Making Strides, Part 1 – Labels

There has long been a disturbing tendency among jazz aficionados to regard each innovation in the music as “progress”, a practice that sends the musicians who have been supplanted into the outer darkness” –  Whitney Balliett.

The process so neatly described above by Mr. Balliett has bothered me for some time, though I’ve also been guilty of it myself at times, certainly when I was younger. What troubles me the most is the last part about older musicians being consigned to the shadowy margins. I think a lot of this has to do with labels, those facile attempts to classify and date various ways of playing jazz by assigning a name to them. Dixieland, stride, trad, Chicago, small-group Swing, big-band Swing, bebop, mainstream, progressive, cool, West Coast, hard-bop, avant-garde, neo-whatever-jazz, etc., ad nauseam. I’ve come to deplore and detest most of these because they do more harm than good.

I understand the reason and need for such labels, they provide basic terms of reference and make easy distinctions between different styles so that jazz can be generally discussed and written about. We all try to clarify complex things by reducing them to bite-sized simple images. I use these labels myself because they’re in place and provide a means of avoiding cumbersome explanations. But I’m not really comfortable with them; often I intend to put a disclaimer at the beginning of some pieces saying that whenever one of these labels appears, the reader should assume a default “so-called” before them. I often use quotation marks around labels to do this.

So they can be useful, but the trouble with labels is that they tend to be simplistic and general, but also narrow and limiting. They harden and become set, creating pigeonholes and artificial barriers between different artists or styles of jazz, leading to all kinds of confusion and preconceptions. Often these labels have been devised by jazz critics or historians and, while I certainly value their work, they generally don’t play the music and are more apt to find differences between styles than musicians. Also, when a label is attached to a style, it not only tries to define what that style is, but also what it isn’t, and this implies distinct separations between types of jazz that shouldn’t necessarily be there.

Take bebop and small-group Swing for example; the two terms seem to imply that these styles are entirely different and mutually exclusive. In the early days of bop, musicians and critics alike fueled this alienation by slinging terms like “Chinese music” and “moldy figs” back and forth. But often, these two are not really that far apart, and it’s easy to hear this by spending some time listening in detail to jazz from the late ’30s to the early ’40s, before bebop was fully established. There are all kinds of recordings by artists who are generally considered ‘Swing’ players, such as Coleman Hawkins, Red Norvo, Roy Eldridge, Don Byas, Lester Young, Sid Catlett, Charlie Christian, Illinois Jacquet and many others, where the music has a lot of the stylistic touches of what we now consider bebop.

The fine tenor saxophonist/clarinettist Dan Block made a really good record a few years ago called “Almost Modern: The Swing to Bop Project”, which deals with this very subject in a very convincing and musical way. Block, trumpeter Jon-Erik Kellso and the band explore the Swing-bop transition by playing tunes from the early ’40s by people like Hawkins, Byas, Jacquet and Sir Charles Thompson, as well as early ones by Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Dexter Gordon and Bud Powell. If you don’t have this record, get it, it’s on the Toronto-based Sackville label.

Or take Wardell Gray for example. He’s considered by many to be one of the central, pioneering bebop tenor players, and he was. He recorded with Charlie Parker, Tadd Dameron, Dexter Gordon, etc., but also with Count Basie and Benny Goodman. There’s an awful lot of ‘Swing’ in him too – in his rhythmic delivery, his choice of repertoire, his absorption of Lester Young’s phrasing and sound. Swing didn’t just end all of a sudden, replaced instantly by bebop. There was transition and evolution, the styles co-existed and still do.

Another problem with labels is that, as Balliett wrote, they have a chronological aspect which implies that each new style (represented by a new name) was an improvement on the preceding one because it was newer, so that bebop must be ‘better’ than Swing and hard-bop in turn ‘better’ than bebop and so on. It’s madness.

Sometimes the problem is with the keyword used in the label, some of them are really ill-considered. The use of the term ‘Swing’ to describe small- or big- band music of the ’30s (as in “The Swing Era”) seems to imply that these styles swing more than others, or that other styles don’t swing at all, neither of which is true. ‘Cool jazz’ would seem to imply that this style is emotionally distant and lacks heat, but this isn’t necessarily true. Cool jazz can be very warm, maybe just a little quieter and more restrained than other styles.

