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period of the ‘50s and only started to rise again after the cool jazz of that era went into a quasi-decline and was superseded by a sound more reflective of the social turbulence of the sixties.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.



Archie Shepp

>> Saturday, July 16, 2011



My first exposure to Archie Shepp was the New Thing At Newport album. I came to that by way of Coltrane who I was already familiar with, and when I bought the album, I played his side first. Then I turned the album over. When I heard Shepp I was amazed. I had never heard a horn player do anything like it. He was reinventing the instrument and expanding its emotional range tenfold in the process. I have never forgotten that album and never stopped listening to Shepp since then.

Shepp has been labeled "Afrocentric" by detractors for his appearances at the Pan African Festival, Kwanzaa. Is he supposed to be something else? Seems to me he just plays whatever he wants to. The Newport album was a true masterpiece. After that he was labeled avant garde. But if you love ballads, get hold of Déjà vu' and True Ballads (for those who thought he was just an avant garde musician). I have a friend (a mainstreamer) who had heard some Shepp and didn't like him: I burnt him copies of Déjà Vu and True Ballads and told him Shepp was one of the greatest ballad players ever. After listening to them my friend came back and agreed with me. In the first line of his portrait in Penguin's: Shepp once declared himself something 'worse than a romantic, I'm a sentimentalist'.

He also commands the field of jazz funk (examples such as Attica Blues (Dig)) and can play bebop (Looking At Bird) with the best of them. Is that recidivist? I don’t think so. What it does is demonstrate his credentials for those who come up with the lame old line that he plays avant garde music because he can’t handle the traditional stuff. Shepp started out in blues and early rock & roll. He never lost his strong blues orientation while growing to become a premier avant garde jazz performer. His pairing with both Abdullah Ibrahim (and Horace Parlan produced prodigious results because they were well adapted to each other. Shepp has been around the block, working with musicians ranging all the way from Chet Baker and Abby Lincoln to Sun Ra, Lester Bowie, Cecil Taylor, Bill Dixon, Siegfried Kessler, and lately Roswell Rudd.











A particularly wonderful anecdote offered by Lester Bowie on February 1999 when he was interviewed at Sistas' Place. In speaking about the Sun Ra All-Star group of the mid-eighties that he toured with, Lester related this tale: Archie Shepp and Sun Ra had been going at it, egos clashing, Archie not wanting to make rehearsals and generally being uncooperative. Lester became the self-appointed peacemaker. On the occasion of one concert, during a great Sun Ra arrangement of Poinciana, put together for this ensemble, Sunny became vexed at Archie when the tenor saxophonist decided to stand up to take a solo without being asked. Sun Ra went over to Archie and took the microphone away from his sax during the solo. Undaunted, Mr. Shepp went to another microphone and continued to blow. The ever-resourceful Sun Ra pulled directorial rank and conducted the band in a space chord that swelled to volcanic level. The sounds drowned Archie out. According to Lester, Archie was mad as hell, threatening and swearing what he was going to do to Sunny. Lester says he saw John Gilmore physically transform himself into a snake. Marshall Allen made similar defensive and protective moves. Totally amazed, but understanding what was happening, even though Lester had never seen anything like it in his life, he took Archie to the side to cool him out. "Man, you hip to Jim Jones and Jonestown, Archie," Lester said. "This is a motherfuckin’ cult, man. You better be cool. Cause these cats will kill your ass." With these words, Lester in his inimitable way said that Mr. Shepp came to his senses.
My personal favorite albums by Shepp are:

John Coltrane & Archie Shepp - New Thing at Newport 1965

Archie Shepp - Déjà Vu (AKA French Ballads) 2001
Archie Shepp - Montreux 1976-2009
True Ballads 1996-2009
Archie Shepp Quartet - True Blue 1998-2009
Archie Shepp & Mal Waldron - Left Alone Revisited 2002-2009
Archie Shepp & Siegfried Kessler - First Take 2005

I very deliberately put New Thing At Newport and Déjà Vu at the top of my list. I have over 70 albums by Shepp which is about half of his output, as far as I know. I am planning to fill in the rest in the future, if I can spare the dime. I am particularly curious about a late in the game item: The Impulse Story 2006, a double CD recording containing Coltrane's A Love Supreme including the Shepp versions. His presence on Trane’s Ascension, which I have, is also an important piece of history: that album is not only a milestone in the history of the avant garde; it is homage to many of the greatest players of the era who participated in its creation.

