in the classics, Jarrett is a flawless, controlled technician who scales melodic altitudes that recall the late piano genius Art Tatum. Jarrett’s great gift is improvisation, which he weaves effortlessly for as much as 25 minutes at a sitting. His textures are densely contrapuntal, his melodies sometimes Chopinesque. At one moment he can sound like a Latin band on the march, at another like Copland playing variations on Elliott Carter, at still another like Scarlatti in a rhythm and blues romp.

Given musical riches of such diversity and dimension, the future of jazz seems more promising than ever. There is still time left for the fertilization process between fathers and sons to fulfill itself. But in New Orleans, jazz funerals for the old Dixieland musicians are becoming more frequent. Preservation Hall once drew on a pool of 200 men; now there are about 40. When all the fathers are gone, the links will fall away, and there will be only the recordings for newer generations to build upon. But that should be sufficient to guarantee the future. The prelude may have ended. But the fugue continues.

*A device that enables the bassist to “bend” the pitch of a note and produce a stereo sound.

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