As confusing labels, the worst offenders are ‘Dixieland’ and ‘West Coast Jazz’. We all know the basics of Dixieland – a trumpet-trombone-clarinet front line with lots of polyphony between the horns and a specific group of tunes (though the repertoire is actually more wide-ranging than many think.) Beyond summoning up “straw hats and banjos” and all those other unfortunate connotations, the term Dixieland seems to imply that the style is strictly Southern or rural, which isn’t true at all. Sure, it emerged from New Orleans and hence the name, but Dixieland continued to evolve beyond its roots, and a lot of what we now consider Dixieland actually came out of Chicago and other Midwestern places. Think Eddie Condon, Bix Beiderbecke, Wild Bill Davison et al, much of it was played in New York City by these men and others.

The other problem with Dixieland as a tag is its divisiveness. There are fans who use Dixieland to describe the only kind of jazz they really like, but there are also many others who use it as a slur. As in, when a band or a musician is playing something they consider corny, they’re “going Dixieland.” The trouble is that there’s been a lot of bad Dixieland played over the years and a lot of people have never bothered to hear the good stuff, by people like Jelly Roll Morton, Sidney Bechet, the Bobcats or Eddie Condon’s circle between the late ’30s and the mid ’50s. I once knew a musician who hated the contrapuntal tendencies of West Coast Jazz (Mulligan/Baker and Desmond/Brubeck especially) and referred to these with contempt as “Bopsieland.” So, given all this, Dixieland has almost zero value as a term. I prefer “traditional jazz” or “trad” for short, the only problem being that this implies that other forms of jazz don’t come out of their own traditions, which they obviously do. Every way of playing jazz grew out of some earlier way, that’s how history works.

As for West Coast Jazz, where to start? Is it a style, or a geographic designation? Some critic or other coined it to describe a style which developed in L.A. during the early ’50s, involving a cooler approach with a greater emphasis on arranging, inspired by both Lester Young and the Miles Davis nonet recordings of 1949. The musicians involved were generally white and centered around bands led by Stan Kenton, Shorty Rogers, Shelly Manne, Gerry Mulligan and Howard Rumsey’s Lighthouse All-Stars. There maybe was an identifiable style in there, but the problem is that there was plenty of other jazz being played in L.A. during this time by both black and white musicians, which had nothing to do with this. What were these players then, nothing? A lot of critics (and some musicians) dismissed the perceived style of West Coast Jazz as being effete or pretentious, and a lot of good music and musicians were tarred with this generalist brush. Often overlooked in all this was the extremely high level of musicianship involved and how much adventurous experimentation was going on in L.A. in the ’50s. A lot of the musicians who broke new jazz ground in the ’60s got their feet wet in L.A. – Charles Mingus, Bob Brookmeyer, Jimmy Giuffre and Jim Hall, Ornette Coleman, Don Cherry, Paul Bley, Charlie Haden, Eric Dolphy (by way of Chico Hamilton’s band) – were they limp and surfy too, because they also came out of the left coast? True, only Mingus and Dolphy were actually from L.A., but then again, some of the men who formed the core of supposed “West Coast Jazz” were not from California. Shorty Rogers was from Massachusetts, Gerry Mulligan and Shelly Manne were from New York, Chet Baker was from Oklahoma, Bud Shank from Ohio and Jimmy Giuffre came from Dallas, Texas. So, what does West Coast Jazz mean exactly? Bupkus and confusion, that’s what.

Mainstream jazz was coined in the very early ’50s as a term for jazz which didn’t really fit into any categories – which was neither swing nor bop, but had touches of both. There were two main streams to mainstream – the Kansas City/Count Basie stream – as embodied by Buck Clayton, one of the style’s prime exponents – and the Great American Songbook stream, as personified by another key mainstreamer, Ruby Braff. While it was coined to avoid further labelling, mainstream over time became just that, another label. While I very much like a lot of the music that’s called mainstream, I have some problems with the term itself. There’s something about the word mainstream that smacks of “middle of the road”, and seems to infer a safe, cushy, bland kind of music. Maybe the term is not good enough for the often great music it describes, which is not safe but balanced, not cushy but relaxed, not bland but graceful. All I know is that if men like Clayton, Braff, Vic Dickenson, Coleman Hawkins, Teddy Wilson, Mel Powell and many others play mainstream, then I like it.

The other problem with mainstream as a term is that, over time it has become a catch-all, where yesterday’s ‘progressives’ become today’s ‘mainstreamers’ in this endless parade of jazz fashion, which happened with people like George Shearing, Zoot Sims and Gerry Mulligan. Oh well, nice try, back to the drawing board.

