Jazz Remix
Jazz Remixes

Jazz Remixes

Jazz Remix

Photo by Jimmy Baikovicius, via Flickr

I don’t place a lot of value on originality in music. My tastes lie mostly in blues, jazz, R&B, and hip-hop. While there’s plenty of creativity in all of these forms, it’s built around shared musical materials: stock licks and phrases, standard song structures and schemas, frequently borrowed beats and samples. Hearing a familiar blues riff or funk break is like encountering an old friend, and the intertextuality created by all of the shared musical DNA enriches the listening experience.

The title of this post could be read a couple of different ways. You could take it to mean “people who electronically rework jazz recordings.” Jazz has certainly been a bottomless source of inspiration for hip-hop producers. A significant portion of my own creative output is based on samples of my favorite jazz recordings.

By the way, if you’re looking for a good break, let me recommend the drumming of Sam Woodyard in the late-period Duke Ellington Orchestra; he’s a gold mine.

Really, though, the title of this post refers to jazz musicians themselves. Jazz is all about repurposing pop and folk material for new expressive ends, and the greats were remix artists before the term existed. Even the most prolific and brilliant jazz composers, such as Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk, devoted album after album to arrangements of standards. Nobody arranged standards more radically and personally than John Coltrane.

Some of Coltrane’s most compelling statements of musical truth are renditions of extremely corny pop songs. The best known one is “My Favorite Things,” from his 1961 album of the same name.

Coltrane’s arrangement of this tune bears the same relationship to The Sound Of Music as “Hard Knock Life” by Jay-Z bears to Annie. Jazz uses different technology than hip-hop, but it makes the same musical statement: putting a stamp of personal ownership on a piece of public musical property. The lawyers among you will probably now want to jump in and point out that neither The Sound Of Music nor Annie are public property. Even though both function the way that folk songs do, they’re both very much under copyright. Music has always consisted of endlessly reinterpreted and recombined folk memes, but now most of the really good memes are privately owned. It makes for some legal and cultural awkwardness.

I bought My Favorite Things when I was eighteen or nineteen after reading a Jerry Garcia interview in which he raved about it. (I have never been steered wrong on a music recommendation by Jerry Garcia.) On my first listen, I wasn’t impressed. A show tune I sang in middle school chorus played on soprano sax, whee! Now I experience Coltrane’s version of “My Favorite Things” as the mind-expanding flight of imagination I was promised, but I had to grow up a little to appreciate it. And appreciate it I did, to a point of near-obsession. When I had a jazz band, I insisted that we perform it regularly, and that we include it on our one album.

Coltrane had a way of anticipating what music would sound like in the future. He was particularly prescient about the importance of looped bass lines. Jazz bass is usually a complex semi-improvised stream of quarter notes. But Coltrane liked to have his bassists play strictly unvarying two-bar loops. On “My Favorite Things,” Jimmy Garrison plays a few simple octave patterns on the root and fifth of the key with no variation for the entire duration of the song. This kind of bass line anticipated the looped, sequenced, and sampled bass parts in hip-hop and other electronic music.

Coltrane was also prescient in his liking for open-ended loops on a single chord, or a few repeating chords from a single scale. This is the basic structure of nearly all forms of electronic music, and most contemporary pop too, but in 1961 it was a radical departure from most of the music in the air. Like James Brown and the hip-hop artists he inspired, Coltrane relied a lot on the “repeat until cue” instruction. In between the phrases of the “Favorite Things” melody, he inserts open-ended grooves, first on E minor, then on E major. He and McCoy Tyner play each groove as long as they want, signaling the band that it’s time to continue to the next section by playing the “raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens” melody. Coltrane was a great admirer of Ravi Shankar, so much so that he named his son after him, and you can hear the influence of Indian classical music on this recording.

The album My Favorite Things is most famous for its title track, but it also includes three other startling reinterpretations of standards. “Every Time We Say Goodbye” is played double-time at an extremely slow baseline tempo, stretching the melody like Silly Putty. “Summertime” is played fast, with an angry feel and crunchy, dissonant chords built from the melodic minor scale. Finally, “But Not For Me” is transformed almost as radically as the title track. Here’s a conventional version of the tune by Judy Garland:

And here’s Coltrane’s version:

The most obvious change is the first four bars. In the Gershwin tune, the line “They’re writing songs of love but not for me” runs over a simple ii-V-I progression in E♭. Coltrane’s first four bars are a sprint through the keys of E♭, B, and G via those keys’ respective dominant chords. The bass line spells out the descending E♭ whole-tone scale: E♭, F♯7/C♯, B, D7/A, G, B♭7/F, E♭. Coltrane rewrites the melody completely to fit this new chord progression. Coltrane also inserts some new structural elements of his own. He adds a long tag section where he lifts unexpectedly up to several distant minor keys for eight bars each. There’s also the extremely extended open-ended tag on the ii-V-iii-VI turnaround. Should we consider Coltrane’s arrangement to be the same piece of music as the Gershwin original? Certainly, if you want to play the Coltrane version at a jam session or a gig, you’d better come prepared with charts and a lot of explanation.

