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Jazz composition in the 1950s
Chapter Outline

In this chapter, we see how a few landmark musicians navigate the complicated position of "jazz composer" in the 1950s. One is Thelonious Monk, whose music began in the 1940s and reached a broad audience a decade later, and who combined a modernist vision of dissonance and rhythmic displacement with jazz (including stride) and popular song. Another is Charles Mingus, whose complex synthesis of his cultural experiences defies easy categorization in racial or musical terms. His ambitious notated compositions seem aimed at a fusion of jazz with the European art tradition, while at the same time (and often in the same pieces) he evokes a black vernacular idiom that, as with "soul jazz," identifies jazz firmly with African American traditions. George Russell became, not only a gifted composer, but also one of jazz's first theorists, and incorporates a dissonant language drawn from improvisation (the "Lydian Chromatic Construct") into his pieces. Finally, Gil Evans from Canada brings a new flexibility to jazz orchestration and a cultural ambition that pulls jazz into new orbits.

  1. Definitions: New and Old
    1. To define composition in the context of an improvisational art is difficult. Before recordings we have no record of composers' improvisations. Only formal compositions were committed to a score. Recordings have eliminated the need for a musical score. One can transcribe Hawkins's solo, but a recording of it provides a truer representation.
    2. Improvisers do not receive royalties, as do a song's composer, publisher, and lyricist, even though most of the performance may be the improviser's. This is why bebop musicians started composing their own melodies (chord progressions cannot be copyrighted).
    3. Where does improvisation end and composition begin? If Hawk had written down his performance, it would have been considered a composition. So the rule is: a composition is a musical work that may be played by any number of musicians and bands while remaining basically unchanged; though as an improvisation, it may prove as durable and adaptable as a composition, it exists first and foremost as a particular performance.
    4. Back to the Future
      1. During the 1950s the nature of jazz composition changed from a practice that was influenced by European classical music (Third Stream) to one that mined the jazz past including New Orleans polyphony, stride piano, breaks, cadenzas, and standard jazz and pop themes. During this period, non-performing full-time jazz composers made their appearance.
      2. Four jazz composers represent four approaches to expanding the jazz canvas:
        1. Monk worked with blues and standard song forms.
        2. Mingus worked with and expanded conventional forms, adding effects from gospel, ragtime, bop, classical music, and other sources.
        3. Gil Evans radically transformed the work of other composers.
        4. George Russell introduced modalism and new ways to approach harmony, and he changed the relation between composition and improvisation.
  2. Thelonius Monk (1917-1982)
    1. After Ellington, Monk is the most performed of all jazz composers, with his work having been adapted for every king of jazz style and for classical music. This is remarkable given that Ellington composed between fifteen hundred and two thousand pieces of all varieties including popular songs, while Monk composed a mere seventy pieces with only one barely mainstream piece among them ("'Round Midnight"). During his early years, Monk was considered eccentric and a mediocre composer. Today he is much appreciated.
    2. Years of Struggle
      1. After moving to New York when he was four, he started to teach himself piano by listening to his sister's piano lessons. He quit high school to play organ on tour with an evangelist. He heard the leading stride pianists of the day (Ellington, James P. Johnson, Mary Lou Williams) and began composing distinctive pieces that featured angular melodies and dissonant harmonies. He briefly studied music before joining drummer Kenny Clarke as part of the house band at Minton's Playhouse.
      2. Playing at Minton's put him at the center of the bebop movement. Bop pianists like Bud Powell admired his quirky attack and harmonies. His compositions ("Epistrophy," "Hackensack," "52nd Street Theme") were taken up by other musicians.
      3. "'Round Midnight" was the most important of his early pieces. It became the theme song for the Cootie Williams big band, which recorded it in 1944. After lyrics were added, it became popular with singers. Dizzy recorded it in 1946, adding an introduction that became a standard part of the song. Monk's first recorded version was in 1947. In 1956 Miles made it the centerpiece of his album 'Round About Midnight. Monk wrote other distinctive ballads as well.
