More Than a Coin Toss: Improvisation vs. Composition in Jazz

More Than a Coin Toss: Improvisation vs. Composition in Jazz

There’s a tendency to ignore “composition” as much of a jazz matter after solemnly acknowledging the career of Duke Ellington who has been widely hailed, especially during the centenary of his birth in 1999, as “the greatest American composer.” Problematic though that title is, Ellington’s musical accomplishments are many, and outlive the 20th Century. His dozens of memorable songs — “C-Jam Blues,” “Mood Indigo,” “Satin Doll” just to name three off the top — remain essentials of American culture. His suites, starting with Black, Brown and Beige in 1942, are among the most serious accomplishments in the quest that Paul Whiteman announced in 1924 to lift jazz from its funkier surroundings to the concert stage and hence “make jazz a lady.”

Ellington himself would never have been so dismissive of his music’s context. His big break was in the Cotton Club, a gangster-run Harlem nightspot patronized by slumming white swells. Ellington was also a practical improvisatory bandleader who from 1928 until his death in 1972 maintained a touring ensemble of notable soloists. He and his co-composer Billy Strayhorn often created compositions from the warm-up exercises, personal vocabulary or fragmentary ideas of his band’s members. Hence “Come Sunday,” “Cotton Tail,” “Caravan,” and “Portrait of Cootie.” Like a tailor, Ellington could take materials his men brought him — Bubber Miley‘s way with a cup mute for instance — and compose a classic like “Creole Love Call” that allowed the player to show off a solo routine by playing to strengths and avoiding weaknesses. Ellington also wrote out some pieces for his Orchestra or small groups drawn from it completely — for instance Reminiscin’ in Tempo or his charts for the ballet The River or his Per Gynt Suite. But what we most cherish are Duke’s songs as if made to order for his men and occasional women to strut their stuff. The personal sounds and characteristic improvisations of Johnny Hodges, Juan Tizol, Ben Webster, Jimmy Blanton, Cat Anderson, Paul Gonsalves, Joya Sherrill, Adelaide Hall, and many others gleamed in the context of Duke’s settings.

Ken Burns in his recent PBS video-documentary series Jazz succumbs to the aforementioned temptation: after singling out Ellington as the greatest, he cites few other jazzmen composers. In this his attitude lags behind that of his senior consultant Wynton Marsalis, who was himself awarded a Pulitzer Prize in composition, copped for his 1995 oratorio Blood On The Fields.

Granted Burns was challenged by the necessity of selection in his 10 part, 19-hour series, and the notion of a dramatic long jazz instrumentalist ready at the drop of a downbeat to create a perfectly balanced complex statement is catnip to filmmakers compared to the sedate shot of a composer laboring over blank score paper at a desk. But to fail to cite the compositional efforts even of such an evident minimalist as Count Basie, obvious maximalist as Sun Ra, or collectively composing-and-improvising troupe such as the Art Ensemble of Chicago is to lapse into cliché regarding what composition is all about.

And even Ellington is foreshadowed by Ferdinand Joseph “Jelly Roll Morton” Lemott (accurately acknowleged). With considerably more finesse, complexity and accomplishment than Armstrong, Bechet, the Original Dixieland Jazz Band or whoever, Morton enacted highly specific dramas for particular instrumentation with his Red Hot Peppers, a septet or octet of musicians familiar with the New Orleans idiom and Jelly Roll’s ways in particular.

Morton first convened the Peppers to cut studio recordings in 1926 and three quarters of a century later, the results remain a shining bright entanglement of composition and improvisation.

The core instrumentation of Jelly Roll Morton’s Red Hot Peppers was piano, a brass cohort, two or three reeds, banjo or guitar, and percussion. Morton depended on his own and his players’ improvisations to flesh out his piano introductions and interludes, cornet breaks and reed obbligatos, but these spontaneous inventions were set amid multiple themes, rhythmic stop times, specific timbral effects and individually contrived parts deployed within the compositional format that was his New Orleans hallmark — fearless polyphony.

Among the Red Hot Peppers’ masterpieces are “Black Bottom Stomp,” “Milenburg Joys” and “The Pearls.” Another, “King Porter Stomp,” was re-arranged for

12-piece jazz band by Fletcher Henderson in the early ’30s, recorded and performed widely as a mid Swing Era hit by clarinetist Benny Goodman with his big band, and reconfigured in 1987 by Gil Evans for a jazz orchestra featuring electric bass, piano and guitars, conga drums, synthesizers and an alto sax solo by David Sanborn. (An orchestrator in the ’40s for Bob Hope‘s radio show, later for Claude Thornhill‘s classical-jazz orchestra, the host of the informal “birth of the cool” composers’ colloquoy and Miles Davis‘s closest collaborator, Gil Evans was never put off by polyphony.)

