How Should One Listen To Jazz? The Rhythm Section

How should one approach listening to jazz?  Listening to the genre itself is a fine art, and can seem like a huge wall to climb.  Listening to jazz (as well as classical music) on paper seems like a rough task because it requires active listening.  Plenty of people listen to it as background music, but learning to listen critically can yield a lifetime of pleasure and can allow a person to really begin to break […]

How should one approach listening to jazz?  Listening to the genre itself is a fine art, and can seem like a huge wall to climb.  Listening to jazz (as well as classical music) on paper seems like a rough task because it requires active listening.  Plenty of people listen to it as background music, but learning to listen critically can yield a lifetime of pleasure and can allow a person to really begin to break down what goes on in the music.  The backbone of the music is the rhythm section.

 

The rhythm section is the most basic unit of jazz timekeeping.  The modern rhythm section consists of piano, bass and drums, with the addition of electric piano or synthesizers and guitars in many cases.  In the pre bop days going back to New Orleans, the role of the bass was that of a tuba, and because recording technology was not as sophisticated in the early 1920’s the drummer was restricted to playing woodblocks with occasional interjections of cymbals.  The drums quite obviously keep time, while the bass and keyboard instruments are there to mark sign posts in the harmony. In New Orleans style, the bass often would keep a two beat feel, while in swing, the bass would keep a walking rhythm– the template many know today.  It really was not until Jimmy Blanton in Duke Ellington’s band that the role of the bass was freed up beyond rhythm; Blanton would not only keep time but throw in some adlibs or play melody. In the swing era, the rhythm section’s sole purpose was to keep time, the drummers, like Gene Krupa, Chick Webb, Buddy Rich and Louis Bellson would very frequently feather the bass drum, four beats to the bar and keep a conventional spang-a-lang rhythm on the hi hat or later ride cymbal.  In classic big band arrangements as Benny Goodman’s “Sing Sing Sing” very rarely does the rhythm section deviate from the basic time keeping role, the function of swing was a dance music, and the four on the floor feeling of the music did it’s intended purpose– keep people dancing.

Once the bebop era arrived, things became a lot looser.  Though pianists such as Count Basie had developed a highly syncopated way of approaching chord changes (“comping”) through the innovations of Bud Powell, and Thelonious Monk, comping became the preferred method of approaching the labyrinth of chord changes as the beds for soloists.  It was here, particularly at brisk tempos that the bass would keep a steady rhythm, but the biggest changes came with the drums.  Kenny Clarke, brought the classic swinging high hat pattern of the previous era to the ride cymbal, and brought the time keeping to 2 and 4 on the high hat.  This emphasis up top allowed drummers like himself and Max Roach to create intricate improvised dialogues with soloists between the snare and bass drums, with the bass drums dropping bombs as unexpected accents.

Past the bop era, drummers such as Roy Haynes, Elvin Jones, Tony Williams and Jack DeJohnette, not to mention countless avant garde drummers would significantly relax timekeeping roles. For example, rather than the high hat always keeping time on 2 and 4,Haynes and Williams would insert the high hat  on the “and” or “a” of the upbeat in a 4/4 bar, or in the case of DeJohnette, the high hat may not be used in a typical way at all, instead freely being splashed or “chicked” for a color in unexpected places.  Drummers would take these innovations into the 70’s and apply them in jazz-rock and jazz-funk.  In the present, drummers are greatly influenced by hip hop and emulate acoustically, the type of drum programming innovations made by producers like the late J. Dilla.

 

How to listen to the rhythm section

The most important tips for listening to a rhythm section: listen to the bass.  Bassists like Ron Carter and Paul Chambers are excellent because of their harmonic clarity, you always know where the 1 is.  Even when Carter would get more abstract with harmony in the Miles Davis Quintet, there would always be guideposts to the changes.  Listening to the bass in tandem with piano comping is also a surefire way to be able to hear the form, and keep track of form.  Also, the drummers clearly mark the top of the form, take for example.  Listening to organ groups is a great way to tune into rhythm section intricacies because they are all about the groove, and in the case of Jimmy McGriff, Jack McDuff and Charles Earland, all have arrangements that are as tight as a big band, or Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers.

 

The New York Jazz Workshop is now offering online classes during the quarantine time, and every week presents live concerts with faculty from 5:30-6:30 PM.  Sessions with Marc Momaas, Mark Sherman and others can illuminate the concepts discussed here

New York Jazz Workshop Fundraiser COVID-19

Covid-19 has been especially hard on musicians and for The New York Jazz Workshop. Just as we invested $100,000 on a lease downpayment and soundproofing for our new location we are unable to use it due to Covid-19 We have transitioned some of our classes online, but our most important programs in the spring and summer are postponed indefinitely. Many students and friends have been contributing to our casue and we are deeply grateful. Please […]

Covid-19 has been especially hard on musicians and for The New York Jazz Workshop.

Just as we invested $100,000 on a lease downpayment and soundproofing for our new location we are unable to use it due to Covid-19

We have transitioned some of our classes online, but our most important programs in the spring and summer are postponed indefinitely. Many students and friends have been contributing to our casue and we are deeply grateful. Please contribute if you can.

