It's About Time

It’s About Time

Perhaps more than any other musical parameter, it is rhythm that distinguishes jazz from all other music and provides a link between its vast range of styles. Most jazz rhythm can be characterized as the fusion of two basic elements: syncopation and polyrhythm. These elements are often achieved by melodic excursions that avoid, anticipate, and… Read more »

Written By

Matthew Tierney

Perhaps more than any other musical parameter, it is rhythm that distinguishes jazz from all other music and provides a link between its vast range of styles. Most jazz rhythm can be characterized as the fusion of two basic elements: syncopation and polyrhythm. These elements are often achieved by melodic excursions that avoid, anticipate, and return to the underlying two- or four-beat rhythmic pattern, creating a distinct sense of momentum. The precursors to jazz established these basic rhythmic components that are, for the most part, still in use today.

By the end of the nineteenth century, two distinct styles of music had emerged that had a profound influence on the early developments of jazz: blues and ragtime. Within the standardized twelve-bar blues progression, syncopation and a flexible approach to rhythm and meter are used while sung melodies followed the rhythm of the text in a speech-like manner. The word ragtime is derived from the expression “ragged-time” referring to the contrast between the rhythmically fixed bass line and the syncopat
ed melody.

Louis Armstrong
Cornet Chop Suey:
26 seconds

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The earliest known jazz ensemble, led by Charles “Buddy” Bolden in New Orleans from the 1890s until his incarceration in an insane asylum in 1907, established the instrumentation that was the model for most early jazz groups: three melody instruments (trumpet or cornet, clarinet, and trombone) supported by a rhythm section (guitar, bass, and drums). Although no recordings were made of this legendary ensemble, the surviving title names of some of Bolden’s songs suggest the rhythm and feel of those settings: “If You Don’t Shake,” “Make Me a Pallet on Your Floor,” and “Funky Butt, Funky Butt, Take It Away.” In 1917, the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, an all-white New Orleans ensemble, made the first jazz recordings in New York. Although largely undeveloped and rhythmically contrived, their remarkable success was cause for the rapid success of early jazz. Cornettist Joe “King” Oliver and his Creole Jazz Band made the first significant recordings by an all-black group in 1923 at the Gennett Studios in Richmond, Indiana. Oliver’s band consisted of a four-piece front line with a varying rhythm section: tuba or bowed double bass for foundation, guitar, banjo or piano for harmonic support, and optional drums. Early New Orleans jazz drumming used military techniques and instruments such as the two-beat march tempo with bass drum (on beat one and three) and snare (accenting the weak beats, two and four). These recordings featured Oliver protégé Louis Armstrong, whose cornet playing in those early years already exhibited an effective sense of rhythmic momentum known as swing or hot rhythm. After King Oliver’s band disbanded in 1924, Armstrong formed his own band, The Hot Five. Rejecting the rigidity and formality of ragtime rhythm, he used eighth-note patterns known as double-time to increase drive and tension and employed rhythmic displacement – the syncopation of rhythmic passages often through the entire duration of a phrase. This created an increased sense of rhythmic momentum and agitation over an extended period of time. Among the standout works recorded by Armstrong’s groups are “(Yes!) I’m in the Barrel” and “Cornet Chop Suey,” both famed for loose rhythmic breaks over stop-time chords.

A faster, more exciting style which was derived from ragtime was the Harlem “stride” school of piano playing, named for the left hand’s increased virtuosic alteration of bass notes and offbeat chords. The greatest stride interpreter was James P. Johnson, nicknamed the “Father of Stride Piano,” who dispensed with the strict rhythms that were derived from marches and ragtime. His best known work, “Carolina Shout,” inspired Fats Waller, Duke Ellington, and even Thelonious Monk as late as the 1950s. Another jazz piano style, boogie-woogie, evolved from the fast and repetitive style of blues piano accompaniment. In boogie-woogie, whose prime exponents included pianists Meade Lux Lewis, Pinetop Smith, and Cow Cow Davenport, the left-hand subdivision (sometimes dotted rhythms) of each beat in a measure produced eight pulses (“eight to the bar”). This style was a direct antecedent to the development of rock and roll in the 1950s, heavily influencing pianists such as Jerry Lee Lewis.

The big band Swing Era is when jazz achieved its greatest popularity because of its association with dance and social functions. By the mid-1920’s, the educated and technically refined New York dance bands began incorporating a stilted sense of swing rhythm, twelve-bar blues framework, and short, improvised passages for solo instruments. They combined these jazz elements with a more sophisticated harmonic understanding imported from classical music and Tin Pan Alley songwriters. One of the most significant forerunners of big band jazz was an ensemble led by the black pianist Fletcher Henderson comprising three trumpets, two trombones, three saxophones and a four-piece rhythm section. Henderson’s group did not use strings, creating a jazzier feel than the groups of Jean Goldkette or Paul Whiteman. Arrangements prepared by both Henderson and Don Redman began incorporating elements that were used throughout the Swing Era and some that evolved into techniques later used by be-bop musicians: the brief, simple, repetitive ostinato or melodic motif known as the “riff”; the rhythmically charged, harmonically supporting “walking” bass line (the double bass by now no longer bowed but plucked) ending the march style bass techniques; and the hi-hat “ride” rhythm that resulted in a smoother feeling of swing. Significant black bandleaders were Jimmie Lunceford, Earl Hines (Armstrong’s former pianist), Chick Webb, and most importantly Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington and William “Count” Basie.

