Monday, March 31, 2014

John Lewis: Neoclassicism in Jazz [Part 2]

“Jazz, in the hands of a neoclassicist, is a music of balance, of care, of restraint; with an unabashed lyricism and a subtle sense of formal structure, ….  [T]he neoclassicist can often be distinguished not so much by his positive virtues as by what he excludes.” [paraphrased from Ted GioiaThe Imperfect Art: Reflections on Jazz and Modern Culture, p. 85]

“With a touch as individual as Basie or Claude Thornhill, and an ever more careful and considered phraseology, … [John Lewis’ pianism] is swing and bebop distilled down to their most lyrical and refined essences.”
Richard Cook and Brian Morton The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, 6th Ed., [p. 904].

“John Lewis’ style is single-noted and highly rhythmic. His simple, seemingly repetitive phrases are generally played just behind the beat, where much of the secret of Jazz lies. He is an emotional pianist – in a transcendental way – and he succeeds, where most pianists fail, in transmitting his emotion.”
– Whitney BalliettAmerican Musicians: 56 Portraits in Jazz, p. 240.

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

The late John Lewis [1920-2001] and Oscar Peterson [1925-2007] were both Jazz pianists. But any similarity between them ends with that declarative statement.

Stylistically, they are as different as night and day.

For proof of this assertion, all one need do is listen to Oscar Peterson play his break-neck speed version of Clifford Brown’s Daahoud and then try to find anything remotely resembling it in the entire catalog of John Lewis recordings. Oscar plays more notes in one rendering of Daahoud than John plays on an entire album.

[BTW – did I mentioned that I am a big fan of OP’s Daahoud?]

This contrast in Jazz piano styles was once again brought home to me while working on a recent profile of trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie when I stumbled upon the following 1946 photo of Diz’s big band at the Spotlite club with none other than John Lewis in the piano chair.

Talk about a flurry of notes – Dizzy Gillespie in his early years and in a big band, no less!

What in the world was John Lewis doing in the piano chair of such a band – a pianist who could rival Count Basie for pecking out the fewest notes in a chorus of 12-bar blues?

As the story goes, Bud Powell, whose fast and furious right-hand phrasing was a more appropriate fit for the piano chair, was AWOL again, bringing about Dizzy’s insertion of Lewis as a last-minute substitute for the gig at the Spotlite club.

For the most part, pianists are largely superfluous in a big band [you can’t hear them], so I doubt that anyone listening very closely to Diz’s band at the time would have noticed the difference.

But I did and in so doing it helped me realize that I had been wanting to spend some time developing a piece about John Lewis, an interest that was further enhanced after a recent JazzProfiles feature on Ted Gioia’s The Imperfect Art: Reflections on Jazz and Modern Culture and his analysis of Neoclassicism in Jazz as noted in the following, somewhat modified quotation [pp.84-85]:

“… the Neoclassicists of Jazz, like Neoclassicists in other arts, … attempt to pare away the excesses of previous generations to reveal an art that is pristine and timeless.

Their paradigm is the sculptor, whose work emerges from sharply cut and precisely defined lines, and whose warmth of expression is tempered by the cool, distant, and unforgiving medium with which he works.

The Neoclassicist recognizes that self-restraint is the essence of artistic style. A style which includes everything ceases to be a style – it has become an encyclopedia of techniques.

The artist who embraces all of these techniques has, by the same token, reduced himself to a mere craftsman. Art begins only when some techniques are favored, others discarded.

Jazz, for these artists, is not just the music of possibilities, but rather of constrained possibilities.”

John Lewis fits perfectly into the Neoclassic approach to Jazz.

Not surprisingly, alto saxophonist Paul Desmond, who is the primary example that Ted uses to support his premise of Neoclassicism in Jazz, always wanted to perform in concert with John Lewis and The Modern Jazz Quartet [MJQ].

His wish was granted on December 25, 1971 at Town Hall in New York City.

[As an aside and for those readers who may not be aware, John is best known as the pianist and musical director of the MJQ, one Jazz’s most enduring combos, and Paul Desmond was a member of legendary pianist Dave Brubeck’s Quartet for over 15 years]

As Irving Townsend explains in his insert notes to a posthumously issued CD that captured the music that was played that evening [paragraphing modified]:

[Following their initial meeting in San Francisco in the mid-1950s] it is not difficult to understand … the developing friendship between the two men or their admiration for each other’s music.

Each was soft-spoken, shy of lime lighted celebrity which by then had caught them in its glare.

They were contemporaries both in age and in Jazz, each a distinctive voice in what was at that time something new, a permanently established small group whose music was bound neither by the previous perimeters of Jazz nor by the calisthenics of night club entertainment.

…. There is a handful of instrumentalists whose playing redefines the instrument. Paul Desmond was one of that handful.”

Of the 1971 Christmas Day union between the MJQ and Desmond, John Lewis – appropriately -  put it more succinctly: “I guess we always thought about things the same way and finally it happened.”

Mr. Townsend assertion about Paul Desmond redefining the alto saxophone refers to the sound that he achieved on the horn; one that is sometimes called a subtone. The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz defines this as:

“A soft, caressing, breathy tone produced by carefully controlled suppression of the higher partials of a note. Subtone is produced by means of a small, slow, but steady stream of air, projected through a tight embouchure; the player must blow firmly to prevent the sound from breaking or fading altogether, but gently so that the upper partials of the note are not produced.” [p. 1168]

Obviously, the analogy between Paul and John cannot be pushed so far as to assert that Lewis changed the sound of the piano.

