Does humour belong in music?

Geoff Wills posits that jazz and humour are close cousins, both reliant on the power of unexpected juxtaposition

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You probably know the story about Al Cohn. Bill Crow tells it in his book Jazz Anecdotes. Cohn was on tour in Europe, and in Denmark he was drinking at a bar with some friends who recommended the local beer. “Have you tried Elephant Beer?” They asked. “No”, said Cohn. “I drink to forget”.

Al Cohn: a man who was quick and inventive with both notes and words.

Although jazz can be deadly serious, it’s interesting how often jazz musicians are simultaneously funny and creators of great music

This set me thinking about jazz, humour, the creative process, and how they all connect. Okay, this gets a bit heavy and psychological, but bear with me. The mathematician Henri Poincaré, talking about the creative process, said “the facts worthy of being studied are those which reveal an unsuspected kinship to other facts, wrongly believed to be strangers to one another … among chosen combinations the most fertile will often be those formed of elements drawn from domains which are far apart”. That’s basically what happened when jazz came into being. The elements drawn from far-apart domains to create jazz were, to boil it down, and as Marshall Stearns said, European harmony, Euro-African melody and African rhythm, creating what Whitney Balliett referred to as The Sound of Surprise.

And so it is with humour, where the elements drawn from far-apart domains create an idea that’s in some way incongruous, odd, unusual, unexpected, surprising, or out of the ordinary, like Al Cohn’s notion of a beer that makes you remember.

The jazz musician and the humorist: both demonstrate an exemplary use of the creative process. And although, of course, jazz can be deadly serious, it’s interesting how often jazz musicians are simultaneously funny and creators of great music.

Armstrong: The trickster’s knowing humour, like jazz, informed the hip in-crowd about the square outsiders

Take Louis Armstrong, an artist whose music, by its very nature, made new and surprising relationships using his startling melodic gift. And in 1926, when he dropped his lyric sheet while recording Heebie Jeebies, he humorously improvised lyrics, and in the process popularised scat singing. A subtle aspect of Armstrong’s humour was that, although he was often accused of pandering to the masses, he adopted the comic mask of the trickster, a persona that was central with African-Americans in a racist America. The trickster’s knowing humour, like jazz, informed the hip in-crowd about the square outsiders.

Fats Waller provides another example – one of the great jazz pianists, a songwriter who ranks with Gershwin and Cole Porter, and a singer whose genial humour is inexorably connected to the domain of serious musicianship.

Cab Calloway led a highly successful big band in the 1930s and 1940s and helped to promote the careers of exceptional musicians like Ben Webster, Chu Berry, Cozy Cole, Milt Hinton, Jonah Jones and Dizzy Gillespie. He was loved and respected by his musicians, despite Gillespie’s notorious altercation with him, while at the same time being an outrageously and surreally creative performer, linking in his vocals a hilarious blend of cantorial Hebrew, jive and scat. His flamboyant dress sense was a statement in itself: exaggerated self-assertion in a zoot suit.

Slim Gaillard was another musician who made bizarre combinations par excellence: a solid ability on piano and guitar was the bedrock for his hip, comedic view of life, his zany songs and his invented “vout” jive talk. Surreal hipness and complete originality also proved to be a magnetic combination in attracting the attentions of film stars like Ava Gardner and Lana Turner. Gaillard’s work paved the way for artists like Dizzy Gillespie, who, while diverting audiences with bebop anthems like Oo-Bop-She-Bam, was simultaneously revolutionising jazz trumpet.

Coming from a different direction, a number of comedy performers had jazz connections. Phil Harris (That’s What I Like about the South) and Spike Jones (Cocktails For Two) were both originally jazz drummers. Stan Freberg was a jazz lover who hated rock and roll: in his parody of the song The Great Pretender, the hipster session pianist refuses to play “that kling-kling jazz”, stating that “I come from a different school, like Shearing, Erroll Garner …”

Mort Sahl pioneered stand-up comedy in jazz night clubs and joked about his idol Stan Kenton: ‘Stan’s band was appearing at a night club. A waiter dropped a tray and three couples got up to dance’

The 1950s witnessed the emergence of a new, hip breed of performer. Ken Nordine, recounting often-unnerving stories, worked with the Chico Hamilton group. Lord Buckley took bebop slang to a new level with routines like The Naz. Mort Sahl pioneered stand-up comedy in jazz night clubs and joked about his idol Stan Kenton: “Stan’s band was appearing at a night club. A waiter dropped a tray and three couples got up to dance”.

Perhaps the most striking cross-feed between comedy and jazz occurred in the work of Lenny Bruce, who believed that his comedy was his jazz instrument. Every section of society was exposed to his excoriating humour, and he gathered around him a coterie of jazz musicians including Joe Maini, Jack Sheldon and Philly Joe Jones. Sheldon, fulfilling the criteria for great musician and humorist, is arguably one of the most underrated trumpeters in jazz, a comedian, a singer and an actor who had his own show, Run, Buddy, Run. Philly Joe Jones showed an exceptional range of creativity – not just as a drummer, but as a tap dancer, pianist, composer, arranger and songwriter. Inspired by Lenny Bruce’s impersonation of Bela Lugosi playing Count Dracula on a track called Enchanting Transylvania, Jones showed his talents as a mimic when he produced his own impersonation on Blues For Dracula. In so doing, he may have overshadowed Lenny Bruce’s original.

In England, the influence of the new brand of comedy was felt when The Establishment Club opened in London in 1961. Initially known for booking jazz acts, it was founded by Peter Cook, and Lenny Bruce appeared there in 1962. Dudley Moore contributed both comedy and piano-trio jazz. Meanwhile, at his club, Ronnie Scott was alternating between drily humorous announcements and authoritative tenor sax.

England was responsible for producing its own unique version of jazz-related humour, and this occurred via the influence of the art school, always a source of left-of-centre connections. The coming-together of the British trad jazz boom of the early 1960s, Dadaist art and experimental theatre brought into existence bands like The Temperance Seven, The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band and Bob Kerr’s Whoopee Band. Band members were the products of establishments like the Royal College of Art, the Central School of Art and Design and Goldsmiths College. Yet again, the creative process drew strands together from jazz and humour, resulting in a unique product.

In the best of jazz and the best of humour, the familiar becomes strange and the strange becomes familiar. That’s the essence of creativity.

Geoff Wills is the author of Zappa and Jazz: Did it really smell funny, Frank? (Matador, 2015)