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Black History Month in Jazz
Louis Armstrong (1901-1971) was born in poverty in the musical melting pot of New Orleans and grew up listening to blues, brass bands, and opera. When he was twelve, he was sent to reform school where he learned to play the cornet. In 1922, he joined the King Oliver Creole Jazz Band, one of the most popular Black orchestras. Armstrong made his first recordings with King Oliver in 1923. The recordings Armstrong made during the next ten years demonstrated his genius and revolutionized jazz and American music. His amazing instrumental virtuosity made jazz a soloist's music, and his subtle feeling for rhythm showed jazz how to swing in 4/4. Singing popular tunes in his unique, gravelly voice and a swinging jazz feel, he created the template for jazz singing. While he became one of the world's most popular and famous entertainers, Louis Armstrong always remained a jazz musician and singer.
Duke Ellington (1899-1974) was born in Washington D.C. He began to study piano at age seven, and by the time he was seventeen was leading small bands, working professionally, and composing. In 1923, he moved to New York and began putting an orchestra together. In 1927, The Duke Ellington Orchestra became the house band at the Cotton Club's fashionable radio broadcasts. A steady stream of popular recordings featuring his brilliant and innovative compositions made Ellington and the orchestra famous and commercially successful. Ellington's compositions, orchestral innovations, and arranging techniques had a profound influence on the Swing Era (1935-1945). Ellington was one of the greatest American composers of the 20th Century, composing not only many ballads and dance tunes that have become standards of jazz repertory but also many pieces ranging from songs to suites documenting and celebrating African American life. Leading an orchestra that included brilliant soloists such as Johnny Hodges, Ben Webster, Cootie Williams, and Paul Gonsalves, Ellington remained a worldwide celebrity, composing brilliantly, until his death.
Charlie Parker (1920-1955) grew up in Kansas City MO, one of the centers of innovation in African American music in the 20s and 30s. He began playing alto saxophone at 13 and left school to become a musician at 15. Parker learned his craft playing with jazz and blues bands and at jam sessions in Kansas City. In 1940, he joined the Jay McShann Band, a well known touring orchestra and his improvisational skills and harmonic sophistication began to be noticed by other musicians. In 1945, Parker made his first recordings as a leader. World War ll had ended and the Swing or Big Band Era with it. Parker's music, called Bebop, reflected the ensuing cultural and social changes in Black America. It was a small group music, usually played by a quintet and featured fleet tempi, harmonic complexity and a consciously artistic nature but with still firm roots in the blues. Parker was the most influential jazz musician in the period 1945-1962 and his harmonic and rhythmic innovations profoundly influenced not only saxophonists but all other jazz instrumentalists.
John Coltrane (1926-1967) was born in Hamlet, NC and began playing saxophone at the age of 15. He moved to Philadelphia in his late teens where he enrolled in music school. After service in the Navy in 1945 and 1946 where he played in a band, he became a professional musician. He played in blues and R&B groups and, in 1953-1954, in the jazz band of the great Johnny Hodges. In 1955-1957, he became widely known as the saxophonist in the quintet of Miles Davis, one of the most successful and influential groups in jazz. In late 1959, Coltrane was featured on the Miles Davis album, Kind of Blue which introduced modalism to jazz and became one of the largest selling jazz albums of all time. Coltrane formed his own quartet in 1960, initially exploring complex and intricate harmonic structures as in the tune "Giant Steps," but by 1962 he had begun playing and composing using more simple, modal harmony. His modal reworking of "My Favorite Things" from The Sound of Music became a jazz" hit." In 1964, he recorded A Love Supreme which expressed a deep and passionate spirituality. His music became freer and less structured, but always profoundly spiritual until his untimely death at age 40 in 1967.
Thelonious Monk (1917-1982) was born in Rocky Mount NC. His family moved to New York City when he was four years old. He began playing piano at age six and at seventeen toured accompanying a Gospel singer. In the early 1940's he worked as a sideman in jazz groups around New York and became the house pianist at Minton's, an after-hours club frequented by musicians. At Minton's, Monk played with such musicians as Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Christian, Don Byas, and many others helping to formulate the emerging Bebop style In 1944. Monk made his first studio recording with Coleman Hawkins, one of the most influential and respected musicians in jazz. In the same year, Monk's composition with Cootie Williams, "'Round Midnight." probably the most often recorded jazz composition, was first recorded. In the late 1950s, Monk's music, formerly viewed as strange and incomprehensible, began to become more popular. In 1962, he was signed to a contract with Columbia Records, the foremost American record company. With the benefit of Columbia's promotional clout, Monk's records became jazz bestsellers and he became one of the most well-known jazz musicians, even appearing on the cover of Time magazine in 1964. Monk composed only about 50 pieces but they demonstrate a truly brilliant and original musical mind, and many are among the greatest jazz compositions.
