Monday, 18 July 2011



I had the pleasure of playing a show the other day with the great saxophonist and clarinetist Marty Ehrlich. We played 1920's and 30's music and we got talking about Duke Ellington and Paul Gonsalves, one of Duke's star soloists during the mid fifties. It made me think about the history of jazz and the relationship we have with it now.

There is a legendary performance at the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival of Duke's band playing Diminuendo in Blue where Paul Gonsalves takes a 27-chorus solo. There is an audio recording of the performance where you can hear the hooting and the holaring while he is playing... the energy is simply incredible. Big band jazz was exciting, it elevated everyone's heart rate, and we are talking about the general public.

There is a video of the band playing the same tune in a TV studio and, same as at Newport, people are totally into the extended solo.

So how is it that something like that simply does not have the same impact it did sixty years ago? The players are there and they are as good as they get, jazz is as alive as ever...

Could it be that the excitement of jazz is up against the sheer intensity and volume of modern pop rock? Could be, Big Bands were probably the loudest music out there at the time.

Could it be that the history of the music comes from more dance-oriented roots? Could it be that it was simply "in" on a mass scale?

Of course we can never go back and re-create the same vibe, and whatever the reason is that jazz is not the most popular music, things have changed. Big bands simply can't afford to tour as much as they did. To paraphrase Duke Ellington when he was asked 'how long are you guys on tour', he responded 'we are not on tour... tours have beginnings and ends, we live on the road'. These bands played every night together. I believe we still have this kind of energy in jazz but it has for the most part moved inside and/or to smaller bands (there are exceptions of course... take the Mingus Big Band or Lincoln Center Orchestra).

When we think of extended solos now we often think of improvised music, abstract playing. This is of course a myth that has stayed over from the 60's when people really started to experiment with jazz, not to mention the energy from master improvisers in the most abstract music is nothing but exciting. However there is definitely a general feeling of fear when anyone mentions extended solos: Unless you know what you are in for and excited about it, a lot of people will ask: will I be bored? Can I take it for that long? Why so long? Granted, this extended solo is over a blues and is quite accessible but it is still a twenty seven chorus solo. Well Duke knew to just let it go when the time was right and he was right... Everybody was into it and it was magical!

Now does this all hold true today... that is the question?

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