Radical jazz adaptations of standards raise the same questions about authorship and ownership that sample-based compositions and remixes do. Where do you draw the line between an arrangement, a new melody written to existing chord changes, and an improvised solo? Bandleaders like Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman routinely used improvised phrases by their band members as the basis for new tunes (and were not overly concerned with crediting those band members). The borders between arrangement, interpretation, improvisation, and composition are blurry at best. Should we consider “Whispering” and “Groovin’ High” to be the same song? How about “I’m In The Mood For Love” and “Moody’s Mood For Love”? Or “I Got Rhythm” and the uncountable bebop heads it inspired?

Jazz was largely built on a scaffolding of show tunes and other pop songs. The ones that have emerged as standards share certain musical characteristics that make them more amenable to jazz adaptation. They have singable melodies with rhyming lyrics accompanied by a simple chord progression (or sometimes not so simple, but always intelligible to the ordinary person’s ear). They’re repetitive and predictable. They follow a small set of conventions in their structure: four-, eight-, and sixteen-bar phrases, repeated two or three or four times, with the larger grouping of phrases repeating more or less intact for the entire duration of the tune. There are some recurrent harmonic tropes involving counter-clockwise trips around the circle of fifths. The modular structure of standards makes them amenable to disassembly and reassembly. These jazz compositions and improvisations are constructed from a giant box of shared musical Legos, rearrangeable at will on paper or in the improviser’s head.

As with harmony and form, there’s a finite toolbox of riffs, patterns, and scale runs you can use to build your jazz melodies and solos. Blues is particularly reliant on Lego-like modular riffs. Jazz and blues intros and endings are few, highly standardized, and easily interchangeable. One much-recycled ending is the one Count Basie uses in his performance of “Fly Me To The Moon” with Frank Sinatra.

Another basic Lego is the Duke Ellington ending, as in “Take The A Train.”

Miles Davis turned this ending into an entire bebop head called “The Theme.”

You can hear a stretched-out but still recognizable rendition of “The Theme” at the end of each set on Miles’s Fillmore East performances from March 7, 1970.

The distance between a jazz module like the Duke Ellington ending and a sample like the Funky Drummer break is short. In my own experience, the creative process of writing a jazz tune based on licks and progressions from existing songs feels much the same as building tracks from samples. It can’t be an accident that the most creative jazz musicians are the ones who borrow the most heavily from one another, from pop culture, and from themselves. Coltrane’s tune “Impressions” is a mashup of “Pavanne” by Morton Gould and “So What” by Miles Davis (which is itself partially inspired by “Pavanne.”) The 6/8 single-chord grooves in “My Favorite Things” also appear in Coltrane’s versions of “Greensleeves,” “Spiritual,” and “Afro Blue.” And why not? That groove never gets old. If the most creative artist in the history of jazz is doing so much sampling, I think everyone should feel emboldened to do the same.

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26 thoughts on “Jazz Remixes

  1. Ethan Hein

    Frank Oteri pointed out to me that Coltrane’s studio recording of “My Favorite Things” was only the beginning of his explorations of this tune. He performed it for the rest of his short life, extending its length dramatically and becoming increasingly free with the form. This version, from a concert in Tokyo, is an hour long — the opening bass solo alone is fourteen minutes.


  2. Bob Gluck

    While this essay makes a certain point which may interest a generation raised on the remix in jazz (or not), I also see it as a rather narrow, technically-oriented read on the nature of jazz. To think of jazz as merely a musical form that is built on the “scaffolding” of popular tunes misses the forest for the trees, focusing on the repertoire (often selected because it was known to the public, with show tunes providing a reasonable vehicle for improvising, and because recasting their chord changes with new melodies allowed jazz musicians with limited income sources to collect royalties for the resulting tunes). The remix/recycle recipe noted in this article could describe any group of musicians, whether or not they are steeped in the music and its musical culture, but are able to play changes. As an example consider how Miles Davis’s treatment of “Do I Hear a Bell” shifts from his mid-1950s usage of it to its complete reinvention as a vehicle for his 1965 band’s intuative group mind melding experience; while yes, repurposing the same tune but to completely different ends). Is it the original material or the fact of its repurposing that makes the latter example work? I would answer in the negative. Also, I do not think that Coltrane’s 1960 version of “My Favorite Things” simply “makes the same musical statement: putting a stamp of personal ownership on a piece of public musical property.” Well, in a narrow way, sure. But I don’t see Coltrane thinking in terms of “so what can I do with this one to make it mine” but as far, far broader than that. He is searching for material that can be suited to his new unfolding approach that borrows from raga forms and this would seem like an odd choice. Except that it has deep cultural resonances as a mark of white bread mass media music that he can turn on its head; this is a cultural statement rather than simply a remix. Finally, much of the greatest work by jazz musicians is original compositions, musician as composer, not simply reinterpreter, however important that imterpretive side is. I worry when jazz is thought of as a series of chord changes and in terms of repertoire, solos a restringing of a collection of licks and quotations. This is a recipe for cultural irrelevance, albeit money making in the short term.