Miles Davis (1926-1991) was born in Alton, IL, and raised in East St Louis. He began playing trumpet at 13 and playing professionally two years later. In 1944, he moved to New York to study at Julliard, but he became involved in the flourishing Bebop scene as a member of Charlie Parker's quintet and dropped out. Davis played on many of Parker's early masterpieces, his lyrical and relaxed playing providing an apt foil for Parker's virtuosity. In 1948, Davis made a series of recordings, collected as The Birth Of The Cool which marked a departure from the fast tempi and harmonic emphasis of Bebop and set the template for the style, later to be called "Cool Jazz." In 1955-1957, Davis' quintet with the saxophonist John Coltrane was one of the most popular groups in jazz and paved the way for "hard bop." !n 1957, Davis began a series of collaborations that paired his trumpet with the orchestral arrangements of Gil Evans resulting in masterpieces such as Sketches Of Spain and Porgy And Bess. In the 1960s, his quintet featuring Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock explored minimal structures, free playing, and hints of rock rhythms. Davis fully embraced rock, soul, and funk rhythms on his groundbreaking album Bitches Brew which, while alienating much of the jazz audience, sold extremely well and made the Billboard Top 40. For the rest of his career, Davis mixed, his always melodic and bluesy trumpet with rock, funk, pop, and even rap, his sense of style and charisma, making him a celebrity and the most well-known jazz musician in popular culture.
Lester Young (1909-1959) was born in Woodville, MS, and grew up in the New Orleans area. His father was a professional musician who taught Lester and his siblings instruments so that they could play in a family band. Lester became a saxophonist at thirteen and left the family band in 1927 to become a freelance musician. In 1934, he joined the Count Basie Orchestra, a popular and up and coming band based in Kansas City. In 1936, Young made his first recordings in a small group with Basie. These recordings are one of the great debuts in jazz history as Young's light airy sound, unique floating swing, and sophisticated sense of improvisational form were unprecedented and he immediately became one of the most influential musicians in jazz. Young remained a member of the Basie band until 1940 and was prominently featured on many recordings that have become all-time jazz classics. During the same period, he was playing as a sideman and providing masterful accompaniment to the singing of Billie Holiday on recordings that are regarded as among the greatest jazz vocal recordings. During the early 1950s, Young became a well-known jazz star touring with Jazz At The Philharmonic and his own small groups, and his playing became a major influence on the R&B tenor saxophone style which was to dominate popular music later in the decade.
Charles Mingus (1922-1979 was born in Nogales AZ and grew up in the Watts neighborhood in Los Angeles. He began playing bass in high school after studying cello and trombone. In the early 1940s, he began composing and playing professionally in the Los Angeles area. During 1947-1948, he played in the Lionel Hampton Orchestra, one of the most popular touring jazz ensembles of the time. In 1950-1951, as a member of the Red Norvo Trio, his technically awesome and groundbreaking playing made him the foremost bass player in jazz. After moving to New York City, he composed innovative works that melded jazz and classical techniques while still performing and recording small group bebop jazz. In the late1950s, Mingus began utilizing more open forms, pedal points, and free playing
in such works as Pithecanthropus Erectus that prefigured much of avant garde jazz
of the 1960s. In 1962-1965 Mingus composed some of his greatest long works including The Black Saint And The Sinner Lady and Meditations On Integration
which mixed Gospel, Blues, R&B and all styles of jazz. In 1962 Mingus recorded the album Money Jungle with his idol Duke Ellington and the great drummer Max Roach, which is one of the great piano trio masterpieces of jazz. Mingus continued to compose record and tour in the 1970s until his death from ALS.
Coleman Hawkins (1904-1969) was born in St. Joseph, MO, and began playing cello at about age seven. His mother gave him a tenor saxophone on his ninth birthday. At age twelve he was playing professionally and at seventeen began playing in the band of singer Mamie Smith. In 1924, he joined the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra, then one of the most famous black bands. Louis Armstrong was also in the Henderson Orchestra at the time and his sense of swing and improvisational form had a profound effect on Hawkins' musical development. Over the next ten years, Hawkins transformed the sound of the tenor saxophone by abandoning the thin sound and stiff, unswinging slap tongue rhythms that were the norm in the early twenties, adopting a full rich sound and more legato approach. His knowledge of sophisticated harmonies and virtuoso technique allowed him to construct solos that were complete musical statements and not just variations of the melody. Hawkins left the Henderson Orchestra in 1934 and moved to Europe to enjoy the more relaxed racial climate. He returned to the U.S. in 1939 and recorded his masterful version of "Body And Soul" which became a huge popular success, one of the very few jazz instrumentals to do so. In the mid-1940s, Hawkins recorded and played with Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, and other Bebop musicians who had been heavily influenced by his playing. During the 1950s and 1960s, Hawkins continued to record and tour, frequently appearing on television, and was one of the jazz musicians most highly respected by his peers.
Bessie Smith (1894-1937) was born in Chattanooga, TN, and began her professional career in 1912 singing in the same traveling show as Ma Rainey. By the 1920s, she was a leading artist in Black shows and toured widely throughout the south. In 1923, Black pianist and entrepreneur, Clarence Williams sought her out to record in New York City. The resulting recording of "Downhearted Blues" was a major hit record and established Smith as the most successful Black performing artist of her time. Her emotional intensity, subtle phrasing, and the blues inflections that she brought to popular tunes created the template for jazz singing. She continued to record both blues and jazz standards with great success throughout the 20s with accompaniment by great jazz instrumentalists
such as Louis Armstrong, James P Johnson, Tommy Ladnier, and many others. In 1929, she appeared in the movie St. Louis Blues. In October 1929, recording and performance opportunities lessened due to the onset of the Depression, and her career went into a decline. In 1933, record producer John Hammond organized a recording session for Smith, her last, and had an interracial band accompany her which was unheard of at the time. The session produced "Gimme A Pigfoot," her last masterpiece. Smith continued to tour, playing clubs and theatres, and with the onset of the Swing Era, her career was on an upswing when she was killed in an auto accident in 1937.