      4. In 1944 Hawkins hired Monk for his quartet for recording and touring. Alfred Lion, the owner of Blue Note Records, became a fan and signed Monk in 1947. He recorded for Blue Note for the next five years. Some regarded Monk as apart from bop, and he was ridiculed for his percussive piano style.
      5. Recent evidence has suggested that Monk had Asperger's syndrome, a kind of autism whose characteristics match many of Monk's behaviors.
      6. In 1951 he was imprisoned for two months on a trumped-up narcotics charge. He refused to testify against others. His cabaret card, which allowed him to play in venues where liquor was sold, was taken away for six years. During this time he recorded and composed and occasionally performed in concert halls and other cities since he was not allowed to play in New York clubs without his card.
    3. Recognition
      1. In 1955 Monk was signed to a new label, Riverside. His first album was made up of well-known pieces by other composers with the idea that this would attract listeners. The strategy worked. In 1956 he recorded Brilliant Corners with Sonny Rollins and Max Roach. It was a major jazz event even though the title tune was extremely difficult.
      2. In 1957 his cabaret card was restored. He began a six-month residency at the Five Spot with John Coltrane. Many artists of all kinds were attracted to this band and Monk became a hero to the "beats." This gig had a lasting influence on the pair, both of whom spent the rest of their career playing with quartets built on Monk's precepts.
      3. By 1962 Monk was signed by the major label Columbia, and two years later Time magazine ran a story on him. The quartet, with saxophonist Charlie Rouse, toured the world.
      4. After achieving acceptance he withdrew, composing less but enjoying his piano more, playing modern harmonies with stride rhythms, often on older pieces. His last recording was in 1971, and he appeared only a few times after that. By the mid-1970s he slipped into seclusion; he died in 1982. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in music 2006.
    4. Style
      1. Monk used traditional song forms (AABA ) and blues as a basis for his compositions. Sometimes he would alter standard harmonies with whole-tone and chromatic scales: "Just You, Just Me" becomes "Evidence"; "Blue Skies" becomes "In Walked Bud"; "Sweet Georgia Brown" becomes "Bright Mississippi". He commonly used dissonances, which had up to that time been considered mistakes. Minor seconds are common. By accepting these dissonances, Monk changed the way we hear jazz.
      2. This does not mean that he was a free-jazz player nor that he was he immune from mistakes. When he made them, he would "save" them.
    5. "Thelonious"
      1. This is considered Monk's first masterpiece. It is more compositional than usual. The form is the typical AABA but the bridge is ten bars long and the final A has a two-bar coda.
      2. This unusual structure requires that musicians stay very alert. Three horns play the chromatic harmonies, with a solo on piano and another short solo on drums resulting in a kind of piano concerto that touches on various styles from jazz history.
      3. "Rhythm-a-ning"
        1. One of his best known pieces, it is based on "Rhythm" changes and a melody that draws from Ellington's "Ducky Wucky" (1932) and Mary Lou Williams's "Walkin' and Swingin'," which was written for Andy Kirk in 1936. A modernistic bridge is added to this renewed older material.
        2. Monk first recorded it in 1957. The recording here is from 1962, when he had first signed with Columbia Records. Charlie Rouse, Monk's longtime tenor saxophonist, joined the quartet in 1959 and plays here with a soft sound particularly suited to Monk's piano playing.
        3. Close listening reveals how much the musicians are responding to Monk: the drummer responds to Monk's rhythmic ideas; Rouse uses Monk's melodic suggestion in his solos. The bassist lays down a rock-solid foundation over which all this can happen.
  3. Charles Mingus (1922-1979)
    1. He is a virtuoso bassist; a composer who expanded the scope of music while assimilating music for the sanctified church, New Orleans jazz, swing, bop, and Romantic and modern classical music; a spokesman linking jazz and the civil rights movement; and a memoirist shedding light on the struggle for equality among African American artists.