    1. Ethan Hein

      I completely agree with you that Miles and Coltrane go far beyond just making commentary on pop songs. But the thing that makes them so interesting outside of the jazz world is the fact of their using pop culture as a jumping off point. There’s plenty of highbrow art music that comes “from nowhere,” including original material written by Miles and Coltrane themselves. To my ears, though, jazz is at its freshest and most arresting when it’s subverting something familiar. The fact that “My Favorite Things” has “deep cultural resonances as a mark of white bread mass media” is precisely what makes Coltrane’s raga-infused interpretation so much more powerful than his many original tunes drawing on ragas. It doesn’t diminish the importance of what Coltrane was doing to describe it as remixing; it elevates it to a level of present cultural relevance that’s much broader than just his importance to jazz. Remixes are cultural statements, the most powerful ones we can make in a hypercapitalist culture. Jazz should be so lucky as to be thought of as the incisive form of cultural commentary that it is, rather than as a bunch of impenetrable abstractions. Jazz was at its peak cultural relevance when it made closest contact with popular culture, and its present academic abstruseness has led to its current marginal status. Jazz has never been in much danger of selling out, but it’s worth noting that the big sellers like Bitches’ Brew and Headhunters tend to also be the most culturally relevant records.

      1. Ethan Hein

        I’d also like to point out that the best jazz musicians of the present are the ones engaging in pop culture: Brad Mehldau with his takes on the Beatles and Radiohead, Jason Moran’s dazzlingly inventive rendition of “Planet Rock,” Vijay Iyer playing “Galang,” and the many jazz musicians who appear on the new Kendrick Lamar album.

  3. Ethan Hein

    Some more literal examples of jazz remixes:

    Yusef Lateef’s “In A Little Spanish Town” is a saxophone solo he recorded on top of a pop record from 1926, it’s fairly wonderful.

    Also, Teo Macero created a wonderful piece of recursion in Miles Davis’ “Yesternow” by splicing in a piece of “Shhh/Peaceful” overdubbed with Miles’ solo trumpet from “Right Off.”

  4. Michael Robinson

    I wish to offer another perspective on My Favorite Things, composed by Richard Rodgers, with lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, and interpreted by John Coltrane, beginning with some crucial context.

    Because it is predominantly an instrumental art form, all of us sometimes forget how central lyrics are to the development of jazz. Without those lyrics, most, if not all jazz standards would not exist, and jazz, without those perfected forms used for improvisation is inconceivable, referring mostly to swing and modern jazz, or the years roughly between 1930 and 1970.

    Arguably the two most harmonically advanced jazz standards, displaying inspired modulations rivaling anything composed by Bach, Chopin, or Debussy, are All the Things You Are and The Song is You both composed by Jerome Kern, with lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II. Indeed, the lyrics for these songs are as soaring and ingenious as the music with exquisite poetry that still thrills every time we hear the words.

    Great jazz artists are intimate with the lyrics of the songs they chose to devote their improvisational artistry to, finding layers of expression and inspiration that transcend music, reflecting how their unique sonic profiles, and personal and collective histories reinterpret those songs, leading them to new melodic, rhythmic, timbral, and emotive realms.

    Two of Charlie Parker’s most precious and monumental accomplishments stem from his extemporizations using All the Things You Are and The Song Is You, demonstrating what phenomenal musical treasure results when composers and lyricists of genius synergize with improvisers of genius. The rasa (expression) of Parker’s surviving recordings of these songs are steeped in unique shadings of Shringara Rasa (romantic) with broad strokes and subtleties pertaining to all the elements of music that continually astonish us to this day.

    Two of John Coltrane’s most prodigious and far-reaching musical explorations have a common central denominator with the Charlie Parker examples given above, sharing the same lyricist, Oscar Hammerstein II: My Favorite Things, with music by Richard Rodgers, and Softly As In A Morning Sunrise, with music by Sigmund Romberg; the title of this writing distilled from the latter song’s lyrics.

    Coltrane’s earthshaking interpretation of My Favorite Things – there is no other way to describe it’s enormous effect – appeared before the famous film, The Sound of Music, and after the original Broadway show, which includes this most beautiful song; an utterance composer-performer-author David Amram (who had a memorable conversation with Coltrane in the fifties pertaining to Albert Einstein’s Theory of Relativity and music) recalls playing and singing at the piano, utterly charmed by its pristine and limpid melody, harmony and words, including dramatically effective shifts from minor to major modalities. Great songs that appear simple are perhaps the most difficult and elusive to compose, as are the moves of the greatest chess master of all time, Bobby Fischer.

    Aware of the context of the song, either literally or intuitively, or both, including possibly attending a performance of the show after he was first introduced to the song, Coltrane seized upon My Favorite Things as a song of Innocence and Experience, depicted by those major and minor modalities. And by linking those musical modes with Bilaval and Kafi Thaats from the Hindustani music simultaneously inspiring him, notably sitarist Ravi Shankar, and shahnaist Bismillah Khan, he forged a New World for not only jazz, but also the finest rock, and composers of what had been termed Western classical music before it was superseded by jazz around the time of early Charlie Parker.

    Don’t allow the musical and lyrical surface of the original My Favorite Things to lull you into allowing its full import to pass over your head as it has become shallowly fashionable to do sometimes! It is perfectly acceptable to enjoy the song as something delightful and charming for children, and I absolutely do not wish to detract from those who hear My Favorite Things this way only. However, the song also depicts an admirable attempt to allay fear by evoking the innocence of childhood in the picturesque mountain villages of Austria, sung by an orphan who became a cloistered nun, soon transitioning into the outside world because she doesn’t conform to the strictures of her surroundings, again, attempting to comfort herself.

