Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Lennie Tristano - What's Right With The Beboppers

After two and a half years I have finally gotten my hands on the July 1947 issue of Metronome Magazine, which has the sequel to Tristano's What's Wrong With The Beboppers. It provides an interesting glimpse into the pianist's thought process. Tristano's characterization of "Dixieland" is unfair, but it gives us an idea of how sharply divided some members of the jazz community were over the new music of Parker, Gillespie, Davis, and Tristano. This is also of historical importance due to Tristano's foreshadowing of free improvisation: "Perhaps the next step after bebop will be collective improvisation on a much higher plane because the individual lines will be more complex."

What's Right With The Beboppers
the provocative pianist concludes his evaluation of a provocative school of jazz

by Lennie Tristano

Tristano, mid 1950's. Source:
The music of Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker constitutes the first major break with Dixieland. While bebop is not an end in itself, it is unquestionably a great means.

Though Dixieland presents a single and crude form of counterpoint, its contrapuntal development ends in a blind alley. Each line is governed by the end result which is collective improvisation. Collective improvisation is limited by a small number of chords, perhaps six or seven. A good melodic line is sacrificed completely. The music strives to induce an aphrodisiac mood which for many years has been considered the essence of jazz. Anything that requires a degree of intelligent comprehension is ruled out. Therefore the means becomes the end. Artistic development is unnecessary - in fact, detrimental. This is precisely why Dixieland music is so appallingly stagnant. Like French Impressionism, it destroys itself.

The soloist emerging from this idiom plays with the same disregard for artistic development. Though his style is somewhat individualized, and his facility is increased, his music is merely an elaboration of the part he played in collective improvisation.

The boppers discarded collective improvisation and placed all emphasis on the single line. This is not unfortunate, since the highest development of both would probably not occur simultaneously. Perhaps the next step after bebop will be collective improvisation on a much higher plan because the individual lines will be more complex.
Charlie Parker, late 1940's

Bebop has made several contributions to the evolution of the single line. The arpeggio has ceased to be important; the line is primarily diatonic. The procedure is not up one chord and down another, nor it is up one scale and down another; the use of skips of more than a third precludes this seesaw motion. The skillful use of scales fosters the evolution of many more ideas than does the use of arpeggios, since an arpeggio merely restates the chord. Instead of a rhythm section pounding out each chord, four beats to a bar, so that three or four soloists can blow the same chord in arpeggio form in a blast of excremental vibrations, the bebop rhythm section uses a system of chordal punctuation. By this means, the soloist is able to hear the chord without having it shoved down his throat. He can think as he plays. A chorus of bebop may consist of any number of phrases which vary in length. A phrase may consist of two bars or twelve bars. It may contain one or several ideas. The music is thoughtful as opposed to the kind of music which is no more than an endless series of notes, sometimes bent.

The Dixieland idea of a ballad is a hot melody with the bends. The tempo ranges from just a little to slow to just a little too fast, generally skipping the happy medium. When Diz plays a ballad, he makes full use of altered chords and substitutions in a series of well-articulated phrases. This is not to be confused with a superficial use of altered tones which results in an embellishment rather than an integral part of the style. His complex melodic structure becomes more intense because of the intricate rhythm patterns which are its basis. The melody does not bog down under a vulgar load of sentiment, bravado, and vibrato.

Given a long series of eighth notes, the Fig would play them as dotted eighths and sixteenths, which effects an underlying shuffle beat. A bopper would accept every up-beat, producing a line which pulsates with a modern, a more exciting feeling. This type of accenting also prevents the soloist from stumbling into a boogie groove, a musical booby-trap.

Thelonious Monk, ca. 1947
Bebop is a valiant attempt to raise jazz to a thoughtful level, and to replace emotion with meaning. It is successfully combatting the putrefying effect of commercialism. It has been called mechanical, "over-cerebrative," sloppy, technical, and immoral. Beboppers have been accused of willfully promoting juvenile delinquency. These studied inanities of the pseudo-psychiatrist have created ill-feeling against musicians. All this prattle is due to a lack of understanding not only of the musicians who play bebop, but of the emotionally immature listeners.

It is true that the younger musicians have gone overboard in attempting to emulate their idols, the originators. They need re-direction and guidance. On the other hand, with few exceptions, the so-called giants of jazz have remained untouched. They have absolutely refused to be influenced. The feeling of security which comes from playing in a well-worn and worn-out groove, and an unwillingness to admit that jazz has advanced beyond their personally-generated auras suggest an imminent degeneration. The big names are important because they command large followings. If they persist in retrogressing, the inevitable result is the concomitant stagnation of the listeners.

The development of jazz must be the concern of every musician who attempts to play it. Jazz is not a form of popular entertainment; it is art for its own sake. Its popularity or unpopularity is coincidental. The man who plays to entertain is not as objectionable as the man who plays to entertain and at the same time protests that he is playing jazz. This overwhelming pleasure that some bandleaders experience in pleasing the people is a rather poor camouflage for their desire to increase their bank accounts. Perhaps if the people had more opportunity to hear good jazz, they might learn to like it.

And here society has a real obligation. It must foster the arts and encourage the artists even if understanding is not immediate. Bebop, one of the more mature levels of jazz, must be listened to, scrutinized, supported. That way it will assure progress and all the inevitable maturation of jazz will be one large step further along.