Before we get started, let me not neglect to bow thankfully in the direction of the *great* Louis Moholo-Moholo, whose 1978 album (the one with the exclamation point) shares a title with Albert Ayler. I know of few albums so filled with life as this one.
Though one reader in particular urged me to open with an anecdote that was more demonstrably linked to the religious, I never had any doubt that Lester Bowie’s “Jazz Death” was the perfect introduction to this book, precisely because it was all about the scrambling of expectations, the frustration of format. Listen:
Years ago, the hugely important Nessa Records issued a five-disc box set documenting all the early Art Ensemble of Chicago sides (some of which were credited two Roscoe Mitchell’s Art Ensemble, and one of which, Lester Bowie’s Numbers, contained this track). Luckily, it’s possible to track down Numbers, Old/Quartet, and Congliptious, among other early gems.
And equally central to this introduction (indeed, his thoughts and words and influence echo right up to the last page, and beyond) is the incredible Eric Dolphy. The statement that structured much of my thinking about this book’s subject is from his Last Date recording, featuring two musicians (pianist Misha Mengelberg and drummer Han Bennink) who would go on to figure importantly in the “New Dutch Swing” scene that became a mainstay of European free improvisation (and do read Kevin Whitehead’s marvelous book on that scene).
Though I don’t get into Dolphy’s own life and work much beyond this quote (alas – but you should’ve seen the gargantuan first draft of this book), his is some of the greatest music of the twentieth century. He was a crucial presence on many important Coltrane records (discussed below) but his own dazzling innovations on alto sax, bass clarinet, and flute consisted of a marvelous transfiguration of bop syntax (those intervals, those craggy scales) into avant garde multiphonics and experimental techniques. Absolutely essential to any respectable jazz collection are the Live at the Five Spot recordings (with the miraculous trumpeter Booker Little, lost to the world at only age twenty-three, pianist Mal Waldron, bassist Richard Davis, and the righteous, NOLA-reared drummer Ed Blackwell).
Of course, you also need Out There (with Ron Carter playing cello!) and Far Cry (with its truly great run of tunes like “Ode to Charlie Parker, the title track, and “Miss Ann”), and above all, Out to Lunch, one of the greatest jazz albums ever recorded.
The remainder of the introduction is filled with minor references, most adduced in the name of problematizing “jazz” as a single genre and of clarifying my selection of case studies. But for the sake of those interested, and since I am not limited to word count here, I make the following listening recommendations.
In wondering exactly which sounds might be chosen to represent a music as polyglot as “jazz,” I nod in the direction of ready-to-hand examples like the “jass” music that bubbled up in early twentieth century New Orleans or the elegant big band music of the Swing era.
Does jazz sound like angular bebop? Like a muted trumpet? A walking bassline? A Roy Haynes rimshot?
And going further, what of those tangled associations between religion, freedom, and musical genre? Many of those who commented on them are at the top of the mountain, which I urge you scale at your leisure.
Thelonious Monk, famously hesitant to elaborate on “jazz,” deserves your fullest attention. Though he does not figure much in my book, grab Robin Kelley’s masterful study, but quick! And then listen:
You need, at the very least, the complete Blue Note records, Brilliant Corners, Monk’s Music, Thelonious Alone in San Francisco, Thelonious Himself, and Live at the Five Spot (with Coltrane on tenor).
As you read about those early dismissals of jazz as the music of primitives, sexually thudding and without sophistication, you might wonder why I singled out Art Tatum for refutation of this particular line of reproach. Proceed posthaste to the Solo Masterpieces on Pablo, but for now, here is your proof:
Listening to this, it may be easier to understand how Fats Waller sat at the intersection of musical styles derived from both religious and secular traditions:
The outrageous guitarist Pete Cosey seemed pretty confident that Miles Davis’ furious electric bands of the early 1970s weren’t playing jazz. Whatever you call it (and I can’t imagine my life without Live Evil, Tribute to Jack Johnson, Get Up With It, Dark Magus, Aghartha, Pangaea, or Live at Fillmore), it’s pretty fucking righteous:
Towards the chapter’s end, I made some observations about the selections and cases I engage in the book relative to those I do not discuss. Three famous names are among the omissions, including Stan Getz (get the 1951 Roost recordings with Jimmy Raney on guitar, grab a couple of his dates with Gerry Mulligan, Getz and J.J. Live at the Opera House, Focus, and Sweet Rain):
Also noted for omission was the Chairman of the Board. My absolute fave is the reflective September of My Years, but you should probably have Songs for Swinging Lovers and Only the Lonely, at the very least:
And alas, Ella Fitzgerald doesn’t play a role in the story I’m telling. Most folks know of her songbooks recordings from the 1950s, with the Nelson Riddle Orchestra and other large ensembles, and the Cole Porter, Gershwin, and Rodger & Hart are pretty great. But if you haven’t heard Ella in a ripped small-group session, where she can really improvise with all her range and good humor, you’re missing out. Check out the radio airshots from the early 1950s, released as The Enchanting Ella Fitzgerald (the cover photo alone, with Dizzy Gillespie looking swooningly at Ella, makes it worth your while). And for goodness’ sake, pick up one of the many summits between Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong.
Finally, tucked at the end of the introduction is a pair of references, one aspirational and the other a refrain. Here is Ellington:
The Claudia Quintet’s performance of the Patchen poem (with Kurt Elling on vocals) is one of the few things out there not on Youtube. Do seek it out on your own, as it’s a gorgeous record.