Saturday, September 14, 2013

Lennie Tristano - What's Wrong With The Beboppers

In the late 1940's, Lennie Tristano was receiving roughly similar commercial success as the young trumpeter Miles Davis. He was performing on major radio shows, winning awards from magazines, and was recording for Capitol records. For more about Tristano in this period, read my previous article about his innovative Intuition and Digression recordings.

In 1947, Tristano was named “Musician of the Year” by Metronome magazine, and was invited to write two articles for the monthly periodical. These articles were critiques of modern jazz, one describing the pros and one describing the cons of the "bebop" movement. In the first article, "What's Wrong with the Beboppers", Tristano criticizes those who thoughtlessly copycat the style and mannerisms of Dizzy Gillespie and others.

What's Wrong With The Beboppers
a great musician analyzes, defines and questions

by Lennie Tristano

BEBOP is a definite step forward in the art of jazz. As with any art form, this progress has met with multiple and varied opposition. Jazz has not yet found acceptance with the American public; and bebop, an advanced and complex outgrowth of that jazz, exists precariously above the uncomprehending ears of the average person. But it is the musicians themselves, the vendors of jazz, who in many cases make their own lives difficult. The protagonists of Dixieland regard bebop as a war-time fad. However, the supercilious attitude and lack of originality of the young hipsters constitute no less a menace to the existence of bebop.

An approximation of Tristano's pseudo-hip bopper. Source.
These young boppers spend most of their time acquiring pseudo-hip affectations instead of studying and analyzing modern jazz with the aim of contributing something original to it. A typical manifestation peculiar to them is their effort to appear completely relaxed. Sitting implies muscular tension, so they slouch. They don't walk; they amble—with a delayed beat. They gaze indifferently at the uninitiate through drooping lids, muttering, “It's cool, Daddy-o.”

There is an unfortunate belief that to play like the great jazzmen, you must live like them. Close examination might reveal that the productivity of these creative minds has often been stagnated by self-destructive habits.

"Dizzy" Gillespie
Artistically the situation is just as deplorable. These little monkey-men of music steal note for note the phrases of the master of the new idiom, John Birks “Dizzy” Gillespie. Their endless repetition of these phrases makes living in their midst like fighting one's way through a nightmare in which bebop pours out of the walls, the heavens, and the coffeepot. Most boppers contribute nothing to the idiom. Whether they play drums, saxophone, piano, trombone, or glockenspiel, it still comes out Gillespie. Dizzy probably thinks he's in a house of mirrors; but, in spite of this barrage of dead echoes, he still sounds great. They manage to steal some of his notes, but his soul stays on the record.

A better approach for boppers would consist of studying, then analyzing the idiom. This would determine its harmonic structure, unique inflections, and phraseology. The next step is the use of these components in improvisation. Since lightness, fleetness, and facility are attributes of modern jazz, they should be integrated with originality and knowledge to form an expression which may be similar in style but different according to individual personalities. Even the phraseology may be utilized if it is done with inventiveness rather than through plagiarism.

Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, and others. Source.
A fashion of present-day erudition is the procedure of pigeon-holing. People and things are divided and sub-divided and placed in groups, classes, and categories. Accordingly, this idiom had to be labeled. It was tagged “bebop.” For the purpose of identification and articulate discussion, this labeling is helpful if not accurate. It must be understood that bebop is diametrically opposed to the jazz that preceded it (swing as applied to large groups, and Dixieland as applied to small ones). Swing was hot, heavy, and loud. Bebop is cool, light, and soft. The former bumped and chugged along like a beat locomotive; this was known in some quarters as drive. The latter has a more subtle beat which becomes more pronounced by implication. At this low volume level many interesting and complex accents may be introduced effectively. The phraseology is next in importance because every note is governed by the underlying beat. This was not true of swing; for example, the long arpeggios which were executed with no sense of time, the prolonged tremolos, and the sustained scream notes.

There are many people who refuse to let jazz grow beyond their capacity to hear and understand it. There are others whose response to jazz is so completely emotional that they are unwilling to concede the aesthetic and intellectual progress that is demonstrated in bebop. There is a group of critics whose inability to understand and discuss bebop forces them to cling violently to the old familiar patterns. This is the most difficult group to combat in the battle to educate the public. They prove their vulgar and unintelligent approach by the innocuous patter they inflict on the trade papers. The musicians who refuse to yield to the new are a little less objectionable since a feeling of security forms such an important part of any man's existence. On the other hand, if these same musicians deny the validity and the necessity of progress, then they must be ruthlessly disregarded.

Jazz will eventually become an art form which will be taken seriously by those hitherto unappreciative of it. It will not be held back by the dancing public, profaned by the deified critics, or restricted in its growth by its poor imitators, even when they imitate jazz at its best.
I'll make another post soon, when I have access to the second article, "What's Right with the Beboppers". To make sure you see the post when it's made, make sure to subscribe to this blog.