Wayne Shorter (1933- ) was born in Newark, NJ, and began playing tenor saxophone at sixteen. He graduated from New York University with a BME in 1956. In 1959, after military service, he joined Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers, eventually becoming the main composer and music director for the band. His time with the Jazz Messengers established Shorter as one of the most important soloists and composers in jazz. In 1964, he joined the Miles Davis Quintet. The group, which also featured Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, and Tony Williams, became one of the most successful, yet innovative groups in the history of jazz by incorporating free, minimalist, funk, and rock influences. In 1968, Davis broke up the quintet, but Shorter continued to play with him and participated in the enormously successful and groundbreaking jazz -rock fusion album-- Bitches Brew. Shorter left the Davis group in 1970 to form the band Weather Report with pianist-composer, Joe Zawinul. Weather Report was very popular, melding jazz, funk, rock, pop, world music, and electronic music in a sophisticated and unique way. In 1986, Shorter embarked on a solo career, recording and touring, playing fusion music, and appearing as a sideman on records by Joni Mitchell and Steelye Dan, but still occasionally playing jazz. In 2000, Shorter formed an acoustic jazz quartet which recorded frequently, toured widely, and was regarded as possibly the finest group in jazz due to his compositions and superb playing. Currently, Shorter is in retirement. His legacy as one of the great composers and soloists of jazz is unquestioned.
Albert Ayler (1936-1970) was born in Cleveland, OH, began studying music at age seven with his father, and was playing in R&B bands in his mid teens. In 1962, after three years of military service, playing in army bands, he remained in Europe, playing professionally in his own radically new and very free style with unsympathetic accompaniment by Bebop musicians. In 1964, he moved to New York and recorded his album Spiritual Unity which was a revolutionary statement in its abandonment of all the conventions of Bebop--- harmony, steady rhythm, and complex chromatic melody in favor of continuous improvisational freedom and interaction by all the instruments. The album was extremely controversial but well received by some critics who heralded it as pointing the way forward to greater freedom and expressiveness and a return to the African roots of jazz. Ayler became a well known, but divisive figure in jazz and continued to record and play clubs and college concerts, though audiences were small. John Coltrane, seeking greater freedom and expressiveness in his music, was heavily influenced by Ayler and credited him with expanding his conception of what it was possible to play on the saxophone. They became close friends and Coltrane requested that Ayler play at his funeral. In 1967, Ayler's record company. displeased with the sales of his albums of uncompromising free jazz, pushed him to record more R&B styled material. The albums were not successful artistically or commercially. Ayler's body was found in New York's East River in November 1970. He was likely a suicide. Musician, John Tchicai, who played with Ayler described his saxophone sound as "big, beautiful and full of love."
Billie Holiday (1915-1959) was born in Baltimore. When she was very young, her father who was a guitarist in the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra, abandoned the family. Her mother moved to New York City and left Billie in the care of relatives who, according to her later accounts, mistreated her. In 1928, Holiday moved to New York to live with her mother. She began singing professionally about 1930 and in 1933, was discovered by talent scout John Hammond singing in a Harlem club. Hammond set up recording sessions for her with Benny Goodman and arranged engagements for her in clubs. In 1935, he began recording her regularly for jukebox records, singing the popular tunes of the day, usually backed by a group led by pianist Teddy Wilson. This series of recordings continued until 1942 and constitute some of the most important and influential jazz singing. Holiday's style which was heavily influenced by Louis Armstrong was light and rhythmic and, while many of the tunes she was made to sing by the record company were poor, she elevated them by subtly altering and improving the melodies and making the lyrics meaningful by her unique tone and phrasing. In 1939, she began an engagement at Cafe Society in New York City, a rare downtown Manhattan interracial nightclub whose patrons were intellectuals and influential journalists, writers, and artists. While at Cafe Society, Holiday debuted the song "Strange Fruit," a graphic song about lynching which caused a sensation and increased her audience beyond jazz fans. Holiday had other popular records including "Gloomy Sunday" and "Lover Man," and by the end of the 1940s, she was a popular star. In the 1950s, Holiday toured in the U.S. and Europe, recording frequently. Though drug abuse had affected her health and her voice, her unique sense of swing and phrasing and deep soulful sound still remained.
Sonny Rollins (1930- ) was born in New York City and began playing saxophone at age eleven. He displayed great talent, progressing so rapidly that, at nineteen, he began recording professionally with some of the foremost Bebop musicians such as Bud Powell and J.J. Johnson and playing in clubs with Miles Davis. In 1954, Rollins played on the classic Davis album Bags Groove which featured three of his tunes: "Airegin," "Oleo," and "Doxy,"which have become among the most performed jazz instrumental pieces. In 1955, Rollins joined the Clifford Brown-Max Roach Quintet which was not only very successful at the time but has come to be regarded as one of the most important and influential groups in jazz history. In 1956, Rollins recorded his classic Saxophone Colossus album which included the tune "Blue Seven," one of the greatest masterpieces of jazz improvisation. In 1957, seeking greater musical freedom, he began recording and performing with only bass and drum accompaniment, the first saxophonist to do so regularly. In 1958, he recorded The Freedom Suite which foreshadowed the political concerns of jazz in the 60s. In the early 1960s, Rollins began to play in a freer style, incorporating elements of noise and thematic improvisation into his playing. In the 1970s, he began using R&B rhythms in his music, while still playing uncompromising jazz solos over them. In 1981, his playing was featured on three tracks of the Rolling Stones album Tattoo You. Until 2012, when health issues forced his retirement, Rollins won multiple Grammys, was awarded The National Medal for the Arts and continued to play concerts in the U.S., Japan, and Europe, demonstrating his incredible improvisational abilities time and time again and leaving no doubt that he was one of the very greatest jazz musicians.