    And beyond that immediate scenario, there is a subtle, yet dynamic foreshadowing of a greatly larger specter that John Coltrane magnified in his recording and performances of My Favorite Things: the terror of a rapidly spreading fascism and genocidal ideology that slaughtered children among everyone else outside its evil, insane doctrines; a racism that in another form, time and place also moved Coltrane to compose and record a powerful tribute to four young girls who perished when the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham was bombed, titled Alabama. The little girls had entered Sunday School that morning “unoffending, innocent and beautiful” and were brought out as “martyred heroines of a holy crusade for freedom and human dignity” in the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. It is believed that Dr. King’s eulogy for the girls influenced John Coltrane’s musical response.

    Related to my thoughts about My Favorite Things, and supporting my analysis, I subsequently found that Wikipedia states: “The song’s main melody seems derivative of Edvard Grieg’s In the Hall of the Mountain King, particularly in its repetitive simplicity and its minor-key sense of dread. Put simply, the melody conveys terror. The happy, optimistic lyrics–“Cream-colored ponies and crisp apple strudel”–are just a counterpoint and cover-up to this undercurrent of fear.”

    With his visionary, inspirational recorded and live interpretations of My Favorite Things, which exponentially expand upon the music by Richard Rodgers and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, set in the context of memoirs by Maria von Trapp (whose experiences included encountering Adolf Hitler in a restaurant), with a book by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse, Coltrane excises and slays the demons of fascism and racism in the non-violent metaphysical domain of music, telling us they will eventually be eradicated in life as humanity educates itself and evolves into higher forms of common caring. And it was this ongoing supreme effort born from love, including subsequent musical evolutions, which eventually drained his life force, leaving us at such a tender age.

    Musically exquisite and tremendously exciting, without the identical cathartic intensity as My Favorite Things, Coltrane’s rendering of Softly As In A Morning Sunrise also suggests an extra-musical element as well, if we consider how he moved away from his first wife to his second wife around the time the song was performed and recorded. Also performed on soprano saxophone, rather than his traditional tenor saxophone, it would appear that for a brief period Coltrane used the soprano for especially challenging traumas and transcendent celebrations in his life that reached closer to the spirit world he so clearly identified with by accessing a higher tessitura.

    To this day, Interstellar Space, a very late collection of duet recordings with Coltrane on tenor and percussion, and Rashied Ali on drums, remains for me among the most advanced musical forms ever created.

    In closing, please note that it is far from my intentions to ignore another great tenor saxophonist, Sonny Rollins. In this present context, perhaps his most sublime and unexpected ballad recording was also inspired by the superlative lyrics of Oscar Hammerstein II: We Kiss In the Shadows, with music once more by Richard Rodgers.

    1. Ethan Hein

      Wow, that is a lot of insight! I completely agree with you about Interstellar Space, especially the song “Venus.” I strongly recommend checking out the Coltrane biography by Lewis Porter. It includes a complete transcription and thorough analysis of “Venus,” along with several other heads, solos and phrases. Indispensable.

  5. Michael Robinson

    I’ve never understood why some find it necessary to denigrate one group of artists (here, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II), in order to bolster another group of artists (here, John Coltrane, Elvin Jones, McCoy Tyner, Steve Davis), when great music is all about the interpenetration of complimentary influences. When I mentioned this matter of the song, My Favorite Things, to someone who is not a musician today, her response was: “Why on earth would John Coltrane devote so much time and attention to a song he did not admire?” Exactly. This was a profoundly beautiful song before John Coltrane’s interpretation, especially if one is mindful of its musical undercurrents, and it remains so outside of John’s momentous renderings. Similar to what David Amram has related, I, myself, used to play My Favorite Things on the piano, and it truly is a miracle of sublime, deceptively simple purity, reflecting perfectly the milieu and circumstances it originally portrayed through exquisitely intertwined melody, harmony, rhythm, and lyrics. Then, from that inspired beginning, Trane and his group added their own musical inspirations, taking My Favorite Things to another distant domain. In other words, two positives made a third positive. Recently, after lecturing at a local university about jazz, I decided to stay for the following class, and the instructor made a similar point about My Favorite Things that was made by the article here. For a moment, I debated whether or not to correct him, and then decided that John Coltrane himself would wish me to do so, and so I did. Simply because a mistake has been repeated by many who do not truly understand the material and context does not make it right to perpetuate that error. I hope that instructors will at least make note of my insights the next time they use My Favorite Things as a teaching example, which many are apparently doing, and avoid this superficial misreading and mishearing of the music.

    To use the vernacular, great musicians are about love and good vibrations. John Coltrane, Elvin Jones, McCoy Tyner and Steve Davis vibed in ecstasy to a song written by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II because it has a beautiful melody, beautiful harmonies, beautiful lyrics, and a compelling rhythm with a somewhat rarely used triple feel. That is what great jazz artists from roughly 1930 to 1970 did. (I have not much followed jazz artists from after and before that time in recent years, so I feel more comfortable referring to that time period.) They took a composition, and improvised on the musical and poetic content, inspired by the equal genius of the composers and lyricists involved. In fact, I frequently cannot listen to a recording even by a great jazz artist when they happen to be improvising on a mediocre composition!

    1. Ethan Hein

      “My Favorite Things” is indeed a great showtune, but for those of us who aren’t wild about showtunes, it doesn’t necessarily have the full effect. I can retroactively hear the beauty in the tune, but it took Coltrane’s version to show it to me. McCoy Tyner didn’t actually “vibe in ecstasy” when “My Favorite Things” was recorded, he positively disliked the song. (Coltrane eventually won him over.)

