White Musicians in Jazz and Evolution of Jazz Concerts

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In this essay I will be assessing the validity of Max Roach’s statement, researching different areas of the jazz genre and providing examples of the main influences from each of them. I will look into different jazz styles from the 1930s to the 1960s referring to influential performers in these eras to provide a balanced assessment of white musicians influence in jazz.

In the early ages of Dixieland jazz one particular white musician became one of the most popularised performers of the era, Bix Beiderbecke. Bix, born in Davenport, Iowa was a talented cornet and piano player. He began playing the cornet at the age of thirteen when he first heard the original Dixieland Jass Band. Within two years, he had started playing with local jazz bands. He featured as a cornet soloist in legendary bands like the Wolverines, the Paul Whiteman Orchestra and the Jean Goldkette Orchestra. Although Beiderbecke was well known in the jazz community between the 1920s-30s his Influence on Jazz is somewhat overshadowed by the emergence of possibly the most influential Jazz artist, Louis Armstrong. Armstrong and Beiderbecke both started performing professionally in 1924 but greatly differed in both up-bringing and performing styles. Armstrong was born into poverty in New Orleans and was formally taught the horn at a juvenile delinquency home whereas Beiderbecke came from a middle-class family who taught himself cornet. This difference is evident in their playing styles. Bix’s cornet solos focus mainly on a strong melodic line with a pure clear tone featuring heavily swung rhythms in the middle of the cornet’s register. Armstrong’s style is more virtuosic with loud heavy articulation and a full use of the trumpet’s register. Both are seen as important figures in jazz history with Beiderbecke’s solo on the track “Singin’ the Blues” noted as an early influence on the cool jazz era with the sweet and gentle phrasing and improvisations acting as one of the first Jazz ballads of its time. However, Bix lived a short life of only 28 years performing and recording around 250 records.

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A former band mate of Bix also revolutionised the Jazz genre. Benny Goodman was born in Chicago, May 30th, 1909. Goodman received his first clarinet in 1919 and started playing professionally in 1924 – at the age of 14. Benny Goodman was known for his virtuosic technique, incredibly clear and light tone and control, especially in pieces with fast tempo’s. Benny performed with numerous successful bands including Ted Lewis and Ben Selvin. Goodman’s influence spans further than the music itself. Goodman has been cited as being one of the pioneers for reviving small jazz ensembles which had fallen out of favour with the rise of big bands. In 1935 Goodman started ‘The Benny Goodman trio’ consisting of pianist Teddy Wilson and drummer Gene Krupa. They created a style of ‘chamber jazz’ which featured heavily improvised solos which were technically brilliant and refined. The inclusion of mixed band members in jazz was fairly revolutionary at this time. Goodman’s mixed raced bands paved the way for big band diversity in a time of racial segregation. Benny’s records include such swing anthems like “let’s dance,” “stomping at the savoy” and “Sing, Sing Sing”. Goodman is famed for his performance at the Carnegie hall in 1938. Phil Schaap (former Jazz curator at Lincoln centre) has stated that “Benny Goodman's Carnegie Hall concert historically is the most important concert in jazz history.” The concert was crucial for the future of jazz as it showcased the genre for listening purposes, before then swing music was primarily performed in dance halls and nightclubs, this new performance space evolved the genre.

In the 1950s Dave Brubeck dominated the jazz world by becoming part of the first jazz group to achieve a million selling jazz album with Time out (1959). Brubeck was heavily influenced by Neo-Classical composers like Stravinsky and Prokofiev. He was inspired by their use of unconventional rhythms and tonal structure. It is clear to see him utilising some of these techniques in his own pieces. He was also known for introducing polytonality to his pieces which expanded on the rudimentary ideas of blocked chords to make “Polychords”. This use of extended harmony to layer different chords on top of each other to create different sounds was greatly innovative. Brubeck’s popularity is championed by his most famous album ‘Time out’ which categorically changed the landscape of jazz. In ‘Time out’ Brubeck challenges the listener with the inclusion of peculiar time signatures. “Take Five” is in 5/4 and “blue rondo a la turk” in 9/8. This broke away from the normality of simple time signatures in Jazz. The album did not feature any ‘standard’ jazz pieces and was made up of original songs composed by the quartet. The album was also unique as it featured contemporary cover art in place of more traditional images of the performers. Brubeck’s influence on music also extended to the promotion of his music. He pushed jazz into the public eye by performing around the college campus circuit helping to introduce jazz to younger audiences who were, at that time, more interested in the popular music of rock and roll. This success was mirrored in the media resulting in Brubeck being selected to be on the cover of Time magazine in 1954. This was the first time that a Jazz musician had ever been featured.

