Jazz Matters: Sound, Place, and Time since Bebop

Jazz Matters: Sound, Place, and Time since Bebop

by David Ake

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What, where, and when is jazz? To most of us jazz means small combos, made up mostly of men, performing improvisationally in urban club venues. But jazz has been through many changes in the decades since World War II, emerging in unexpected places and incorporating a wide range of new styles. In this engrossing new book, David Ake expands on the discussion he began in Jazz Cultures, lending his engaging, thoughtful, and stimulating perspective to post-1940s jazz. Ake investigates such issues as improvisational analysis, pedagogy, American exceptionalism, and sense of place in jazz. He uses provocative case studies to illustrate how some of the values ascribed to the postwar jazz culture are reflected in and fundamentally shaped by aspects of sound, location, and time.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520266896
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 10/07/2010
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 216
Product dimensions: 3.00(w) x 6.90(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

David Ake is Professor and Chair of the Department of Musicology at the Frost School of Music, University of Miami.

Read an Excerpt

Jazz Matters

Sound, Place, and Time Since Bebop

By David Ake


Copyright © 2010 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-94739-9


Being (and Becoming) John Coltrane

Listening for Jazz "Subjectivity"

MUCH HAS BEEN WRITTEN ABOUT John Coltrane's dramatic rise from humble beginnings to exalted status in the jazz world. Journalists and scholars alike have described the path of Coltrane's performing career, one that saw him starting out as a workmanlike hard-bop tenor saxophonist to emerge in quick succession as a master of difficult harmonic progressions, an early proponent of modal jazz, and a leading voice in the avant-garde. Writers have remarked, too, on the unprecedented, and thus far unrepeated, trajectory of Coltrane's reputation as a public figure, from pitiable heroin addict to clean and respected spiritual seeker, mentor, and (for some) saint. Book titles such as Ascension: John Coltrane and His Quest and Chasin' the Trane suggest how closely understandings of this musician are tied to notions of change, search, and journey.

I touch on similar understandings in this chapter, but I approach them from a somewhat atypical angle. Identifying three predominant performance models favored by John Coltrane and his groups from the late 1950s until the saxophonist's death in 1967, I posit three subjectivities—which I call being, becoming, and transcendent, respectively—that correlate to musical "personas" configured by these models. I suggest that listeners have heard in and imagined through these personas their own notions of who Coltrane was as a person and what his performances mean. My aim here, then, is not about trying to descry John Coltrane's thoughts, beliefs, personality, or what some might call his musical "voice." Rather, it more closely resembles the project musicologist Carolyn Abbate sets forth in Unsung Voices when she "endow[s] certain isolated musical moments with faces, and so with tongues and a special sonorous presence." Such a methodology is far from exact or quantifiable, of course, but in this case it may help to account for how and why audiences have long heard in Coltrane's performances, as Ingrid Monson put it, "an analogy for their own experience, their own passions, and their own desires for self-transformation."

Those of us involved in what some (still?) call the "new musicology" are not the only ones who practice these sorts of interpretive strategies. It is safe to say that almost every listener has engaged at one time or another in a kind of musical anthropomorphizing, if you will, in which they ascribe human qualities—emotions, moods, (im)moral characteristics—to music. Furthermore, they often turn around and ascribe those qualities to the musician who performs or composes that music. To wit: the artist "equals" the art (and vice versa). Thus, it is not just that Chet Baker's singing voice or trumpet playing sounds sensitive and introspective. Many people assume that Chet Baker himself was a sensitive and introspective individual, even though they never had the chance to know him personally, nor can they have known his frame of mind when making music. (Even if it were once possible to ask the late Mr. Baker what he was thinking while performing this or that tune, he might not have recalled considering or sensing anything at all and may have responded that he was "just playing.") To be sure, parallels sometimes exist between the style of a musical performance and the biographical circumstances, attitude, or personality of the artist who created that performance. But such parallels are not requisite to the creative process; it is just as likely that listeners project onto the musician a sense of the kind of person they feel he or she "must" be. Such assumptions are always based in part on the sound of the music but also on the listener's own background and myriad other factors. Instead of dismissing this sort of transference as mere fantasy, however, I want to explore its implications, for this common phenomenon is a crucial component in shaping deep-seated musical and cultural meanings in and of jazz.