Art Blakey (1919-1990) was born in Pittsburgh, PA, received some piano lessons as a child, and by his early teens was leading a professional band. In the early 1930s, he taught himself to play drums and gave up piano. He became the drummer for the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra from 1943-1944. He left to form his own big band before abandoning it to join the Billy Eckstine Orchestra. The Eckstine band was a hot bed of the Bebop movement and Miles Davis, Dexter Gordon, and other bop musicians were fellow members. The Eckstine band broke up in 194, and Blakey travelled to Africa and lived there for more than a year studying Islamic culture. Upon his return to the U.S., Blakey became the foremost drummer in modern jazz, recording and performing with all of the top musicians including Charlie Parker and Clifford Brown. His powerful, instantly recognizable two and four beat hi-hat style, brought complex polyrhythms and cross rhythms influenced by African drumming to jazz while responding and interacting with the soloists in a continual dialogue. In 1955, Blakey formed a co-led group with Horace Silver which they called the Jazz Messengers. When Silver left the following year to form his own group, Blakey became the leader of the group which was to become one of the most popular, influential and long lasting groups in jazz. Under Blakey's leadership, the band became the prime exponent of Hard Bop --a hard swinging aggressive style, mixing bop with pronounced influences of blues and gospel. The band also functioned as a finishing school for the upcoming stars of jazz, and Freddie Hubbard, Lee Morgan, Wayne Shorter, Keith Jarrett, Wynton Marsalis, and many others were members. Despite the popularity of Fusion jazz, funk and rock rhythms, Blakey and his Jazz Messengers never compromised or wavered in their commitment to hard swinging jazz.
Ornette Coleman (1930-2015) was born in Fort Worth, TX, began playing alto saxophone at age fourteen, and developed a style that was heavily influenced by Charlie Parker. In the late 1940s, he began working professionally in R&B and carnival bands, but his innovative ideas about harmony and pitch were not appreciated by fellow musicians or audiences. In the early 1950s, he moved to Los Angeles to take a nonmusical job and while practicing and studying harmony and music theory on his own, he created a radically new concept of how to play jazz by using blues and folk music and minimizing the role of traditional Western harmony in favor of his own very personal ideas about consonance and dissonance. Around this time, he met trumpeter Don Cherry who was sympathetic to Coleman's ideas and became his musical alter ego. Cherry and Coleman played their innovative music at jam sessions and clubs when they could in L.A and eventually came to the attention of John Lewis, a member of the Modern Jazz Quartet, then one of the most popular and widely respected groups in jazz. The sponsorship of Lewis led to the recording of Coleman's first album, Something Else, which was extremely controversial and caused Coleman to be labelled as both a "fraud" and the first innovator since Charlie Parker. Throughout the 1960s, Coleman made a series of recordings which changed the direction of jazz away from Bebop to freer music, emphasizing collective improvisation without adherence to predetermined chord changes. In the mid-1970s, Coleman formed his group Prime Time and began using electric guitars playing funk and rock rhythms to accompany his wide ranging saxophone improvisations. In the 1980s, Coleman began to achieve some commercial success and recognition, recording albums with Pat Metheny and Jerry Garcia, and was celebrated in two concerts at Carnegie Hall. In 1994, he was awarded the MacArthur "genius" grant. In the 2000s, Coleman became recognized as one of the most influential and fearlessly innovative musicians in the history of jazz. His 2007 album Sound Grammar was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, and he continued to record and perform worldwide with Prime Time and in acoustic settings until 2014.
Ella Fitzgerald (1917-1996) was born in Newport News, VA, and as a child moved with her mother to Yonkers, NY. In 1932, her mother was killed in a car accident and Fitzgerald was sent to live with an aunt. Unhappy with the situation, she stopped going to school, got involved in petty crime, and was sent to reform school. In 1934, she entered an amateur contest at the legendary Apollo Theatre, planning to dance but decided to sing at the last moment. She won the contest which led to her being offered a job as the singer with the popular Chick Webb Orchestra. She had several hit records but
"A-Tisket A Tasket" in 1938, a song she co-wrote, became one of the biggest selling records of the Swing Era and made her nationally famous. When Webb died in 1939, Fitzgerald became the only woman to lead a major Swing band. In 1942, Fitzgerald embarked on a successful solo career, touring constantly, recording many hit records, and becoming recognized as one of the leading jazz vocalists. With the advent of Bebop in the late 40s, Fitzgerald's horn-like phrasing and harmonic sophistication allowed her to adapt to the new style, and scatting became a major part of her singing. In 1956, she signed a contract with Norman Granz's Verve label which was devoted to jazz and free of the commercial pressure of the major record companies. Granz encouraged her to record a long series of albums devoted to the major American songwriters, using jazz musicians and jazz-inflected arrangements. The "Songbooks" were not only extremely popular but established Fitzgerald as one of the very greatest interpreters of what are now called "Jazz Standards." Fitzgerald, throughout the rest of her career was a major star worldwide, frequently appearing on television and in major concert halls. In the early 1970s, she reunited with Norman Granz and recorded for his Pablo label, a long series of albums that demonstrated her peerless scatting and ability to swing. Fitzgerald, during her career, worked for civil rights and was awarded the Equal Justice Award and the Black Achievement Award by the NAACP as well as the National Medal For The Arts and the Presidential Medal For Freedom.