But at a time when most Jazz pianists were embracing bebop phrasing with it multiplicity of notes played in a fast and furious fashion, John Lewis opted for a more succinct almost laconic style.

The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz offers this description of John’s playing [paragraphing modified]:

“Lewis is among the most conservative of bop pianists. His improvised melodies, played with a delicate touch are usually simple and quiet; the accompaniments are correspondingly light, with Lewis’ left hand just grazing the keys to produce a barely audible sound.

His method of accompanying soloists is similarly understated: rather than comping – punctuating the melody with irregularly placed chords – he often plays simple counter-melodies in octaves which combine with the solo and bass parts to form a polyphonic texture.

…. Many of Lewis’ solos have a degree of motivic unity which is rare in Jazz. For example, in Bluesology [1956] each chorus of his solo builds on the previous one by establishing a link from the end of one chorus to the beginning of the next.

As … [his] solo progresses, Lewis subjects its opening motif to inversion, chromatic alterations, and a variety of other alterations in pitch and shape, which nevertheless retain their links with the basic figure [i.e.: motif].” [p. 695]

Given all of this, maybe John does change the sound of the piano after all?!

More insights into what makes John Lewis’ kind of Jazz so singular and satisfying are to be found in the following inserts notes to his album Kansas City Breaks [Red Barron JK57759], which Dan Morgensten, the distinguished Jazz critic and current Director, Institute of Jazz Studies, Rutgers University, has graciously granted copyright permission to replicate.

John’s choice for the instrumentation on this recording assures it of an almost chamber music quality as he is joined by Joe Kennedy, Jr. on violin, Frank Wess on flute, Howard Collins on guitar, and John, Marc Johnson and Shelly Manne on piano, ass and drums, respectively.

In order to give JazzProfiles readers the opportunity to sample John’s music from Kansas City Breaks, the editorial staff has selected this group’s performance of Django, probably John’s most famous composition, as the audio track and set it to this YouTube tribute to John Lewis.

© -Dan Morgenstern. Reprinted with permission; copyright protected, all rights reserved.

“Throughout his long and distinguished career, John Lewis has created so much remarkable and beautiful music that it seems presumptuous to speak of landmarks. Nevertheless, I'll go out on a limb and call this remarkably beautiful album a John Lewis landmark.

It brings to first fruition some ideas about a new and fresh combination of instruments that have been taking shape over a number of years, starting not long after the breakup (after a record near quarter-century) of the Modern Jazz Quartet. (That the MJQ would eventually be reconstituted from time to time was inevitable, but it clearly no longer occupies a central position in Lewis's musical life.)

Soon after Lewis began to teach at New York's City College, he formed a student group with the unusual instrumentation heard here, and in 1975, he made an album for Columbia, "P.O.V." on which a similar combination (substituting cello for guitar) was presented. But one need only compare the 1975 version of Lyonhead with the 1982 one to realize that a lot has happened since then.

Much closer to the new conception was the music, recorded in the spring of 1981, heard on "The John Lewis Album for Nancy Harrow" (Finesse FW 37681), which essentially introduced the John Lewis Group—the only differences being that Connie Kay was on drums, and that the ensemble's primary function was to provide a lovely framework for Nancy Harrow.

It was the artistic success of this venture that sparked the album at hand, and it is a pleasure to announce that the John Lewis Group will not confine its existence to the recording studios, but will perform live as well — and often, one hopes. The Group is already so well integrated and fine tuned and has achieved such a high level of empathy that it must take its place in the front ranks of jazz ensembles.

That should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the work of John Lewis, which from the start has been synonymous with a very special kind of excellence in which creativity and craftsmanship—both of the highest order—combine with inspiration and elegance. In the world of jazz, the term composer is often misused and misunderstood. Suffice it to say that John Lewis is a composer in the truest sense and a true jazz composer. And a great player as well; a true improviser.

There is no conflict in Lewis between these roles. Rather, they complement each other and co-exist in perfect balance. Form and order serve as springboards for adventure, surprise and that sense of playfulness (the sense in which the great Dutch historian Johan Huizinga uses it: "Play casts a spell over us... it is invested with the noblest qualities we are capable of perceiv­ing in things: rhythm and harmony") without which there can be no true jazz... or real music.

The John Lewis Group at play is a joy to the ear and the heart. There is no striving for effects, no pretense; just pure music-making invested with unity of purpose. This is indeed a group-a unit—in which distinctive musical personalities come together without clashes of egos. For John Lewis is not only a great composer and instrumentalist, he is also a great leader.

He has chosen well. There are some established players here, to say the least. It is unlikely that any reader of these notes will need an introduction to Shelly Manne, one of the most accomplished and versatile percussionists in jazz, but it is worth noting that this, to the best of my knowledge, is his first recorded collaboration with Lewis. A case of instant rapport. Frank Wess, too, is justly famous as the man who, more than any other, established the flute in jazz. That he is also a more than accomplished composer-arranger surely does him no harm in this context (which, incidentally, is the most stimulating in which he has been heard of late).

