Jazz as Art, Jazz as Cool

The Video/Audio below is an excerpt from the 11th show of my radio series Voices and Freedoms: A History of Jazz, based on my 1976 book of the same name.  This show focuses on the transition from Bop to Cool Jazz. The 16-part series played across the nation for five years in the late 70’s/early 80’ and holds its relevance—or is even more so—today than it was back then. The excerpts present about 6 to 10 minutes of the original 30-minute broadcasts. The link above takes you to information about the book and our plans to re-release it and provide access to the full-length original shows. Go HERE for a complete list of shows and links to all excerpts.


Show #11—Jazz as Art, Jazz as Cool—continued to look at Bop, especially the dissolution of the movement, though “dissolution” certainly overstates the case. The musical advances of Bop changed jazz forever.  They became staples, even cliches, of jazz playing and conceptualization even as many counter movements sprang us, sometimes borne of continuing hostility to Bop. The so-called Dixieland Revival was one of those movements, which attempted a pale throwback to the sounds of New Orleans jazz of the 1920’s and 30’s.

But Bop as a movement itself waned, in large part because of the death, at 34, of one of its principle founders, Charlie Parker.  Not only was he the most brilliant musical innovator of his time, the intense struggle and chaos of his life made him a cultural icon as well. His music and personality propelled jazz into the status of high art, something that often threatened the very survival of the music itself.  To paraphrase the great writer Ralph Ellison, no one tried harder than Charlie Parker to escape the role of entertainer. Louis Armstrong had created a kind of fake clownishness as part of his entertainer role, but in rejecting the entertainer’s role so intensely, Parker became something more primitive: a sacrificial lamb, a person who sacrificed himself on the altar of art for a higher cause.  Most probably didn’t really understand, but gravitated towards Parker’s agony anyway.

The movement that supplanted Bop was so-called Cool Jazz, but its relation to Bop and much of the jazz tradition was problematic from the start.  The eccentricities of Bop musicians—the goatees, the berets, the strange detachments—were taken up as mere style. You were a hipster now, and young musicians were accepted as artists if they wore that beret and said, “Cool, my man,” even if they could really barely play.  Parodying the artist’s withdrawal from the entertainer’s role was the hipster’s withdrawal from everything into a kind of cool vegetation. To be cool now meant to be socially uninvolved instead of stoic and calm in the face of trouble.

In many ways Bop was another attempt by Blacks to control the economic and cultural aspects of their music, but Cool Jazz, in moving away from the virtuosity and musical advances and complexities of Bop allowed more white musicians—a few of them great musicians, it must be said—to participate.  A more mainstream audience returned, but the music and that audience were much whiter.  This even though many of the leaders and inspirations for Cool Jazz were Black, in particular Miles Davis, and before him the great tenor man Lester Young.

I grew up listening to the Dave Brubeck Quarter, and still love lots of both him and Chet Baker. A good amount of great music came out of the Cool movement, but many other musicians went elsewhere. The original show ended by talking about and playing several tunes from two iconic musicians who were playing otherwise: Sonny Rollins and Clifford Brown.  Cool Jazz was centered on the West Coast and was often referred to as West Coast Jazz. The type of jazz Rollins and Brown played centered on the East and produced Soul or Funk Jazz and Hard Bop.  A battle of coasts was on, a battle not just over style but over where one located the roots and central traditions of jazz. In terms of hewing more closely to the blues and embracing the importance of voice—a central theme of my book and radio series—I’d have to say East Coast Jazz stayed closest to the vibrant, traditional roots of jazz.  When I wrote a tribute to Dave Brubeck upon his death in 2012 at age 92, I titled it “Un-Blue Jazz.”

Go to the Diversity Training and Teaching main page, and to a list of these radio show excerpts.

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