King, Jonny. What Jazz Is: An Insider’s Guide To Understanding and Listening To Jazz. Walker and Company. New York. 1997. 162 pages.
King, a highly experienced jazz pianist, qualifies as an insider; he also writes well. He begins with the premise that jazz is not well understood by non-musicians. The book serves as a primer for beginning and intermediate level jazz fans wanting to advance their technical understanding of an exciting art form. I will present this review in a series. A subsequent part(s) will review the author’s narrative on playlist selection, the jazz standard, the playing of a ballad, the blues, and “out” music. Here, in this first part, I will describe the early content of the book: the language of jazz and the concepts fundamental to its essence; and, the roles that the musicians in the band perform in improvising individually and as a group. My objective is to motivate you to read the book. The bold headings are actual book chapter titles.
Where’s the melody? With jazz music, if the ensemble is playing a standard that the listener knows, the melodic lines that you could sing happily may be lost to the musicians’ improvisation. The recognizable tune may only be sensed in the opening and closing choruses. In group play or during solos, the musician will depart or with pleasure run away from the melody to insert phrases of his choosing, not wishing to conform to standard. With this free expression, the musician is determined to place his personal stamp on a piece and make it his own. The original tune as written belongs to another era, another attitude, and may need reformulation for what is hip today. This attitude of transformation may be attributed to the vast styles of music available for selection, such as classical and African rhythms; and, a significant dose of defiance and personality quirks possessed by the players growing out of the African-American cultural experience have shaped the jazz idiom.
The language of jazz. Author King describes a song as containing melody, harmony, and rhythm. A lead sheet (illustrated by King) prepared for jazz play will contain the chord changes (progression) and the time spacing for the playing of a chord (harmony). Also written on the lead sheet are the notes to be played in succession and the speed and timing of note play (melody). There is clearly a form to the song as set by the composer or arranger. The musician may play the tune strictly as written, but more than likely will improvise with unwritten pauses or a strange note that yet blends into the melody. A four-note or three-note chord may be played with a change in a note or two of that chord to tamper with the mood conveyed. The musician is making a point and the tune remains logical and coherent as the unit knows where they are going, but the route taken differs. The musician is substituting known jazz phrases, or “licks,” for the written ones. This may be called improvisation.
Spang-A-Lang: A Feel and a Groove. Jazz swings. Snapping your fingers, or bobbing your head? If it swings, it’s jazz! Swing is as unique to jazz as is improvisation. King describes the different styles of various drummers—how each swings or drives the other musicians to provide the groove. Individuals include Philly Joe Jones, Elvin Jones, and Tony Williams. They all had a “relaxed intensity” in their playing.
The Rhythm Section. The work of the drummer is integral to the forward motion of the group and the rhythmic feel conveyed. King introduces the drum set and the associated sounds: the hi-hat, snare drum, bass drum, tom tom, and the ride cymbal and crash cymbal; chit chit, chhh, thwack, dum, da-da-dum, and ssshhhhh. King places the drummer’s level of importance to the jazz ensemble over its role in the classical or rock groups. Jazz drummers have unique characteristics, ways of expressing themselves. Drummers do not play chords nor do they construct melody; they “comp” (accompany) for the soloist and push the tempo much like a point guard in basketball. King refers often to the work of drummer Art Blakey and the ever-changing groups he headed for many years. For contrast, the style preferences of Elvin Jones are addressed.
The other elements of the rhythm section are discussed—the acoustic bass and the piano. “Beyond rhythm, which is the collective responsibility of all members of the rhythm section, the pianist and bassist (and/or guitarist) must establish the harmonic content of the tune (30).” This means managing chord changes that the soloists can play over. The bassist and drummer establish the rhythm and lock into the tempo early on—the groove of the song. This book has interesting sections elaborating upon these rhythm player responsibilities, as well as the work of the more visible front line players.
The Front Line (And Others In Between). King then moves to discussing in turn the roles of the saxophone as “jazz’s signature instrument,” the “egomaniacal” trumpet player, other woodwinds, guitar, vibes, organ, and the vocalists. Throughout this discussion, King cites the legendary players and their expressive styles of playing. Having read this far, you will be ready to show off your newfound knowledge of jazz by dropping the names of the greats, the legends—Ellington, Armstrong, Hawkins, Goodman, Parker, Gillespie, Monk, Davis, Rollins, Powell, Basie, FitzGerald, Holiday, etc. You need to have the supply of nicknames to toss about as Jonny King does liberally—Duke, Hawk, Bird, Diz, Newk, Prez, Bu, Trane, PC, Lady Day, and Bags; give your friends the illusion you are on a first-name basis with giants—everyone does it!
Stay tuned for Part II of this review to come in a couple of weeks. time is driven by the players’ radical stance that helps advance an art form to a new developmental stage.