Joe Kennedy, Jr. has, finally, become somewhat better known. Fine jazz violinists have always been scarce, and the instrument is not as fully appreciated in jazz circles as it deserves to be. Kennedy made his first records in 1945, worked and recorded with (and wrote for) Ahmad Jamal in the '50s (also making an album of his own that was a well-kept secret), and then settled in Rich­mond, Virginia where he is Supervisor of Music for the public school system and concert master of the local symphony. He also happens to be Benny Carter's cousin, and the great man recently coaxed him out into the jazz world again, taking him on tours to Japan and Europe and major U.S. festivals. Last year Kennedy was featured on a Billy Taylor album (the pianist, who worked for Eddie South and Stuff Smith, knows a good violinist when he hears one), and then on the aforementioned Nancy Harrow LP. I've been a fan of Joe's for many years, and think he's never been heard in a better setting than here.

Marc Johnson, the youngster of the group, was in Bill Evans's last trio—not a job for a beginner—and then with Stan Getz. He has also worked in a duo setting with John Lewis, who called him "one of the best I've ever played with'.' His work here bears out that judgment. We've come to take remarkable bassists for granted, but Marc Johnson will surprise you.

Howard Collins is one of the last of that rare and selfless breed, the willing rhythm guitarist. He performs this demanding but unsung task wonderfully well, but that's not all he can do, or is asked to do here. Howie's been around for a while, but not lately in such good company. 

The program here is a varied one, demonstrating the scope and range of John Lewis's composing and arranging gifts, and, not incidentally, the durability of his best pieces. Work of four decades is represented, but D&E, vintage 1951, sounds as fresh as the brand-new Kansas City Breaks. Perhaps that is because the eternal verities, not least among them melodic strength and grace, have always been foremost in Lewis's writing, but surely it is also because he has always been able, to a remarkable degree, to find fresh new ways to present his classics. (That's not the only thing John Lewis and Duke Ellington have in common; another might be a love for and profound understanding of the blues—form and content. There's a lot of blues here, in a lot of guises.)

Django is a case in point. Quite possibly the most famous Lewis piece, it was in the MJQ's repertoire for more than 20 years but never grew stale. It has been re-interpreted here with such imagination and freshness that it sounds delightfully new. It also serves to introduce some of the many textures, colors and nuances the group has at its disposal, for one instance, the combination of bowed bass, low violin and bottom flute that backs Lewis's stately recapitulation of the theme.

Sacha's March begins with Manne's distant parade drums, then the band comes into view. Shelly's extensive solo work reminds me of Zutty Singleton—it has that spirit. There are fine solos by Wess, still the flute master, and Kennedy, who enters a la Stuff Smith and swings as hard as that paragon of jazz fiddle. But the main event is the wonderful interplay.

Lyonhead, dedicated to Jimmy Lyons of Monterey fame, stems from the score to a documentary film, "Cities for People'.' The almost pointillist sections that frame the solos (by Lewis, spare, skipping and with a crystal sound; Kennedy, and Wess, the latter with brilliant Manne support) are out-of-tempo and through-composed, making for fine contrast with the lively, swinging improvisations.

Winter Tale, from the score for the 1962 film "A Milanese Story,' is a moody piece with a lovely melody, introduced by Kennedy with a gypsy feeling and exposed by Lewis and Wess. When Kennedy resumes in the lead, Wess dances around him. Eddie South would have loved Kennedy's closed statement.

Valeria, from the same film score, has a latinesque beat and feeling. Everybody is in splen­did form, and the rhythm section's work is outstanding. Manne builds a brushfire under Lewis, who gets into a characteristic double-time groove, and Johnson's lively bass lines are a joy. A unique touch is the flute-and-piano unison stuff behind the violin in the closing ensemble passages.

D and E is a sunny blues, beautifully scored — all the voices interwoven in what is essentially a feature for Marc Johnson, who, among other things, plays a terrific cadenza. There are witty solos by piano, violin and flute, and Collins's steady strum is in evidence.

Kansas City Breaks continues the happy mood and also has a prominent role for the bass, notably in an extended dialog, first with Wess, then with Lewis (whose ideas are charming here), punctuated by Shelly's triangle. Again, the voicings are lovely, including some three-way pizzicato activity. A masterpiece that affirms the living roots of jazz.

Milano, a pretty waltz composed in 1954, finds the piano in the spotlight, exposing the melody with serene dignity. Lewis the master accompanist is also in evidence, behind Wess's improvisa­tion on the theme. The flute and violin unison figures are yet another indication of the group's varied palette. A perfect closing to a splendid set.

The John Lewis Group is a bright new presence on the jazz scene. The high standards it has set for itself here are what one would expect from John Lewis, but nothing else about this music is predictable. It is very good to know that such music can still be made, for it proves that tradi­tion and innovation are not opposing forces. The message is clear and strong. Listen!

Dan Morgenstern, Director, Institute of Jazz Studies, Rutgers Univ. (1982)”

And no one writes more descriptively about music with words than the Dean of Jazz writers, Whitney Balliett who provided the insert notes to John Lewis’ Grand Encounter Pacific Jazz album [1217;Toshiba EMI CD – TOCJ-6115]. These follow Dan’s notes.

© -Whitney Balliett, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“Nostalgia is cheap witchcraft. It is also an old looking glass, which reflects, however dimly, chairs that are chairs and light that is light. Thus, in jazz, where nostalgia often passes as critical judgment, there is frequently moist talk of Chick Webb and the Savoy Ballroom, of Bix Beiderbecke hammering out gorgeous metals in person that he never recorded, of Buddy Bolden stifl­ing the waters of Lake Ponchartrain. But these things are at least half true, and probably more. In the same fashion, it is more than half true that the area of jazz now most nostalgia-fixed - the years, roughly, between 1935-1945 - has proved re­markably durable.