William "Count" Basie (1904-1984) was born in Red Bank, NJ. After studying piano with his mother, he moved to New York City while in his teens where he met and learned from James P. Johnson, Fats Waller, and other Harlem stride pianists. Before he was twenty, Basie began playing professionally and toured extensively in Black vaudeville as a pianist and accompanist to blues singers, comedians, and dancers. In 1927, he became stranded in Kansas City which he had a vibrant jazz and blues scene at the time and he decided to stay. In 1929, Basie joined Bennie Moten's Kansas City Orchestra, a very popular band that had a recording contract. In 1936 Basie formed his own band which included the superb drummer Jo Jones and tenor sax great, Lester Young. Radio broadcasts made the band popular and gained it a recording contract. Basie built his band to swing and changed the concept of the rhythm section in jazz, making it more supple and responsive to the soloists by playing in a lighter and more spare style. The Basie band's powerful but smooth four/four swing was unprecedented and such recordings as "Lester Leaps In," "Jumpin' At The Woodside," and "Taxi War Dance" made it one of the leading Swing bands. The band's arrangements were usually unwritten, worked out collectively in rehearsal with direction and editing by Basie, and based on riffs. Their style was comparatively simple and straightforward compared to that of Duke Ellington or Fletcher Henderson and emphasized hard swinging and solos. After a period of working with a small group due to the decline of big bands after World War ll, Basie started another orchestra featuring young Bebop oriented musicians and more elaborate, but still, hard swinging arrangements. The band had major hits with an uptempo arrangement of "April In Paris" and "Lil' Darlin' arranged by Neil Hefti. In 1958, Basie became the first African American to win a Grammy award. Throughout the 1960s the Basie Band appeared frequently on television and toured constantly, often with Frank Sinatra who recorded three albums with their backing. In 1974, Basie and the band appeared memorably in the movie Blazing Saddles, playing "April In Paris". Basie led the band until his death and always stayed true to the swinging "Basie Sound."
Max Roach (1924-2007) was born in Newland, NC, but his family moved to the Bedford Stuyvesant neighborhood in New York City when he was four. His mother was a gospel singer, and Roach was playing drums in gospel groups at age ten. In 1942, he became the house drummer at Minton's Playhouse, participating in jam sessions with Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and others which led to the development of Bebop. Roach was innovative in moving the fixed pulse from the bass drum to the ride cymbal which lightened the drum set's texture and was more appropriate for the fast tempos of Bebop. By playing polyrhythms on the rest of the kit over the basic pulse, he freed the drums from a strictly accompanying role and made them more interactive with the soloists. In the mid to late 40s, Roach recorded and performed with Charlie Parker and made some of the most important and influential recordings in jazz history with him. From 1954 to 1956, Roach co-led a group with the great trumpeter Clifford Brown which was very popular and instrumental in creating the style known as Hard Bop. In the late 1950s, Roach made a series of recordings with the trumpeter Booker Little which prefigured innovations in the free jazz of the 60s. In 1960, Roach recorded "We Insist! Freedom Now Suite" with the singe Abbey Lincoln, then his wife. This album with its lunch counter sit in cover photo was unprecedented in that it was the first album by a jazz artist that was entirely devoted to the Civil Rights struggle. Its outspokenness and anger made it controversial as well as its use of free and avant garde structures. In 1962, he recorded "Money Jungle" with Duke Ellington and Charles Mingus which is regarded as among the greatest piano trio albums. Roach continued to tour and record with his quartet and recorded a series of duet improvisations with artists as diverse as Anthony Braxton, Cecil Taylor, Dizzy Gillespie, and Clark Terry. Always innovative, he wrote music for theatre, performed with dance companies and symphony orchestras.
Cecil Taylor (1929-2018) was raised in Corona, Queens New York, and began piano lessons at age five. Later he studied percussion with a timpanist. In 1952, he entered the New England Conservatory and studied piano, theory, composition, and arranging. There he became familiar with a wide range of 20th Century Classical music, including Stravinsky, Bartok, and Stockhausen. all of which were to influence his music, but he became convinced that the academic world did not understand or appreciate the aesthetic values of black culture. Influenced by Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk, he decided to become a jazz musician. In 1955, Taylor moved to New York and formed a quartet featuring the great soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy. In 1956, the group recorded Jazz Advance, the first album of Taylor's music, which backed his rhythmically free and harmonically advanced, classically influenced piano with jazz rhythms. It was enthusiastically reviewed by some critics but was greeted with incomprehension by others and small sales. An appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1957 which became part of a live album, did little to increase his popularity or stature in the jazz world. In 1962, when Taylor was given the "New Star" award by Downbeat magazine, he was unemployed. Throughout the 1960s and into the 70s, Taylor was regarded by a small coterie of critics and listeners as the most creative musician in jazz, but he rarely was able to gain employment in clubs due to the intense and demanding nature of his music. He continued to rehearse constantly and his music moved even farther away from conventional jazz styles toward free collective improvisation, incorporating tone clusters, glissandos, and multiple layers of free "wave" rhythms into an already prodigious piano technique. In the mid 1970s, Taylor's persistence and refusal to compromise began to be rewarded and his profile in jazz increased, leading to a performance on the White House lawn for President Jimmy Carter in 1978. Taylor was awarded the MacArthur "genius" grant in 1991. Taylor continued to perform as a solo pianist, with his trio, his big band, and in duets with a wide variety of musicians until 2016, remaining always iconoclastic, uncompromising, and of the most emotionally powerful musicians in jazz or any form of music.
