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Modern jazz, 60, still full of youth and vitality

Dizzy Gillespie introduced many new arrangers

Sixty years ago, jazz emerged stronger after a life-and-death struggle. Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker were the two men who infused into it furious solo passages, and vital new ideas. A close look at the crucial decade that saved jazz from white bandleaders who played set pieces

The early 1940s mark a critical period in the history of jazz. The conventional way of looking at this time is as the beginning of modern jazz. A more radical viewpoint is to think of this as the time when jazz was rescued from damnation and found its soul again. But even the first viewpoint entails an astonishing conclusion: an art just about 85 years old has been in its modern age for almost 60 of those.

Not that modern jazz has not evolved in these six decades. But one can measure how critical the '40s were by seeing that all this evolution has taken place within a context of maturity: that the truly critical life-and-death struggle was won in a few years and the rest is mere detail.

That struggle was waged mainly by two extraordinary young men who had come together in the orchestra of the pianist Earl Hines, the trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and the alto saxophonist Charlie Parker. Both had discovered independently that in the swing big bands of the day the talented musician was often at a loose end, having to play with the ensemble or rest for stretches while one or two of their number ripped off a couple of short solos. And this, in a genuine jazz swing band like those of Hines, Duke Ellington or Count Basie! All the time many bandleaders such as Glenn Miller, mostly whites, relied entirely on set pieces of ensemble playing, paying mere lip service to the concept of soloing with interludes well rehearsed in advance.

Today nobody talks of Miller in the same breath as jazz, but in those days, when he was the most popular swing bandleader, pop musicians like him had almost succeeded in perverting the image of jazz in the public mind. While Basie and Ellington did manage to maintain the distinction for those who cared to know, the history of jazz as a creative art form may have run out like a river in a desert if Gillespie and Parker hadn't changed the concept of soloing.

Solo improvisation from the time of Louis Armstrong had meant that while the ensemble played the theme a few times, they fitted in a couple of interludes in which, as the pianist and bassist kept up the harmony of the composition, the soloist played a new melody based on the same harmony. Modern Western music is built around the concept of ''harmony'' and ''melody''. The harmony is a sequence of ''chords'' -- each chord consisting of three, sometimes four, notes played together. While the chord changes take place slowly -- say, once in a bar or two of music -- the melody notes of course can change from beat to beat or even more often, all the while staying within the current chord.

Parker and Gillespie had found that the music could be far more exciting if every now and then the chord changes were much more frequent, indeed sudden, because this gave them scope for leaping agilely from one note to the next, thereby making the melody line very jagged. They fiddled with the original harmony to make the chord changes very rapid, then tinkered with the melody to make the theme fast-moving and jagged, and finally threw in even faster and more furious solos.

These solos, after the theme had been played once or twice, were the backbone of the performance, almost every member of the band getting space to improvise in turn, perhaps several times. And the bands got smaller -- perhaps a couple of ''horn'' players (trumpets, saxes mostly) with a ''rhythm'' section of piano, bass, and drums, plus an optional guitar.

This was be-bop, at that time so startling a style of music that many of the old swing masters couldn't come to terms with it. It was no big deal that Cab Calloway, who had fired Gillespie for insinuating bits of be-bop solo into respectable swing, said, ''That ain't jazz! That's Chinese music'', but even Duke Ellington said playing fast be-bop was like playing Scrabble without any vowels. Today no one disputes the importance of be-bop in jazz history. Charlie Parker's Now's the time, Bloomdido, Parker's mood, and Ko-ko, Gillespie's Night in Tunisia, Be-bop and Shaw 'nuff, and a host of new compositions joined new interpretations of other old jazz, pop and Broadway classics in becoming showcases of the new art.

More than the actual technique of improvisation, it was the strong emphasis on improvising that set be-bop apart from swing jazz. And in time the recognition grew that not only was improvising essential to jazz, but that indeed it was the (only) defining quality of jazz. The history of modern jazz, long after the decline of be-bop melody and harmony, has been one of taking almost any form of folk music vaguely compatible with Western ideas of harmony and turning it into a style of jazz by introducing improvisation.

Thus, the early '50s saw the birth of two new styles, one signalled by the album The Birth of the Cool. The trumpeter Miles Davis, the baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan, and the pianist-composer-arranger Gil Evans collected a group of musicians who were tiring of the frenetic tempo and mood of be-bop to record in an altogether calmer, more relaxed style called cool jazz. The pace could be more sedate, the sequence of solos not so hectic, the melody lines more smooth and gentle, the ensemble playing given greater space. This was not swing resurrected, but a quieter kind of music. And to emphasise that there was no return to the old, the solos remained essential, integral to the music. Listen to Boplicity or Jeru on this album or the title track from Davis's Miles Ahead and you'll know what I mean. You can even hear the alto saxophonist Lee Konitz, one of the founders of cool, playing Just friends (included in the Polygram collection Blue Moods - 17 Cool Sax Gems) for a cool treatment of a Parker favourite while closely following a Parker-type be-bop melody line.

The other new genre born in the early '50s was Latin jazz. Gillespie had started exchanging ideas with Cuban musicians such as the conga player Chano Pozo, infusing Afro-Cuban rhythms, melodies and instruments with the life-blood of improvisation on hits such as Manteca and Tin tin deo. Later, Brazilian musicians and composers such as Antonio Carlos Jobim evolved a new kind of samba music called bossa nova, in which jazz instruments and improvisation found a big role. Gillespie took this up too, as did the tenor saxophonist Stan Getz and many others.

The story of ''ethnic'' streams joining the river of jazz has continued for over four decades now, the first tributary having been various African streams. From South Africa, especially, have come Abdullah Ibrahim (a.k.a. Dollar Brand), Hugh Masakela, and more recently Bheki Mseleku, for all of whom jazz was a symbol of protest against apartheid. But there have been West African and Congolese contributions too. The catch-all phrase ''fusion'' is used for all such blends, including some good (e.g., Trilok Gurtu) and some sadly unsuccessful Indo-jazz fusion.

But meanwhile, by the late '60s the attraction of large audiences and commercial success, but also the growing importance of rock as a form of social protest, inspired Miles Davis to experiment with jazz-rock fusion. In the company of the keyboardist Joe Zawinul, guitarists John Mclaughlin and John Scofield, and others, he pioneered a form in which the melodies, instrumentation (except for his own trumpet), and even solos were simple, even if not underplayed. But the main reason why many jazz purists (including yours truly) don't care too much for jazz-rock fusion is not the simplicity as much as the strong, perhaps over-loud, beats and, frequently, the electronically distorted piano/ guitar notes that characterise it.

By the early '60s, be-bop had already evolved in a new direction to tone down if not cut out the jagged melodies, place more emphasis on strong rhythms from the drummer, and all the while retain the central role of extensive, inventive solo improvisation. This was hard bop, whose archetypal exponent was -- aptly -- the drummer Art Blakey, who surrounded himself with talented trumpeters, saxophonists, pianists and the like in his Jazz Messengers group. Hard bop has survived jazz-rock and other fashion changes to remain the mainstay of jazz, and indeed although the term ''mainstream'' or ''straight-ahead'' jazz covers anything in modern jazz that isn't jazz-rock fusion, most often today it's hard bop. Its greatest living champion is the veteran tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins, but jazz musicians of all ages from the 58-year-old pianist Herbie Hancock to the young bassist Christian McBride play hard bop.

Jazzebel

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