In this period one hears, to be sure, chuffy rhythm sections, paralytic tempos, a sometimes thin and purposeless suavity, and instrumentalists who were more expert embellishers than improvisers. One also hears, though, an undated sweetness and inter­dependent relaxation and unhurry — where soloists were means and not ends — that produced in Billie Holiday's singing, Harry Edison's bellying trumpet, or Sid Catlett's majestic drumming, a kind of jazz that elevated artlessness to art. Much of the free lyricism that resulted has, for the present at any rate, gone out of jazz, which is, inevitably, busy with techniques. It can still be found, however, in the work of Coleman Hawkins, Roy Eldridge, Jo Jones, Ruby Braff, Teddy Wilson, and Count Basie, as well as among modernists like Gerry Mulligan, Stan Getz, Hank Jones, Joe Wilder, Joe Morello, and the Modern Jazz Quartet. (It can also be heard everywhere on this record,- which though modern in its overtones, is full of the old poetry; as a result, the record wears like Harris tweed, and is, perhaps, one of the great jazz records, which is not a liner-note puff but a subjective truth.)

Much of the musical success of the Modern Jazz Quartet, which is the most plausibly inventive group to appear since the Davis-Mulligan 1949 Capitol band, must be credited to John Lewis, its pianist and "musical director." For Lewis, a gentle, shy, bearded man in his mid-thirties, is an exceptional jazz com­poser. He is also a unique and invariably moving jazz pianist, a fact that few people have bothered with. Lewis' style is much like that of the late, underappreciated Clyde Hart. Basically, it is a single-note attack, supplemented by light chording or occa­sional melodic counter-figures in the left hand. His touch is sure and delicate, his ideas are disarmingly simple and honest. He has a rhythmic sense and enough technique to allow him easy freedom. One rarely hears an arpeggio — unless it is used func­tionally — or much block chording. Also, there is none of the metallic sweat so fashionable in the work of pianists like Hamp­ton Hawes and Horace Silver. Lewis, indeed, has a kind of dogged, floating quality in his playing; he seems to slide beneath, above, and around his materials - like, in a sense, the best of the New Orleans clarinetists-brightening them, deepening them with emotion, filling the chinks. In addition to being what amounts to a classical jazz soloist, Lewis is one of the few great supporting jazz pianists. (Lewis would never sanction the first statement; before he made this record, he had consistently refused to make a solo piano recording, feeling that jazz should be, as it is in the work of the MJQ, a collective expression.) Lewis, as a supportive pianist, again resembles Clyde Hart. (Listen to Hart behind Lionel Hampton's vocal on the latter's Victor record of "Confessin' " or his fill-ins around Lips Page's singing on the Savoy version of "Uncle Sam Blues." Then listen here to Lewis as he moves in beneath Jim Hall on the first bridge of "Skylark", and behind Bill Perkins in the first chorus of "Almost Like Being in Love.") Where most pianists simply supply cold, boring back­ground chords, Lewis like Jess Stacy, Hank Jones, or Billy Kyle, either plays an enfiring subordinate second line or chords that amplify or embroider purposely what is going on in front.

This record was made in one afternoon a few months ago in a small, empty theatre in Los Angeles. Largely an accident, it is composed of men — outside of the two teams of Lewis-Heath (the MJQ) and Hamilton-Hall (Hamilton's Quintet) -who or­dinarily do not work together or have not played together at all. As such, it is: like Armstrong's 'Knockin' a Jug", a "motherless" session. Some of the great jazz records have been motherless sessions: many of Lionel Hampton's pick-up sides made in the late Thirties on Victor; Red Norvo's Comet session in 1945 with Parker, Gillespie, Phillips, Teddy Wilson, and Slam Stewart; the Teddv Wilson-Harry James-John Simmons-Red Norvo "Just a Mood." The head arrangements were done on the spot by Lewis, who acted as musical overseer for the date, and also contributed the blues-original, "Two Degrees East — Three Degrees West", a charming, infectious figure that should be expanded into a work for the MJQ. Elsewhere, Lewis's touch is evident in the quiet tempos, the unstrained swinging, the overall, persuasive warmth.

Bill Perkins, who acts as a kind of co-leader here, was born in 1924 in San Francisco. He holds a B.A. from the University of CaliforniaSanta Barbara, and a degree in Electrical Engineer­ing from Cal. Tech. Although he has played with both Woody Herman and Stan Kenton, he has not been a full time profes­sional jazz musician much over five years. His style, at present, is an intelligent offshoot of the sunny drybones school of Lester Young and Stan Getz. It is a flowing, melodic approach that em­ploys few notes, a sense of languor, and a big, gentle tone. There is none of the hair-pulling, the bad tone, or the ugliness that is now a growing mode, largely in New York, among the work of the hard-bopsters like Sonny Rollins, Hank Mobely, and J. R. Montrose. His solos here on the blues, on "Easy Living", and "Love Me or Leave Me", are excellent lyrical tenor saxophone, and represent his best recorded work to date.

Jim Hall was born in New York and is twenty-five. He, too, has been a professional for only a few years. His style is remark­ably similar to that of Charlie Christian, especially in the direct way he strikes his notes, and in his practice of repeating certain single notes and simple figures. Some of the best modern guitar­ists have a tendency toward slipperiness and laciness. Hall, how­ever, gives each note weight, with such intent that his work occa­sionally has a kind of puggish, lumbering quality about it, which is not at all unpleasant.