I personally think Shepp is capable of doing more adventuresome things than he usually winds up with. First Take, recently, is an example of Shepp at his best. It’s a live recording with Siegfried Kessler. They do a 23 minute exploration of "The Morning of the Blacks" which is one of Shepp's own compositions that I think is breathtaking (especially the way it starts off). I posted the following elsewhere in response to someone who asked if there was some question about Shepp being funky/commercial. I know it's kinda preachy but for me it frames Shepp's work precisely the way I see it. There is absolutely nothing inappropriately commercial about Shepp's work. If anything, he has shown an incredible refinement in his later work while strengthening the feelings at its core. I've been making an effort to obtain all his recordings and the more I have been able to pick up, the greater their impact becomes. I have already said several times that he is my favorite living jazz musician. I find it sad that a lot of people are put off by him. He has a reputation as a firebrand that he will never lose no matter how much he may change. And to a degree, that is one of the things I admire about him. If you need a compass, he is the North to Wynton Marsalis' South, and I don't need to tell you where that would take me. So far as musical style, I don't think he is comparable to anyone. For me, Ornette Coleman wasn't the New Thing, Archie Shepp was...and I think he still is. I think that, like Dolphy, he will get less notice during his lifetime than he will afterwards...but that will come, because he is also a giant. A friend once said that the public have been badly served by lazy journalists when it comes to assessing his work. Ain’t it the truth! But for the best available brief biography and a collection of interviews, album reviews, and some playable tracks nothing is better as a one-stop than-
Archie Shepp at AllAboutJazz

And if you are still thirsty after that you can also get a taste at YouTube
Re Vibrato. One sax player who didn't like Shepp said to me, "He does all the things they taught us not to do in our first three months of classes." My answer was, "Yah, and he makes them work!" Shepp put the word "dirty" back in the blues the way it belonged before academically hypertrained musicians began purifying their playing and conforming to using their horns in a technically professional manner. If you listen to Shepp's singing, he sings the same way. I didn't like his singing at first. I used to say to myself, "Why doesn't this guy just stick to what he does best?" But since then his singing has been growing on me. There is something about listening to jazz that probably sounds funny coming from an atheist-you have to listen with your soul, not you brain.

Another friend of mine said, “Why listen to anyone else? Shepp has that quality. I can hear it. It’s like the song of the Siren in the Odyssey. You don’t want to bother with a musician with fewer ideas and a lesser approach. Coltrane has his grip on me too. Getz, Konitz, Rouse, Newman et al. are excellent. But they don't approach The Trane. Shepp has that quality, as does Ornette Coleman. They ruin the rest of music for me. They're too good...”

I really like that description. I think perhaps it articulates what attracts me to Shepp and why the effect is so powerful. I guess I have felt for a long time now that certain jazz musicians make all the rest sound like elevator music to me, but I was never able to explain it this way…. I have had people gawk at me in disbelief when I tell them that only about 1% of all the jazz I hear really turns me on. There are many musicians who rise to that level occasionally which is why, if you look at what I am saying, there are so many different musicians on my Desert Island track list. But very few musicians have ever had that effect on me consistently. It's hard to remember back that far and be certain but I think early Miles, and Coltrane did going back to the early '60s. The musicians who I know for certain that have hit me that hard since are few indeed-Eric Dolphy, Lester Bowie, and Archie Shepp. And you are right they did ruin the rest of the music for me. That's probably why I have so much difficulty discussing jazz with a lot of the people. For them, the experience is very different from mine. Most of them are not pulled as hard in one direction as I am and they probably are more sensitive to subtle differences among the other players than I am. I have run into musicians who could recognize where I was at and I didn't have to try to explain it to them. But not many non-musicians know where I'm coming from. I know I am not unique in this respect, but I don't think the typical jazz fan winds up in this position. Probably the most extreme example I know of is that guy who followed Bird all over the place recording his solos. And it's not just fans. I think it happens far more often to musicians. Think of how many guys wound up killing themselves trying to sound like Miles or Trane. And look what Monk did to Steve Lacy. These few players that have that effect are the Pied Pipers of jazz. And some of us are like the children who would follow them without thinking twice into the magic opening in the side of the mountain; while the others, the adults, cannot hear the Piper's call and do not know where the children have gone. Actually, it's a relief when someone tells me that they can hear what I hear listening to Shepp or Bowie. It's reassuring to know I'm not crazy, even if the other people, who don't hear what I do, think I am.

