Two stories from the past.
One comes from someone’s reminiscence of being on the bus with the Jazz at the Philharmonic troupe — this could have been in 1957 — where Sonny Stitt, a brilliantly virtuosic player, was walking up and down the aisle of the bus, horn in full flight, playing everything he knew, pulling out every impressive piece of acrobatic improvising to wow his august audience. Lester Young, probably seated in the back of the bus, is supposed to have said, “That’s very nice, Lady Stitt. But can you sing me a song?”
Jack Kapp, the head of Decca Records, was famous for wanting his artists — Bing Crosby, the Mills Brothers, the Boswell Sisters, Louis Armstrong, the Andrews Sisters — to play and sing the melody so that the ordinary listener knew it was there. Some sources say there was a wooden Indian at one end of the studio with a sign around its neck, WHERE’S THE MELODY? — others remember it as a picture of a Native American maiden with a cartoon balloon in which the same question was written in bold letters.
Famously, Kapp has been depicted in recent years as a fierce oppressor, someone who chained his free-spirited artists to the black dots on the manuscript paper. It was all about the money, scholars propose, aiming music at the lowest common denominator who couldn’t understand anything they couldn’t hum along to.
Jazz writers like to imagine “what would have happened if (fill in hero / heroine’s name) had been able to record for a more hip company. What magical music would we have now?” They shed tears for Louis Armstrong, “forced” to record Hawaiian songs with Andy Iona.
Third story. Time: 2014.
I received a CD not long ago by a jazz group I hadn’t heard of, although their credentials and associations were impressive. And the CD had many beautiful songs on it — lovely melodies that I looked forward to hearing. When I put the CD on, I was immediately taken with the beautiful recorded sound, the expansive improvisations, the sophisticated technique of the players — no one seemed to take a breath; no one faltered; the improvisations — at the highest level — went on without a letup. But in each case, the improvisations were so technically dazzling, so dense with musical information that the song, hinted at in the first chorus, sank deeper and deeper under the water. Intricate rhythmic patterns, hammered out unceasingly; layers of substitute harmonies; unusual tempos (ballads taken at triple speed) dominated every performance.
The disc lasted about an hour. It was brilliant and awe-inspiring but I found it truly exhausting and, to me, antithetical to the spirit of the original songs. I know, I know. Jazz is “about” improvisation, right? Only dullards play exactly what’s on the page, correct?
I listened to the whole CD, and as much as I marveled at the technique, the assurance, the bold dash of the whole thing, all I wanted to do was to hear something beautiful, something songful and soulful. Ben Webster playing HOW LONG HAS THIS BEEN GOING ON? Louis playing and singing WHEN YOU’RE SMILING. Bird with Strings. A Johnny Hodges slow blues. Benny Goodman playing LADY BE GOOD. Miles Davis exploring the PORGY AND BESS score.
I always agreed with the commonly held notion of Jack Kapp as a materialistic soul-destroying enemy of creativity.
Now I might rethink my position, because beautifully playing the melody seems like balm to my ears.
And I think that many musicians would say it is much more difficult to play that ballad “straight” and convey the song’s emotions than to leave the original behind in thirty-two bars in the name of improvisation.
I hope you find beautiful melodies wherever you go. They are all around us.
May your happiness increase!