Percy Heath, in comparison with Hall, is a veteran of thirty-three and is one of the soundest rhythm bassists in jazz, as well as a pleasing, unobtrusive soloist. (Some of the newer jazz bas­sists would make a full orchestra out of their instrument.)

Chico Hamilton, at thirty-five, is, with Shelly Manne and Joe Morello one of the few younger drummers who have absorbed the lessons of sprung drumming, as taught by Max Roach and Kenny Clarke, but at the same time have retained the purpose of the drummer as a sensitive, sympathetic supporter.

Most of the music here is self-explanatory. Of particular in­terest, however, are these items: the simple ingenuity of the first four choruses of "Two Degrees East — Three Degrees West," in which Perkins and Hall play a unison figure with spaced bass and tom-tom beats below them, are joined midway in the second chorus by Lewis, then drift into the background for the follow­ing two choruses while Heath solos; Lewis's appealing, yet al­most static, rendition of "I Can't Get Started"; the marvelously oblique, lazy-seeming piano introductions on "Love Me Or Leave Me" and "Almost Like Being in Love", which also has some dis­creet yet forceful solo brush work by Hamilton, mostly in ex­changes with Hall and Perkins; the way, in Perkins's third chorus in "Almost", Lewis picks up Perkins's last few bars before the bridge and repeats them throughout the bridge behind Perkins; all of "Love Me Or Leave Me", which is an almost perfect jazz recording.

None of the tempos here is above a fast walk. The loudest sound is Perkins's restrained tenor. The materials are traditional, the approach even a little old-fashioned. This is not, however, pursed chamber jazz, where the music blows lilies. Rather, it is full of the sort of understated power and inspiration that ran through so much of jazz ten or fifteen years ago, which is a blessed event.”

We thought it might be fitting to close this piece on John Lewis with the following YouTube which uses the arrangement of Django that appears on The Modern Jazz Society Presents a Concert of Contemporary Music [MG N -1040; Verve 314 559 827-2]. Richard Cook and Brian Morton awarded it a “Crown” designation as an recording deserving of special merit and offered this review in their Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, 6th Ed.:

“One of the great forgotten masterpieces of the 1950s, this brilliant date is still available only as a limited-edition reissue in Verve Connoisseur Edition. Collectors are advised to snap up any copies they see, although it’s disgraceful that this classic should not be more easily available. The Modern Jazz Society was an initiative by Lewis and [Gunther] Schuller to present new works and new arrangements, broadly in the “Third Stream” vein which Schuller encouraged. Lewis was only the supervisor of the original LP, but new discoveries -  … - find him at the piano.

The five principal pieces are all Lewis compositions, and they are among the finest treatments of “Little David’s Fugue,” “Django,” and “The Queen’s Fancy,” ever set down.” Django, with its final coda taken at the stately pace of a cortege, is so bewitching that it can silence a room.” [p. 903]

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Paul Desmond: Neoclassicism in Jazz [Part 1]

OUP Material, Copyright Line, and Acknowledgement
IP Number
THE IMPERFECT ART by Giola (1988) 2800w from "IV: Neoclassicism in Art" pp.81-91
 © 1998 by Ted Gioia  By permission of Oxford University Press, Inc.



© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

There are lot’s of ways to learn about Jazz for as the noted Jazz author Doug Ramsey has advised in Jazz Matters: Reflections on the Music and Some of Its Makers [Fayetteville: The University of Arkansas Press, 1989, p. 6]:

"You don't need a degree in musicology to understand the language of jazz. ... Jazz is based on the common language of music understood around the world. The listener, whether musician or non-musician, can learn the idioms and vernacular of the language. It is simply a matter of absorption through exposure. My only caveat is this: in the learning process, don't spend your time listening to imitators or second-raters."

Doug’s caveat holds true as well for Jazz writers: only read the best.

Certainly, by any standard of judgment, three of the best authors about Jazz are Doug, Gene Lees and Ted Gioia.

I would think that as the youngest member of this distinguished triumvirate, Ted might be flattered to share the following, paraphrased words of praise which Gene articulated about Doug’s writing in his Foreword to Doug’s Jazz Matters:

“A decent and  respectful curiosity fills Doug Ramsey’s writing. When he expresses reservations about someone’s work, he does so gently and reluctantly.

… And he praises beautifully. This is the hardest thing to do in criticism. Any writer can make himself look clever by excoriation, which calls for witty analogies and comparisons, but a rare and sensitive gift goes into the writing of sensitive praise.

And Doug has the gift of imagery, rather like that of Whitney Balliett, to give impressions of music through words.

Doug writes for the ear, he has a habit of writing only what reads well aloud….

‘The primary responsibility in writing about anything is to help people understand,’ Doug said.

That, above all, is what Doug Ramsey does.”

And that is also what Ted Gioia does, he informs the reader. Whether he is writing about one style or school of Jazz such as West Coast Jazz, or whether his discourse is about the sweeping panorama of the history of Jazz itself, Ted gives his readers knowledge and insights into how to better understand and appreciate Jazz.

Yet, Ted is no stodgy academician, but rather, an interesting storyteller who makes reading about Jazz fun and enjoyable.

His writing also enriches our listening experience by introducing fresh and different perspectives about the music for as he states in the Acknowledgements to The Imperfect Art: Reflections on Jazz and Modern Culture: [click on book title for order information]

“… mine is a decidedly ‘thoughtful’ … approach to Jazz.

