Giant Steps: Bebop and the Creators of Modern Jazz, 1945-65 1 of 1
Paul Blair February 22, 01
If you have trouble differentiating among Chocolate Williams, Rubberlegs Williams and Horsecollar Williams, here's a volume to straighten you out. In profiling eleven musical thinkers who've helped to shape today's music, Kenny Mathieson enlivens his text with numerous references to other peripheral characters hovering around the scene during the 40s and 50s - for example, "...an unshakably persistent black saxophonist from Newark known as The Demon, whom Dizzy dubbed 'the first freedom player - freedom from harmony, freedom from rhythm, freedom from anything.'"

Since I've always been intrigued to learn exactly where this music took shape, I was pleased to find references to a long-gone New York club called Snookie's (in which Dizzy's horn was famously bent during a birthday celebration), to the old McKinley Theater in the Bronx (where Bird sat in with the Gillespie big band) and to The Finale, a short-lived spot in LA's Little Tokyo district that Ross Russell termed "a West Coast Minton's". Mathieson even identifies the location of that Harlem chili parlor where Bird had his celebrated epiphany.

Hey, did you know that James P. Johnson lived in Manhattan's San Juan Hill near the home where Monk grew up? That Blue Note first recorded Monk at Ike Quebec's urging? That one of Bud Powell's earliest piano heroes was Billy Kyle? That Max Roach served as house drummer at the Lighthouse in Hermosa Beach for six months during the early 50s? That Fats Navarro was Charlie Shavers' third cousin? Or that Chano Pozo's cousin was Chino Pozo? Me, either.

Yet despite these fascinating digressions, Mathieson's principal focus remains the recorded output on the eleven players he's elected to spotlight: Gillespie, Parker, Navarro, Powell, Roach, Monk, Mingus, Rollins, Davis, Herbie Nichols and Coltrane. He's chosen this order deliberately - and does manage to provide substantial amounts of information on other key players throughout (for example, on Clifford Brown in the chapter on Roach and on Tadd Dameron in the section on Navarro).

As Mathieson notes, no one much under seventy is likely to have heard Parker during his peak years - and no one much under fifty will have experienced Coltrane live. Consequently, the recordings left by these prime movers is the closest most of us can ever get to them. His stress, therefore, is on those recordings, with enlightening reference to the circumstances surrounding them.

Mathieson says that the last roughly comparable venture he's aware of was the Jazz Masters series originally published by Macmillan in the mid-60s. His aim, he adds, was to make this volume accessible to readers with no technical knowledge of music. Still, I doubt that Giant Steps would serve as a good introduction to jazz for someone who hasn't already listened carefully to lots of it.

Salted throughout are aptly chosen quotes from other jazz writers. But I found many of the author's own observations on these players, their recordings and their legacies especially thought-provoking.

For example: "As a musical process, bebop is a curious mixture of macho display and infinitely subtle musicality, of rote playing (all players have their melodic cliches, their little phrases which will always work when run over a particular given sequence of chord changes) and inspirational improvisation."

And elsewhere: "The environment which forged bebop was a tough one, but it meant that the music evolved as a meritocracy rather than a closed shop. That element of competitive muscle-flexing probably played its part in determining both the strengths and weaknesses of the emerging form, with its emphasis on virtuoso soloing, advanced harmonic understanding and crackling tempos, and its underlying structural paucity."

Noting that unlike Miles or Mingus, whose compositions tended to evolve over the years, Mathieson observes that Monk kept the form of his tunes pretty much intact. Then he quotes Charlie Rouse stressing that Monk "...wanted you to play the melody just the way he created it, but with the chords, he wanted you to know them, but he didn't want to hear you just play them in that way, he wanted to hear you experiment with them, not be confined by them."

Later in his chapter on Thelonious, the author observes, "As many musicians have discovered to their cost, the kind of harmonic fudging which can carry a player through a bop structure without a precise knowledge of the underlying harmonies does not work with Monk's music, where it is not only essential to know the melody and the harmony intimately but also comprehend fully the way in which they relate to each other and to the essential rhythmic scheme which fits them."

As I read, I jotted down references to numerous recordings I've never heard but would like to (for example, a late-40s aircheck that included Navarro, Parker and Lennie Tristano, four 1949 Navarro sides pairing him with Sonny Stitt - who was, Mathieson reports, Miles' original first choice on alto for his "Birth of the Cool" nonet! - and a 1963 Powell session for Reprise actually supervised by Ellington) and to others that no one will likely ever get a chance to hear (e.g. an abortive 1953 studio date for Norman Granz that had Parker playing Gil Evans arrangements; Dizzy making a few gigs with the Kenton band).

Mathieson envisions Giant Steps as the first in a series of similar studies. The next, he says, will be entitled Cookin': Hard Bop and Soul Jazz and focus on such figures as Art Blakey, Horace Silver, Lee Morgan, Cannonball Adderley, Booker Ervin, Elmo Hope, Tina Brooks and Gigi Gryce.

Except for a puzzling reference to "Senator Adam Powell" and an assertion that Miles' "Budo" is a contrafact of Bud Powell's "Hallucinations" (wait, aren't they the same tune, as the author himself indicates elsewhere?), I have no quibbles concerning factual statements, artistic judgment or style.

I hope that the next edition of Giant Steps boasts a far more attrac

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