Sandy Brown Jazz


The following article was first written by Ron Rubin in 1965 when he was playing bass at the Indigo Jazz Club in Majorca.

Sibelius once remarked that there has never been a statue set up in honour of a critic. Whilst this must surely be true, I might add that there has also never been a statue set up in honour of a jazz musician, although I doubt very much whether Messrs. Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker or Louis Armstrong would be very much put out by this omission.

Since first writing this, times have changed. There are now statues of jazz musicians – Louis Armstrong stands at the edge of the French Quarter in New Orleans, I’ve seen a fine statue of Sidney Bechet in Antibes, and Duke Ellington overlooks both Times Square from 110th Street in Manhattan and in the garden of Peter Boizot’s Great Northern Hotel in Peterborough.

It is sometimes a source of wonder to Europeans that America still regards her indigenous art form as something not quite nice. Perhaps it is because of its associations with night-life and the entertainment industry, or its obscure origins in turbulent Storyville, the red-light district of New Orleans. From there it evolved at the turn of the twentieth century from a strange musical pot-pourri of Negro blues, work-songs, spirituals and half-remembered rhythms brought over on slave ships from West Africa. It was mixed with ragtime and the hymns and brass band music of Europe, and employed the harmonies of the latter.

The aftermath of the American Civil War saw the disbanding of the Southern armies, and large quantities of military band instruments became cheaply available to the inhabitants of the Negro ‘ghettos’. They learned to play the popular brass band music in their own unique manner, embellishing the melodies, creating new sounds out of the old, making the music move with a new, exciting rhythmic ‘swing’.

The New Orleans bands generally used an instrumentation or ‘line-up’ of cornet (or trumpet), trombone, clarinet, banjo and drums. The first three instruments were known as the ‘front line’ and the latter three as the ‘rhythm section’. Led by the cornet, the front line used a crude but effective three-voice polyphony, underlined by the syncopated beat and basic harmonies of the rhythm section. These early bands were marching bands, and it was not, therefore, until the 1920s that the piano could be added, and the more agile but less portable string bass (played pizzicato) could be substituted for the tuba.

In the 1920s the guitar (played acoustically), came to be generally favoured in preference to the strident and less subtle banjo. The saxophone gradually came into use, although played very differently to the original conception of its inventor, Adolphe Sax, whose intention was that it should be played without vibrato, in military and brass bands.

During the 1920s, countless musicians, for economic reasons, drifted up the Mississippi to the more prosperous North – amongst them the musicians of Storyville, which in 1917 had been closed down by the U.S. Naval Department, and Chicago soon became the new focal point of jazz.

There are various claims for the true origin of the word ‘Jazz’ or ‘Jass’. Some say that it first appeared around 1915 in Chicago where it was used as another word for copulation. Others argue that it appeared earlier in 1912/1913 as a term linked to baseball. Research has also shown that in 1860 there was an American slang word ‘jasm’ or ‘jism’ meaning ‘spirit’, ‘energy’, ‘spunk’, ‘sperm’ or ‘semen’. I also read somewhere that the word ‘Jazz’ may have come from the initials of the marching hymn: ‘Jesus, Almighty, Save our Souls’, or from ‘Chas.’ i.e. ‘Charles’ somebody – perhaps the leader of a band? [For more information see ].

The music of great expatriate New Orleans musicians such as King Oliver, Freddy Keppard, Jelly Roll Morton and the young Louis Armstrong now existed side-by-side with a newer, looser form of the New Orleans style which came to be known as ‘Chicago Style’, and later ‘Dixieland’. This style was derived from the earlier one by young white musicians such as Bix Beiderbecke, Pee Wee Russell, Muggsy Spanier and Eddie Condon.

In the 1930s, New York became the centre of the jazz scene and has, more or less, remained so until this day. The virtuoso musician came into his own: the astonishing pianistics of Art Tatum, the agile clarinet of Benny Goodman, and Coleman Hawkins’ masterly tenor saxophone. The age of ‘Swing’ had arrived, and jazz attained a popularity it had not previously, nor ever again, achieved.

Big, shouting bands ruled the day: Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Jimmy Lunceford, as well as the pretentious pseudo-jazz of Paul Whiteman and others, and the bitter sweet voice of the exquisite Billie Holiday inspired a whole galaxy of lesser torch singers.

In the early 1940s, a small coterie of musicians grew tired of the excesses, the endless riffs and repetitions of the popular big bands. They evolved a new musical language of their own during the course of informal after-hours ‘jam sessions’ at Minton’s Playhouse in New York, which historic establishment was fortunately under the aegis of a sympathetic musician.

The new style came to be known as 'Bebop' or ‘Bop’. Of course the critics and most of the older, established musicians panned these experimental excursions, but as is so often the case in an artistic revolution, they lived to eat their words. The new jazz appeared to be a complete break with the music of the 1930s.

Only in retrospect does one see it as a logical, almost inevitable development from the earlier jazz. The world’s music is deeply indebted to these men of vision: to Charlie Christian, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, Bud Powell, J.J. Johnson, Kenny Clarke, and above all to the incredible genius of Charlie Parker – one of the greatest improvisers to have been produced in the short and chaotic history of jazz.

The music had now become technically highly complex and self-conscious. A new generation of jazz musicians arose who were required to have a thorough knowledge of chord progression and substitution, as well as great command of their instruments before extemporization could become subtle, articulate and creative within the context of the new music.

The diaspora of Bop came about during the 1950s. Various styles arose: the so-called ‘Cool’ style of Miles Davis, the piano-less Gerry Mulligan sound, the polite neo-Baroque sounds of the Modern Jazz Quartet, the ‘hard-bop’ school of Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, and the clever superficialities of Dave Brubeck’s experiments with time signatures.

But by now the jazz musician had become aware of his role as a creative artist, and the split between jazz and popular entertainment widened. The earlier jazz had been a functional music. It was played at funerals, parades and even political campaigns in New Orleans, and in the 1920s and 1930s it was used mainly as an accompaniment for dancing.

Now a listening audience had emerged, and the music was taken seriously - especially by some over-pedantic and prejudiced jazz writers and musicologists who dissected the body of jazz rather as if it were a corpse and not a vital, compulsive form of self-expression.

But jazz had extended its emotional range. Now we have jazz for every mood: loud and extrovert, romantic, introspective, nostalgic, happy, satirical and a thousand gradations in between. Jazz has come of age.

© Ron Rubin 2008



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