Doug and Ted’s musings about Jazz also intersect at another point along its spectrum of personalities. Each has offered a treatment on the subject of alto saxophonist Paul Desmond [although in Doug’s case, it is more like a Magnus Opus!].

In The Imperfect Art: Reflections on Jazz and Modern Culture, Ted’s unique views on Paul are characterized as part of what he refers to as Neoclassicism in Jazz [pp. 81 -91].

Ted and the kind folks at Oxford University Press have graciously granted JazzProfiles copyright permission to replicate his description of what this categorization entails and why Paul’s style of playing fits so neatly into it.

As part of an ongoing series, the editorial staff plans to offer future features on other artists who approach Jazz in a “Neoclassicist” manner including John Lewis, Ahmad Jamal and Miles Davis.

So as not to confuse the reader, before describing Neoclassicism, the excerpt from Ted’s work which follows initially describes Romanticism in Jazz as a basis for contrasting these two radically different approaches to the music.

THE IMPERFECT ART, pp. 81-91, © 1998 by Ted Gioia  By permission of Oxford University Press, Inc. Copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“Drawing parallels between stages in jazz’s development and periods in the evolution of other arts is, at best, a questionable endeavor. Yet the pronounced obsession with individual art­ists which has characterized the reactions of jazz fans, critics, and even musicians at least since the time of Louis Arm­strong—reaching its peak with the figure of John Coltrane— can perhaps be best understood as the outgrowth of a tempera­ment which is essentially "romantic" in nature.

Romanticism, with its idealization of the expressive artist, created a new aesthetic vocabulary in the late eighteenth and nineteenth century—one that fixated on the act of artistic pro­duction; one that glorified the passing moment of artistic in­spiration as a secular epiphany; one in which the artist often became more important than what he created. In many in­stances the artist's life actually became, in his eyes and in the eyes of others, itself a work of art. With Byron, Wordsworth, Keats, Goethe, Wagner, and many of their contemporaries, biography and aesthetics begin to coalesce. The term "roman­ticism" has become worn with use, and, as more than one critic has advocated, much might be gained by discarding it entirely. Yet, as William Thrall has noted, "viewed in philo­sophical terms, romanticism does have a fairly definite mean­ing.”10 [William Thall, A Handbook to Literature, New York: Odyssey Press, 1960, p. 431] It designates a view of the world "which tends to see the individual at the very center of all life and all experience, and it places him, therefore, at the center of art." This aes­thetic sensibility was often seen as having a special affinity with the musical arts, As M. H. Abrams has noted, the Ger­man critics in particular saw " music as the apex and norm of the pure and non-representative expression of spirit and feeling against which to measure the relative expressiveness of all other art forms . . .

[I]nquiry into the neo-representative character of music joined with many collateral influences to strain and shatter the frame of neo-classic theory, and to reorient all critical discussion toward the new magnetic north of the expressive and creative artist.11 [M.H. Abrams, The Mirror and The Lamp: Romantic Theory and the Critical Tradition, New York: Oxford University Press, 1953, p. 94]

The inherent romanticist elements in music are realized with particular force in jazz. In no other area of creative en­deavor is there so little distance between the artist and his work of art. In the spontaneous act of improvisation, the art­ist has no opportunity to give his music a separate existence, to revise it, to reconsider it, to mull over it. The notion of the autonomous work of art—so fashionable in recent intellectual circles—has no place in jazz. Jazz music lives and dies in the moment of performance, and in that moment the musician is his music. His improvisation is the purest expression possible of the artist's emotions and feelings, and it is a purity which is only heightened by the absence of the spoken word. The German romanticist Novalis, arguing for the primacy of the musical arts, wrote towards the close of the eighteenth cen­tury: "The musician takes the essence of his art out of him­self—and not the slightest suspicion of imitation can befall him."12 [Cited in ibid., 93]
With his a cappella introduction to the West End Blues, Louis Armstrong ushered in a period of romanticism in jazz which has become, if anything, more pronounced with the passage of time. The increasingly individualistic nature of the music, the obsessive reactions of the jazz world to figures such as Parker or Coltrane, the almost complete breakdown of bar­riers between the artist and his work of art—all these legacies of Armstrong are the clear signs of an aesthetic sensibility which is essentially romanticist in character.

The benefits of such a musical environment are unmistak­able. Jazz, as a community of creative individuals, fosters a pluralism which is healthy for the art form as a whole. It lacks the embedded institutions of the other arts, yet a stronger em­phasis on group norms, exercised perhaps through academia or other mechanisms of standardization, would probably have stifled some of jazz's greatest talents. One could not imagine a Charles Mingus or a Thelonious Monk thriving in an environment n which artistic success depended on access to fel­lowships, government grants, academic appointments, and the like.

The benefits of jazz's pluralism, however, have not been achieved without a price. The attendant fragmentation of the jazz community has led to a lack of cohesion among practi­tioners, an absence of institutions for preserving and passing on the music's traditions, and, perhaps worst of all, a steady erosion of generally accepted critical standards which define what is good and bad in the music. Without the latter, musi­cians—as well as listeners and critics—may find their isolation only growing. The lack of common standards and a common musical vocabulary has exacerbated the collapse of the jazz world into countless schools and tendencies, each unable to communicate with those outside of its own small world.

Jazz has become, in effect, a music of perpetual romanti­cism. The jazz world has always exhibited a manic quality in which the music's inherent vitality threatened to run away with itself. Today this strain is more dominant than ever be­fore. By contrast, the powerful broadening and unifying in­fluence of an Armstrong, an Ellington, a Parker is now ap­parently a thing of the past.


