Jazz 101: Five Revolutionaries


Once again, we’ll be continuing our discussion of John Szwed’s “Jazz 101: A Complete Guide to Learning and Loving Jazz“. This time, we’ll be looking at a chapter that focuses on five revolutionary musicians.

Last time, we talked about the Revivalism that was present in the 1940s. It was the next step in the evolution of jazz, which started with a group of jazz musicians and enthusiasts looking back to the past. The result, as we saw it, was a rebirth of the early New Orleans jazz.

Now, we’ll take a look at five musicians who helped usher in the next step in the evolution of jazz. The genre we’re about to enter into is bebop, which you may have heard of before. All of the musicians we’ll look at were well trained in the workings of swing. But it was their individual contributions, which contained aspects of bebop, that helped push jazz away from swing, and into a new direction.

Roy Eldridge

When looking at the gap between musicians such as Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie, the obvious link to turn to to fill it in is Roy Eldridge. While Eldridge did absorb some of his trumpet work from artists like Red Nichols and Henry Red Allen, Armstrong was definitely in the mix of his influences as well.

“He was blessed with speed, technical facility, harmonic knowledge, and impeccable rhythm, but he also had a real sense of drama and expression” (p. 156). While Armstrong could make an audience cheer by moving from the bottom most notes to the top, Roy Eldridge made those same notes feel like “a natural part of what the horn should do”.

Charlie Christian

Before Jimi Hendrix would go on to astound the world, Charlie Christian was taking on the electric guitar. Christian was the “first person to bring the electric guitar to its full potential, though his career ended with his death at twenty-six” (p. 157).

Christian’s playing was distinct and clean, and full of rhythmically charged riffs. “His single note playing moved away from the swing feel”, and his playing brought “a modern rhythmic quality” that hadn’t been there before. (p. 157).

Art Tatum

Art Tatum was a pianist who could play it all. He absorbed every style that came before him, from boogie-woogie to pop tunes to swing. “He seemed to rearrange everything he played so casually that even the simplest tunes looked new” (p. 157).

But what really set Tatum apart from his peers was his use of harmonic inventiveness. He was a key influence on a whole generation that came after him in jazz. The first bebop pianists took note of his techniques, and incorporated them early on.

Jimmy Blanton

We all know that bassists tend to get a bad rep in the music community. They’re possibly one of the most overlooked members in most bands. Rarely do they play the role of innovator or influencer. But Jimmy Blanton was one bassist who proved to be an exception. He played with the Duke Ellington band, and was was even recorded by Ellington as well.

“Jimmy Blanton, despite a short career, changed the future of jazz by combining a strong rhythmic foundation with melodic and countermelodic playing that could lift a band on any night” (p. 158).

Lester Young

Last but not least, we come to our fifth and final revolutionary musician, this one a saxophonist who played the tenor. Young was a member of the Count Basie band, which we’re mentioned in previous articles. His playing was higher and lighter. Much like the others on our list, Young demonstrated a highly sophisticated sense of rhythm.

Young was a musician who told a story every time he played. “His solos used small elements of melodic material strung together creatively so that there was a linear, unfolding, narrative quality to his playing…Young’s influence was such that he helped shape bebop and cool jazz” (p. 159).

Final Thoughts

These five musicians each contributed an insane amount to the further development of jazz. These were musicians who were not satisfied with swing as the end all be all. And they weren’t traditionalists like we saw in the 1940s Revivalism. They were innovators, and would not be held back from pushing jazz forward.

That about wraps up our discussion of the five revolutionaries who helped bring about the bebop era. If you’d like more information, you can check out John F. Szwed’s “Jazz 101: A Complete Guide to Learning and Loving Jazz”, and turn to Chapter sixteen.

Next time, we’ll dive head first into bebop, and see what those influenced by these five revolutionaries were a part of.



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