The first type of subjectivity to be discussed here—being—equates to a snapshot of the musical persona in one metaphorical state of mind or body in one particular time. To configure this sense of self (or a self) requires, above all, a relatively stable or consistent musical presentation. That is, parameters such as dynamics, dissonance, and tempo remain more or less fixed from beginning to end, even to the point that one could swap formally equivalent portions of a performance without fundamentally altering how we hear the music. A typical example of this approach is Charlie Parker's "KoKo." Widely considered one of the great jazz recordings of all time, "KoKo" would remain essentially as it is if one were to flip-flop the order of Parker's two solo choruses. For that matter, one could swap just the B sections of his two choruses (that is, replace the bridge from the first chorus with the bridge of the second chorus, and vice versa), and Bird's playing and also that of his bandmates would be just as intelligible and effective as it is in the original.

This same musical consistency can be heard in hundreds, perhaps thousands, of other jazz recordings, as it is almost certainly the most common approach jazz performers have taken to their material. A variety of factors contributes to this situation and helps to explain why consistent performances and being subjectivities have predominated for so long. For instance, the vast majority of jazz musicians, even to this day, find their aesthetic roots in swing- and bebop-based practices. Both bop and swing emerged when technology limited the length of records to around four minutes, a constraint that encouraged performers to sustain one predominant mood. In addition, many jazz professionals in the middle decades of the last century had honed their skills playing for dancers, which generally requires a steady pulse and tempo. Moreover, the repertoire favored by swing- and bop-oriented players derives in large measure from cyclical forms based on twelve-bar blues or Tin Pan Alley popular songs. When working with these types of tunes, musicians have tended to emphasize to greater or lesser degrees the "top" of the form and the downbeat of every four-bar or eight-bar section thereafter. These regular accentuations often serve as welcome touchstones for both performers and their audiences, but they can also delimit fluctuations in dynamics and other musical elements. And there is at least one other vital reason why so many musicians (and not just jazz musicians) choose to uphold a consistent tempo, mood, and time feel: establishing and maintaining a solid groove energizes body and soul. The ethnomusicologist Charles Keil went so far as to describe it as "the ultimate thing." If something feels that good, there's often little reason to leave it behind.

Many other writers have outlined and analyzed traditional jazz practices on standard cyclical forms. But my goal here is not just to recount how musicians play most frequently. Instead, I want to show how this approach can represent a certain kind of musical persona and why listening for subjectivity might offer insight into some of the meanings that have accrued around at least one jazz performer.


One can hear a being persona on dozens of John Coltrane's recorded performances, as Coltrane opted for a bop-infused, consistent approach almost exclusively throughout the 1950s. Rather than cataloging these instances, it will suffice to point to his most famous example of this performance model, "Giant Steps."

Lewis Porter, whose 1998 biography of Coltrane ranks as the most erudite of many such studies, has noted how the unusual harmonic progression and fast tempo of "Giant Steps" led Coltrane "to construct his solo largely out of four-note patterns that could be transposed to fit each chord." The jazz historian and theorist Ekkehard Jost praises Coltrane's "Giant Steps" solo as "a masterfully presented, well-planned etude," in which "some melodic patterns in the first chorus ... also appear note for note in the following choruses." Bill Cole, another Coltrane biographer, uses similar terms to describe the saxophonist's approach on "Giant Steps" (and also "Countdown," another harmonic minefield): "There is a recurrence of melodic material, mainly to remind the listener of where the piece is harmonically." Cole adds, "These pieces are exercises by a master musician, containing modulating material moving in both arpeggios and scalar lines."