Duke Ellington
33 seconds

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Ellington was a master of the Swing Era who expanded the musical structure, harmonic sophistication, and melodic inventiveness of swing and hired some of the greatest musicians of the time to play in his band, al
though the riff-based format discouraged his drummers from playing complex rhythms that might conflict with the melodic rhythms. It was, for the most part, music for dance. Drummer Sam Greer was featured playing an expanded percussion battery in Ellington’s exotic “jungle” style pieces like “Caravan” and “Ko-Ko.” Greer was succeeded by Louis Bellson, Sam Woodyard, and Rufus Jones whose drumming incorporated African, Latin, and Asian rhythms.

Basie’s bands were the first to consistently swing in a smooth, relaxed way. They possessed an excellent sense of tempo and the ability to apply a strict walking bass tempo and hi-hat swing without a labored approach. They played with an unequaled sense of lightness and ease, at times supplying an even amount of stress on each beat instead of driving the weak beat. Throughout Basie’s long bandleading career, he always stressed simplicity and swing instead of complex arrangements. As a pianist he perfected the light, syncopated, flexible technique known as comping. His drummer, Jo Jones, gave each beat equal treatment and continued a ride rhythm while constantly opening and closing the hi-hat cymbals. This resulted in a steady but smooth pattern which influenced bop drummers like Kenny Clarke and Max Roach, who took advantage of the intimacy of small combo settings and began to listen more closely to the soloist, creating spontaneous rhythmic ideas out of the emerging solos.

Thelonious Monk
30 seconds

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A prime feature of be-bop, which emerged in the years following World War Two, was rhythmic freedom. The short riffs from the Swing Era were the basis for bop’s “head” melody. This gave themes a uniquely fragmented and unpredictable character. Improvisations no longer needed to be derived from the main melody and involved a greater range of rhythmic intricacy and propulsion with heavily syncopated, angular lines previously unheard in jazz. Above all, the virtuosic skill needed to apply and manipulate these new techniques at often breakneck speeds, gave bop its unique quality. There was less emphasis on the backbeats that were to become standard in rock and pop music. Thelonious Monk, for example, established a rhythmic and harmonic foundation with the left hand playing a walking bass line, while his right hand could explore new ideas. Although he at times revived the stride style, Monk’s comping was more prevalent, often punching off-beat accompanying chords that matched the drummer’s rhythmically displaced and unpredictable “bombs” accented on the bass drum or snare. He added to this awkwardness a rich, unique harmonic support with substitute chords, and jagged improvised melodies. Duke Jordan and Bud Powell also accompanied with irregular chords but played fluid, horn-like improvisations.

Charlie Parker
23 seconds

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Critics of bop considered it “too frantic to be worthwhile,” or “too acrobatic and sensationalistic to be expressive in the true sense of good swing.” A review in Down Beat called Charlie Parker‘s 1945 Savoy recordings “[music of] bad taste and ill-advised fanaticism . . . the sort of stuff that has thrown innumerable impressionable young musicians out of stride, that has harmed many of them irreparably.” The session referred to produced such classics as “Thriving on a Riff,” “Meanderings,” “Warming Up a Riff,” “Billie’s Bounce,” “Now’s the Time,” and the masterpiece “Ko Ko” whose fierce tempo and explosive virtuosity served as a point of departure for postwar jazz.

John Coltrane
26 seconds

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In the late 1940s the music of Miles Davis reacted against the chaotic intricacies of bebop. Davis did not have the technical flash and fluidity that Parker and Dizzy Gillespie had and his lyrical style and warm, middle-register tone was more suited to ballads. Becoming clear that the fast and furious bop style did not suit him, Davis established the “cool” style of playing which emphasized slow tempos, light timbres, and carefully-crafted counterpoint. By 1951, Davis felt disillusioned by the cool school he helped to establish. In 1954, he helped begin another counterreformation known as “hard bop.” Enlisting tenor saxophonist John Coltrane, pianist Red Garland, bassist Paul Chambers, and drummer Philly Joe Jones, Miles Davis further intensified bop’s blues emphasis and relentless rhythmic drive. But by the beginning of the new decade, after the success of the sophisticated yet subtle Kind of Blue and Sketches of Spain, Davis was between the conservatives and the emerging. Kind of Blue‘s static and restrained modal harmony freed melodies and rhythms from their chordal implications and influenced Coltrane’s early work as a leader which culminated in the celebrated Quartet featuring pianist McCoy Tyner, bassist Jimmy Garrison and drummer Elvin Jones.

