JJ 02/71: Tell Me The Truth About Jazz

Fifty years ago Peter Checkland argued that the essence of the jazz is a rhythmic-melodic-harmonic continuum which exhibits a special phenomenon called swing. First published in Jazz Journal February 1971

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John Dankworth and Cleo Laine, photographed for RCA in the 1970s

I happen to know that the degree of serious interest in jazz at Lancaster University is virtually zero, having done an experiment which established this fact. Soon after coming to work at the university I put a small ad in the (free) weekly news sheet aimed at finding the serious enthusiasts. Seeking to eliminate the suspected flock whose interest could be sum­marised in the dreaded phrase: ‘Brubeck and the M.J.Q.’, I worded my ad as follows:

Would anyone who cares about the clarinet player with Junie Cobb’s Hometown Band in 1926, or the identity of the pianist on Parker’s November 1945 session please contact . . .

Out of a student population of more than 2,000 I received just one reply, from a Parker fan, and retired to brood over my records.

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In view of this sad situation it was more than surprising to find that, among a high-level series of concerts of ‘straight music’ (Alfred Brendel playing Beethoven, The Melos En­semble, etc. etc.) the enterprising director of music, John Manduell, had included a concert by Cleo Laine and Johnny Dankworth! (I should emphasise at this point that I decline to follow the recent instruction that the name is ‘John’. Since the fabled ‘Seven’ it has been ‘Johnny’ for me; and have you noticed that for most of its history the diminutive form of names has been de rigueur in jazz? It has been Benny, Teddy, Charlie, Dicky, Lennie, Jackie, Eddie, Andy; and something highly significant happened to the music when this ceased to be so. Try saying: Johnny Coltrane.)

This then was a curious occasion: we had a singer capable of singing good jazz, and a virtually unknown jazz quartet (John Taylor, piano, Ken Baldock, bass, Chris Karen, drums) facing an ignorant audience who were armed only with an inept programme note (‘He has played the saxophone solo in L’Arlesienne Suite by Bizet with the London Philharmonic . . . ‘ etc) and the curiosity which had persuaded them to attend the concert. (They filled the Great Hall, there were lots of them.) This raised interesting questions about the jazz audience, the role of jazz musicians facing such an audience and, indeed, the future of the music. The situation at once became more piquant when J.D. announced that Cleo had a slight cold and would do all her singing in the second half.

The concert opened with a tottering alto cadenza which developed into a stiff version of There Is No Greater Love, which coaxed forth a thin scatter of mystified applause

What should the jazz group do in such circumstances? This is a good question, and the obvious one-word answer which springs to the lips is: swing; but this is not what happened.

The concert opened with a tottering alto cadenza which developed into a stiff version of There Is No Greater Love, which coaxed forth a thin scatter of mystified applause. At this point Johnny D. began to work on the audience. He explained, engagingly, that that was a ‘standard’ popular song such as jazz musicians like to use ‘as a basis for their improvisations’ (audience thinks: ‘Oh, so that’s what they were doing’) and explained that the next piece was musically much more complicated, especially with respect to harmonies and tempo changes. The piece was Chick Corea’s Litha, played more fluently than the first piece.

The concert then proceeded in this fashion, with J. D. chatting up the audience between items. He told them that he assumed they were there ‘out of morbid curiosity’, explained that jazz protocol allowed clapping immediately after solos, and preceded Is You Is Or Is You Ain’t My Baby? with a solemn account of its struc­ture which mocked the over-serious classical tradition. The pieces played included barely swinging versions of I Didn’t Know What Time It Was, Is You Is Or Is You Ain’t and Wrap Your Troubles In Dreams (a bass/alto duet).

All of this took the concert to the interval, after which Cleo Laine held the stage.

Cleo is one of the few jazz singers whom we can compare and contrast with some of the very greatest performers in the idiom: Mildred Bailey, Lee Wiley; even with the greatest of all: Billie Holiday

Cleo is one of the few jazz singers whom we can compare and contrast with some of the very greatest performers in the idiom: Mildred Bailey, Lee Wiley; even with the greatest of all: Billie Holiday. Clearly, given the extra­ordinary quality of her voice, Cleo will not attempt to match the mellifluous tones of, say, Lee Wiley’s version of Sugar, nor can we expect the sweet but tough swing of Mildred Bailey. And where Billie’s crushed and torn art is based upon tonal vulnerability, Cleo sings from strength; she is a dominatrix who acts as much as sings her songs. At times she seems to perform her songs with her shoulders, her hands, sometimes her hips, as well as with her voice, and it is not difficult to appreciate this dramatic skill, even if the finer nuances of her jazz phrasing pass you by. Hence the audience enjoyed Cleo: the good standards Fascinating Rhythm, I Could Write A Book, Tea For Two, the jazz-like Soliloquy, a song sequence written for Cleo by Richard Rodney Bennett with words by Julian Mitchell, the scored poems, especially a tomboyish version of Auden’s Tell Me The Truth About Love, and the now-familiar Shakespeare songs, especially a rousing Dunsinane Blues.

The concert was probably generally thought to be a success, and certainly the Dankworths worked hard and professionally on a difficult audience. But given the poor state of both jazz and appreciation of it, could such a situation be tackled differently?

In circumstances like these I suggest that to beguile the audience for a few hours and then send them away entertained, perhaps amused, but still ignorant, is a wasted opportunity. Why not tell them the truth about jazz?

Surely the essence of the jazz idiom is the achievement of a rhythmic-melodic-harmonic continuum which exhibits a special phenomenon called ‘swing’?

When there was the prospect of the lifting of the Musicians’ Union’s ban pn visiting Americans, 20 years ago, there was much debate about who should come. Should it be George Lewis, one of the ‘East Coast’ boppers, or someone cool from California? The most sen­sible contribution to the debate came from Ernest Borneman who insisted that the par­ticular style was unimportant – what was impor­tant was that whoever came should be capable of swinging, since most European jazz musicians did not swing. Swinging is the essence of jazz, and the history of the music, in my view, is the history of different concepts of swing, con­cepts of increasing sophistication. Whereas in ‘serious’ music the history is one of the grad­ually increasing acceptance of harmonies at first thought to be discordant, in jazz the major innovators (Armstrong, Parker, Coleman) trans­form the concept of swing and are of course greeted at first by cries of ‘It’s not jazz’ from those invincibly wedded to earlier concepts.

What the Dankworths could have done in the tricky situation at Lancaster was to be more didactic – in a suitably throwaway style, of course. J. D.’s quartet could have played, say, Indiana in palais-de-danse fashion for a few choruses, then played it with early-40s-type swing, then played the bopper’s version based on its chords, Donna Lee, with a different con­ception of swing based on a different relation to time. The possibilities are obvious.

This approach would not have been less entertaining than what actually happened in the first half of the concert, and might have sown a few seeds. And given the threadbare state of jazz appreciation we need all the seed-sowing we can get.

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