Jazz labels aren’t the only problem though. As Balliett pointed out, there’s our obsession with time and progress, our thinking that each really new thing in jazz is a move forward which sweeps aside that which preceded it, rendering earlier players or styles obsolete and irrelevant as though they were disposable. This kind of thinking is both lazy and wrong-headed and not very hard to refute in any number of ways. Take jazz trumpet for example. Louis Armstrong was inspired by some of the older trumpeters in New Orleans, especially King Oliver. With a breathtaking run of brilliant records starting in the mid ’20s (“West End Blues”, “Weather Bird” and scores more), Armstrong in turn created the first truly improvised jazz solos and showed the world how to swing, paving the way for an entire generation of younger trumpeters (not to mention players of all instruments.) One of these was Roy Eldridge, who, along with some others, in turn inspired bebop players like Dizzy Gillespie and Fats Navarro. They begat Miles Davis, Clifford Brown and other trumpeters of the ’50s, who in turn spawned Freddie Hubbard, Booker Little, Woody Shaw and other later players. And so on, up to now. But really, it all started with Armstrong and if you don’t buy that, consider this well-known quote about Louis from Miles Davis himself, who knew a thing or two about jazz trumpet: “You can’t play anything on the horn that Pops hasn’t already played. Even modern.”

I rest my case. But this tiresome historical reasoning is just a form of lip-service. If you go back to any of Armstrong’s Hot Five or Hot Seven records and really listen to his solos, they don’t sound dated, they still sound fresh and alive and modern. They have the D.N.A. of jazz greatness in them and are timeless, which is the reason they shook up the world in the first place. The same goes for any number of immortal solos from the likes of Hawkins, Young, Parker and dozens of others, and there are more of these lying around in the annals of jazz recordings than we know. There are all kinds of surprising not-so-famous great solos played by lesser-known artists to be heard, if you do a little rooting around in the past as well as the present.


Labels and this disposable thinking can’t really do much harm in the case of a veteran jazz fan who knows the lay of the land, and can take them with a large grain of salt. But when a person first gets interested in jazz, what they need is information and chances are they will get this from books, liner notes or magazines, which is where these labels are often bandied about. Beginners tend to take these terms too literally and this leads to a lot of narrow, pre-conceived thinking. It was that way for me when I first got the jazz bug. Hearing a Clifford Brown/Max Roach record hooked me, followed by some mid ’50s Miles Davis and a short, mind-blowing trip back in time to Charlie Parker.

Following up this listening with some reading informed me that the jazz I liked was called bebop in the case of Bird, and hard-bop with Miles and Clifford. Books explained that hard-bop was a reaction against the pale and limp excesses of ‘cool jazz’ (much of it from the West Coast), an attempt to return the music to its more virile roots, the blues, etc., blah-blah-blah. My young mind and virginal ears bought this hook, line and sinker. I developed an immediate and hard-set prejudice against cool and West Coast jazz (especially if played by white guys), despite never having listened to much of either. Never mind that my idol Miles supposedly got the ‘cool’ ball rolling with his 1948-9 nonet, he “made up” for this with Walkin’, his 1954 album often credited with launching the hard-bop ‘movement’. Since then I’ve come to beware any word with movement after it, other than maybe ‘bowel’.

I was lucky though, because shortly after embarking on all this jazz reading, I started to actually try to play the music from scratch on the bass, which acted as a buffer and reality check against all the lofty, abstract categorization in these tomes I was digesting. It was one thing to read that bebop was more ‘progressive’ and ‘modern’ than that old-hat ‘swing’ and Dixie stuff, but quite another to try playing the latter in the high school Dixieland band I started playing the bass in. Lesson number one in a long series – playing jazz is a lot harder than talking about it. Or, to put it another way, looking down your nose at “Ja-Da” because it’s “old” is a lot easier than actually walking a bass line through it, especially when you don’t know what the hell you’re doing. I didn’t look down my nose at Dixieland for very long, if at all, because it was kicking my ass regularly and I knew there were people around who could play it a lot better than I did. Regardless of which kind you play, jazz is a hard instrument.

