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As originally published in
The Atlantic Monthly

November 1953

Jazz Today


Poet and critic, Whitney Balliet reminds us that with the advent of the tape recorder and the long-playing record, jazz, which is the most evanescent of modern music, becomes a permanent part of our musical library. A native of New York now in his twenty-eighth year, Mr. Balliett joined the editorial staff of The New Yorker shortly after his graduation from Cornell.

by Whitney Balliett


AMERICAN jazz is in a peculiar but encouraging position today. Loved all over the world, it is still regarded as somewhat of a black sheep at home, even though it has become a familiar fixture in our concert halls, on records, on the radio, and in the movies during the past ten years. Among the archest of the highbrows it is still deprecated; among the lower highbrows it is taken as a kind of new bibelot to be trotted out for informed cocktail chatter. The public at large, which once looked upon it, through no fault of its own, as a dangerous aphrodisiac, or as some sort of mysterious African bongo-wongo music that set its listeners to jumping and bumping like fleas in a box, now knows--even if it has not made heroes of them--who Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, and Gene Krupa are. And its appreciators in this country and abroad have grown numerous enough and solid enough to be able to articulate their feelings through several national and international jazz clubs, and to support a variety of magazines here and in other countries devoted to the interpretation and review of jazz.

But if jazz is in a sort of halfway house, in so far as the world is concerned, the music itself is in a vigorous, sound condition. One reason for this heartening fact is the recent revolution--called variously, kloop mop, re-bop, bebop, and cool music--which jazz has successfully and fruitfully weathered; and the other is the emergence and widespread use of the LP record, which, with its fifteen to twenty minutes of uninterrupted playing time per side, presents enlarged possibilities for capturing more live jazz, and for greater musical experimentation on studio recording dates.

Up until six or seven years ago, when the tape recorder and the LP came into wide use in this country, recorded jazz had been set in the strict three-to-five minute mold of the 78 rpm 10- and 12-inch record. This was in a sense crippling and prohibitive, for jazz is a fluid, inspirational music, which, having stated its particular theme--whether it be in the form of Dixieland, Swing, or bop--can grow and develop in direct ratio to the amount of space for variations it is accorded.

The recording as a means of reproduction and preservation is far more vital to an improvisational music like jazz than it is to, say, classical, band, or show music. Every performance of a symphony or Sousa march is pretty much like the last. But jazz is perishably ephemeral, elusive. When a jazz band plays a number, the particular combination of sounds that emerge will be ones that have never been heard before and will never be heard again unless, of course, those sounds are recorded.

Because of this inherent peculiarity and because of the one-time lack of proper on-the-spot facilities for recording live jazz, a good deal of wonderful music has, regrettably, passed into thin air. I recall one night at the now defunct Ken Club in Boston during the winter of '43 or '44 hearing Wild Bill Davison, the trumpeter, launch into six consecutive choruses of "Body and Soul." It was superb jazz, but I could not whistle a bar of it now.

With the tape recorder and the LP (for commercial reproduction), much of this waste can be avoided. Live, off-the-cuff jazz--in night clubs, at jam sessions, in the big ballrooms, and on the concert stage--can be brought conveniently into the home. Jazz played under such conditions is often rough, exhibitionistic, and mechanical, to be sure, but the occasional inspirational heights prompted in the musicians by one another and by an appreciative audience usually more than balance these flaws. (The now famous Benny Goodman Carnegie Hall concert is a fine illustration of the immeasurable value of recording live material. When the band was winding up the evening with its famous "Sing, Sing, Sing," an unarranged-for piano solo by Jess Stacy was slipped in near the end of the piece. It is one of the most remarkable jazz piano solos ever played, and is certainly the best Stacy has ever put on record.)

Live jazz was recorded as early as 1935, but for some reason it was not considered feasible to reproduce it on 78 rpms for public consumption. This precedent was first broken in 1945 by Norman Granz, who, as one of jazz's liveliest aficionados, originated in the early forties the notion of taking on tour for concert appearances a select group of musicians--an arrangement he has called "Jazz at the Philharmonic." In 1944, unbeknownst to the participating musicians, he recorded sections of a concert he was producing in Los Angeles. They were released soon afterwards in a 12-inch 78 rpm album of three records, and there were just two tunes--"Lady Be Good" and "How High the Moon"--each of which covered three sides, or approximately fifteen minutes of playing time. His experiment has proved a huge success, for he has released fifteen albums since then, the last an entire concert on three 12-inch LPs, amounting to about two hours of music. Other record companies have now followed suit, using the advantageous expanded playing time of the LP, and the record stores are stocked with live performances of all varieties and qualities, ranging from night club stints to private jam sessions.

