Ontpj11. What traits are most admired in jazz legends regarding their jazz prowess?
- 1 Discussion
- 2 What great jazz traits are had by jazz legends?
- 3 Choosing and justifying the list of jazz legends
- 4 List of jazz legends
- 5 What jazz traits do these legends have?
- 6 What makes a jazz trait great?
- 7 Mission Statement of Jazz at Lincoln Center
- 8 NOTES
What great jazz traits are had by jazz legends?
To address this question requires answering several prior questions. First, which jazz legends in particular are we talking about including in the examination? Second, which jazz traits do these legends have and to what extent are they shared? Third, what is it about these jazz traits that makes for greatness?
One of the reasons to investigate this topic is because it gives specificity to the investigation of what jazz traits are had by jazz legends.
Choosing and justifying the list of jazz legends
There are many clear choices for jazz legends. Some of the earliest legends we do not even have that much information to go on as to exactly what jazz traits these legends represent because there were no or few recordings and it was over 100 years ago and virtually or actually all witnesses have died. This leaves primarily photographic and written evidence that provides limited information for how a musician actually played his or her instrument and sounded or even how the overall group played as influenced by the legend in question. As recording technology improved the second and third wave of jazz legends, and beyond, have much better recording histories that can be studied and listened to and compared.
Necessarily the list of jazz legends is incomplete and undoubtedly missing names that someone might like to champion. Having a complete list of jazz legends is not the goal of the current investigation into the traits of jazz legends. We just need to have a somewhat representative sample to begin to make some legitimate geralizations and observations of this accomplished group that get singled out by being in the list now.
There are many great and legendary jazz vocalists. These have been excluded from the list of instrumental performers in jazz, although plenty of these instrumentalists have sung as well.
List of jazz legends
Earliest jazz legends (1890-1917)
- Charles "Buddy" Bolden (1877–1931)
- Joe "King" Oliver (1885–1938)
- Edward "Kid" Ory (1886–1973)
- Nick LaRocca (1889–1961) of Original Dixieland Jass Band (first jazz recordings 1917)
- Jelly Roll Morton (1890–1941)
- Sidney Bechet (1897–1959)
- Louis Armstrong (1901–1971)
- Bix Beiderbecke (1903–1931)
- Earl "Fatha" Hines (1903–1983)
Second wave: Big band swing predominates (1932-1942)
- Paul Whiteman (1890–1967)
- Fletcher Henderson (1897–1952)
- Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington (1899–1974)
- Coleman Hawkins (1904–1969)
- William "Count" Basie (1904–1984)
- Fats Waller (1904–1943)
- Glenn Miller (1904–1944)
- Jimmy Dorsey (1904–1957)
- Tommy Dorsey (1905–1956)
- Johnny Hodges (1907–1970)
- Ben Webster (1909–1973)
- Benny Goodman (1909–1986)
- Lester Young (1909–1959)
- Artie Shaw (1910–2004)
- Charlie Christian (1916–1942)
Third wave: Around Bebop (1940-1950)
- Charlie Christian
- Max Roach
- Johnny Griffin
- Fats Navarro
- Clifford Brown
- J. J. Johnson
- Art Tatum (1909–1956)
- Sun Ra (1914–1993)
- Ward Kimball (1914–2002)
- Oliver Todd (1916-2001)
- Thelonious Monk (1917–1982)
- Dizzy Gillespie (1917–1993)
- Nat King Cole (1919-1965)
- Clark Terry (1920–2015)
- Charlie Parker (1920–1955)
- Dave Brubeck (1920–2012)
- Charles Mingus (1922–1979)
- Wes Montgomery (1923–1968)
- Oscar Peterson (1925–2007)
- Miles Davis (1926–1991)
- John Coltrane (1926–1967)
- Gerry Mulligan (1927–1996)
- Chet Baker (1929–1988)
- Bill Evans (1929–1980)
- Ornette Coleman (1930–2015)
- Stanley Turrentine (1934–2000)
- Bill Watrous (born 1939)
- Wynton Marsalis (born 1961)
Fourth wave: Cool, Modal, Hard Bop, Soul Jazz, Third Stream (1949-1965)
- Miles Davis (1926-1991)
- Chet Baker
- Bill Evans
- Ron Carter
- Gil Evans
- Stan Getz
Fifth wave: Free Jazz (1959-1970)
- Ornette Coleman
- John Coltrane
- Cecil Taylor
- Peter Brötzmann
Sixth wave: Jazz/Rock Fusion (1969-1979)
- Miles Davis (1926-1941)
- Herbie Hancock
- Chick Corea
- Tony Williams
- John McLaughlin
- Larry Young
What jazz traits do these legends have?