So, first playing jazz in a style that was older than what I naturally liked was a blessing because it broadened my tastes and opened my mind, gave me a healthy respect for the history of the music on a practical level. Many people think that broadening your horizons on a given subject means moving forward in time so you’re more up to date, but this is only partly true. In jazz, depending on where you start, broadening your mind can also mean moving backwards in time, because the music is a continuum.

I did a little of both. I continued to listen to bop and hard-bop and gradually moved forward in time to the music of the early ’60s – John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, Ornette Coleman, Bill Evans, Eric Dolphy, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter et al, and beyond. But because I was involved with playing Dixieland early, which was proving a challenge that I wanted to get better at it, I also ventured back in time with my limited record budget. This led me to, among others, Louis Armstrong, whose music I fell in love with, hard and forever. And from Pops to some other swing masters like Coleman Hawkins, Count Basie and Lester Young, Billie Holiday, Benny Goodman with Charlie Christian, Duke Ellington and his wonderful travelling menagerie. So I at least had some grounding in the music’s traditions by way of listening, and through this, a sense of the connection between supposedly different styles rather than just the disconnect. The best way to blow jazz labels out of the water is either to play the music, which is a great leveler and humbling, to say the least. Or, if that’s not in the cards, to do some listening on your own to different artists and styles and make up your own mind. You can’t hear a painting, and by the same token, you can’t see music. Reading about jazz only gives you part of the picture, you really have to hear it, so there’s no substitute for listening.

By the mid ’80s, I was fairly established as a bassist on the Toronto jazz scene and had done a lot of playing with very good musicians in various bags. There were still a lot of holes in my listening though and sometimes these cost me, there were certain moves or songs in some styles that I wasn’t familiar with and I’d have to muddle through using my ears and instincts. There were a number of things preventing me from doing more listening. At the time I had two young sons and was pretty busy playing, so there wasn’t a lot of money left over to buy records, or time to listen to them. But even if I’d had more time and money, this was before the CD-reissue programs started and an awful lot of records were out of print or hard to find, except for the ones by artists that always remained in circulation – Miles, Coltrane, Duke, Oscar Peterson, etc. I still hadn’t listened to a lot of West Coast or cool jazz, there were large areas of ’30s Swing and earlier jazz I was pretty unfamiliar with.

A major godsend on this front fell into my lap when I met the drummer John Sumner on a tour of the Soviet Union with Fraser MacPherson in September of 1986. John and I did a lot of hanging out on that tour and became fast friends and he moved to Toronto just before Christmas of that year. John knows as much or more about jazz as anyone I’ve met. He combines the vast discographical knowledge many jazz experts have, with the added dimension of having played the music for over fifty years. He began collecting jazz records seriously way back in his teens and arrived in Toronto from Vancouver with a great collection of jazz LPs, thousands of them. We took up where we’d left off in Russia, once or twice a week we’d get together to hang out and listen to records, usually at his place. I brought the beer.

Through John and his collection I heard an awful lot of jazz for the first time that I’d only vaguely known about. Most of the records I’d listened to were made in New York, so I had a very Apple-centric view of things – labels like Prestige, Blue Note, Savoy, Riverside, Impulse! and so on. John grew up in Portland, Oregon and spent a lot of time playing in San Francisco and L.A. when he was young, so he had a vast knowledge of, and a healthy respect for, the music and musicians from the west. With John I listened to an awful lot of records made in those cities during the ’50s and ’60s, which changed my outlook considerably by filling in a lot of gaps. Some of this music could be called “West Coast Jazz” and some not, but either way, my preconceptions about that term and “cool jazz” changed through actually hearing a lot of artists mostly for the first time. Men like Art Pepper, Cal Tjader, Lee Konitz, Warne Marsh, Don Fagerquist, Bill Perkins, Shorty Rogers, Russ Freeman, Richie Kamuca, Carl Perkins, Jimmy Giuffre, Bob Brookmeyer, Wardell Gray, Bill Holman and scores of others. All of them sounded more interesting and swung much more than I’d been led to believe.

Through John, I also heard vast parts of the Verve and Vanguard labels for the first time, plus a lot of music on smaller New York labels like Dot, Seeco, Bethlehem, Coral, Colpix and others. These featured players I barely knew, such as Eddie Costa, Gene Quill, Hal McKusick, Barry Galbraith, Osie Johnson, and writers such as Manny Albam and Al Cohn, all kinds of stuff. The effect of all this was to open up my ears and make me realize that jazz was a lot more varied and vast than I’d known, there were shadings and nuances and many more ways to play it and to swing than I’d previously realized. And because a lot of this music sounded so fresh to me and didn’t necessarily fit into genres like hard-bop or cool or West Coast, I stopped thinking about these and other labels and started to simply consider whether the music sounded any good to me or not. Hanging out and doing all this listening with Sumner was not only fun, it was like my jazz “finishing school”, except that the learning process never ends. Jazz school is never out.