A brief mention of a few of these should give an idea of what is being done in this area. In 1941, a jazz fan who happened to have a recording machine and some acetate disks with him recorded two numbers--"Charlie's Choice" and "Stompin' at the Savoy"--by the late inimitable guitarist Charlie Christian. (These records, however, were not released for commercial consumption until the late forties.) It was done in a small Harlem night club named Minton's, and although the quality of the accompanying music was not high, Christian was given generous solo space. Because the atmosphere was an intimate one--in which he seemed to function best--the results are invaluable. Many better-than-average jam sessions have been recorded, and four of the best have been put out on four 10-inch LP's under the title of "jazz at Storyville" (Storyville is a night club in the Copley Square Hotel in Boston), and feature such musicians as Edmond Hall, Vic Dickenson, Pee Wee Russell, Dave Brubeck, and Marian McPartland. One of the most recent and striking examples has been issued on a l2-inch Columbia LP called "Harry James: One Night Stand." It was recorded one night last year in New York by direct wire from Chicago where James was playing at the Aragon Ballroom. The band, which was an excellent one, sounds expansive and powerful, if somewhat strident in places. And the general enthusiasm of the evening, in the musicians' responses both to one another and to a warm audience, comes through in singular and persuasive fashion.

RECORDING jazz music in a studio is a far different proposition. In 1917, the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, out of New Orleans, was the first jazz outfit ever to be recorded. There are rumors that the legendary New Orleans cornetist, Buddy Bolden, who ceased playing in 1907, was also recorded; but, if so, the records have vanished. Since 1917, countless 78 rpm jazz records have been cut in studios; but there have always been the same hobbling factors involved, some of which will never be surmounted. Perhaps the most important obstacle was the three-to-five minute time limit of one side of the 78 rpm record. What was to be played had to be tailored to fit three minutes. And if, as sometimes happened, a group of musicians were functioning particularly well together and did not feel like stopping when the engineer gave the signal, they either had to stop, or were simply cut off. In addition, the garish atmosphere of most recording studios is not sympathetic to the relaxed conditions that jazz requires. And finally, a jazz musician, like any creative artist, never knows what he will be capable of at any given time.

The LP is the remedy for most of these ails, but strangely enough, the record companies have been timid about using its greater time limits for studio recording. Norman Granz has again, however, broken the proper ground. A little while ago, he assembled in a studio ten of the best modern jazz a musicians available (Charlie Shavers, Ben Webster, Charlie Parker, Benny Carter, Johnny Hodges, Flip Phillips, Oscar Peterson, Barney Kessel, Ray Brown, and J. C. Heard), and let them loose within the limits of two 12-inch LPs. Each side, which runs to about sixteen or seventeen minutes of playing time, is devoted to one number, except for one, which is a medley of tunes in solo form. The results, although musically conventional, are very exciting on the whole. But at the same time, these records show the inevitable pitfalls of the new long recording: one feels, here and there, an unconscious lag, a feeling of slight desperation on the musicians' part. Ten minutes have elapsed, and there are still six or seven to go. The high spots, where inspiration has moved a man, tighten things up, but they unravel fast when a fresh soloist, who may not have felt in the swing of things that day comes along with a bagful of cliches.

The adjustment, therefore, from the accustomed time limits of the 78 rpm to the LP is going to be a considerable one for jazz musicians, arrangers, and composers. And this adjustment involves the listener as well, for there was something tidy, easy, and often sufficient about the three minute record; in listening to some of the long recordings, I have frequently found my attention wandering.

Some musical experimentation has been done. A new Columbia l2-inch LP, called "Ellington Uptown," presents the Duke's rejuvenated band playing three of his standards in expanded form ("The Mooche," "Take the 'A' Train" and "Perdido"), as well as a new arrangement featuring the sparkling drumming of Louis Bellson, and a section from one of the Duke's new concert pieces, "Harlem Suite." Unfortunately, this record struck me as a rehash, for only in "Perdido" do the benefits of extra time come through in fresh and unpretentiously played solos and section work. Elsewhere there are evidences of padding, staginess, and even pompousness. The Duke, great as his stature is, must also think anew. The music of Lennie Tristano, the exceptional blind pianist, is another possibility for the longer recordings, for he has been working with Bachlike counterpoint, with and without rhythm, and the fugue form. Another might be in Dixieland. Bob Crosby's big band of the late thirties hinted at broader fields in their 12-inch 78 rpm "South Rampart Street Parade." Finally, there is now an unequaled chance to get on record in expanded form some of jazz music's greatest individual instrumentalists and singers. The irrepressible Granz has done just that with four 12-inch LPs of the work of Oscar Peterson, the pianist.