Bill Evans was a significant figure with a unique playing style that greatly inspired modern jazz. Bill Evans music was special for many reasons one of those reasons was his incorporation of musical modes into jazz. The use of modal jazz focuses more on the harmonic elements than chord progression. This method is inspired by classical music which has used modes since the renaissance era. Evans composition “Peace Piece” has a clear influence from impressionist composers like Ravel and Debussy, it was one of the first free form improvisations over a static modal harmony which inspired many jazz artists. Evans is also noted as one of the pioneers to incorporate the sostenuto pedal into his playing style. This moved away from the harsh sounding piano playing we hear in Bop music and lends itself perfectly into the cool jazz idiom. Evans revolutionised the process of re-harmonisation of chord voicings. He altered blocked chords by implementing rootless left-hand voicings which would allow notes to move smoothly with minimum hand movement. This created a sense of harmonic freedom. His piece ‘Peace Piece’ was one of the first free form improvisations over a static modal harmony which influenced jazz artists such as John Coltrane. It is important to note the common thread that all three of these white jazz musicians had an overwhelming respect for western classical music. Beiderbecke’s music was largely influenced by Debussy use of harmony, Goodman’s knowledge and appreciation of classical clarinet music from composers like Brahms and Mozart and Brubeck’s compositional knowledge of neo-classical like Stravinsky. The creativity used to implement elements from classical compositions into jazz sets them apart from other innovators in this genre.

The evidence certainly suggests there was a creative and innovative influence from white musicians. However, A poll ran by BBC radio and Jazz fm questioning “who the greatest jazz artist of all time” resulted in a top 10 which featured only one white musician (Bill Evans). Although preference is entirely subjective, I will examine this list and compare their mark on the genre to see if Roach is correct in his statement. Miles Davis was the top of the BBC poll. Davis like Evans contribution primarily revolves around the popularisation of modes. He is seen as the most important figure in pioneering this style. The innovation of modal jazz with records such as “kind of blue” revolutionised all music including pop, rock and classical. Miles is the most influential as he was not only a part of modal jazz but bebop, cool jazz, jazz fusion and hard bop. His versatility and hunger to keep on changing sounds makes him very creative and innovative. Duke Ellington has also made a considerable impact in the jazz world. Duke was a prolific jazz composer who created many popular standards such as “it don’t mean a thing (if you ain’t got that swing)” and “in a sentimental mood” he composed over 2000 charts and his legendary Duke Ellington orchestra featured some of the best musicians jazz has ever seen. John Coltrane is certainly the most influential saxophonist in jazz history. He is renowned for his contributions to the hard bop era of jazz with his ability to play loud and fast whilst still playing technically brilliant improvisations. He certainly has contributed to the creativity of the sound of jazz with songs like ‘Giant steps’ and ‘my favourite things’.

In conclusion, white musicians certainly have added to the evolution of Jazz by fusing the techniques of European classical music with the solid foundation of the blues and early jazz genre. These influences can be seen in Bix, Benny, Dave and Bill whose appreciation of classical music allowed a new sound to be formed organically. However, the music itself has been mostly created and expanded by black musicians who have most certainly added more. The real innovation of white musicians lies in their advertisement of jazz which made the genre popular with performances by Goodman at Carnegie Hall and Brubeck’s numerous college tours bringing jazz to the public and allowing it to develop as a credible style. Therefore, Roach is somewhat accurate in terms of the composition of jazz, but he wrong in terms of the creativity involved in expanding jazz as a commodity.

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