By the mid ’90s my kids had grown up some and I had a day job, so there was more time and money to spend on jazz records, which were being reissued at a dizzying pace as CDs. I jumped in hard with both feet and began collecting, and haven’t really stopped since. This allowed me to fill in some more gaps and eventually I bought and started listening to discs featuring various artists and forms of early jazz I’d mostly missed out on – Jelly Roll Morton, Bix Beiderbecke and Co., Fletcher Henderson, early Ellington, some stride and boogie-woogie piano, a lot of small-group Swing from the mid 30s to the mid ’40s and so on. This body of music has been a major stopping-off point for me. The decade between the mid ’30s and mid ’40s was an extremely rich period in jazz (like the late ’50s), where the music had evolved and achieved both great maturity and diversity and there was a ton of recording going on.

It may seem strange for a guy like me in this day and age to spend so much time listening to music from that long ago, but I can’t help myself, it just sounds so good. Horn players from this period were all about making very individual, colourful and expressive sounds – trumpeters like Rex Stewart, Red Allen; Pee Wee Russell and reams of other clarinet players; Johnny Hodges, Chu Berry, all the trombonists, not to mention Django Reinhardt – and on and on, there’s just no end to it. And thanks to people like Big Sid Catlett, Jimmie Blanton, Teddy Wilson, Count Basie’s rhythm section and many others, the beat had smoothed itself out, time in the music became streamlined; both propulsive and graceful. And because a lot of the men involved had (or still were) playing in big bands, there’s a huge element of smart ensemble playing present – improvised backgrounds, intros and outros, obbligatos and counterpoint – which bring a lovely variety of texture and dynamics to this music. When you consider all this and throw in the quality of songwriting going on all over the place then, well….it’s like Paris in the 1920s. Who the hell would want to leave there for very long?

As for the earlier jazz I listened to, I was often surprised by how fresh, vital and relevant a lot of it still sounds; the rhythm is very incisive and the ideas quite daring for their day. This may in part have to do with the actual sound quality of these early recordings being cleaned up by the technology of CD transferring, and with the fact that I’m older now and have some perspective on jazz history. Also, don’t forget – no matter how old a record is, when you hear it for the first time, it’s new to you. This is the magic and wonder of jazz records. They capture a spontaneous, in-the-moment performance from a particular day and freeze it in place forever, in effect bending time. I’ve tried to reach the point where I no longer need labels to guide me through jazz, where the players’ names themselves become the labels. So that, when I’m listening to Jimmy Noone, I’m listening to Jimmy Noone music and when I’m listening to Benny Golson, I’m listening to Benny Golson music.

I’ve drawn a couple of conclusions from doing all this listening which may or may not be worth sharing. But I’m in a sharing mood, so here goes. Firstly, I’ve come to think that each new development in jazz is not a move forward but rather sideways, not linear but lateral. For example, if you listen to the music of Jelly Roll Morton’s Red Hot Peppers and, say, The Art Ensemble of Chicago, a huge gulf in years and style would seem to be in play. And yet they’re not that different, both groups are using and grappling with the same elements. How to balance solo improvisation with composition, how to organize ensemble playing and group improvising with structure and form, how to vary rhythmic feeling, tempo and texture, how to achieve a group sound and identity while still emphasizing freedom of expression and individual personal sounds.

All worthwhile jazz groups deal with these issues; the way in which these are handled has changed with the evolution of jazz styles, but the elements themselves have remained the same. As I see it, jazz is a continuum, or, if you like, a river. The contributions of various artists in terms of new styles or ideas form streams or tributaries, but these don’t make the river longer, they make it wider, deeper. There’s water from Joe Oliver in the river and water from Chet Baker and hundreds of others and, whether they know it or not, jazz fans drink from all of it.