The vast majority of the musicians on the legends list were African-American, or people of color. It is an established fact that many jazz musicians are African American. The controversy drums up when theorists and commentators begin to take some race or culture oriented issue to an extreme in either direction from one end of only African Americans are responsible for the creation and ordinary evolutionary stages that jazz has reached, or that jazz is almost entirely musically African inspired, or almost entirely European music inspired. The truth is that jazz has strong musical influences from both of these sources for musical inspiration but jazz incorporated other elements such as call and response, work hollers, gospel, church music, that Spanish/Latin tinge, and so forth.
It is a fact that in the past several jazz musicians claimed to be able to tell just from listening whether a jazz musician was black or white. Generally speaking, whenever this has been put to the test the musicians who believed he could distinguish race from blind auditions has discovered that they could not so discern the race of the performer. This is why orchestra's when seeking new members hold blind auditions where the auditioned cannot be seen, but only heard, while their musical skills and talents are evaluated. Behavioral economic founder Daniel Kahneman discovered that when evaluators were selecting leaders for units in the Israeli military that they were unconsciously partially deciding on the basis of a person's good looks or lack thereof. They unconsciously chose as leaders better looking individuals over people who would make better leaders even if they were not as good looking.
At the JazzShelf.org Chris writes in his essay, "Jazz: What I'm Listening For," the main elements that go in to a successful jazz performance. Chris comments on these traits from his point of view, but it is easy enough to generalize them to be the ones required for a successful and fulfilling jazz performance.
Listed first are (excellent) traits for jazz performances and performers to exhibit followed by Chris's commentary on the traits. Afterwards, there is discussion on qualifications, limitations, and ramifications regarding these traits for jazz performances and properties of performers:
- * Technique
- * Harmony
- * Structure
- * Freedom
- * Interaction
- * Individual voices
- * Emotion
- * Liveliness
- * Technique
PoJ.fm quotes Chris's points about how he relates to the traits in the list (quoted below in green), but you can read his entire one page essay at "Jazz: What I'm Listening For."
Technique: “Actually, I don’t listen for it, but technique is worth talking about. Beyond the basic knowledge required to play the music competently in the first place, musicians often develop their own specialized techniques, and that is something I guess I do listen for. Bill Evans’ piano skills differ from McCoy Tyner’s, and tastes aside, you can’t deny that both of them are masterful pianists. All of my favorite players have specialized techniques that they usually acquire at the expense of being able to play like some other high caliber player. The positive definition of physical technique is “that which allows a player to get their ideas across efficiently and precisely.” Since everyone’s ideas are going to be different than the next person’s, we should expect varying levels (or types) of razzle-dazzle. Good technique has little to do with the number or speed of notes played but everything to do with communicating those notes, however many there are. What you don’t want to hear too often is a player’s ideas exceeding his or her chops, in which case woodshedding is in order. You also don’t want to hear empty flash by itself. A barrel of notes with no meaning is as dismaying as a good idea disfigured by a lack of technique.”
Harmony: “The twentieth century was full of harmonic advances, what with classical polytonality and the like, and jazz rapidly sped up the evolution of chordal adventures. Personally, a good melody can seduce me, while harmony can send me reeling, and that’s probably why I like piano recordings so much.”
Structure: “Beyond the Blues (12-bar) and the Abstract Truth (32-bar rhythm changes), jazz is open to all kinds of improvisational frameworks. When good content determines an idiosyncratic form, that’s a creative victory to my ears. I also enjoy open forms, where part of the structure is set, and part of it is open to the players’ discretion.”
Freedom: “There are varying degrees of it, from the smallest liberties on up to Free Jazz itself. I dig free improv, in which I’m willing to abandon a need for forms. (Although much free improv creates its form; it just happens in real time.) A lot of people don’t get free playing at all, in any genre, because they can’t imagine music without structure, but I’ve never had trouble with that.”
Interaction: “I put a high premium on this because it can be the most life-affirming element of jazz performance. At the base level, interaction can be parroted phrases or call and response; at the highest level, you’ve got something like the Miles Davis Quintet of the 1960s, where every member was reacting to everyone else every step of the way. The key factor is players listening to each other and building upon deviations in rhythm, harmony, and so on, often to a degree to where they wind up in a collective abstraction that never could have been pre-planned. It all comes down to attention.”