There, briefly, is the encouraging and pleasant picture which LP has made possible for live and studio-recorded jazz. As for the music itself, the newest of jazz's many forms, bebop, although it has been pronounced dead, is still very much alive. It has, to a large extent, simply been absorbed into the main stream of jazz. Big bands that found their success in the late swing era around 1940, such as those of Count Basie and Harry James, have written bop figures, bop harmonics, and bop rhythms into their arrangements. Their soloists will, nine out of ten times, use bop phrasing; that is, the grouping and number of notes in one idea or musical sentence will be larger and more numerous than they were in the typical swing or Dixieland phrasing.

Pure bebop, which can best be played by a small band, is still being practiced in person and on records by some of the men--Bud Powell, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie--who brought it to perfection in the mid-forties. A good many of the younger apostles--with the exception of bright musicians like Dave Brubeck, Gerry Mulligan, and George Wallington--have, however, exhausted themselves. Their techniques were never equal to the music, which, with its longer melodic lines, its atonality and weakened rhythms, can be exceedingly hard to execute, let alone think out in that split second before delivery. As a result, they imitated their elders apishly, and produced cliche after cliche.

But if many of the younger men are burned out, some of the musicians who became prominent during the days of swing have broadened their styles by absorbing the leavening and loosening qualities of bop, which are its best features. The work of Red Norvo, the great vibraphonist, is an outstanding example of this. Norvo came to the fore in the late thirties with a fine small swing band of his own. Since then, his style has moved with the music by becoming increasingly supple and exciting in its use of more complicated harmonics and rhythms. He has played with consummate ease in the company of the greatest of the bop musicians, and has recently recorded, on a couple of 12-inch LPs, some first-rate modern trio sides, using a guitar and a string bass.

As I have mentioned, most of the surviving swing bands--Basie, Woody Herman, Stan Kenton, Tommy Dorsey--have altered in varying degrees their arrangements and have picked up young soloists whose playing has been influenced by bop. Others have stuck to imitations of Glenn Miller or Claude Thornhill, or have reverted to Dixielandish effects.

Most of the Dixielanders have remained true and firm. There is a more adventurous group, which has chosen to play a Dixieland minus a good deal of its curbing chunkiness. They are using longer melodic lines, different harmonies in ensembles sometimes partly arranged, and, most notable of all, a rhythm section that swings along on a steady four beats to the bar, the old two-beat having been discarded. Yank Lawson and Bob Haggart, who are both eminent alumni of Bob Crosby's Dixieland band, are the gentlemen who have done this on four 10-inch LPs-- "Jelly Roll's Jazz," King Oliver's Jazz," "Blues on the River," and "Ragtime Jamboree" (the three minute limit has been religiously adhered to for each number, though). They have assembled a group of men who are primarily swing musicians, although one, the pianist, Lou Stein has definite overtones of bop in his playing. What they have done must ultimately be judged by private taste, of course. But, undeniably, their music sounds fresh, bumptious, and free wheeling. It has given, a new look to an honorable, earlier form of jazz, which a few years back seemed to be playing itself round and round through the museums of recorded jazz.

A word should be said here about the darkening moral climate of jazz today. Jazz musicians have been accepted as respectable people only since their music has become accepted. Perhaps this enforced social isolation, together with the terrible hours, economic pressures, and the continual demands for fresh creative invention, has been responsible for a condition that has, unfortunately, been growing steadily worse, especially with the younger musicians. Heavy drinking has always been a problem, and now dope addiction has become alarmingly widespread. One can only hope that as the music continues to develop, its creators will develop an equivalent emotional and moral stability.

Live jazz is being played in limited quantities today, and much of the activity in the jazz world is to be heard on records only. People do not seem willing, with the high cost of living, to support night clubs and big ballrooms as they did before and just after the Second World War. if this is so, the LP and the tape recorder are inspiring things to have around.


Copyright © 1953 by Whitney Balliett. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; November 1953; "Jazz Today"; Volume 192, No. 5; pages 76-81.

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