An Unsystematic History of Dissonance in Jazz

>> Friday, September 2, 2011

Throughout the history of jazz there has been a long term increasing tendency to incorporate elements of dissonance into the music. For a time the trend seemed to possibly be headed in the other direction during the affluent period of the ‘50s and only started to rise again after the cool jazz of that era went into a quasi-decline and was superseded by a sound more reflective of the social turbulence of the sixties. Today, dissonance is a major established part of the creativity of the modern idiom and we who, at least to some degree, grasp its message are enriched by its presence. Some say it is a natural outcome of our lives: today's music expresses today's world, and how could it be otherwise?  But that is also why a lot of people have problems with the music...those who generally can't handle change that is thrust upon them against their will. At the extreme there are those who feel jazz should be “pretty music” and who hear only noise in anything that departs from their ideal. But most people, I believe, are capable of relating to some degree to the myriad ways that the music reflects life and goes beyond reflection to accomplish a creative response that we can identify with emotionally. For myself, I find it easy to identify with the discordant emotions the musicians express so frequently nowadays. I grew up as a street kid with no parental supervision and that, perhaps, led to greater flexibility (based on survival imperatives) in some respects. Jazz also always struck me as a primarily urban music, and as such it has reflected the agonies of decline that so many of our cities have suffered. But jazz has always been able to create hope from despair and beauty out of ugliness. Jazz has also grown from a childlike sound to a music that expresses strength and maturity and the battle-scars are in the sound and are borne with pride by those who carry on the tradition.

In what might be described as “the bad old days”, “colored” people were often treated so badly, that the musicians were driven to strive to rise above it and express joy in their music. Some might consider this a form of escapism but there was also a great deal of sadness that found expression in the blues. Later as the social response changed, the music also changed and cruelty and economic deprivation found its response in the expression of anger. This impacted the audience in several ways. While some people identified with the anger and its sources, others turned away from the music because they saw the music purely as a source of enjoyment and did not like the new infusion of hostile emotion.

But dissonance had already been present in the music long before the social outrages of the ‘60s. As far back as ragtime syncopation was a discordant phenomenon when compared to the typical content of American popular music or western classical music. Indeed, the "blue notes" from the first half of the jazz century may be considered dissonant as well. They were, additionally, outside the western (white) system of music.

The first album historically considered "free jazz" was Lennie Tristano’s "Intuition" .  With the appearance of this album, a floodgate was opened. Later Cecil Taylor combined the discordance of Hindemith with the arppeigiation of Art Tatum to sink the bloodlines of the music deeper into the soil of the western tradition. Ultimately this new tendency toward dissonance would lead to extreme depths of discordant emotion like those expressed in the playing of Evan Parker, Peter Brotzmann, Bill Laswell, Ornette Coleman, Archie Shepp, Sam Rivers, Marion Brown, David S. Ware, Charles Gayle and others who ushered the then dominant hard bop format into more dissonant territories. As a pointed example, Thelonious Monk was a genius in the use of dissonance and probably the first to make wide use of minor seconds (two notes half a step apart played simultaneously): he certainly employed them more frequently than any other musician of his time. Charles Mingus also used dissonance in his compositions to great effect, as did George Russell, while the legendary Duke Ellington employed harmonies that sounded "wrong" to the members of his band when they first played them, but were so "right" that they became quickly accepted. Thus most popular musicians demonstrated that dissonance could be used as a compositional device and not merely as a complimentary means of improvisation. Jazz now included both structured and unstructured dissonance. In fact the development went so far that moderated lack of structure became a variation on structure itself. Structure was no longer capable of being considered an all or nothing concept. Plus, the use of extended periods of silence in both contemporary classical music (e.g. John Cage) and even jazz was used as an extension of the discordance of dissonance.

A most interesting example of the creative use of both silence and noise can be seen at the beginning of The Art Ensemble of Chicago with Cecil Taylor - Dreaming of the Masters, Vol. 2 - 04 - 'Round Midnight. 1992. For roughly three minutes, forty-eight seconds the recording consists only of silence punctuated by minor shuffling, growling and other bits of noise made by the band with their instruments. At the end of this period, a bell in the background faintly tolls midnight and the band begins to play. Now dead air is considered fatal in a radio environment and DJs routinely edit it out at the beginning and end of each selection. For a radio DJ, the AEOC’s piece would clearly create a monstrous problem because to his audience it would sound as if something had “gone badly wrong” at the station. But, to an experienced listener to avant-garde jazz, this introduction is an essential and integral part of the piece even though it is probably far more than any untutored audience could handle…a dilemma that cannot possibly be resolved. (For me this introduction was absolutely brilliant in the way that it sets the atmosphere for the piece by allowing the listener to experience their own feelings in reaction to greatly reduced stimulus and the sense of isolation that it conveys. This is probably the loudest silence I have ever heard on a recording and my initial reaction the first time before I realized what was going on was that the experience was quite unpleasant-yes, it really gets bad before midnight !!! 'Round Midnight! (At the time I was listening to the CD parked alone in my car late at night-a perfect setting.) Talk about creative dissonance and it's role in jazz!!!  Unfortunately, you may not be able to find the original piece: in recent releases, the producers also edited this segment out of the CD! Clearly, dissonance still has a long way to go before it will be truly understood and accepted.

I would like to offer thanks to the other jazz fans and musicians with whom several discussions led to this brief essay.


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