Secondly, I’ve come to love all jazz, period, regardless of age or style. New, old, trad, swing, bop, modern, what have you. However, this is not as indiscriminate as it sounds. While I love all kinds of jazz, there are things in jazz I don’t love and these don’t involve styles or age, but rather practices in the music. Such as:

1) I don’t like it when the blues element in the music is missing for very long. I’m talking about the blues as a stylistic element affecting sound, phrasing, spacing, and a vocal quality which writer Mike Zwerin called “the cry”, not just the twelve-bar blues form. When it’s missing the music can become bland and suffers for it. Fortunately, jazz is pretty open about this, there are many ways different players carry blues feeling, some of them overt, some quite subtle. Sidney Bechet has the blues cry and so does Jim Hall, it’s not a limited or limiting requirement.

2) I don’t like jazz that lacks rhythmic unity or heat. To me, jazz is mostly about feeling, improvisation, rhythm, personalized sound and song forms. But rhythm is the most important of these. More than anything else, the rhythmic vitality and momentum of jazz is what defines it and makes it unique. Mostly we know this rhythmic drive as the verb to “swing”, rather than “swing” as a noun or style. Whether you want to call this rhythmic feeling “swing” or not, if it’s absent, the music becomes dull and bloodless. Again, this is not a limiter, because, although the music is either swinging or not, there are lots of ways to swing. Hard, gently, in four, in two, overtly stated or implied, it’s endlessly subtle. The Basie band swung and so did the Modern Jazz Quartet, the Jimmy Giuffre 3 and stride piano. Swinging is pretty open, but you have to try, and you have to pull together.

3) One of the things I love best about jazz is the freedom it allows players to achieve a personal, individual sound on their respective instruments. Symphony musicians are not afforded this, there are European-derived traditions and standards of tone that are expected of them, because they have to blend into sections of the orchestra. However, I don’t like it when the sounds jazz players are making don’t seem to be coming from inside them but rather from the aid of some digital or electrical contrivance. It’s not that I want the music to be totally acoustic, I’m OK with amplifiers for the guitar and the bass when used within reason. The trouble is, a lot of this reason has gone out the window, there’s way too much amplification in the music now a lot of the time. It’s not just bass or guitar amps, these can at least be controlled by their owners. It’s too much right across the board, i.e. the sound board. Too many microphones turned up too loud; monitors, microphones on the drums, sound men who don’t understand how jazz sounds, and don’t even get me started on electric keyboards. The result of all this is music that’s less pure, less intimate, less beautiful. I thought this was a lost cause for a while, but I’ve noticed a backlash in the other direction recently. Young musicians who want to play quieter and resist P.A. systems, and sound men who are starting to realize that less is more. Now, if we could just get some real pianos back in circulation, we’d be in business.

4) Composing and arranging have helped greatly to enrich jazz and have played a part in its evolution nearly equal to that of improvisation. I appreciate composition, but dislike jazz that’s too much about written music, or where the compositions are not improvisation-friendly or exceed the ability of the audience to readily grasp them. Improvisation is already abstract and can be difficult enough to follow on its own; superimposing this over compositions of confounding complexity takes the music down a navel-gazing road I could do without. Many of the jazz composers who succeeded the most wrote for specific players in their long-standing groups, and with improvisation in mind – Ellington, Monk, Horace Silver, John Lewis, Charles Mingus. Because they all led bands for years with fairly stable personnel, the musicians involved had the chance to grow and evolve with the compositions and vice versa. Now there is a greater emphasis on composition in jazz than ever before, but it’s harder to keep a regular working band together. This means musicians often are expected to negotiate their way through complicated material without a lot of rehearsal or familiarity, sometimes resulting in music that lacks personality or relaxation, is impressive but tries too hard.

5) Playing jazz requires technique, but I dislike jazz that is all about technical display. I prefer players who use their technique to serve the interests of the music, like Lester Young or Miles Davis. Neither one of them was a virtuoso, but each had a lot to say. Jim Hall or Bill Evans, who both had gobs of technique, but used it to tell a story rather than to impress. We are now living in the age of the virtuoso, where conservatory-level technique in jazz is almost a given, but often players are saying less with more, rather than the (preferable) opposite. If I want to hear a virtuoso, I’ll listen to a concerto, thanks.