    2. He was extremely sensitive to African American stereotypes; he didn't like to be called Charlie because he saw it as a sign of disrespect; he thought that the word jazz ghettoized the music; he considered his music "classical"; he was sensitive about his light skin, claiming a mixed heritage including Chinese; he was angry that he couldn't make a living as an African American musician even though he was well known.
    3. "Slap That Bass"
      1. Mingus was brought up in the Watts area of Los Angeles, which was predominantly black and Mexican American. His family went to church regularly, which is where Mingus heard the gospel music that would be a lasting influence on him. He played piano, trombone, and cello before taking up the bass, which he studied with jazz bassist Red Callender and Callender's teacher, who had played with the New York Philharmonic. Mingus was told to leave cello for the bass because, as an African American, he would never get a job playing in a symphony orchestra
      2. In his teens he began playing parties and dances and composing elaborate works reflecting his admiration for Richard Strauss. He played Dixieland with Kid Ory, in Louis Armstrong's big band, and studio sessions with Dinah Washington, and he organized recording sessions in the late 1940s with small indie labels without much distribution. These recordings included rhythm and blues, big-band swing, pop crooners, classical music, and original work-all would show up later in various forms in his later music.
      3. He toured with Lionel Hampton, who debuted Mingus's first important work, "Mingus Fingers." In 1950 he received national attention with the Red Norvo trio in New York, where he played with Bird, Bud Powell, Getz, Miles, and Ellington, among others.
      4. In 1953 he formed a record label with Max Roach (Debut). It lasted for five years. He recorded his own cool jazz and the famous 1953 Toronto concert with Bird, Dizzy, Powell, and Roach. In 1954 he joined Tatum and was duly impressed with the latter's harmonic ingenuity.
    4. Jazz Composers' Workshop
      1. In 1953 Mingus joined the mostly white Jazz Composers' Workshop. Except for Mingus, the only member of note was Teo Macero, who later became an important jazz producer for Columbia Records. This was a precursor of Third Stream. Mingus found the Workshop inadequate for what he wanted to express.
    5. In 1956 he signed with Atlantic Records and recorded his breakthrough album, Pithecanthropus Erectus. In 1957 he wrote a work for the Festival of the Arts at Brandies, an important Third Stream event. He completed his second Atlantic album, The Clown, which introduced two of his long-standing musicians, Jimmy Knepper on trombone and drummer Dannie Richmond. This album put him at the forefront of jazz thinkers and established him as one of the greatest living bass players. He created great music with just a small amount of composed material.
    6. He became notorious for his bandstand comments, often castigating musicians onstage. He hated musicians who relied on clichés.
    7. After 1957 his comments turned political. He recorded "Fables of Faubus" in 1959 in response to Arkansas governor's Orville Faubus's refusal to integrate Little Rock Central High School. Columbia refused to let him sing the lyrics, so he released it on the smaller Candid label. Other jazz musicians started speaking out after this. Mingus also criticized the jazz industry for depriving musicians of control over their work.
    8. Tradition and Discipline
      1. Mingus's compositions could be fastidiously arranged or more collaborative in nature. For longer pieces the latter style did not work so well. In a famous 1962 concert the musicians were still correcting scores as the curtain was going up. To accommodate his longer pieces, he started to hire arrangers and copyists to help organize his work. He also began to open up about his personal life in prose writing and speaking from the stage.
      2. Mingus wrote a number of important longer works. Altogether he wrote over 300 pieces, which span cool and hard bop. They were difficult, complex, but still a great pleasure to listen to. Mingus died in 1997 at fifty-six from Lou Gehrig's disease.
      3. "Boogie Stop Shuffle"
        1. Based on a boogie-woogie shuffle, this fast-moving twelve-bar blues features ostinati, staccato chord punches, unison moaning, a three-note riff, bop variations, improvised solos, and multiple textures with only seven instruments.
        2. The key soloist is saxophonist Booker Ervin, but drummer Dannie Richmond (a former R & B tenor player) and pianist Horace Parlan (with a partly paralyzed right hand) were important figures in the Jazz Workshop.
