Black and White Keys: A short history of jazz.
Written largely for Glyph, an incomplete and biassed overview of jazz.
Jazz piano is what I know. Arranging, voicing, scoring. The pianist, like the drummer, never gets much of the spotlight but between the two of them, they provide the springboard for the other instruments. Best to approach jazz historically, I say. You might never return to the early stuff but you should know it exists and still influences musicians today.
Jazz arises from two instruments: the guitar and the piano. I say jazz began in earnest in New Orleans, at the end of the ragtime era, though it quickly migrated to Chicago and more significantly, to Harlem in New York City. The inestimable Eubie Blake and Luckey Roberts are my zero mile marker on the road to jazz.
The era of Stride Piano had begun in earnest. From Eubie and Luckey arose Fats Waller and from Fats arose Art Tatum, a genial madman who opened the throttle on everything which followed. Whee! Listen to that demented Negro beat up on that piano! It’s the Tiger Rag, folks. Nothing like it, before or since.
These black musicians were earning a semi-honest living, shucking and jiving and grinning, playing for reputable white people in upscale dance halls. Good enough to play on the bandstand but not good enough to eat in the restaurants or sleep in the beds of the hotels they played, they were forced to find accomodation with their own kind in the less-wonderful parts of town. In such places, they would seek each other out and play, having fun, trading licks until the wee hours of the morning.
The cognoscenti white kids followed their favourite musicians into these segregated neighbourhoods, undeterred by the vicious racism of the era, knowing what they’d hear in those dive bars in Harlem was better stuff by a mile. The story of jazz in America is the story of race. Those brave white kids are the great unsung heroes of jazz. Jazz was, in those days, a disreputable thing for it was black. It would not remain so. From the strong came forth sweetness, and of the madness and sorrow of segregation arose jazz, the music which came to define America.
In 1926, the Savoy Ballroom on Lenox and 140th became a mecca for people come in search of the new music and was packed from its opening night. Moe Galt, a Jewish guy, owned it and Charles Buchanan, a black man, ran it. Heartbeat of Harlem, Langston Hughes called it, the first grace note on the score of jazz. The Savoy was always integrated, always joyful. Here is where America first came to terms with jazz and the greatness of black culture. The beautiful Ella Fitzgerald was the Savoy’s first great star. Here she is as an older woman, accompanied by Joe Pass on guitar. Stupidly, both the Savoy Ballroom and the equally-significant Cotton Club were demolished for an ugly housing project in 1959.
The saxophone makes its first appearance in jazz with Coleman Hawkins (here appearing with Charlie Parker) in Fletcher Henderson’s band. Fletcher Henderson gives us the vocabulary of the jazz combo as we understand it today.
With the appearance of Duke Ellington, jazz became a truly noble thing. A genius makes the impossible look easy. Sophisticated, sly, meticulous — and oool. Listening to Duke taught me race doesn’t matter. The soul matters. Duke was a spiritual man, wrote spiritual music, wrestled with angels, as great a composer as JS Bach. Duke Ellington was a buddha by my estimation of things, a man of transcendent greatness, the very embodiment of elegance. A credit to his race — mine too — yours as well. The human race.
Though other white guys had played in jazz bands, Red Nichols takes us into the Jazz Age. The mysterious Bix Beiderbecke redefined jazz brass, a meteoric talent who still influences players today, burned out early, pouring gallons of bad liquor into his guts.
Other white dudes were also playing, Paul Whiteman did very well, you know, playing that safe jazz, not sultry, wicked, black man’s jazz, whispering salacious overtures in nice girls’ ears. Most of the White Jazz of this era is pitiful stuff. Benny Goodman was little better, though he did have some black guys playing in his band. Lionel Hampton, one of those black guys, went on to form the first really integrated jazz band, with the incomparable Charlie Christian who gives us jazz electric guitar.
Django Reinhart (here playing with Duke Ellington) adds another vocabulary to the guitar. Badly burned as a young man, he learned to play the guitar again, voicing all his chords with two good fingers, two paralysed fingers and a thumb. Paired with violinist Stephane Grappelli, Europeans entered jazz in a larger way.
Count Basie made ’em hop. Mary Lou Williams made ’em think. Jazz was diverging. Bebop was on its way in as the big bands were on their way out. Dizzy Gillespie is bebop’s prime instigator and culprit, though the guilty parties are many. Especially this rascal, Fatha Hines and another sinister minister name of Charlie Parker, a very bad boy indeed, who named this tune for his drug dealer. For Mr. Parker was a devotee of heroin and it came to rule and ruin his life.
That’s a gracious plenty for now, folks. We’ve reached into the 1940s and early 50s. My old man said if you can’t keep your sermon under 20 minutes, either make it into two sermons or throw it away. Subsequent installments may be forthcoming, based on the reception this one gets. I wrote it for Glyph, anyway. He’s our music guy.
Image Credit: Savoy Ballroom in Harlem, 1939.
By Cornell Capa