Within this pervasive aesthetic of emotional excess, however, a handful of musicians have tried to temper the music's natu­ral impulse towards self-indulgence. They have created music of restraint, of control, of economy. These are the neoclassicists of jazz. Like neoclassical artists in other arts, they attempt to pare away the excesses of previous generations to reveal an art that is pristine and timeless. Their paradigm is the sculp­tor, whose work emerges from sharply cut and precisely de­fined lines, and whose warmth of expression is tempered by the cool, distant, and unforgiving medium with which he works. The neoclassicist recognizes that self-restraint is the essence of artistic style. A style which includes everything ceases to be a style—it has become an encyclopedia of tech­niques. The artist who embraces all of these techniques has, by the same token, reduced himself to a mere craftsman. Art begins only when some techniques are favored, others dis­carded.

Jazz, for these artists, is not just a music of possibilities, but rather a music of constrained possibilities. The temptation to­wards all-inclusiveness may have ruined more talent than all of the more publicized vices of the musician's life. Certainly when artistic norms collapse—as in our own day—the great art­ist must impose constraints upon himself. He must reject on his own what others are content to let go by.

Neoclassicism in jazz is not restricted to a specific time pe­riod or geographical area. Artists as different as Lester Young, Wes Montgomery, Bill Evans, Count Basic, Stan Getz, John Lewis, Miles Davis, and Paul Desmond can be included in its ranks, although under almost any circumstances the neo­classicist is part of a minority that distances itself from the more frenetic tradition of romanticism which permeates jazz. Thus the neoclassicist may appear to be perpetually out of fashion, a lone voice in the jazz world.

Jazz, in the hands of a neoclassicist, is a music of balance, of care, of restraint. With an unabashed lyricism and a subtle sense of formal structure, the neoclassicist displays his affinity for jazz's rich tradition of vocal music. The most successful collaborations of jazz singers and instrumentalists—the Billie Holiday/Lester Young recordings come immediately to mind-have more often than not been a part of this neoclassical heritage.

Yet the neoclassicist can often be distinguished not so much by his positive virtues as by what he excludes. Some pundit once remarked that the most telling thing about Jane Austen was that she never mentioned the French Revolution in her writings. A similar perspective, it seems, could be applied fruitfully to the study of musicians. Indeed one of the most striking characteristics of recent jazz in the romantic tradition is its all-inclusiveness. It attempts to encompass the whole musical world, from Third World folk music to the twelve-tone row. Neoclassicism, in contrast, is a music of exclusion, of omission.


In the case of saxophonist Paul Desmond, one never needed to look far to find these omissions. The bebop clichés, the ob­session with playing fast, the memorized licks which char­acterized jazz saxophone playing in the post-Charlie Parker era—all of these were noticeably absent in Desmond's music. As Dave Brubeck once mentioned, with no slight intended: "Paul's big contribution is going to be that he didn't copy Charlie Parker."13 [Downbeat, Sept. 15, 1960, p. 17]

A comparison between Desmond and his contemporary Charlie Parker is illuminating. Parker, perhaps the most bril­liant improviser in the history of jazz, was at his best when the tempo was fast and the chord structure was complex: his virtuosity delighted in musical obstacle courses such as "Ko-Ko" or "The Hymn." Desmond, in contrast, seldom played at very fast tempos, and when he did one sensed that it was done un­willingly. Not that his technique was not equal to the task; rather it was Desmond's overriding concern with creating a melodic and thematically organized improvisation that led him to eschew the facile glibness of many of the beboppers. Unlike the less talented descendants of Parker who followed a credo of "let your fingers do the walking," Desmond played a thinking man's jazz with solos that often made punning reference to other compositions and improvisations. On an early recording of "You Go to My Head” for example, Des­mond inserts a quote from a Charlie Parker blues in the midst of a most un-Parker-like passage. In other contexts he would incorporate long extracts from Chet Baker or Gerry Mulligan solos into his own improvisations.

Desmond was born less euphoniously as Paul Emil Breitenfeld on November 15, 1924, in San Francisco. His father was once an organist for silent movies and later an arranger. Paul began studying clarinet in 1936 while at San Francisco Poly­technic High School, and continued with it until 1943 when he switched to the alto saxophone. That same year he went into the Army and spent the next three years in San Fran­cisco as part of the 253rd AGF band. "It was a great way to spend the war," Desmond later remarked. "We expected to get shipped out every month, but it never happened. Some­where in Washington our file must still be on the floor under a desk somewhere."14 [Ibid.] After leaving the Army, Desmond played briefly with the bands of Jack Fina and Alvino Rey before joining forces with Dave Brubeck in 1951, a collaboration that would continue for over a quarter of a century.

At some point during this period, Desmond discarded the name Breitenfeld for his more manageable stage name. He claimed that he came upon the name Desmond while paging through a phone book. The remark is appropriate: for an im­provising artist such as Desmond, the spontaneous, spur-of-the-moment decision is the basis of all he does. And Des­mond, more than most, let the philosophy of improvisation govern much of his life outside of music. His casual attitude went beyond the choice of a name. At its worst it encouraged a pronounced habit of procrastination, and Desmond was a procrastinator of almost legendary proportions. For years he spoke of writing a book about his experiences with the Dave Brubeck Quartet. Only the title (How Many of You Are There in the Quartet? — according to Desmond, a favorite question of stewardesses) and one very funny chapter ever emerged.15 [It appeared in Punch on Jan. 10, 1973] Among his other intended projects was an album in which he planned to play each song in the style of a different alto player.