        3. This recording is the original version edited for the Columbia album Mingus Ah Um. The unedited version has been released by Columbia but cannot match the edited version's excitement.
  4. Gil Evans (1912-1988)
    1. Although a composer of some memorable pieces, he was primarily an arranger who lifted the art of arranging to the level of composition.
    2. He was originally a dance band arranger who came to New York to join the Thornhill band in the 1940s. He struggled as a freelancer for a number of years. He was a respected arranger but his work was considered too daring for commercial work. He did some work for Parker, Mulligan, swing trumpeter Billy Butterfield, vocalist Helen Merrill, and pop singer Johnny Mathis.
    3. Evans was forty-five when he was finally recognized nationally, after he recorded the 1957 album Miles Ahead with Miles Davis. It was made up of a series of trumpet concertos with composed transitional interludes instead of silences between selections.
    4. Miles Ahead led to further collaborations with Miles and the opportunity to record his own work with handpicked ensembles. His material drew from a wide range of sources including operetta, folk-blues, and pop, but mostly from jazz.
    5. His choice of classic jazz pieces helped revive an interest in jazz history, as did the work of Monk and Mingus. Evans's work on these pieces illuminated new aspects of the music.
  5. Cannonball Concertos
    1. Evans is best known for his concerto form. His music has featured Miles Davis, soprano saxophonist Steve Lacey, mellophonist Don Elliot, trumpeter Johnny Coles, and guitarist Kenny Burrell. In 1958 he released New Bottle, Old Wine featuring altoist Cannonball Adderley. The ensemble was typically made up mostly of brass.
      1. Julian "Cannonball" Adderley (1928-1975) was a former school teacher from Florida who moved to New York in 1955 right after Parker's death and was immediately dubbed the "new Bird." He joined Miles in 1958 and recorded Kind of Blue with him. He soon formed his own quintet with his brother, trumpeter Nat Adderley, and had a series of hit recordings including the 1966 "Mercy, Mercy, Mercy." He combined bebop virtuosity with funky backbeats.
      2. "King Porter Stomp"
        1. This is the second oldest piece on the album after Handy's "St. Louis Blues." Fletcher Henderson's arrangement of this piece was a big hit for Benny Goodman in 1935. In contrast to Henderson's use of only one strain from the original, Evans uses all four. Evans uses dissonant harmonies and bop-like phrases while making it swing. The interchange between Adderley and the ensemble is notable.
      3. "Taking Charge"
        1. This piece is an early instance of Evans playing on piano on a recording. By the early 1960s, he left freelancing and started leading his own band, in which he played piano (often electric). His chords on the piano serve to pump up the energy of the music. The band was not a commercial success but musicians loved playing his music so much that the group held together for twenty years, often playing Monday nights at New York clubs and touring Japan and Europe, where it was warmly received.
    2. In 1970 he started to add to the percussion section of his ensemble and, like Miles, who was still his good friend, to embrace fusion. His 1969 album Gil Evans preceded Miles's Bitches Brew. There was a planned collaboration with Jimi Hendrix but Hendrix died before this could happen. Instead Evans arranged versions of Hendrix's music ("Up From the Skies").
    3. In 1961 he started writing head arrangements ("La Nevada"). By the 1970s and 1980s he routinely revised pieces on the bandstand by conducting, using piano chords and vocal commands. He also wrote film scores (Absolute Beginners), taught (Maria Schneider), and worked with pop stars (Sting). His son Miles Evans continued conducting the band.
  6. George Russell (b. 1923)
    1. Russell is unique on two counts:
      1. He is not an instrumentalist; he is exclusively a composer-bandleader.
      2. He developed a musical theory for jazz and published it in George Russell's Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization. Volume 1: The Art and Science of Tonal Gravity (1953, rev. 2001). Russell is considered a jazz intellectual and not for the general public.
        1. This assessment is not fair. Although some of his music is challenging, some charms audiences, like "All about Rosie" (1957), which is based on a playground tune, and his suite New York, N.Y. (1959), combining original music with three pop songs along with a rhyming rhythmic narration. The second piece prefigures rap. Almost all of his music since the 1970s has incorporated funk and even disco.