Sarah Vaughan (1924-1990) was born in Newark, NJ. She began singing in the choir at a Baptist Church as a child and became the organist there at age 12. In 1942, she won an amateur contest at The Apollo Theatre, and shortly thereafter, joined the Earl Hines Orchestra as singer and second pianist. In 1944, she joined Billy Eckstine's Bop big band and made her first recordings. In 1945, she recorded "Lover Man" and a vocal version and the first recording of the Bebop standard "Night In Tunisia" backed by a quintet including Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. The records were Pop hits but also established her reputation as a jazz singer and the leading female singer in early Bebop. Vaughan's voice had an operatic lushness, a purity of tone, and a truly astonishing range. In addition to her peerless vocal technique, she could swing and improvise, which enabled her to sing any type of material convincingly. In 1949,Vaughan began recording for the major label Columbia which marketed Vaughan as a Pop singer, and her music under the guidance of Mitch Miller, lost much of its jazz content. She did become a major star and "crossed over" to the mainstream Pop audience, becoming second only to Ella Fitzgerald as the most popular Black female singer. In 1954, she switched to the Mercury label which allowed her to record as much jazz as pop. During this period she had pop hits but also recorded a stunning series of jazz albums with musicians such as Cannonball Adderley, Clifford Brown and The Count Basie Orchestra. Throughout the 1960s, Vaughan continued to divide her recording efforts between jazz and pop, even delving into easy listening and light classical. She remained popular beyond the world of jazz and played concert halls all over the world. In the late 1970s, after nearly a decade of little recording, she recorded two albums of Brazilian music and returned to jazz, recording again with The Count Basie Band, and two albums devoted to Ellington songs. Until her death, she continued to tour, frequently performing with symphony orchestras and even recorded with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.
Charlie Christian (1916-1942) grew up in Oklahoma City, OK. His father was a guitarist and singer, and Christian began playing homemade guitars as a young child. By his teens, he was a much admired local musician, playing an amplified acoustic guitar as early as 1937. Christian played with many of the biggest names in jazz at after hours jam sessions when they were on Oklahoma City, including Lester Young, Teddy Wilson, Art Tatum, and Mary Lou Williams, and his reputation spread as far as New York City. Talent scout John Hammond heard the stories of Christian's ability and travelled to Oklahoma City in 1939 to hear him. Extremely impressed, Hammond recommended Christian to his brother-in-law Benny Goodman who was then leading the most popular band of the Swing Era. Goodman was the first white band leader of the Swing Era to employ Black musicians, and he hired Christian to play in the Goodman Sextet which already included the black musicians Fletcher Henderson and Lionel Hampton. Christian's bluesy, hard swinging and harmonically innovative electric guitar playing became an immediate sensation, both with audiences and other musicians. Over the next two years Christian recorded frequently with Goodman in small groups and with the big band, establishing the electric guitar as a jazz instrument. In 1940, Christian began playing with Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and others at the jam sessions at Minton's Playhouse in Harlem which gave birth to Bebop. Christian's playing had a great influence on the new style, and it is claimed that he composed the Bebop classic tunes "Epistrophy" and "Rhythm-A-Ning." Unfortunately, Christian's career was to be the shortest of the major jazz artists. He contracted tuberculosis some time in the 1930s, was admitted to a sanitarium in June 1941, and died there of the disease in March 1942. While he never recorded as a leader and never lived to fully develop his playing in the Bebop style, Christian was profoundly influential on jazz guitarists, blues musicians such as T-Bone Walker, BB King, and even country music and rock players.
Herbie Hancock (1940- ) was born in Chicago and began studying piano at age seven. At eleven years old, he performed the first movement of a Mozart concerto with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. While in high school he formed his own jazz group. When he graduated from Grinnell College in 1960, he had already been performing in Chicago clubs with major jazz stars like Coleman Hawkins and Donald Byrd. Hancock joined Byrd's quintet and moved to New York. In 1962, he made his first recording as a leader, "Takin' Off" for Blue Note Records. The album contained Hancock's original composition "Watermelon Man," a gospel-influenced tune which became a major jazz hit. In 1963, he joined the Miles Davis quintet, then one of the most challenging and successful groups in jazz. During the next five years, Hancock, bass player Ron Carter, and drummer, Tony Williams revolutionized the concept of the jazz rhythm section and its relation to the soloists by introducing elements of free jazz, abstract harmonies, implied rhythm, and constant interaction and improvisation. During his time with Davis, Hancock continued to make his own albums, recording his own compositions, many of which, like "Maiden Voyage," "Cantaloupe Island," and "Dolphin Dance" have become jazz standards. In 1971, Hancock formed his own sextet which used electric instruments and played a mixture of jazz, rock, Indian music, African Music, and Free Jazz, backed by funky rhythms. In 1973, Hancock moved in a more commercial direction when he recorded the album Headhunters, which was a mixture of jazz, rock, funk, and disco and contained the hit single "Chameleon." In 1983, the single release of Hancock's tune, Rockit, a fusion of hip hop, funk, and jazz, reached #1 on the Pop chart. In 1986 he acted in the film 'Round Midnight and won an Oscar for his score. Throughout the 1990s and to the present, Hancock has recorded a variety of successful albums which have mixed jazz improvisation with other styles while continuing to perform jazz as a solo pianist and in trios.
