Jablonski, Marek (Michael)

Small groups and soloists of the swing era

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6. Small groups and soloists of the swing era.

While big bands offered many musicians steady employment and professional training during the 1930s and 40s, smaller groups were also prevalent. They approached the problem of balancing composition and improvisation in different ways, ranging along a continuum from the highly controlled to the loosely coordinated. The Raymond Scott Quintette and John Kirby Sextet were like miniature big bands, specializing in precisely executed and, at times, intricate arrangements that displayed the talents of arrangers as much as players. Other small groups were less rigorously scripted, relying more on head arrangements (memorized riffs and harmonized parts scattered throughout a given piece) or using composed sections to start pieces followed by improvised solos and ad lib final choruses for the full ensemble. This looser approach, shifting the balance away from writers toward improvising instrumentalists, can be heard on recordings by the Kansas City Six (made up of members of Count Basie's big band) and the various Ellington and Goodman small-band units of the late 1930s. Looser still, on the opposite end of the spectrum from Scott and Kirby, were groups that adopted an informal, jam session approach. Musicians in these settings depended little or not at all on pre-planned parts, relying instead on familiar performing conventions and a common musical vocabulary to play a repertory drawn largely from the 12-bar blues and familiar popular songs such as I got the rhythm, Sweet Georgia Brown and Lady, be good. Such ensembles could be heard in many situations: in night clubs when the regular evening's entertainment was over; on recordings, like those made for Milt Gabler's Commodore label, that assembled skilled improvisers in the studio and let them generate performances with minimal rehearsal; on the soundtrack to Gjon Mili's film Jammin' the Blues (1944), which re-created a late-night session using such players as the saxophonists Lester Young and Illinois Jacquet, the trumpeter Harry ‘Sweets’ Edison and the drummers Sid Catlett and Jo Jones; in the series of ‘Jazz at the Philharmonic’ concerts launched by the impresario and record producer Norman Granz (1944), which, like the Commodore recordings and Mili's film, set up controlled performing contexts within which jazz musicians were expected to play with freedom and spontaneity.

Small groups were particularly valuable in honing the skills of soloists. They gave individual players more time to develop their ideas than was customary (or practical) in big-band arrangements. The pianist Sammy Price recalled stopping in a Kansas City club one night when a jam session was underway, going home, then returning over three hours later to find the same piece still being played. In competitive contests or ‘cutting sessions’, musicians took turns building long, virtuosic solos designed to vanquish the opposition. Small-group recordings did not permit such extended excursions, but they could still let soloists shine in the spotlight. The several sides made for Commodore in 1940 by the Chocolate Dandies (featuring the trumpeter Roy Eldridge, tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins and alto saxophonist Benny Carter) placed emphasis on individual statements rather than on ensemble playing. On the ballad I surrender dear, Hawkins states the theme in the first chorus, Eldridge solos in the second chorus, then Hawkins returns for the third; all the while the rhythm section sustains behind them a steady, secondary accompaniment. This practice of placing a higher value on creative soloing than on sectional interplay and group collaboration differed markedly from that of the big bands of the swing era (as well as the New Orleans and Chicago groups of the 1920s), which strove for more parity between soloing and ensemble playing.

The emphasis on solos in small-group jazz of the 1930s and 40s set new standards of virtuosity and instrumental proficiency. Hawkins inspired other saxophonists who wished to learn some of the advanced ideas he applied to the changes (chord progressions) of popular songs; trumpeters admired Eldridge's control of the upper register and daring construction of phrases. The pianist Art Tatum, who performed both as soloist and with his trio at the Onyx on 52nd Street, brought to jazz a new combination of harmonic savvy, playful wit and transcendental technique: what he did seemed so impossible that it helped raise the ceiling for what other musicians might accomplish. The guitarist Charlie Christian, with his fluent, horn-like phrasing and clean articulation, demonstrated how his instrument could assume a leading soloistic role in jazz, and Jimmy Blanton performed a similar function for the bass through his work with Ellington's orchestra (1939–41).

The rise of virtuosity in jazz was due not just to exceptionally talented individuals, however. In the USA opportunities for instrumental instruction in high schools and colleges helped improve the general level of musicianship. Black American teacher-bandleaders like N. Clark Smith and Walter Dyett in Chicago fostered the development of many young black musicians – among them Lionel Hampton, Nat King Cole, Milt Hinton and Ray Nance – who later moved into the world of big bands and instrumental jazz. Jimmie Lunceford's popular orchestra grew out of the student group, the Chickasaw Syncopators, formed at a high school in Memphis. Another band that emerged from an institutional programme was the all-female International Sweethearts of Rhythm, formed in 1939 at the Piney Woods Country Life School in Mississippi. By the early 1940s, the general technical ability of jazz players was significantly higher than it had been a decade or two earlier: recordings of both small groups and big bands demonstrate this convincingly.


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