Monday, 9 December 2013

Contrasts in Individualism Pt 1

Next month I'll be premiering a new work called Contrasts in Individualism: Reinterpreting the Innovations of Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young. The long winded title is a reference to the incredible contributions both of these men made to music on the saxophone, an instrument that was previously considered a novelty instrument. It is impressive how two African-American men from the mid-west were able to rise above the segregated landscape of 1930's America and change the history of music. Their ideas would revolutionize jazz and lead the development of Be-Bop, Cool Jazz and Rock 'n Roll. When you hear the classic recordings of these gentlemen it is immediately apparent just how good they were. But in todays world it is easy to loose the lineage of exactly how Sonny Rollins, Stan Getz or John Coltrane come out of these schools. Then there was the Avante-Garde, fusion and the young lions. Today's pyro-technical approach makes it easy to miss or dismiss the influences that Hawk and Pres have had on generations of saxophonists.

Because of his virtuosic and aggressive sound, Coleman Hawkins is associated with Hot jazz and was one of the first Americans to travel abroad and infuence European musicians. I see his influence as pretty widespread but here's a list of players that seem to follow an evolution of Hawk:

Coleman Hawkins > Lucky Thompson > Sonny Rollins > Archie Schepp > James Carter

Lester 'Pres' Young came out of Kansas City and is synonymous with Cool jazz. He's also known for his unique language and style of dress. For ex. the term 'crib' for apartment is his. The 'Lady' in Lady Day (Billie Holiday), also his. If you've ever heard Charles Mingus's Goodbye Porkpie Hat then you know how much he meant to him. Here's a lineage of players I think come straight out of Pres:

Lester Young > Charlie Parker > Stan Getz > Warne Marsh > Mark Turner

Along with his incredibly relaxed approach Lester could also wail. He often used false fingerings to achieve a repetitive effect. Instead of repeating the note with the same fingering he'd use an alternative fingering and get the same note with a muted timbre. i.e. Doo-wah when a brass player uses his hand to cup the bell. It wasn't necessary to even use the effect, simply hitting the root and repeating it ad lib in time with the band would send the audience into a frenzy. Flip Phillips would make this his schtick and then the Rhythm and Blues players took it to another level all together. Before the electric guitar was dominant, this aggressive style would be the most revolutionary sound in American music. Hawkins also contributed to R&B music by vocalizing or 'growling' through the horn.  He also wailed but in a different manner: Pres would hold the horn up at an angle, eyes staring ahead, head back, observing the scene around him while Hawkins usually played with his eyes closed, blowing with intense concentration. Here they are on Art Ford's TV program in 1958. Lester wouldn't be around much longer. Hawk managed to play right through into the mid '60's.

Watching this, how can you not love how they are all having some serious FUN! That's Pee Wee Russell on clarinet. My first instrument and my favorite 'modern' clarinetist. He started in the 1920's and recorded with Hawkins in 1929. More about that later. At 4:00 Pres starts 'wailing', using the false fingerings I was talking about. At 6:26 Hawkins enters with a classic motif and you can hear those riffs that are so indicative of R&B at 6:40. Check out how trumpet man Charlie Shavers provokes Pres to start exchanging with Hawkins after his solo. It seems neither of them expected to 'trade fours' and I'm so glad Shavers got that to happen but i wish it went on longer. There's a reason these two were so revered and thanks to YouTube it's out there for the world to see. I used to go to great lengths to get videos like this and I was almost as surprised by this as to find out that Coltrane once played with Oscar Peterson and Stan Getz on TV!

Many years ago I was in a funk and I attended a workshop with the composer/bassist Dave Holland who I had studied with in Banff when he ran that summer jazz workshop. He was always very supportive of my playing and liked my natural approach. I think even though I was far from refined I had a good feel and instincts for improvising. He always pointed out that I wasn't trying to play all my licks. Well i didn't really have any licks! At the workshop I expressed how I had lost my way trying to emulate the players who emulated Coltrane. In his kindest tone he said, "How about Don Byas?". It sparked my interest in discovering new ways of seeing innovations on the saxophone and from then on I never really compared players as being more or less 'modern'. In fact the rhythmic and sonic quailites of the pre-bop saxophonists can be linked to post-bop generation.

Between 1968-76 I heard almost as much funk and soul on the radio as rock. I loved Sly and The Family Stone, Ray Charles and especially Stevie Wonder. I also liked Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix. When you hear Hendrix you are hearing an innovator of sound. It's incredible that his psychedelic guitar style made it into pop culture but it did. And who influenced them? R&B artists! And what kicked off R&B? Yup...the saxophone, that's what. Jimi's sound broke the sonic barrier in electric pop music. Some people revolutionize art and even mange to cross over into the mainstream. So it's not completely absurd to think of Pres as the Hendrix of his era. With his original style, innovative phrasing, strange and beautiful notes he brought something new to popular music. Hawkins would become an icon after his version 'Body and Soul' made him a star. If Coleman Hawkins could be compared to an elevator, traveling up and down through harmonic passages then Lester Young was the escalator, taking his time and finding a different way to get to the same place. They both brought us to the future. There's a lot of life experience coming through in their music. The ability to communicate that feeling through the horn is what made me interested in playing jazz.

In my next blog I'll expand on how both individuality and intelligence play a large role in the music of Hawkins and Young. I'll use some samples that show how Pres and Hawk evolved and influenced the next generation of jazz musicians. Eventually, as the premiere grows near I'll play some samples of the work and show how Pres and Hawk influenced me.


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  2. Really cool music, it has a great jive and feel to it. It reminds me of my days in the Jazz band, I played the drums, I wasn't unbelievable but I always tried to KISS, Keep It Simple Stupid! It keep things really steady and provided great steady beats for the other rockers their tempo which was what I was about. Occasionally I went out and did a small spurge, but within tempo and It kept the band really steady and going. I really loved it. This is just classic, really rockin and having a grand old time. Best of Coleman Hawkins

    One thing my professor tried to teach me was to think of a saxophone solo and to maintain that style for a drum solo, which is why I love listening to Coleman. It gives UNBELIEVABLE ideas for a drummer, completely thinking outside the box while still maintaining top notch coverage and playing.

    Thanks for this post I learned a lot.