What is Soul Jazz?

What is soul jazz? For individuals getting into jazz, this is a good question.  Jazz (or Black American Music depending on who you ask) has a myriad of genre designations that can be quite confusing, or in the modern era, useless.  Soul jazz is an odd designation that came in a relatively brief period of little over a decade plus that included a fusillade of innovation: bebop, cool jazz and hard bop.  Soul jazz became […]

What is soul jazz? For individuals getting into jazz, this is a good question.  Jazz (or Black American Music depending on who you ask) has a myriad of genre designations that can be quite confusing, or in the modern era, useless.  Soul jazz is an odd designation that came in a relatively brief period of little over a decade plus that included a fusillade of innovation: bebop, cool jazz and hard bop.  Soul jazz became most popular at the onset of the early 60’s when Jimmy Smith pared down his style to a funky essence, moving from the bop and hard bop of his 1956-58 albums on Blue Note, beginning with Home Cookin’ released in 1959.  Other significant organists followed over the next decade such Jimmy McGriff, the great Brother Jack McDuff, Johnny Hammond Smith, John Patton, Shirley Scott, Rhoda Scott (no relation) Charles Earland, Don Patterson and Richard “Groove” Holmes among many others; all of whom had unique approaches on offer. Classic Horace Silver compositions like “The Preacher” and Bobby Timmons’ “Moanin'” were popular soul jazz vehicles as well, but the genre has a history that has it’s roots in the church, and further, with pre Jimmy Smith organists.  Cannonball Adderley, by the early to mid 60’s was one of the biggest soul jazz draws.  The alto saxophonist once remarked that the genre term was marketing, that Riverside felt the music was jazz but also soul.  Soul jazz also introduced the public to some of the all time great guitarists, Grant Green, a 21 year old phenom by the name of George Benson, and another prodigious talent: Pat Martino.

St. Louis’ Milt Buckner, ebullient, ferocious, short statured, after Fats Waller and Count Basie had dabbled in jazz organ, was an early Hammond organ proponent.  Initially a pianist, Buckner’s pianistic innovation was the use of block chords that influenced legions of pianists from Red Garland, to Bill Evans. Buckner’s career took off  with the McKinney Cotton pickers, followed  by an 1941 stint in the band of Cab Calloway, but he was most known for his Lionel Hampton association. When Buckner transferred to the Hammond organ, like his contemporaries Bill Doggett and Wild Bill Davis, he primarily utilized the instrument showcasing the huge sound obtained with every drawbar out to act as a big band  In later years, Buckner adopted a modern post Jimmy Smith approach utilizing leaner registrations  and less heavy vibrato.  In 1956 when  Smith arrived on the jazz scene, his very first recording A New Sound, A New Star heavily drew on the Bill Davis influence as far organ sound, but the ideas integrating, the blues, Charlie Parker, Horace Silver and Bud Powell, were unheard of for the time.

 

The key with much of soul jazz was that it was dance able. In most cases, the song forms were relatively simple, A-A-B-A song forms, and standard 12 bar blues forms. Horace Silver’s  “The Preacher” was a bit different: a 16 bar form with heavy doses of gospel and R&B.  Many tunes played by Jack McDuff and Charles Earland,  were a bit more complex with post solo interludes and shout choruses as big bands would do.  In the case of Jimmy McGriff’s many singles initially recorded for the Sue label beginning in 1962 with his smash version of Ray Charles “I Got A Woman”, and later tracks like “Cashbox” they relied heavily on the blues, the emotional fervor of gospel, and gospel rhythms.  Much like how bebop and hard bop were dance musics in the black community, artists filled organ rooms in inner city clubs and the music was made for these audiences.   Particularly in the mid 60’s, Prestige became a soul jazz factory producing records like Black Feeling (1969) by Johnny Hammond and Black Talk from Charles Earland, which were thematically named to tie into the civil rights and rising Afrocentric climates.  Much of this music was reviewed relatively lukewarm within mainstream jazz media in the midst of the innovations from Miles Davis, and the jazz-funk and jazz-rock music coming from Tony Williams Lifetime, Weather Report, but soul jazz was pure people music at the core.  Musically there were some very subtle things of interest– for example the bass lines of John Patton differed from other organist’s bass lines by being highly syncopated and on the upbeat with tracks such as “Latona” and “Ding Dong” providing wonderful examples.  Jack McDuff’s tight arrangements made him something akin to an Art Blakey and The Jazz Messengers of organ.  Eventually though as jazz paradigms began to shift into more abstract territory, many turned to R&B, funk or smooth jazz.  Miles Davis, as the Second Great Quintet was nearing it’s close, one of his initial experiments with electric instruments, “Stuff” from Miles In The Sky (1968) was a soul jazz homage of sorts with a boogaloo rhythm.