As an addendum, way back when, I had been following Trane from way back when he first joined Miles. When the New Thing at Newport album came out, I think I had had no exposure to Shepp as yet. So I bought it and took it home and played it at a single sitting. I played the Trane side first; nothing strikingly new there, but I enjoyed it all the same because Trane was probably my favorite musician at that point. Then I turned the album over to play the other side. I was stunned. I had never heard anything remotely like it before in my life. I don't know what Shepp said to me back then, but whatever it was went straight to a place inside where no one had ever penetrated to before. And as you described, I can still hear it. If you want to take this exploration a step further, get that album and play it the way I did. First Trane, then Shepp. I think you will see exactly what I mean. It was THE perfect way to meet Shepp. Who could ask for anything better?

To pull another comparison out of left field, and this is the last one, I was once trying to explain to someone why I liked abstract expressionist art and made the remark that I didn't like paintings that had lines in them. My ex-wife piped up with the crack, "That's because you hate organization-in every way, shape, and form!" Not entirely true, but when it comes to any form of art-I really thrive on the unpredictable. And Archie Shepp is all of that.





>> Friday, June 10, 2011

When I was just a kid, I had a couple of tube type radios that I had scrounged from garbage cans around the neighborhood.  A typical evening back then included cookies, candy milk or soda or both , The Lone Ranger, The Green Hornet, The Shadow….  If I stayed up really late, I would spin the dial, randomly stopping at anything interesting.  On a given night that might include a talk show taking call-ins on  ESP, extra-terrestrials, the Andrew Sisters, doo-wop music (part of a new thing they were calling rock and roll). Rock and roll was sweeping the country led by a group called Bill Haley and The Comets. 
And that is how I discovered jazz.  I don't remember exactly how or when, but one evening I paused at a station called WJZ (later the American Broadcasting Company-WABC-seed station for the ABC network of today). The DJ was a slick-talking New Yorker named Sidney "Symphony Sid" Torin (  I found out later that Torin was already famous to jazz listeners for his live broadcasts from Birdland. These shows included musicians like Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis and Charlie Parker,.
According to Wikipedia (,

"Although Sid was white, he was famous for his hipster lingo, his love of be-bop, and his knowledge of the black music scene. While modern critics later accused white jazz disc jockeys like Symphony Sid andAlan Freed of profiting from black radio and taking jobs away from black announcers (see for example Sinclair, 1989 for example), this did not seem to be a concern during the years when Sid broadcast. He won several awards from black organizations, including an award for Disc Jockey of the Year presented to him in 1949 by the Global News Syndicate, for his "continuous promotion of negro artists."[15] Among the entertainers he had helped were such jazz performers as Nat King Cole, Sarah Vaughn, Charlie Parker, and Billy Eckstine. As his popularity grew, songs were written about him. For example, there was a reference to "the dial is all set right close to eighty" in the song Jumpin' With Symphony Sid, which was written by Lester Young with lyrics by King Pleasure; the song mentioned the location on the radio dial where Symphony Sid's Friday night show could be found. "Jumpin' With Symphony Sid" was also a 1950 hit for the George Shearing Quintet. In addition, another song, "Symphony in Sid" by Illinois Jacquet was written in tribute to him.[16] Following are the complete King Pleasure lyrics to "Jumpin' with Symphony Sid":
"Jumpin' with my boy Sid in the city,
Jumpin' with my boy Sid in the city,
Mr. President of the DeeJay committee,
We're gonna be up all night gettin' with it
We want you to spin the sounds by the minute
From down in the land that's really a-pretty.
"Make everything go real crazy over 'JZ,
Make everything go real crazy over 'JZ,
Play anything cool for me and my baby,
We don't want to think we're listening to Lacy,
It's got to be Prez, Bird, Shearing or the Basie,
The dial is all set right cloo-ose to 80,
Let 'er roll."
"JZ" refers to radio station WJZ.
""Lacy" refers to popular deejay Jack Lacy, a rival broadcaster of Sid's, whose show was called "Listen to Lacy" and who played standards and rock 'n' roll (thus: 'Hey Sid, don't play pop tunes and make us think we're listening to Lacy!').
"80" most likely refers either to WJZ, broadcasting at 770 (close to 800), or possibly the call letters of another one of Sid's NY stations, "WADO radio, 1280 on your dial."

For a while during the mid to late 1940s, Sid broadcast live from the Royal Roost night club in New York. In 1950, he moved the show to Birdland. Sid also did some shows from other New York clubs such as The Three Deuces and Bop City. He also continued to work with concert promoters, serving as MC for a number of jazz concerts at venues like Carnegie Hall."
I didn't know it at the time, but this introduction was the beginning of a life-long (addictive?) love to a form of music which has endured for more than a century and which has become the core of a now world music since sometime around the 1970-1990s.  And that is the subject of this blog.  So, like Sid would say, "Let 'er roll!"



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