      1. Michael Robinson

        Many of the songs that became jazz standards originated from Broadway. Stating that one is “not wild” about songs that originated from Broadway shows fails to differentiate between works of genius that transcend however humble one may feel their origins are, and mediocre efforts. I’ve never had the pleasure of meeting McCoy Tyner, but the only truly meaningful document we have related to the original recording of My Favorite Things is the actual music, and he absolutely PLAYS in ecstatic and timeless form, as many great jazz artists will attest to his innovative and highly influential performance here. Whatever words are attributed to Tyner, and whatever motivations he may or may not have had at the actual time he is purported to have made such statements, including any recorded or videotaped statements that may or not exist, are relatively irrelevant compared to the actual recording. If I ever meet him, and he is fine with it, perhaps I will personally ask him about this.

        1. Frank J. Oteri

          A personal favorite McCoy Tyner performance of mine is his instantly identifiable take on another Broadway show tune “Old Devil Moon” (composed by Burton Lane originally to lyrics by E.Y. Harburg for the 1947 musical Finian’s Rainbow) which Tyner recorded as part of a quartet led by vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson and which appears on Hutcherson’s 1982 album Solo / Quartet. For years I spent more time with Hutcherson’s multi-tracked solos on side one of that LP (which, BTW, are a fascinating contemporaneous foil to other minimalist classics such as Steve Reich’s Tehillim, Meredith Monk’s Dolmen Music, Philip Glass’s Satyagraha, and Terry Riley’s Sunrise for the Interplanetary Dream Collector) . But now I find the quartet session on side two (which also featured Herbie Lewis on bass and Billy Higgins on drums) perhaps even more poignant, especially “Old Devil Moon.” So clearly Tyner has had an affinity with Broadway show tunes even after his stint in Coltrane’s classic quartet.

          1. Michael Robinson

            Hutcherson is one of many artists I have overlooked, and after sampling this album, I went ahead and ordered a copy. While I was unable to listen to the specific version of Old Devil Moon you mentioned at this moment’s notice, I did find an earlier trio version by Tyner from 1963, and for the first time, was struck at how deeply oceanic his right hand touch was influenced by Red Garland, something I never noticed before. One of the tracks from Solo/Quartet was available for listening, and I concur with the connections you found with minimalist composers of the time because the spare textures and mallet timbres I heard flashed the music of Steve Reich through me immediately; so much so, I wonder what jazz mallet artists Steve may have listened to, including Hutcherson and Gary Burton. (One of the most incredible musical experiences of my life was hearing while in my twenties, Steve, together with a few other percussionists, play his music for mallet instruments in an intimate setting with breathtaking virtuosity, leaving far behind the world of European classical music, as he brilliantly and most influentially managed to do for the benefit of countless composers, including myself, having been greatly influenced by John Coltrane himself too, as he often acknowledges.) Noting how the track I heard uses the multi-tracking you noted, I recalled how Lee Konitz’s teacher, Lennie Tristano, is generally credited with being the first jazz artist to use multi-tracking, and guessed that Hutcherson was indeed familiar with that music. This led me to discover a documentary about Tristano I was unaware of, and here it is for those who may be interested. Also, much thanks to Ethan for the fascinating and insightful comments regarding the music of Snoop Dogg, and for kindly suggesting other artists and tracks for me to explore.


        2. Ethan Hein

          I can tell the difference between a great showtune and a mediocre one, but the stylistic conventions of the genre don’t do it for me. I need to hear those songs sung by jazz singers, not by the original Broadway casts. I feel the same way about opera; there’s a lot of beautiful music there, but it comes in a form that I find difficult to get into.

          The McCoy Tyner statement I reference comes from Lewis Porter’s meticulously researched Coltrane biography, which is as reliable a source as exists in this world. McCoy is a consummate professional who always brings maximum intensity to the material at hand, whatever he might feel about it. He was reportedly not too wild about Coltrane’s later music either, but he hung in there and played it spectacularly, until he finally quit.

  6. Chris Becker

    When I interviewed Terri Lyne Carrington for my forthcoming book, she quoted Duke Ellington when we were discussing a definition of jazz. She / He defined it as “freedom of expression.” To my ears, Carrington is one of the “best jazz musicians of the moment” who is not only engaging in popular culture, but is also an amazing composer. And her compositions are inspired by a lot of things, not just standard form and changes or the blues, although all of that is a part of her musical vernacular.

    If you want to go back to the beginning, I see Jelly Roll Morton is missing from this thesis. Morton pre-dates standards, so what exactly was HE drawing upon as a master composer, pianist and improviser? Start digging into that question and then consider the fact that not only men but women were present at the very beginnings of this music (before it was called jazz), and this whole idea of what “jazz is all about” started getting a little more interesting.

    When I think of this music, I certainly think of Mary Lou Williams’ “Zodiac Suite,” the many compositions of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn, the mind blowing works of Charles Mingus, the ground breaking collaborations of Dizzy Gillespie and Chano Pozo. In these works, and in the music of contemporaries such as Carrington, Gerri Allen (“Unconditional Love”), Esperanza Spaulding, and Pat Metheny you’re going to hear the sound and joy of a language being invented.