Sun Ra (1914-1993), according to government records was born in Birmingham, AL, as Herman Blount, but Ra himself said that he was an angel sent to earth from the planet Saturn to show humans the error of their ways through music. Ra began playing piano as a child and by his teenage years, was writing big band arrangements. In 1936, Ra began attending college but left after one year because he said he had a visionary experience and was transported to Saturn where supernatural beings told him that he would speak through music and the world would listen. After this experience, Ra formed a big band and devoted himself obsessively to the study of music and esoteric spiritual books. Ra declared himself a conscientious objector in 1942 and after initially being jailed, he did alternative service as a forestry worker. In 1945, as part of the Second Great Migration, Ra moved to Chicago, a center of Black culture and political activism. There he immersed himself in the music scene, making his first recordings in 1946 with blues singer Wynonie Harris. In the same year, he became the pianist and arranger for the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra. In the early 1950s, Ra started his own group which gradually grew from a trio to a big band which he called "The Arkestra." Ra's music during this period mixed Bebop, Basie, Ellington, and Mingus with his own exotic and modal ideas which presaged 60s free jazz. Ra, also during this period, began using electric piano and other electric keyboards, the first jazz musician to do so. The band also began wearing costumes that melded "spacesuits" and ancient Egyptian headdresses. In about 1955, Ra and a business partner started a record label "El Saturn," the first independent label owned by a Black Jazz artist and it was to document Ra's music in hundred of releases until his death. In 1960, Ra and his band relocated to New York and began to live communally. During the 60s Ra's music became freer, sometimes sets in performances being simultaneous improvisations by the whole band. Ra and the Arkestra developed a strong underground following among avant-garde jazz fans, adventurous rock fans, and Black Power activists. In 1969, Ra appeared on the cover of Rollingstone magazine and began appearing at colleges and exposing his music to a wider audience. In 1976, he and the Arkestra appeared on Saturday Night Live. Throughout the 1980s and into the early 90s when his health began to fail, Ra and the Arkestra toured, nearly constantly all over the world, playing Swing era standards, Ra's own compositions, and free improvisations usually accompanied by dancers, jugglers and fire eaters.
Anthony Braxton (1945- ) was born in Chicago IL and began studying jazz and European Classical music in his teenage years. After army service, he returned to Chicago and joined the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, a Black musicians organization dedicated to "nurturing, performing and recording serious, original music." The AACM was a major force for innovation in jazz in the late 1960s as its members incorporated Jazz, World Music, 20th Century Classical, free playing, and their own improvisational concepts into music that always reflected the African American aesthetic. Braxton's first recording as a leader, the aptly named "Three Compositions Of New Jazz," was made in 1968. The recording introduced Braxton's practice of not using conventional titles for his compositions but instead using mystical diagrams. The album's use of texture and sound as improvisational guideposts and the lack of any obvious rhythm, jazz or otherwise, mystified many critics who denied the music was jazz. Braxton's second LP, "For Alto," also recorded in 1968, was an even more challenging attack on jazz orthodoxy. The double album consists entirely of alto saxophone solos, one of which was dedicated to avant-garde composer John Cage. No jazz musician had ever issued a complete album of horn solos before, let alone two. Braxton's use of extended techniques, many of his own invention, and the extremes of the range and dynamics proved that unaccompanied saxophone could make a serious and complete musical statement. Dozens of unaccompanied horn recordings by other artists were to follow. after "For Alto" had shown it could be done. From 1970 to 1971, Braxton was a member of Chick Corea's group Circle which was one of the most avant-garde groups in jazz at the time. In 1974, Braxton was signed to Arista, a major U.S, record label that considerably increased his public profile. Braxton made a series of seven completely uncompromising and uncommercial albums for the label which culminated in a three-record set issue of one of his symphonic compositions. Throughout the 1980s, Braxton recorded prolifically, forming a quartet with the pianist Marilyn Crispell, bassist Mark Dresser. and percussionist Gerry Hemingway that was the most creative jazz group of its time. In the early 1990s, Braxton became a professor of music at Wesleyan University but continued to record and perform. He was awarded the MacArthur "genius" grant in 1994. Over the last twenty-five years, Braxton's creative energy has never flagged as his music has developed and changed through a variety of forms, systems, and methods. All of his hundreds of compositions he states are one mammoth composition, and any piece can be played with or interpolated into any other piece. Braxton prefers for his music not to be labeled "jazz" preferring the term "creative music."
