The Estimable Art of Improvisation
The Birth of Bebop: A Social and Musical History,
University of California
Saying Something: Jazz Improvisation and Interaction,
University of Chicago
In Stomping the Blues, a brilliant and indispensable study of jazz music, Albert Murray explains that the imperative of American creative art is improvisation. In fact, in Murray's estimation the imperative of improvisation is both a product of and response to the American cultural milieu: artists must not only be proficient, masterful in their idiom, but also imaginatively innovative. What innovation signals is progress – movement that shifts the workings of a whole artistic practice. Thus the great musical innovation of this century has been the integration of improvisation into American music-making and specifically into jazz.
Scott DeVeaux's The Birth of Bebop, and Ingrid Monson's Saying Something are extensions, riffs, if you will, of Murray's claims about American music and art. From these books we learn that the "progressive" qualities of the jazz idiom stem from the music's distinctively African American cultural background. DeVeaux's book is a historical study that provides a social and musical framework for understanding how a group of African American virtuoso musicians, led by Coleman Hawkins, shifted the working of their artistic tradition toward rhythmic language and created bebop.
Monson's Saying Something is a theoretical analysis of improvisation as an African American vernacular language. Monson unfolds the ways improvisation functions not only as the jazz soloist's prime musical space but as the pulse of an interactive language for rhythm sections. Taken together, these books "converse" with one another in a call and response mode. While DeVeaux provides the historical, musical, and economic contexts for The Birth of Bebop in the late 1930s and 1940s, Monson explains how improvised musical conversations, especially in jazz rhythm sections, articulate concerns of identity, politics, and culture in contemporary American culture.
Scott DeVeaux is a professor in the music department at the University of Virginia. Ingrid Monson is a professor of music at Washington University in St. Louis. The problem sometimes with university academics examining and analyzing popular music is that they seem all too interested in stripping music of its feeling and exuberance. Gratefully, these two professors have no qualms about letting the music or the musicians speak for themselves. For example, Monson, as jazz musician and ethnomusicologist, refuses to allow the theories of postmodernism or postcoloniality to influence (or, as I believe either one would, dilute) her evaluations of improvisation as a cultural expression. Instead, Monson concerns herself with the music and the accounts of professional musicians as performative examples of identity exploration. Neither author wholly does without disciplinary discourses - both books rely on a substantial dose of music theory. But the authors' rhetorical systems never impede communication with readers from other disciplines or from outside the academy.
In fact, the very success of DeVeaux's book (he recently received an American Book Award) lies in large part with its prose style. In the book's three sections, "The College of Music," "Professionals after Hours," and "Taking Advantages of Disadvantages," DeVeaux balances historiography and musicological study while maintaining the intensity, clarity, and direction of the book. His musical analysis is actually made more relevant by the historical information on the workings of the music industry and biographical narratives about the musicians themselves.
Using Coleman Hawkins as his guide, DeVeaux unravels the intricacies of African American musicianship and American entertainment during the 1930s and 1940s. Hawkins's music provides a bridge between the so-called Swing Era and bebop. Hawkins is a particularly significant choice because his 1939 recording of "Body & Soul" serves as the musical template for the formation of bebop in the mid-40s. The recording's emphatic success was twofold; as DeVeaux explains, Hawkins's
way of 'telling a story' through his improvised solos [in Body and Soul] was uncomplicated and emotionally direct. It was a continuous, carefully controlled crescendo of intensity on several fronts at once: a gradually thickening or hardening of timbre, a steady increase in volume, and a climb to melodic peak carefully withheld until very near the end.
This ability made Hawkins the preeminent improviser of his generation and brought to light clearly the "progressive" intents of his musical intellect. Hawkins's notion of progress involved the introduction of problematic and troubling chordal progressions into jazz improvisation - innovations that forced other musicians forward by challenging them to find resolutions of those musical problems.
The progressive nature of bebop, its modern/avant-garde quality, stems from the impressive way that players such as Dizzy Gillespe, Charlie Parker, and Howard McGee accepted the Hawkins challenge and pushed the music further by making it respond to the conditions of African American life during the 40s. DeVeaux suggests that bebop was a distinctly African American revolution. Here, DeVeaux separates himself from most jazz scholars by examining bebop as a revolutionary change in the music rather than a natural, evolutionary shift. In fact, bebop may be the quintessential modernist innovation of the period given the strictures of the racist society and the equally grating practices of the music industry in the 30s and 40s. Although bebop was not a racially exclusive musical movement, it was nevertheless rooted deeply in the uncomfortable realities of race in America. For jazz musicians, the situation was particularly poignant, because music was manifestly capable of transcending racial barriers. Yet there is no escaping the fact that black musicians lived and worked in a separate and unequal world, facing obstacles and enduring indignities that set them apart from their white counterparts.