    I know its hard to imagine a time and a place before “My Favorite Things,” but it was there, and is present in this music. I appreciate the thesis of this essay, I really do. But I would discourage thinking we’ve somehow put a cap on “jazz” thanks to the lego metaphor. I think there’s some important history missing here, history that only reveals this music to be an even deeper form of expression than the powers that be would have you believe.

    P.S. The music of the church, hymns, were and are another wellspring for this music. Again, this is just another tributary of the delta that birthed this music.

    1. Ethan Hein

      When I argue that jazz is built on shared musical materials, I don’t say that to diminish its power or significance. Actually, quite the reverse. I find that the best music draws overt connections to other music; the stuff that bores me tends to come from isolated geniuses. There’s no greater admirer of Ellington and Strayhorn than me, but they support my point. Both men drew heavily on folk, gospel, world music, popular songs, and each other. Ellington was notorious for directly transcribing phrases improvised by his sidemen and claiming them as his “original” work. Mingus’ compositions are dazzling too, but they draw even more heavily on folk, blues and gospel. His tune “Jump Monk” was his attempt to write a Thelonious Monk tune. “Duke Ellington’s Sound Of Love” sounds more like Ellington than Ellington does. By contrast, when I hear jazz compositions from the academic era that are “purely creative” and disconnected from the communal memepool, I hear a lot of intellectually interesting abstractions that I don’t need to hear a second time.

      1. Chris Becker

        Again, there’s a lot of history missing from your thesis. “Communal meme” pretty much covers the whole of musical creation, so who can debate that as an influence for any piece of music ever created. I personally don’t hear “Absinthe” as a remixed meme. “Jump Monk” was not Mingus’ “attempt” to write a Monk tune. I actually doesn’t sound like Monk’s music. The composition has more to do with his spirit than his own unique musical vernacular. (Again, “Round Midnight” as a remix? Maybe we’re just stuck you and I on semantics. I’m not sure.)

        You don’t address Jelly Roll Morton. You didn’t address “Zodiac Suite” or Gilliespie and Chano Pozo because they don’t fit into your thesis. Which is fine. I like your thesis. But why do we have to shoehorn so much music into legoland. (Mixed up metaphor.)

        1. Ethan Hein

          Yes indeed, “communal meme” certainly does cover the whole of musical creation. This is exactly why I think the people who are in closest contact with the memepool are doing the best work; everyone else is drawing on the memepool too, but by pretending that they aren’t, their message gets weakened and diluted.

          The jagged, rhythmically surprising phrases in “Jump Monk” are straight out of the Monk playbook, and the intent of the homage is right there in the title.

          “Round Midnight” is a fascinating piece of music when viewed through the remix lens. I like how the intro and ending that Dizzy Gillespie grafted onto the tune have become canonically part of it, to the point where Monk himself always included it. And I love how the Miles Davis version adds even more original material and radical phrasing changes to the point where his version of the tune is an entirely different piece of music. Yet it’s the same piece of music too!

          I freely confess to not know a whole lot about Jelly Roll Morton. I do know that W.C. Handy was transcribing ideas he heard from blues musicians playing on the streets. “Zodiac Suite” I’m not too familiar with either. The music that Dizzy made with Chano Pozo isn’t “original,” it’s just a fusion of existing jazz ideas with existing Afro-Cuban ideas. Which, again, doesn’t diminish the power of that music! Dizzy grew the jazz community considerably by bringing Afro-Cuban DNA into the mix.

          1. Chris Becker

            Re: Jump Monk, the composer (Mingus) said, “It’s not supposed to sound like Monk . . . It was a dedication to him. A tribute. I don’t think it sounds like anything he’s ever done.” (This is from the Mingus Fake Book which is an excellent source for his music.)

            Which sort of brings me back to the point I’m not doing a great job making, and that is that I think its more interesting to look beyond the quotes from here and quotes from there and hear how transformative this music actually was / is. The Morton quote is great. I actually source that very quote in my book. But was Morton then responsible for an amalgamation? Not to my ears. And that’s where the magic is.

            Again, I like the thesis. It’s really applicable to any genre of music we want to discuss. But Mingus went way beyond remixing, and the result is a body of work that both has a handle on and transcends the past.

  7. Michael Robinson

    Truthfully, I could not disagree more with just about everything that’s written here. I don’t have time to spend on every paragraph, but I will simply respond to your first paragraph, repeated here:

    “I don’t place a lot of value on originality in music. My tastes lie mostly in blues, jazz, R&B, and hip-hop. While there’s plenty of creativity in all of these forms, it’s built around shared musical materials: stock licks and phrases, standard song structures and schemas, frequently borrowed beats and samples. Hearing a familiar blues riff or funk break is like encountering an old friend, and the intertextuality created by all of the shared musical DNA enriches the listening experience.”

    This sounds like someone (not yourself, I am objecting to the argument you are making here) who is unable to differentiate between common jazz artists and ones who have achieved the level of genius. There was nothing “stock” about the innovative and developed styles of Lester Young, Charlie Parker, Lee Konitz, and many others. Only someone (again, not yourself, but your argument here) unable to discern between inspired and “copycat” musical subtleties of melodic and rhythmic invention, timbre, and expressive nuances would make such a statement, or someone (once again, not yourself but your argument here) who has been trained to like or dislike what is supposedly hip or fashionable, rather than truly experiencing the music. (Also, someone (and again, not yourself, but your argument) who is unable to sift through inspired work by such artists over their less successful efforts.) This exact same concept applies to the creators of the songs that became jazz standards. Those composers and lyricists defied formula, which was something not in their DNA by definition. Your supposition is like stating that there was nothing original about a particular school of painting from history. After the fact, one might attempt to create some all-encompassing formula that applies, referring to colors, brush strokes, composition, etc., but that would have nothing to do with the actual genius that gave birth to those artistic creations, being merely a sterile afterthought.