Individual voices: “Jazz is a dichotomy of individual and collective concerns, the individual being the irreducible factor. It’s a tough thing to develop your own voice in such an idiomatic music, and that’s why the big names are big.”
Emotion: “I list this last because it can be so difficult to quantify. But of course I get an emotional kick out of jazz—it varies from one tune or artist to the next—and without it, I would not care much about the technical aspects.”
Chris's conclusions: “Pardon any stilted sentiments above, but that’s a little bit of where I’m coming from as a listener. (Why I listen is another discussion.) The best way to appreciate jazz, all records aside, is to hear it in person, assuming there are good gigs within striking distance. It’s music of the moment, and being present in that moment is the best way to experience it. Needless to say, the chance to hear so many great, groundbreaking players is gone, and so we treasure the recordings they left us.”
What makes a jazz trait great?
Above all others the greatest trait to have in jazz is to be a fantastic improviser. No one disagrees with this. This trait of fantastic improviser supersedes any other traits including great tone, great stylist, great jazz leader, great projection of one's personality through one's instrument, etc.
The reason why fantastic improvisation is considered the greatest jazz trait is because it is the most complex and most difficult technical and aesthetic achievement that all jazz musicians strive to achieve. Because ability to improvise in jazz comes in degrees from not being able to do it in any musically consistent way as represented in H. Jon Benjamin's comedy jazz album "Well, I Should Have (Learned How to Play the Piano)" where he performs solo improvisations playing with experienced jazz musicians that achieves a comedic effect because he does not know how to play the piano, or going to the opposite extreme, to such master thematic improvisers as Sonny Rollins on tenor saxophone or Keith Jarrett on piano.
There is someone who might appear at first to contradict the claim that improvisational abilities are held in highest esteem, namely Eric, who believes seeking constant improvement is the most common trait of the jazz masters. Still, later in his article he seems to concur with improvisation being of the highest importance for jazz players when he writes that “[a]s improvisers, learning to play your instrument and soloing over standards is what it all comes down to . . . .”
“We call “masters” great? What sets them apart from everyone else? Is it their technique, their sound, their originality, the way they can play over chord progressions? Well . . . these are all pieces of their mastery, but what is the reason for their mastery? After spending time around some of the best musicians in New York, it gradually became clear to me that the top musicians in the world do indeed have a certain characteristic that sets them apart. . . . This “secret” quite simply, is the incessant drive to keep improving. (bold and bold italic not in original)
Every great player has traits from this list:
- were highly proficient on their instrument and could play most tunes they encountered
- learned the solos of previous great players
- had good practice routines at least when coming up
- have over time developed their own harmonic techniques that are often distinctive of his or her playing
- determined to find weak spots in their musical abilities and to improve upon them
- constantly pushing to improve even after making progress
- neither satisfied with their successes nor content to stay at the same level
- motivated to search for more answers and never satisfied with their current level of musicality and musicianship
- driven to keep up with the competition with a nagging urge to push to the limit of their abilities and then go even further
- learned ways to sound good while improvising
- strove to create an original voice shaped by influences from their musical heroes with creativity being the goal
- developed lines into their own musical language
- strove to achieve an original musical voice and a personal approach to improvising
- usually have assimilated the history of the music
- innovated upon the past by stretching the technical limits of their musical instrument(s) and creatively delving into the unknown and pushing the boundaries of the music
- developed their own original ideas while continuing to evolve
Mission Statement of Jazz at Lincoln Center
- Mission Statement of Jazz at Lincoln Center: In the Spirit of Swing.
- Mission Statement of Jazz at Lincoln Center: In the Spirit of Swing.
“The mission of Jazz at Lincoln Center is to entertain, enrich and expand a global community for jazz through performance, education, and advocacy. We believe jazz is a metaphor for Democracy. Because jazz is improvisational, it celebrates personal freedom and encourages individual expression. Because jazz is swinging, it dedicates that freedom to finding and maintaining common ground with others. Because jazz is rooted in the blues, it inspires us to face adversity with persistent optimism.” (bold not in original)
- "Jazz: What I'm Listening For," Chris (no last name given), JazzShelf.org, paragraphs 8-14.
- "The Secret of the Masters," Eric (no last name given), September 28, 2011, eleventh paragraph. Accessed June 3, 2019.
- "The Secret of the Masters," Eric (no last name given), September 28, 2011, first opening paragraph. Accessed June 3, 2019.
- "About," Jazz at Lincoln Center website.