Jazz 101: West Coast Jazz


Today we’ll be continuing our discussion of John Szwed’s “Jazz 101: A Complete Guide to Learning and Loving Jazz“, with a look at West Coast Jazz. Was this the first seed that spawned the legendary East/West rivalry? Probably not. But we can still see where it fits in with the evolution of jazz. And who knows, we may get a few surprises along the way.

Last time, we talked about the era of “cool” jazz, that popped up in the late 1940s and ’50s among beboppers. We saw how it was connected to bebop, but not quite bebop. And we discussed both its similarities and differences to revivalism. We talked Miles Davis and the Modern Jazz Quartet, too. Dig.

And now we move our attention to the west coast. Until this point, most of our exploration of jazz has been reserved to the New Orleans area, with some brief stops at Chicago and New York. We’ll look into how jazz developed on the west coast, as well as how it was shaped and influenced by the east, defining itself by what the east was not. We’ll also look at a couple west coast jazzers, and see what they brought to the table.

West Coast Jazz

Around the same time that “cool” jazz was hitting its stride, new music on the west coast was being labeled under a huge umbrella. It was jazz, yes, but the umbrella category of “West Coast” enveloped most music made in the area. The main marketing strategy of the West Coast label was to define themselves by what the east coast wasn’t. Mainly, this meant ramping up the whiteness.

“If Blue Note records were all dark tones, interiors, stark club shots, and African-American males, Contemporary and Pacific Jazz were sunbeams and waves, models in swimsuits, motorbikes, pastel abstract art, and white musicians” (p. 186).

While West Coast jazz was promoted and marketed as a largely white trend, the west coast did indeed have a rich history of jazz. “In Los Angeles, especially, there was a vital black community in the first decades of the twentieth century, and the area known as Central Avenue was the focus of what has only lately been wisely recognized as an important black jazz community” (p. 185).

While that core community of black musicians was crucial to the development of jazz on the coast, many West Coast jazzers originally came from the East. We see this in the first musician we’ll talk about today, Gerry Mulligan.

Gerry Mulligan

Gerry Mulligan was a baritone saxophonist, arranger, and composer from the East Coast, who began as a bebopper with swing influences. As an arranger, he helped bring a dose of bebop to swing and dance. And Mulligan was also a member of Miles Davis’s Birth of the Cool band.

In the early 1950s, Mulligan put together a quartet in California of baritone sax, trumpet, drum, and bass. They explored rhythms and textures freely, and with a light quality, though heavy on collaboration.

“After a few years as a cool musician, in the early 1960s Mulligan began to be considered the essence of all that was ‘mainstream’, a term to indicate players who had a sense of the entire jazz tradition and could play with almost anyone who had come before them” (p. 189).

Jimmy Giuffre

While he may be lesser known (I’d never heard of him), Jimmy Giuffre was one of the most widely recorded musicians of his time. “He could be found on many of the records coming from the West Coast in the ’50s, either as an arranger or soloist, and his own records in the late ’50s and early ’60s broke with precedent” (p. 190).

One of the characteristics of Giuffre’s records was their volume. They were quiet, with instruments playing at lower ranges than others at the time. This consequently contributed to Giuffre seeming less radical than he was.

“Yet four years before the changes in jazz that were marked in 1959 by the innovations of Ornette Coleman, Miles Davis, and John Coltrane, Giuffre was pointing the way toward them with new means of collective improvisation, fragmented melody lines, reexamination of the conventional roles of the instruments, and the presence of an implied rather than a stated beat” (p. 191).

Final Thoughts

It’s interesting to see how trends in marketing influenced the way a genre was perceived. West Coast jazz was marketed to mainstream, white audiences, and in some ways forgot about (or ignored) its roots. Or they were just captivated by the ocean and the beach. The mere presence of California’s glossy shores no doubt inspired countless other musical conquests (surf rock, I’ looking at you).

That about covers our discussion of West Coast jazz for today. Next time, we’ll have a triple-feature with a discussion on Hard Bop, Soul Music, and Funk.



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