    My sense is that you are attempting to make a point that has little to nothing to do with what jazz actually is, including dismissing the variety of styles and content that are the personification of the richness of jazz, and not recognizing that the songs that became jazz standards are equal in artistic quality and significance to the improvisations they inspired, which you attempt to do by referring to them in derogatory fashion, as if they were somehow “second-class citizens” of inferior value because of their origins rather than their true merit, which rivals songs of the greatest European classical composers.

    While I admittedly have scant knowledge of rap and hip-hop, one musician I have heard on occasion is Snoop Dogg, and I quickly recognized that he is a musical genius by virtue of his rhythmic complexity and subtlety; his masterfully varied articulation; his authentic feel; his flowing invention, spontaneity and creativity; and his brilliantly contagious performance attributes, which rival those of Michael Jackson, among other qualities that perhaps I am unable to put into words at this moment due to my unfamiliarity with the genre. If someone thinks they can reduce this artist to a formula, or that he lacks originality, they simply do not understand music itself. I’m not saying that you are such a person, but that your argument doesn’t hold.

  8. Ethan Hein

    The point of my article, and the ones that preceded it, is that originality and quality are orthogonal. I’m deliberately challenging the commonly-held notion that in order to be great, you have to be different from everyone who came before you. It simply isn’t true. I’d go so far as to say that the most avid samplers and recyclers are the ones making most of the really powerful work. Charlie Parker drew heavily from Lester Young and modern classical music, and he did his best improvising over blues and standards. Lester Young was part of a community of practice too; he may have been an exemplary member of that community, but he was still playing recognizable jazz saxophone of his time and place. You can’t have inspiration without being inspired by something in particular.

    The people who wrote the standards didn’t defy formula at all, they operated within extraordinarily narrow formal and stylistic confines: AABA form, eight-bar phrases, starting and ending on the tonic chord, using functional harmony to support monophonic melodies, lyrics dealing almost exclusively with love and romance. It’s the tightness of their constraints that makes their work so much more interesting than their classical contemporaries. I’m always more impressed by someone who can find fresh and inventive ideas within the tight box of popular song structure than someone who strews disorganized notes in all directions.

    The art history example supports my argument. Pick a “radical” painter and it’s easy to trace their sources. Picasso didn’t spring into being ex nihilo; he was part of a whole cohort of cubists, who themselves were coming out of the more adventurous corner of impressionism, who were coming out of wherever they came out of. Picasso also spoke often of how he directly copied from African masks.

    It’s true that I hold Coltrane in higher regard than Rodgers and Hart. It’s a matter of taste. Without Rodgers and Hart, we wouldn’t have had Coltrane either, so I certainly appreciate their role in creating the music that I care about. But I’ve heard some performances of standards by their authors, and I’d much rather hear Miles Davis play Gershwin than hear Gershwin play Gershwin. I also hold Miles and Coltrane in higher regard than the classical composers, but that, again, is a matter of taste.

    If you like Snoop, there is so much more wonderful music for you to experience. Try De La Soul, Eric B and Rakim, Nas, Common, Lauryn Hill, Kendrick Lamar… The fact that all of these artists, Snoop included, draw on samples and conventions, doesn’t diminish their creativity. It enhances it! The instrumentals on De La Soul’s classic records consist entirely of samples, with lyrics that continually quote and mock and reference other lyrics, and that is the freshest music imaginable. All those infectious Snoop grooves are built around samples of Parliament, and a lot of his rhymes are too. Listen to “Atomic Dog” by George Clinton sometime. Snoop’s quoting of Clinton adds to his wonderfulness. I’ll say it again: originality is not quality, and quality is not originality.

  9. Michael Robinson

    “The point of my article, and the ones that preceded it, is that originality and quality are orthogonal. I’m deliberately challenging the commonly held notion that in order to be great, you have to be different from everyone who came before you. It simply isn’t true.”

    I completely disagree with you, and it is a matter of degree, nuance, and subtlety, which perhaps comes with developed tastes. The fact that you didn’t identify Steve Davis, who famously played bass on the original recording of My Favorite Things, confusing him with Reggie Workman, also gives me pause. For example, there are great tabla players from India who are connected on a superficial level for the uninitiated and unfamiliar, but truthfully, they inhabit almost different solar systems in terms of content. Of course, to a degree, we are arguing about semantics, but words are important, and using gray words such as “samplers” and “recyclers” (while making what I feel is a tortured argument to connect jazz artists with “popular” music techniques you are currently fond of) is mundane and leaden, as are writings about music overly heavy on data but light on inspiration and beautiful rasa, bringing down the true nature of the art form. As stated previously, formula comes after the fact, or, at best, is only an empty beginning, and there is no, and never will be a formula for the innovative creativity and genius that informs music we recognize as being great. What excites us about music are the things that are DIFFERENT and ORIGINAL, not what is COMMON. No doubt, you will contradict me once more with another response, so I will leave it to readers to hopefully consider my previous comments carefully and form their own conclusions. Thank you for this engaging exchange, and I absolutely admire your intelligence and energy, and wish you well.