Perhaps the latter idea was only offered as a joke. With Desmond one could never tell. He once told an interviewer that he wanted his alto to sound like a very dry martini; whether his music attained this lofty goal is open to discus­sion, but of the dryness of his humor there can be no dispute. The humor figured prominently in his music—a rarity in mod­ern jazz, where the artists' self-conscious seriousness and the concert hall atmosphere of even nightclub performances casts a sombre aura over most of the music. As his close friend, jazz critic Nat Hentoff wrote:

At times Paul was the wittiest of improvisers. His ear was extraordinarily quick and true, his mind moved with eerie swiftness. He could take a phrase that someone had played earlier or a musical reference that a friend in the audience would understand and insert it into his solo. He'd build on that phrase until he had turned it inside out and seven other ways. Usually this kind of quoting is trickery, but Paul made it cohere. In his music, as in his life, the absurd cohabited with the familiar.16
[Nat Hentoff, Village Voice, Aug. 22, 1977]

For much of his twenty-six-year career, Desmond found his musical skills overshadowed by the work of his longtime friend and collaborator Dave Brubeck. Brubeck, who studied with Darius Milhaud in the late 19405, was a pioneer in the syn­thesis of jazz and classical music—his piano work featured dense harmonies, a studied sense of rhythm, and the use of elements seemingly alien to jazz such as the twelve-tone row and odd time signatures. Yet Desmond was the unsung hero of the Brubeck Quartet; as much as the group's leader, Desmond was instrumental in shaping the ensemble's distinctive sound. His lyrical tone was immediately identifiable, and his ingenious compositions (most notably the group's biggest hit "Take Five") were an important part of the band's repertoire. Although not a student of Milhaud's, Desmond was involved with Brubeck's experimental work from the start. His affin­ity for classical music was also revealed in other ways—most markedly in his intonation, which was remarkably pure, es­pecially when contrasted with the "dirtier" sound favored by many of his contemporaries.

In the midst of a period in which cool jazz and West Coast jazz were increasingly the scorn of jazz critics, Desmond em­braced both with a vengeance. Desmond was well aware of what passed as fashionable in jazz circles; commenting on Bud Shank, a fellow Californian (although one transplanted from Ohio), Desmond said: "I sympathize with him because I have the same problem in my occupation, which is the problem of one who is sort of raised in the atmosphere of cool jazz trying to sound hostile enough to be currently accept­able.” 17 [Downbeat, Oct. 16, 1958, p. 43] In another interview he elaborated: "The things I'm after musically are clarity, emotional communication on a not-too-obvious level, form in a chorus that doesn't hit you over the head but is there if you look for it, humor, and construc­tion that sounds logical in an unexpected way. That and a good dependable high F-sharp and I'll be happy."18 [Downbeat, Sept. 15, 1960, p. 37]

The virtues Desmond enumerated are easy enough to list, but maddeningly difficult to attain. Desmond's dissatisfaction with his own playing frequently came to light in many of the interviews he gave over the years. As Lee Konitz, a contem­porary who shares many similarities with Desmond, com­mented: "I feel that Paul has experienced greatness, and once this feeling of playing what you really hear has been felt by a player, it's difficult to settle for less than this."19 [Ibid., p. 16]

One senses that towards the end of his life Desmond came closer than ever to realizing this goal. His last recordings re­veal an artist who is at peace with himself and who knows with a dogged assurance what it is he wants to express. The ravages of lung cancer may have lessened his stamina and shorted his phrases, but if anything this led Desmond to be even more refined and thoughtful in his playing.

The sardonic humor, however, remained. One wonders what to make of the cover of Live, the last album he saw released. Desmond is pictured seated alone in a club at closing time—the chairs are stacked on the tables, and Desmond is packed to go with a suitcase, or perhaps his saxophone case, at his side. The artist is smoking a cigarette, although even then he must have known he had only a short time before lung cancer would take its final toll. Another detail: if one looks closely, one notices little skulls and crossbones on Desmond's suspenders. These details, combined with the album's ironic title and Desmond's grim smile, are powerfully unnerving. The music inside, however, is every bit as beautiful as the album's cover is morbid. His solo on "Wave" could be a text­book example of solo construction, each chorus outdoing the previous one in inventiveness and incisiveness. Elsewhere, on his own composition "Wendy" or in his closing chorus on "Manha de Carnival" Desmond plays as well as at any point in his career. This is the music of a master.

The end was approaching fast. His last appearance in a re­cording studio was for friend Chet Baker's debut album with the Horizon label. He had been slated to play on the entire album, but had the stamina to record just one track before begging leave to go home and rest. Although he had rarely played in the preceding months, his tone was as pure as ever and his short haunting solo is as fitting a closing statement as any artist could wish to make.

His were the legacies of a man immersed in music. Des­mond's piano, left to Bradley Cunningham, now graces Bradley's in New York, and has acquired a reputation as one of the finest nightclub pianos in jazz. His alto was left to Brubeck's son Michael, with whom he shared a special closeness. Yet these pale beside his legacy to jazz fans through his many records and a few—too few—short writings. Desmond, a West Coast musician at a time when that was virtually synonymous with being unfashionable, had his ashes scattered over Big Sur country near his birthplace in San Francisco.”