Carmen McRae (1920-1994) was born in Harlem as the only child of immigrants from Jamaica, and as a teenager, she had five years of piano lessons. In 1939, she won an amateur talent contest at the Apollo Theatre and was discovered by the wife of the bandleader and great pianist, Teddy Wilson. Wilson was working with Billie Holiday and introduced McRae to her which led to Holiday recording McRae's song, "Dream Of Life." Later, McRae was to say "If Billie Holiday had never existed, I probably wouldn't have either." McRae attempted a career in music but was forced to work secretarial jobs while singing with bands at night. In 1946, she became the singer for an orchestra led by Duke Ellington's son, Mercer. In 1947, when the band broke up in Chicago, McRae remained there for three and a half years, becoming popular in clubs as a singing pianist. When she returned to New York in the early 1950s, she became influenced by Bebop and became a "stand up" singer and a favorite of musicians. In 1954, she made her first recordings as a leader and was named "Best New Female Singer" by Downbeat magazine. In 1955, McRae began recording a series of albums for Decca Records which were both artistically and commercially successful. In a magazine poll, she tied with Ella Fitzgerald as "Singer Of The Year." In 1956, she recorded "Skyliner" which was to be her biggest hit and she began playing concert halls and the most prestigious clubs. In 1961, she appeared on a live album with the Dave Brubeck Quartet which sold over a million copies. In the late 60s and early 70s, due to the overwhelming popularity of Rock and R&B, club work diminished and she worked frequently in Las Vegas and overseas. In the 80s, jazz and McRae enjoyed a resurgence in popularity and McRae recorded some of her best work, including a duet album with the great singer, Berry Carter, a tribute to Thelonious Monk, a tribute to Nat King Cole, and a tribute to her friend Sarah Vaughan. In 1993, the NAACP awarded her an "Image Award." Due to health problems, she stopped performing in 1991. Throughout her career, she never performed without singing at least one song associated with Billie Holiday.
McCoy Tyner (1938-2020) was born in Philadelphia, PA, and began to formally study piano at age thirteen. Later he took theory lessons at The Granoff School of Music. In 1959, he became a pianist for the Jazztet, a successful Hard Bop group. In 1960, John Coltrane hired him as pianist for his quartet. The Coltrane Quartet became, not only very popular, but the power and innovation of its music made it one of the most influential small groups in the history of jazz. Tyner's playing was integral to the sound and musical success of the group. Much of the group's music was modal and Tyner discovered ways to accompany and interact with Coltrane by playing open-ended scales which did not confine the saxophonist but still provided the basic harmonic grounding. While a member of the Coltrane group, Tyner also made a series of albums for Impulse records which featured him in a more traditional jazz context playing standards and some of his originals in a style showing the influence of Bud Powell. In 1965, Coltrane took the music of his group in a free form direction, deemphasizing harmony and the piano and adding multiple percussionists. Tyner was unhappy with the new direction and left the group. In the late 60s, the popularity of Rock and R&B diminished the audience and work opportunities for jazz, and Tyner worked for a time in the band of Ike & Tina Turner and then drove a cab. In 1972, a resurgence in the popularity of jazz began and Tyner began recording and performing again in a modal style with African rhythms and world music influences. His group, usually a sextet with two saxes and percussion added to the piano trio, continued in the powerful, spiritual tradition of the Coltrane Quartet and became known as one of the most intense and exciting experiences in jazz. During the later 80s and the 90s, Tyner began recording and performing mainly in the piano trio format, but he also recorded as a solo pianist and with his own big band in addition to recordings with Carlos Santana and Stanley Clarke. In the 2000s Tyner performed with dancer Savio Glover and made an album with four guitarists including Bill Frisell and John Scofield.
William Parker (1952- ) was born in Bronx New York. As a teenager, in the time of The Black Arts Movement, he became interested in music, especially bass. At first, self-taught, he had some lessons and eventually studied with the great jazz bassists, Jimmy Garrison, Wilbur Ware, and Richard Davis. Parker made his first recording in 1972, playing on the tenor saxophonist Frank Lowe's "Black Beings" album. The 1970s was an exciting period for jazz in New York as many musicians, mostly young and Black, who were playing adventurous and creative music, felt that the established club scene and the recording companies were not willing to allow them to be heard. The musicians decided on a course of self-determination and mutual support that resulted in the "Loft Scene." Many areas of downtown Manhattan were so economically depressed that musicians could rent or buy lofts to use as performance/living spaces. The scene flourished and Parker became the foremost bass player of what became known as "loft jazz," a style of free jazz with influences from African music, Coltrane, Ayler, and R&B. In the early 80s, the loft scene faded away due to rising real estate prices and the focus of the media, clubs, and record companies on the resurgence of Hard Bop jazz. Parker continued to play and record with most of the free/avant-garde jazz musicians in New York as first choice bassist. In 1980, Parker became the bassist for the great pianist Cecil Taylor's Unit. In 1981, He made his first recording as a leader, "Through Acceptance Of The Mystery Peace," which was heavily influenced by World Music and Classical Music. In the early 90s, Parker began long tenures as the bassist for the David S. Ware, Peter Brotzmann, and the Matthew Shipp groups. Parker has continued to record and perform prolifically with many. many musicians from all over the world in settings ranging from duets to orchestras. Parker has also become probably the foremost living, active, composer in jazz, composing not only tunes for his small groups, but also for his big band, The Little Huey Orchestra, as well as ballets, multimedia pieces, and orchestral pieces. Recently he released a 10 CD set of his compositions, entitled "Migration of Silence Into And Out Of The Tone World." On Tuesday, Match 16 2021, he will be appearing at 8 pm on AFA On_ Line Salon. More information can be had at www.williamparker.net.