    1. Ethan Hein

      I teach music for a living and would like to think that my tastes are fairly developed. I stand corrected about Steve Davis, but getting my bassists confused doesn’t undermine the original argument, especially when the bass part offers so little scope for personal expression.

      The “popular” techniques aren’t just used in pop music, but in every corner of the avant-garde as well. They are to the musical culture of the present what jazz improvisation was to the mid-twentieth century. I hear more similarity than difference in the major musical concerns of jazz and hip-hop, though their technological tools and surface-level vocabulary are quite different. Or not so different, really, since most of the brightest jazz musicians of the moment are deeply enmeshed in the hip-hop scene, and produce tracks in addition to playing live.

      I’m sorry to hear that you don’t feel the inspiration behind my writing. I’ve devoted many years to studying, teaching, performing and composing jazz, and I care deeply about it. I hope you’ll take the time to listen to the SoundCloud playlist embedded in the article for examples of the way that I find jazz to inform my electronic music practice, and vice versa. Whether or not you like what you hear, I hope you can hear my deep reverence for the music, and my wish to bring more listeners to it.

  10. dan voss

    Since his name has been mentioned a few times above, it might be worth pointing out (without in any way diminishing his status as an innovator and a composer) that William H. Youngren quotes Jelly Roll Morton in the Library of Congress recordings as saying, “Jazz music is strictly music. You have the finest ideas from the greatest operas, symphonies, and overtures in jazz music. There’s nothing finer than jazz music because it comes from everything of the finest class music;” and, “I transformed every style to mine.”

  11. Michael Robinson

    I get the idea that other people may be following silently here, and for that reason, I decided to continue here even though I previously indicated otherwise!

    My understanding is that John Coltrane himself regarded the original recording of My Favorite Things as his absolute favorite from his entire catalog. One elemental aspect of why his is such a magnificent effort stems from the sublime manner in which bassist Steve Davis interpreted John’s concept of employing a drone-like bass inspired by tamboura playing in North Indian classical music, something you overlooked, presenting the matter of the bass part as if Coltrane pulled it out of nowhere. It is unfortunate that you have now chosen to dismiss Steve Davis as if another bass player, including Reggie Workman, could have replaced his unique input, which is simply wrong. Without Steve Davis’s carefully chosen – we do not know what words or played or song phrases transpired between Coltrane and Davis regarding what he actually played on the recording – and finely nuanced use of melody, rhythm, timbre, dynamics, and expression, interpreting John Coltrane’s concept of tamboura-inspired bass, we would not have what became John Coltrane’s favorite recording. It is pure, fruitless speculation what we would have, not only for the title track, but also for the other songs on the album, without the crucial presence of Steve Davis. The albums, My Favorite Things, and also Coltrane Plays the Blues, are the only ones I know of where Steve Davis is the bass player, and it is no coincidence that these efforts remain unique in Coltrane’s oeuvre, possessing a pellucid, transcendental magnificence derived from the unique human chemistry and musical alchemy that John Coltrane, McCoy Tyner, Steve Davis and Elvin Jones shared in stolen moments captured for all time on those two recordings.

    And since your brought up My Favorite Things once again, it reminds me of the ongoing travesty among jazz departments in colleges all over the world who have mostly censored by omission, attempting to remove from history, the crucial and indispensable element of songs by American composers and lyricists that became the musical bedrock foundation for improvisational innovations together with blues forms that largely informed jazz between roughly 1930 and 1970, a time that spawned, at least, Lester Young, Charlie Parker, Lee Konitz, Stan Getz, Dizzy Gillespie, Bill Evans, Sonny Rollins, Jackie McLean, Lee Morgan, Red Garland, Paul Chambers, John Coltrane, and on and on and on. By not teaching the importance of these songs, pretending that they materialized out of thin air, and could easily be replaced, the study of jazz is diminished and misunderstood, producing students who have learned to be ignorant of, or even have contempt for the very artists who collaborated with other artists to create a music called jazz.

    It is also unfair of you to accuse me of insulting you as an artist when I did no such thing. In fact, until you pointed it out, I did not realize that you were also a composer and/or performer. I was responding to your arguments regarding in the context of jazz between 1930 and 1970. I absolutely encourage any composers and artists in any genre to use whatever techniques and instruments they desire to.

    In closing, I will return to the reason why I entered this discussion in the first place. John Coltrane loved the song My Favorite Things. He did not find it stupid, ironic, or trivial. He found it profoundly beautiful, inspiring him to add his own highly individualized interpretation with the assistance of Steve Davis, McCoy Tyner and Elvin Jones, and with Ravi Shankar and Bismillah Khan playing in the back of his mind, body and soul. The musicians happened to be African American (and South Asian) and the composer and lyricist happened to be Jewish American. (My sense is that jazz educators also tend to dismiss by omission jazz artists of genius who happen to be of general Caucasian descent too, which is equally deplorable, as Charlie Parker and Miles Davis concurred.) Often, great music happens when different cultures interpenetrate, as North Indian classical music, rock, and many other forms have proven, far from least of which is jazz. Please wake up jazz educators from your slumber!


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