Post-War Jazz: An Arbitrary Road Map

The initial idea was to create an overview of jazz (and jazz-related) records from 1900 to 2001. After several weeks of revelatory listening to music from the dark ages—rags, marches, cakewalks, minstrel and music hall turns—in an attempt to find appropriate selections for the years 1900-1920, I realized that, for reasons of space and time, the project would have to be abbreviated. I had bit off more than I could chew or the Voice could accommodate. Still, having narrowed the scope to 1945-2001, I spent nearly five months groping for solutions to the labyrinth I was intent on building; the writing was, relatively, a snap compared to the process of selecting representative recordings, given my self-imposed rules, about which more anon.

I wanted, for my own illumination, to posit a jazz map. By selecting one track (always a track, never an album, though the album on which the track can be found is included at the end of each entry) to represent each year, I hoped to offer a purview that balanced achievement and innovation. Given my rules, however, I soon realized that nothing remotely like objectivity was attainable. An infinite number of maps were possible, all of them valid. Some years and periods—1928, 1936-41, 1957, 1961-65, 1980, 1988, and 1999, among others—are so bountiful with masterworks that choosing was an exercise in frustration, even heartbreak. What I thought at first had at least a whiff of scholastic gravity revealed itself as a shameless parlor game. (Advanced classes might attempt lists made up entirely of non-Americans or guitarists or under-30s, etc.) Though it gives me pleasure to look over this particular terrain, I refuse to defend it against others I drew, or to those you might design. When you've worn yourself out ranting at the insanity of my selections, you might give it a try.

For me, the key reward was in exploring hundreds of records I hadn't revisited in years. Some records that I expected to include no longer sounded as good; others I had previously neglected now filled me with admiration. Since the final draft says more about me than jazz, it doesn't bear analysis, except to mention the obvious. In narrowing my options, I decided to stick with American jazz, an act of inexcusable chauvinism; also, the ages of musicians skewed older as I closed in on the new century—I can't understand that at all. Choosing the best of anything, let alone the most important, is rarely possible. In the end, I simply settled on 57 tracks I cherish. That they also suggest how we got from there to here is of less interest to me than their consistent excellence, exuberance, and diversity. Jazz's bounty continues to astonish me.

Miles Davis
photo: Don Haristein
Miles Davis

If you want to play, you have to abide by the rules, mainly one big rule: A musician may be listed only once as a leader. The alternative is to allow a musician—an Armstrong or an Ellington or a Davis or a Coleman, etc.— to reappear over and over; that approach might be more suitable if the goal is to identify favorite or historically crucial performances, but I sought variety as well, which demanded frantic juggling and endless compromises.When I began, I dashed off paragraphs on random faves: Duke Ellington's "Harlem," Stan Getz's "Diaper Pin," James Moody's "Moody's Mood for Love," Ornette Coleman's "RPDD," George Russell's "All About Rosie," Sonny Rollins's "Three Little Words," Pee Wee Russell's "I'd Climb the Highest Mountain," Al Cohn and Jimmy Rowles's "Them There Eyes," Count Basie's "Little Pony," Dizzy Gillespie's "Emanon," David Murray's "Blues for My Sister," Thelonious Monk's "I Should Care," Lennie Tristano's "Becoming," John Lewis's "For Ellington," Cecil Taylor's "3 Phasis," Henry Threadgill's "100 Year Old Game," and Arthur Blythe's "Sister Daisy," to mention just a few of the post-war sides that were ultimately discarded because of conflicting dates or second-guessing. The only way to proceed was to organize an overall grid, plug in possibilities for each year, mix and match, and pray for the best.

Supplementary rules: Each work had to be tied to the year it was recorded, not released, which might create a disparity of a few years. Tracks that were not released for decades, however, were not eligible. I knew that I would cross generations, acknowledging masterly performances by older players amid new wrinkles by younger ones, but didn't make that a rule. Anyone who thinks that the following comprehensively depicts the post-war jazz era is not paying attention. But are they great records? Every last one.


Charlie Parker, "Koko"

By no means the first bebop or modern jazz record, this is the one that cracked the firmament. Parker showed how to make music with advanced harmonies and tumultuous rhythms, creating a tuneful new lexicon in the process. He unleashed a virtuoso universe in which post-war musicians could reinvent themselves and their place in society. They could and often did play for dancing, laughs, and entertainment, but they no longer had to. For jazz, the noir years were golden. Not the least amazing thing about "Koko" is that it continues to overwhelm. Only after one has lived with it awhile does Parker's blade-like articulation and incredible velocity give up its melodic secrets; Parker's alto sax was nothing if not a melody maker. Built on the chords of "Cherokee," it opens with a jolting eight-bar unison theme, coupled with exchanges between Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. Then Bird flies: two choruses of staggering invention, his tone fat and sensuous, jagged and hard. Drummer Max Roach holds the fort for a chorus, before the head is reprised. In 2:50, the world is remade. *The Charlie Parker Story (Savoy)

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