The mainstream jazz media is/was somewhat indifferent to soul jazz, because as stated earlier, amidst the innovations of Miles Davis and John Coltrane, Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock, McCoy Tyner and others the music was designed for the black community.  If one were to look at All Music Guide reviews written by critics such as Scott Yanow, Michael G. Nastos they, frequently dismiss the music as being predictable or having “throwaway” tunes, but such statements are cursory and ignored the layers of the music.     On one level, from 1965 on, Prestige organ based albums are predictable in that you know the kind of repertoire will be played, but within that, several albums by Don Patterson, Johnny “Hammond” Smith and Richard “Groove” Holmes were truly special, as were the Blue Note albums of Lonnie Smith– all of these musicians have  unique voices, instantly identifiable voices.  Jimmy Smith’s Verve recordings made him a superstar, while his Blue Note albums have his most adventurous playing– there are moments of such during the Verve era and his genius was always on display.  Hammond organ scholars such as Pete Fallico and Youtube jazz personality The Jazz Shepherd are ardent soul jazz supporters and seek to correctly posit the music’s social and historical status– this was people music,  the grooves, and solo intensity are some of jazz’s greatest pleasures.  The New York Jazz Workshop offers several workshops that can edify the historical concepts discussed in this article.

 

New York Jazz Workshop Remembers “Little Bird” Jimmy Heath (1926-2020)

NEA Jazz master Jimmy Heath, one of the all time greats of the saxophone, and of composing and arranging left this plane earlier this week on January 19, 2020.  The trailblazers of the bebop era are slowly leaving this world, only do Barry Harris and Roy Haynes remain of those who played with Charlie Parker.  What made Heath so special, is his knack for composing and arranging memorable melodies, in an era where the small […]

NEA Jazz master Jimmy Heath, one of the all time greats of the saxophone, and of composing and arranging left this plane earlier this week on January 19, 2020.  The trailblazers of the bebop era are slowly leaving this world, only do Barry Harris and Roy Haynes remain of those who played with Charlie Parker.  What made Heath so special, is his knack for composing and arranging memorable melodies, in an era where the small group was the lingua franca of jazz– he made a big band swing like a quintet or sextet.  The list of luminaries he was associated with was long, including Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Barry Harris, Sam Jones, Kenny Burrell, Dizzy Gillespie and Billy Higgins.  Perhaps there was no other family famous in jazz next to the Jones family, Hank, Elvin and Thad, than the the Heath Brothers, Jimmy, Percy and Albert, better known as “Tootie”.

Heath was born in Philadelphia in 1926, grew up in a musical household.  His mother sang in the church choir, and his mechanic father, was a weekend clarinetist occasionally playing in marching bands, and together the family listened to the latest music from all the great big bands of the day.   It was the sound of the big band that really captured him.and he applied the big band in a modern conception on his classic Riverside recordings in the sixties. Originally an alto saxophonist, he switched to tenor after gaining the nickname Little Bird.   Heath had written the classic composition “C.T.A.” which Miles Davis recorded in 1953, and John Coltrane in 1957, but spent the majority of the 1950’s in jail for heroin.  He cleaned himself up, and was released in 1959, remaining drug free as a staunch anti drug advocate for the rest of his life.  His big band from 1947-8 had such future luminaries as Coltrane, Benny Golson, trumpeter Johnny Coles, and Heath had also spent time in the Dizzy Gillespie band, though he was a brief substitute in the Miles Davis quintet once Coltrane left.

The Riverside recordings such as, Really Big! (1960) and The Quota (1961) found the saxophonist in his element, escaping the rut that many A-A-B-A and hard bop compositions had fallen into by that time.  Rather than resort to cliches, the tenor saxophonist utilized intriguing instrumental colors like a tenor, trumpet and french horn front line.  Freddie Hubbard, who appeared on The Quota, Heath’s third Riverside album, used a similar sounding front line with Wayne Shorter and Bernard McKinney (later Kiane Zawadi) on euphonium, on Ready For Freddie (Blue Note, 1961) but Heath’s use of Hubbard, and Julius Watkins on french horn was simply brilliant, using wonderful textures that sounded much larger than three horns.  The trend continued with Triple Threat in 1962, great melodies framed with attractive interludes and orchestration.  Really Big! featured what would be now a dream band with soloists like Clark Terry, Cannonball Adderley and Nat Adderley.

 

In the 1970’s Heath along with Percy and Albert formed The Heath Brothers with Stanley Cowell on piano.  Their Strata East album Marchin’ On in 1975, is famous for many hip hop groups sampling “Smilin’ Billy Suite”.  Around this time, he recorded the Xanadu set A Picture of Heath (1975) an album of hard bop classics featuring previously recorded tunes such as “Bruh Slim” in a quartet with Barry Harris, Sam Jones and Billy Higgins. The Gap Sealer (Muse, 1974) was another popular recording.

 

As an educator, Heath, was honest, open and eager to pass on the traditions he learned from greats.  However, he remained incredibly open minded towards hip hop and contemporary music development.he joined the Aaron Copland School of Music at City College in Queens, and his passion for education, like that of Barry Harris, was second to none.  Jimmy Heath will always be remembered in this music and he will be sorely missed..