Bebop musicians were performing and creating in a milieu that called for the supreme artistic force of improvisation. As DeVeaux notes, bebop functioned as a kind of musical matrix in that all musical ideas (from the blues especially but also from Broadway show tunes, popular songs, and classical music) were fodder for integration into the language of improvisation as a quotable tune or technique. Bebop also changed the rhythmic qualities of jazz by accelerating the interaction among musicians and by creating a performance space for improvising soloists on brass and reed instruments - that is, the space within the multiple beats coming out of the rhythm section itself (piano, bass, drums, and sometimes guitar).
In Saying Something, Monson explains that "the harmonic and melodic expertise of the soloist, which is essential to competent jazz improvisation, must be expressed against the rhythmic flow generated by the musically sociable rhythm section" (70). The rhythmic communication between bassists, drummers, and pianists also involves harmonic and melodic expertise but as a way of establishing the groove and creating feeling. Even more to the point, Monson is concerned with the way that African American music emphasizes the relationship between ethnic identity and artistic expression.
Monson notes in her introduction that the impetus behind Saying Something is the creation of a more cultural music theory and a more musical cultural theory. In the case of jazz studies, Monson explains, this musical cultural theory "portends a reexamination of the way in which jazz history of the twentieth century has been understood" (3). DeVeaux's book is a strong step in that process.
The first step in any jazz study is to teach one's audience how to listen to the music. DeVeaux and Monson both excel at providing definitive and articulate analysis for the "sounds" we see in their various transcriptions. This is particularly important to any music appreciation because knowing what to listen for or how instrumentation creates a feeling/groove/vibe is key to shaping understanding and taste. For Monson, this step also unfolds into a discussion of vernacular codes and linguistic styles particular to African American culture.
Built from the templates of anthropological and musicological surveys, Monson's study relies heavily on the first person accounts of contemporary jazz musicians such as Billy Higgins, Jacki Byard, Don Byron, and Kenny Washington. Because Monson is a performing musician, an informed participant in her subject community, the commentaries of her interviewees - her "field research" - are informative, insightful, and accurate. I raise this point because Monson's focus on interactive language, musical conversation through improvisation, becomes intensified by her informants.
The theories of postmodernism, poststructuralism, and postcolonialism have taught us to be leery and distrustful of authors and musicians as critics of their own artistic practices. Artists are sometimes treated as if they do not know what they are doing or how they do it. In her sixth and final chapter, Monson tries to break into the discourse of the "posts" and marry them to musical analysis. However, as rhetorical systems the "posts" are inadequate to the joyfully complex gumbo of irony, humor, aesthetic innovation, and artistic expertise that is jazz performance. On this Monson and I agree: any theory about jazz, African American identity, and cultural commentary must be derived from the sound and the musicians.
The books by Monson and DeVeaux should also be read as written responses to the themes of Paul Berliner's massive study, Thinking in Jazz. Berliner's book does a lot to extricate improvisation from the myth of muse-struck beboppers and cooled out hipsters. Berliner's examination of the intellectual prowess and tenacious imagination that go into skillful improvisation is amplified by the work of Monson and DeVeaux. Improvisational expertise, as Monson suggests, is born from "interaction with an ever-changing community of musicians functioning as a learning environment, a musical process that defies explanation by traditional musical analyses of self-contained works." Though each study is superb in and of itself, the riffs, extensions, and shout-outs from book to book are a delight to read - the equivalent in jazz scholarship to improvisation and interaction in the music.
However, I can also level a complaint on this front. While the transcriptions by DeVeaux and Monson are of high quality, they would have been complemented by a companion CD enabling readers to listen to what was happening on the page. DeVeaux's tremendous ability to fill that gap with suggestive language is helpful. By comparison, the quality of Monson's work is deflated by a poor copy layout. In some sections important musical comments were twenty pages away from the relevant notation. I found myself incessantly flipping back and forth. The publishers of DeVeaux's book would do well to press a disc compilation for the paperback edition (Saying Something is already in paperback).
Aside from that one quibble, both books are great reads. One learns that improvised jazz, as well as being an intelligent and socially relevant music, is, as Albert Murray would say, the only American music that can be at turns gutbucket, backdoor blues, and then sharply orchestrated and symphonically arranged sound.