6) Jazz has become too much about the solo and not enough about the group. Too often I hear jazz that is just a succession of solos, ones that are often too long and in the same order (horns, then piano, bass, then some sort of action involving the drums) and the only ensemble playing involves the rhythm section. This becomes boring and doesn’t offer enough variety, but could be remedied easily enough by shaking up the ingrained jazz protocol with a little imagination and direction. Why does everybody have to solo on every tune? Why does everybody in the rhythm section always have to be playing all at once – why not have just the bass behind a saxophone for a few choruses? Or just the piano behind a trumpet for a while? Why not spotlight just the rhythm section on a tune in the middle of a set? Instead of having a bass solo on most tunes, why not feature the bassist on one appropriate tune of his choice? Let him stretch out on it a bit, with maybe some (dare I say it?) quiet padding chords from the horns. In fact, why are the horn players often only involved in just playing the melody (maybe) and then soloing. Whatever happened to some backgrounds, some riffing? Why not feature a drum solo out front on a tune, rather than always near the end? Maybe out of tempo, then have him set it. And for that matter, why does a tune have to be played at the same tempo throughout for every soloist, why not some breaks leading to tempo changes? With just a little thought, these and many other things could be incorporated quite easily while just playing standard songs. This would all be most refreshing, these different approaches used to happen in jazz regularly. It used to have more of a group dynamic rather than every man for himself, and obviously soloists who overstay their welcome don’t help. Brevity is still the soul of wit (and yes, I agree, my writing could use some of this too.)

To summarize, I like jazz of all styles if played with conviction, sincerity and drive, with an eye toward achieving variety, joy and energy. It’s not about style or labels, it’s about quality.


Sometimes I like to think of jazz history with all its players and various styles as being like a huge, rollicking party held in a gigantic room at a banquet hall. There are no clocks and all of the great players – the dead and the living – are present. The party is kept from being too chaotic (or too much fun) by the use of pre-assigned seating at tables using name tags, like at a wedding reception. When you first arrive, you look to see which table you’re seated at, hoping that you’ll at least know some people to talk to. In my case for example, when I was first invited to this party, I hoped I would be seated at the hard-bop table. Much to my relief I was, at a table with Art Blakey, Horace Silver and Clifford Brown among many others, I should be able to find some stuff to talk about here. Or maybe at the nearby bebop table with Bird and Diz, Kenny Clarke and Oscar Pettiford et al, the conversation should be pretty good there.

I notice the Kansas City swing table not too far away and see Buck Clayton, Jo Jones, Lester Young and Walter Page seated; I think I’ll try to drop by for a drink later, there’s bound to be some choice stories told among these guys. There are dozens and dozens of other tables – a trad table, a West Coast table, many post-bop tables. Armstrong, Basie and Ellington each have one of their own where they’re joined by various trusty sidemen. There’s a Condon table and several New Orleans tables and off in one corner there’s a kiddie’s table, I’ll have to drop by there at some point and see what these young ‘uns are up to. The more people and music you know at this bash, the more you can learn, schmooze and have fun.

Off in another corner there’s a table with all the great early Harlem pianists – James P. Johnson, The Lion, Donald Lambert, Fats Waller, Luckey Roberts – and their later followers like Don Ewell, Ralph Sutton and Dick Wellstood. I’m going to pay an extended visit to this stride piano table in Part 2 of this opus grosso – hence its title – with special emphasis on one of the artists who, as Balliett put it, has been supplanted and sent to the “outer darkness” – James P. Johnson, the daddy of them all.

© 2014 – 2016, Steve Wallace. All rights reserved.

2 thoughts on “Making Strides, Part 1 – Labels

  1. Thoroughly enjoyed this article, agree and have shared it with others. It was listening to the widest variety of music that allowed me to feel, understand and eventually make music in a jazz style. Of course, working with and learning much from a number of fine musicians made it all come together for me. The listening and the performing and always being open to what was, is, and might be beats labels every time–yes indeed:)

  2. For everyone who doesn’t have a John Sumner in their lives (too bad for them!), I’d say a good Jazz Radio station or internet broadcaster (with a comprehensive library and competent presenters) would be a good thing. Any suggestions, Steve? As you’ve said, learning starts from listening…

    And, I think while I agree with 98.98% of this essay, with me Point 6 hits home the most, and should be the topic of at least a semester at Jazz School. I have (after close to 60 years of listening) come to actively dislike if not ‘hate’ the jazz protocol of a string of solos. Listen to a 75 minute set made up of four tunes? Forget it!

    Why hasn’t the jazz world learned the Ruby Braff lesson of maybe 10 tunes, two soloists at the most on each, some with half the band laying out, tempo changes, draw from blues, standards and jazz compositions? That brings a real Unity to Diversity!

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