Morton was not an utter iconoclast; he embraced many of his era’s compositional conventions as far more than empty or sketchy shells rather givens to be tampered with — just as did his most successful homeboy-predecessor New Orleans-born European-educated Creole composer-pianist Louis Moreau Gottschalk. Gottschalk’s career may be thought of as derived from the examples of European composer-piano virtuosi as Chopin and Liszt; Morton was well aware of European composers especially those of the operas performed in New Orleans as well as ragtime composers such as Scott Joplin whose scores were published for parlor pianists starting in 1895.

As a composer of the highest order, Morton bent whatever he borrowed to his own vision and purposes as did Duke Ellington. Jelly Roll Morton’s composed polyphony, which seemed radical if not anarchic to many listeners in the ’20s, led to prop up the myth of New Orleans’ jazz as anchored in “collective improvisation.” Don’t be deceived. Even works as rhetorically “improvised” as Ornette Coleman‘s epochal Free Jazz or John Coltrane‘s Ascension follow compositional plans, sketchy though they may be and however much they gave their improvising participants lattitude to develop their own statements. The same method is employed by improvising saxophonist/ composer John Zorn in his game pieces such as Cobra.

Burns’ Jazz also neglects to consider one of the most successful American composers of the Jazz Age perhaps because of his theatrical context. But New York City-born George Gershwin was certainly a jazz baby — renowned for his piano improvisations at house parties who also composed immortal songs. Gershwin’s music has frequently been interpreted by jazz musicians and is favorite repertory of jazz vocalists. Gershwin’s ambitions as a composer went beyond songs of course — however much Paul Whiteman’s arranger Ferde Grofé contributed to the orchestration of Rhapsody in Blue. The chord progression of “I’ve Got Rhythm” has proved infinitely inspiring of artful improvisatory variation and was the basis for roughly half the songs “composed” by bebop saxophonist Charlie “Yardbird” Parker. Gershwin incidentally anticipated Ellington’s compositional technique of writing out of the strengths of certain of his players. According to The Gershwin Years, “Ross Gorman Whiteman’s clarinetist was famous for being able to play a glissando upon an instrument supposedly capable of producing only individual tones. George decided that this tricky effect would be a good way to open the Rhapsody; the desired jazzy whoop immediately sets the mood of the piece.”

All this said, it’s worthwhile to understand how Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk, and George Russell–to name three “jazz composers”– fulfilled that role in their own rights. Mingus was an avowed Ellingtonian taking many of jazz-related generic or folk forms as raw material from which to sculpt personal monuments, often on the bulwarks of his players’ abilities. However rangy his writing, the finest realizations of Mingus’ music depends on the personal contributions of winds and reeds improvisers Eric Dolphy, Roland Kirk and John Handy, the inspirations of trumpeter Ted Curson, encyclopedic pianists Jaki Byard and Don Pullen, and the propulsion of his hand-in-glove drum partner Dannie Richmond. Monk on the other hand never departed from America’s most standard song form — head, solo, solo, head — but the unique idiosyncracy of his melodies variously based on large odd intervals or ingenious simplifications earns him a proud enduring place among 20th century composers. George Russell is an extraordinary composer by virtue of his discovery, exploration, comprehension and application of a set of previously undeveloped modal principles. Several of Russell’s better known works including “Cubana-Be/Cubana Bop” and “All About Rosie” are demonstrations of those principles played out on appropriated themes.

An adequate working definition for the activity of “composition” would nicely cover John Cage‘s innovations, Yoko Ono‘s conceptualizations, Anthony Braxton‘s composition-generating systems and even the improvised conductions or “comprovisations” being advanced by Lawrence Douglas “Butch” Morris. Cecil Taylor‘s superstructures on such inadequately analyzed albums as Unit Structures and Conquistador, Don Cherry‘s suites Complete Communion and Symphony For Improvisers, Ornette Coleman’s realizations of harmolodic principles through his electrically-amplified ensemble Prime Time, all deserve a glance at least as works weaving improvisation around and through stable compositional elements, an activity that is essential in “improvisation,” too.

More Than a Coin Toss: Facing the Flip Sides – Improvisation/Composition – of Jazz
By Howard Mandel
© 2001 NewMusicBox

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