A Fickle Sonance

a column by
Art Lange

Franz Jackson, 1930s
Mike Reed                                                                                                    Courtesy of Mike Reed©2008

Think Chicago, jazz-wise, and what comes to mind? Obviously Armstrong and King Oliver, up from New Orleans, in residence and initiating not just the Midwest but all the world in the vigor and romance of swing. Certainly the AACM, only 40 years later, providing a second revolution of structure and intent which realigned the possibilities of sound in ways available to global access and reinterpretation without severing ties to the jazz tradition. And maybe, if you’re of a particular age or historical inclination, even the Austin High Gang, those teenaged worshippers at the feet of the Original Masters, who eventually absorbed like-minded out-of-towners into their club and evolved into the Eddie Condon crew – guys known as Wild Bill and Pee Wee and Bud, Maxie and Muggsy and T, who never grew up and created an irresistible hybrid of New Orleans democracy, Swing Era suavity, and a rough-and-ready Windy City spirit which became identified as “Chicago Style,” with a wise-cracking Jimmy Cagney wannabee as ringmaster.

All well and good and true. Of course, Chicago’s jazz legacy runs much deeper, if not necessarily as famously, than these examples. You could throw in Benny Goodman, a native Chicagoan musically nurtured among the Austin High guys, but his ultimate brand of big band swing was too generically cosmopolitan to be strictly identified with his home town. Lennie Tristano and Lee Konitz both came from Chicago, but their ingenious style of improvisation has always been associated with “317 E. 32nd” and an East Coast mindset. Actually, scores of well-known and lesser-known musicians have come from here, but don’t qualify to be remembered specifically as playing some semblance of Chicago jazz – if such a thing even exists. Does it?  

I’ve been put into this state of mind recently by one of my favorite records released this year, Proliferation (482 Music), by a quartet called People, Places & Things led by Chicago drummer Mike Reed. The album comes with a concept: “This record is presented with thanks to the People, Places & Things that were the Chicago jazz, blues, and improvised music scene from 1954-60, especially the under-recorded and under-recognized folks that not only kept the music alive, but helped move it to new horizons.” In one sense it’s an album of covers of obscure but still rewarding tunes, which is part of its charm. But it’s definitely something more, because Reed and his bandmates, none of whom were alive during the period in question, do not – cannot – mimic the style or, more importantly, the personality, of the original artists. For example, saxophonists Greg Ward (alto) and Tim Haldeman (tenor) do not phrase their lines as if they came from a bebop background, but play with a looser feel and varied attack – sometimes cautious, sometimes crisp –which fits into, but rhythmically alters, the feel of the tunes. At times they display a kind of Warne Marsh/Lee Konitz symbiotic relationship, intertwining their statements to gently imply even freer climes, and reveal their familiarity with Ornette and Dolphy in solo flights. But the material – mostly post-bop tunes with angular, edgy details and an inherent rhythmic tension – is never distorted beyond recognition.

This elasticity of phrasing and rhythmic tension are, I would argue, characteristic of Chicago jazz at its best, regardless of style or period. But Reed’s selected slice of history suggests an interesting perspective on local bebop and post-bop in particular. Try this on for size: bebop in Chicago has never been doctrinaire; in fact, it’s always been quite unlike bebop anywhere else. (Maybe it could be divided, like Cubism, into Analytical and Synthetic Bebop, with the dogma of Bird and Dizzy on one side, and the progressive concepts of a ‘50s John Gilmore or Von Freeman on the other.) Saxophonists from the same generation (a ten-year span) who came of age in Chicago favoring bebop as their language of choice, like Freeman, Gilmore, Johnny Griffin, Clifford Jordan, and Gene Ammons, each exhibited personal attitudes in their playing that might be traced to a common connection – all studied at one time or another with Dr. Walter Dyett at DuSable High School, whose influence on these and other students (including Leroy Jenkins, Julian Priester, and Joseph Jarman) is well documented.

But more generally speaking, Chicago has always been a crucible of the blues, which has left an inescapable, indelible mark on musicians of all generations and genres, including the local beboppers – not to deny Charlie Parker’s (or anyone else’s) deep feeling for the blues, merely to propose that there is a different kind of feeling that comes from Chicago, having to do with nuances of tone and inflection, and degrees of intensity (hence the distinctive qualities of  Kansas City blues and Chicago blues and New York blues and Memphis blues and New Orleans blues and, I suppose, Anchorage blues), which manifests itself in a special way, often on the cusp between jazz and rhythm & blues.

So, to my ears, there’s always been a soulful tinge to bebop played by Chicago musicians – which makes sense given the frequent blues and r&b gigs around town they played for fun or profit. Specifically in the case of rhythm sections, this has involved a subtle shifting of the beat away from relentless, unflinching timekeeping in favor of a flowing pulse that crosses over bar lines and adds unusual accents. The late drummer Wilbur Campbell was a master of this, and classic Chicago ‘50s and ‘60s rhythm sections, interchangeably featuring pianists like Young John Young, Jodie Christian, and Willie Pickens, bassists Wilbur Ware, Victor Sproles, or Don Garrett, and Robert Shy or Campbell on drums had a flavor all their own, like well-crafted wines using different types of grapes from the same vineyard. To their credit, Reed and bassist Jason Roebke devise an updated rhythmic articulation that’s solid yet unpredictable in the same fashion.

By not copying the originals, Reed’s quartet focuses our attention on the material; compositions that are indicative of the winds of change blowing through Chicago at that time. None of the tunes chosen for Proliferation follow rote bebop maneuvers, nor do they fall into the then-burgeoning hard-bop category; rather, they often hint at elements of a Modernist sensibility that was to blossom in the early ‘60s with the likes of Andrew Hill and Herbie Hancock (two more Chicagoans), among others. Two of the pieces, “Planet Earth” and “Saturn,” are from Sun Ra’s pen during his Chicago sojourn, and display an early, low-key exoticism, reminding us that Ra’s roots are not in bebop anyway, but the kind of lyrical, atmospheric swing, a la Tadd Dameron, that grew out of Fletcher Henderson and Benny Carter, blended with the drama and imagination of Ellington’s “jungle music.”  Other tunes come from rarer sources, such as the rhythmically alert pair from the unfairly neglected, high-voltage alto saxophonist John Jenkins, and those from local stalwarts Tommy Jones and John Neely (the latter’s “Status Quo” did receive a scorching debut from John Gilmore and Clifford Jordan on the 1957 Blue Note date Blowing In From Chicago). To represent the “new horizons” just off in the distance, Reed includes three moody interludes generating post-‘60s attitudes.

By all accounts (I was too young to drink back then, so didn’t experience it first-hand) Chicago in the ‘50s was, musically, something special. (For some interesting insight into Sonny Rollins’ reason for being on the scene, check out Neil Tesser’s article in the August 28th online issue of the Chicago Reader.) The recordings that survive tell part of the story. But a fresh perspective helps, too.

Art Lange©2008

New World Records

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