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Black History Month in Jazz
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.