    2. Few people have actually read the Lydian Concept and fewer have understood it, yet its influence is everywhere. Russell is the father of modal jazz as heard on Miles's Kind of Blue, Coltrane's Giant Steps, and Herbie Hancock's Maiden Voyage, among others.
    3. Theory and Practice
      1. Born out of wedlock to a mixed-race couple, he was brought up in Cincinnati by a black family, who adopted him. He took up the drums and won a scholarship to Wilberforce University, which he quit after two years. While receiving a medical exam as part of joining the army in 1941 he learned that he had tuberculosis. In 1944 he was hired by Benny Carter, who promptly fired him in favor of Max Roach. It was Max Roach's playing that convinced Russell to give up drums. He decided to be a composer but had an attack of tuberculosis, which left him in the hospital for fifteen months. It was during this time that he formulated his Lydian concept.
      2. Russell was inspired to develop his theory by a question from Miles Davis about the relationship among chords. Russell started to analyze chords in terms of the scales that went with them. He realized that if you reduce the number of chords, improvisers will have to think more melodically. This was the basis for modal jazz, which dominated the 1960s, especially in fusion.
      3. In the Lydian Concept Russell argues that we hear the greatest "unity and finality" in the C Lydian scale (a C scale with an F#) . He rejected major and minor keys and instead advocated various scales so as to eliminate a tonal center. Bird showed that any note could be made to fit harmonically; Russell thought that any chord could be resolved with a scale.
      4. Although complicated in theory, the practical result was that jazz musicians used one scale over a number of chords instead of dealing with each chord individually. This meant that the emphasis was not on the changes; the challenge was to focus on melodic invention.
      5. Russell's ideas spread through example more than his text. They freed musicians from busy harmonic grids and became quite widespread. But Russell's own music was pretty much ignored, and he resented the new monotony of the 1960s and 1970s music based on modalization.
      6. Pieces like "Cubana Be/ Cubana Bop" (1947) that Russell wrote for Dizzy in 1947 introduced modal orchestral writing. Russell also knew the music of Igor Stravinsky and Stefan Wolpe and wrote a work for clarinetist Buddy DeFranco called "A Bird in Igor's Yard." It was not until 1956 that he wrote a piece under his own name: "Jazz Workshop," which was performed by his "Smalltet."
    4. "Concerto for Billy The Kid"
      1. Russell was highly respected by the best jazz musicians, but he was also good at discovering young talent; for example, he discovered Bill Evans and introduced him to Miles Davis. Russell conceived of this piece as a showcase for Evans. Evans's solo here is rigorous, very different from the meditative playing that came later.
      2. There are only six musicians on this recording but they sound like a lot more. Clashing scales, melodic fragments, dissonances, and rhythmic change-ups give the piece a very modern sound, even by today's standards and even though he used a standard chord progression for Evans's solo ("I'll Remember April"). Through it all, the music still swings.
    5. Unbowed
      1. The Jazz Workshop album was a hit with the critics but not a commercial success. Nevertheless, there was enough interest for him to tour with a small group and to sign with other labels. He had a productive relationship with avant-garde saxophonist Eric Dolphy, and one of his early compositions, "Ezz-thetic," became something of a standard.
      2. Even after the critical success of his pieces he found it difficult to find work in the States, so he left to take a job teaching at the University of Sweden in 1963, where he also had a chance to tour with a sextet and to write some longer pieces such as his Electronic Sonata for Souls Loved by Nature (1969), a piece that fused rock, jazz, and prerecorded tape.
      3. In 1969 he returned to the States to teach at the New England Conservatory of Music, where he remained for more than twenty-five years. He reunited with Evans on his album-length "Living Time," which also became the name of his orchestra. The London Concert (1989) is a good example of a live performance and includes an arrangement of Davis's solo on "So What." He continues to be controversial; in fact, the Jazz at the Lincoln Center program refused to book him because his orchestra included an electric bass.
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