The point of these writers' assessments is clear: John Coltrane's "Giant Steps" solo demonstrates his ability to improvise compelling lines over an unusual chord progression at a brisk tempo while using a fairly limited amount of melodic and rhythmic material. Even after his initial eleven-chorus statement, and taking a breather during Tommy Flanagan's piano solo, Coltrane comes back for two more choruses built of the very same devices he used in his opening gambit before proceeding headlong to the closing melodies. There are no dynamic contrasts here, no attenuations of energy. In jazz parlance he's just "burning"—which is precisely what marks his "Giant Steps" performance as consistent. And given the unobtrusive accompaniment the saxophonist receives from drummer Art Taylor, bassist Paul Chambers, and pianist Tommy Flanagan, we can see that Coltrane's playing on "Giant Steps" carries that same degree of stability and interchangeability displayed in Charlie Parker's "KoKo." Just as on Bird's masterpiece, Coltrane's blistering solo would suffer no damage to its comprehensibility or jaw-dropping bravura if we shuffled the order of his choruses.

This sort of approach is not exclusive to jazz. It remains the hallmark of any number of popular genres, especially, as I have suggested, those geared for dancing. We can recognize it, too, in some European classical repertoires. Writing in the early seventeenth century, the music theorist Michael Praetorius advised, "In constructing a good fugue one must with special diligence and careful thought seek to bring together as many ways as possible in which the same [material] can be combined with itself, interwoven, duplicated, [used] in direct and contrary motion; [in short,] brought together in an orderly, artistic, and graceful way and carried to the end." In our own day, musicologist Karol Berger has observed that idea at work in J.S. Bach's polyphonic writing, even suggesting that The Well-Tempered Clavier be heard as a "temporally unordered set." Berger acknowledges that all musical ideas have to be presented in some temporal arrangement, but he argues that in the WTC and similar works "the order [of Bach's fugal demonstrations] is not of much interest. What matters are the [fugal] subject and the demonstrations." Fugues proceed, then, by displaying or spinning out melodic lines that can come in almost any sequence so long as they correspond to the basic harmonic progression (or what jazz people would call the "changes"). Certainly, we can imagine Bach extending portions of his fugues for dozens of measures, just as we can envision Coltrane, Parker, or any other great bop-based improviser taking a half-dozen more choruses without changing the established character of the performance.

These musics also share strategies and concerns regarding musical endings. Namely, how does one conclude a piece that does not seem to be "about" the move toward closure? Berger explains: "Because one never knows in advance how many demonstrations there will be ... or in what order they will be introduced, the end is in danger of seeming arbitrary and abrupt." He shows how Bach solved this problem in The Well-Tempered Clavier's C-major fugue by using "emphatic" cadential gestures. On "Giant Steps" the musicians announce the conclusion through their own emphatic, if quite conventional, touch: they restate the melody twice and, to further arrest the momentum, Coltrane plays a high-to-low flurry of a cadenza on the final E-flat-major chord over Art Taylor's press roll on the snare drum. Neither Bach's fugue nor Coltrane's "Giant Steps" comes to an earth-shattering climax in the manner of, say, Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture, the Who's "Won't Get Fooled Again," or, as I show below, some of Coltrane's other performances. But then "consistent" works such as these don't really call for the big finish. They just have to "be carried to the end," as Praetorius put it.