Hard bop drummer Art Blakey introduced complex polyrhythmic techniques inspired by the drumming of African musicians he heard during a visit to the continent. Drum Suite of 1956 was one of several albums in which Blakey and his group, The Jazz Messengers, combined jazz and Afro-Cuban drummers. His collaboration with pianist Horace Silver from 1953 to 1955 combined hard bop with blues and gospel establishing an earthy “soul” jazz or “funk.” Bassist Charles Mingus‘s Pithecanthropus Erectus pushed hard bop to its limits with his abstract improvisations but still retained the blues and gospel pulse throughout. Front men like Sonny Rollins, Freddie Hubbard, and Cannonball Adderley improvised lines that were somewhat simpler and less fragmented; there was less emphasis on velocity that characterized bop.

Albert Ayler
31 seconds

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There were several precedents for free jazz (Lennie Tristano and Tadd Dameron‘s 1949 album Crosscurrent; Mingus‘s Pithecanthropus Erectus, Sun Ra‘s Angels and Demons at Play), but Ornette Coleman‘s self-consciously modernist titles (Something Else, Tomorrow is the Question, The Shape of Jazz to Come, Change of the Century) were blunt in confirming that his experimental music was indeed the music of the future. Coleman’s aptly titled 1960 album Free Jazz threw out both a recognizable pulse and harmonic progression, but its energy is still driving and vigorous. Albums that followed, like Eric Dolphy‘s Out to Lunch, Coltrane’s Ascension, Cecil Taylor‘s Unit Structures (featuring drummer Andrew Cyrille), and Albert Ayler‘s Spiritual Unity (featuring the totally free rhythm section of Gary Peacock and Sonny Murray), took the concept of free jazz even further, reflecting an awareness of similar developments in contemporary classical music. Some critics were at first enthusiastically recognizing Coleman and Cecil Taylor as designers of the next important step in jazz, extending the legacy of bebop into new directions. The rhetoric was also justifying the radical temper as remaining true to the intentions of previous generations of black musicians; musical freedom signified the desire for the liberation from oppression that black Americans still faced.

By the late 1960’s Miles Davis, becoming worried that the increasing complexity and audience withdrawal made jazz inaccessible to black youths, once again reinvented both his image and music trying to regain an indifferent audience lost by the free jazz movement. He wanted his music to be accessible and perhaps envied the adulation received by rock musicians. With the 1969 albums In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew, he introduced the concept of jazz-rock fusion incorporating rock instruments, rhythms, and recording techniques. The record sleeve of Bitches Brew informed that this was not merely jazz but simply “directions in music by Miles Davis.” The influence of rock was felt in the straight backbeats and steady rhythmic patterns of drummer Jack DeJohnette, the electric piano played by Chick Corea and Joe Zawinul, and the Fender bass and electric guitar. The rising interest in “art rock” music helped Bitches Brew become one of the best selling albums in jazz history. However, critics and musicians alike criticized Davis for having sold out to commercial interests, an attempt by jazz purists to “insulate their cherished classics from the messy marketplace.”

Ornette Coleman and Prime Time
Miguel’s Fortune:
30 seconds

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Descendants of Davis’s group achieved even greater commercial success with their own brands of fusion. Tony Williams‘s Emergency is fusion at its best. Herbie Hancock‘s 1973 album Headhunters (with hits like the much covered “Chameleon”) surpassed Bitches Brew in sales and included a vast array of electric keyboard instruments (Arp Odyssey to a Fender Rhodes) and percussion instruments (from a balafon to beer bottles). He later incorporated disco rhythms into the mix with albums such as Feets Don’t Fail Me Now and Future Shock, whose “Rockit” became a number one pop hit in 1983. Weather Report, a group formed by former Miles sidemen, incorporated Brazilian and other tropical rhythms. The Pat Metheny Group was influenced by the diatonic harmonies and static pulse patterns of minimalist composers Steve Reich and Philip Glass. Even free jazz pioneer Ornette Coleman has been pursuing his own unique brand of fusion with his group Prime Time. Fusion led to Crossover and still continues to interest large audiences.

By the 1980’s, a new jazz orthodoxy emerged and the neoclassicists disputed the notion that the spirit of jazz is found on the cutting edge and not within the tradition. Wynton Marsalis, the outspoken and influential Director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, has claimed that both free jazz and fusion are artistic betrayals. But forward motion and experimentation are necessary to prevent jazz from becoming asphyxiated by its own weight and stagnation. Today, a plethora of jazz styles co-exist in camps were are often as divided as the advocates of serialism, indeterminacy and minimalism.

From It’s About Time
by Matthew Tierney
© 2000 NewMusicBox