As similar as eighteenth-century fugues and bop-type playing are in these ways, we need to recognize that they come from very different cultures and historical eras, so how people have heard and understood them will differ, too. One fundamental distinction between the John Coltrane of "Giant Steps" and Bach's C-major fugue concerns how each shapes or reflects different notions of temporality and place. Karol Berger contends that Bach's work represents a premodern European subjectivity in which time is cyclical, eternal, and, above all, holy. Berger even titles one of his Bach-related chapters, "There Is No Time Like God's Time." Now, John Coltrane certainly explores a sense of "God's time" in some of his music. But "Giant Steps" does not figure into that sacred realm. Nor, as we will see, do Coltrane's spiritually tinged performances typically involve a stable, being subjectivity. With "Giant Steps" there is no time like the present, and a very earthly present at that. The musical persona related to Coltrane's performance on that song addresses the listener: "I am—creative, intelligent, fearless, and in-charge—right here and now." It speaks to an ethic of individual know-how or "can-do ... and better than you."

"Giant Steps" stands as just one of seemingly countless jazz performances that suggest some version of being subjectivity. And while the range of such personas is wide, there is no question that being subjectivities have continued to speak to generations of performers for whom consistent approaches virtually define the jazz genre. With few exceptions the hallmark of jazz discourse has been to revere the (ostensibly) lone soloist while paying little or no attention to the rest of the ensemble. It is not much of a stretch to say that this presentation/subjectivity gave rise to the prevalent jazz narrative of the "great man" (and I do mean "man," since so few women have entered the canon). Musicians, journalists, scholars, and fans must like these kinds of performances. Apparently we—I can't exclude myself from this throng—identify with the steadfast "characters" inhabiting those musical worlds, which helps to explain the continued production and popularity of transcriptions, music-minus-one recordings, and other pedagogical tools designed to highlight the individual player. Coltrane's well-known reputation as an indefatigable practicer only serves to reinforce such meanings and aesthetics.

There are important social and cultural implications of Coltrane's "Giant Steps" persona, as well. John Coltrane is not generally recognized as one of the most politically outspoken jazz musicians of his day, certainly not to the same extent as Max Roach, Archie Shepp, Charles Mingus, or Abbey Lincoln. On those occasions when writers do link Coltrane to the civil rights movement, it is usually in the context of his later performances. But whether or not John Coltrane himself had anything in mind during the "Giant Steps" sessions beyond "making the changes," the bold persona configured on that record seems to manifest aurally the values of discipline and excellence that have long been championed in African American communities as a means to combat feelings of despair. In this way Coltrane's recording both reflected and gave voice to the resolute attitude of many human rights advocates as the debates about social inequality heated up. It follows that if the composition "Giant Steps" represents the "logical culmination" of bebop, as some have argued, historians might also want to locate Coltrane's fierce performance of that tune within the discourse that marks bebop as a music of mindful black intelligence, assertion, and resistance and not simply recommend it as a textbook example of how to play over difficult chord changes.


Excerpted from Jazz Matters by David Ake. Copyright © 2010 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations

Part I. Sound and Time

1. Being (and Becoming) John Coltrane: Listening for Jazz “Subjectivity”
2. Musicology beyond the Score and the Performance: Making Sense of the Creak on Miles Davis’s “Old Folks”
3. Sex Mob and the Carnivalesque in Postwar Jazz

Part II. Place and Time

4. Race, Place, and Nostalgia after the Counterculture: Keith Jarrett and Pat Metheny on ECM
5. Rethinking Jazz Education
6. Negotiating National Identity among American Jazz Musicians in Paris

Appendix 1. Sample of American Jazz Musicians Born Since 1950 Who Studied Jazz at the College Level
Appendix 2. Interview Locations and Dates

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"David Ake doesn't pretend to stand on a mountaintop and deliver the Truth about jazz.
Instead, he takes a wider view, showing that the Truth is really a series of possibilities, each one exciting enough in itself to keep us enthralled by the music no matter how much we think we know."—Blurt

"Along comes a fresh, thoughtful, carefully reasoned book discussing topic that have not been done to death, and one realizes that there may be more left to say on this heavily analyzed musical genre...'Jazz Matters' is one such book."—Generally Eclectic Review

"Jazz Matters will surely benefit the jazz community at large as well as spark interest from interdisciplinary fields of study."—Ethnomusicology Forum

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