The first string

My friend challenges me to come up with a list of what he calls the "first string jazz team of all time."

Well. This is a mighty tall order, and it raises all sorts of questions. For example, should I confine my list to players alone, or may I include composers who've gifted us with the fruits of their genius without any special distinction on a particular instrument? Or would my list include small ensemble players only? Big band? What about electronic vs. acoustic instruments? What about arrangers?

I decided to make a stab at the problem anyway, given my excessive need to take stock of my taste every once in a while, and also because it's fun to move the chess pieces about to get a sense of texture, to imagine the tonal colors that could result from the combinations of musicians who never performed together.

Having made several lists, I realized that my dream ensemble probably should take on the aspect of an inflated septet with some behind-the-scenes support personnel who might otherwise take a place on the bandstand. How will this play wth my readers? I thought. But then, I figured, it's my band, and most of its members are dead anyway. So what does it matter?

Each time one of the major magazines does a jazz poll, I'm always struck by the crowd that would take the stage, numbers that would require a ringmaster to prevent a musical train wreck. So I pared down my original lists to what follows, with a proviso for a rotating system that would fill in each of the chairs with a difference musician on each night of the heavenly gig and the occasional inclusion of, say, two tenors and no altos, just for textural variety. Just imagine ....

So, ladies and gentlemen, I present (drum roll) The First String:

Pianos: McCoy Tyner, Bill Evans and Art Tatum. Tyner gets the first chair because his style provides just the kind of mortar that my imaginary band would require in its rhythm section. His internal metronome handles polyrhythms and straight time with equal ease. He's a damned fine soloist, as well, but, unlike Evans and Tatum, he brings an extra dimension of serving the tune so crucial to the success of such a varied aggregation as mine. For one night of the engagement, I imagine Tyner, Evans and Tatum taking the stage and leaving it bloody after a lengthy workout on "Sweet Georgia Brown."

Alto saxophones: Charlie Parker and Paul Desmond. Any compiler of lists who neglected to include Charlie Parker should be hooted out of the jazz fraternity on grounds of general ignorance, and, heaven knows, I like it here. But there is another reason that Parker goes to the head of the line in my alto section: he altered the concept of jazz as a raucous, free-flowing, joyful music to include the intellect, and in so doing, he demonstrated the possibilities for freedom that, paradoxically, inhere in structure. No small feat, that. And from the horn of Paul Desmond have issued the purest, sweetest sounds since Johnny Hodges. His style is breathier and more deliberate than Parker's, but it would have been a glorious primer in scalar possibility to hear them blow together. Besides, Desmond wrote "Take Five" and that alone qualifies him for a statue in the city center.

Tenor saxophones: John Coltrane and Joe Henderson. Trane stands as the giant tenor man in the first century of jazz history. His journey of musical and spiritual exploration stands without equal in the annals of our music. His canon is a map of jazz's journey from after-hours recreation to artistic respectability and he stands shoulder to shoulder with the other giants who transformed jazz into a genre worthy of serious study. Joe Henderson, like most other tenor players, was overshadowed in many ways by the Coltrane legacy, but he also benefited from it. In addition, he labored in the service of the tenor during some pretty lean years and managed to compile a personal oeuvre that consistently delights with its innovation, while at the same time paying homage to jazz tradition. Coltrane never fails to surprise; Henderson never fails to delight. Third chair in this category goes to Sonny Stitt, just because he's great.

Drums: Elvin Jones and Tony Williams. Two polyrhythmic geniuses who never -- and I mean never -- have been daunted by a chart, a jam, a digression, an interpolation or, I suspect, abuse from the leader of the band. There are many fine drummers I could have included here -- Gene Krupa, Buddy Rich and Joe Morello come immediately to mind -- but it seems to me that a study of the progression in style of late-20th century jazz percussion could begin and end with these two. Tony is, sadly, deceased, and Elvin is getting up there in years, but I'd give just about every book in my library for a chance to see them trading fours.

Basses: Ray Brown, Ron Carter and Charles Mingus. I give Brown first chair because of his long and honorable -- and impressive -- contributions to so many of the standard recordings that all of us love. Carter pulls into the second seat for having learned all Brown's virtues, none of his flaws, and advancing the cause of the bassist as melodist. Mingus the theorist, Mingus the composer, Mingus the bassist is sui generis and brings a raucousness to this section that not only is startling, but productive. He's the grain of sand in the oyster.

Trumpets: Louis Armstrong and Miles Davis. With Satchmo began the grand march. He set the tone for 20th century jazz, proselytized all over the globe on its behalf and became the single most universally loved and revered figure our music has produced, Duke Ellington having been the only challenger to Armstrong's canonical status. When Pops played, the world was full of clear light and happiness. Then along came Miles, one of his biggest fans, who added shades and shadows to jazz. The thread he picked up led him, and us, into territories often terrifying. But, more than anything, Miles made jazz real to the average listener. We understood the spit and teeth of being a musician. The bandstand was awash in the foolish light of a smoky, noisy nightclub. No two men have contributed more to jazz. And the work of each required the leavening influence of the other.

Electronics: Joe Zawinul and Herbie Hancock. Zawinul gets the first chair by virtue of his longer and more sustained devotion to the electronic medium and the European sensibilities that have enriched not only electronica, but jazz as a whole. Hancock's talents as a pianist are well-documented and have earned him a stand-in place in the keyboard section of my dream band. But his flirtation with electronics in the 1970s -- and a flirtation it was, as witness his return to the acoustic piano -- still left the stamp of influence on the medium. But Zawinul knows how to play the electronic card and can almost sustain a band on his own.

Vibraharps: Lionel Hampton, Milt Jackson and Gary Burton. Hamp gets the first chair for being Hamp, for bringing this wonderful instrument along the road of possibility, and for "Flying Home." Bags is the quintessential man of elegance who helped re-infuse jazz with its ancestral classical blood and for enriching the possibility of the instrument. Burton is the intellectual who can tie it all together. These three represent styles that are as complementary as the various talents of The Beatles.
Composers: Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn and Thelonious Monk. Monk might seem a strange addition to the congenial talents of Strayhorn and Ellington, but with these three men at the composing tiller, no band could go wrong. Ellington gave us "Solitude," Strayhorn gave us "Lush Life" and Monk gave us "'Round Midnight." There are no songs to rival their beauty.

Arrangers: John Lewis and Gil Evans. Where Lewis is elegant and impeccable, Evans is adventurous and intuitive. If Lewis advocates classicism, Evans champions modernism. Together, there would have been a breathtaking team.

So there it is. The First String. Vocalists and guitarists will their day soon. In the meantime, my readers, ponder these giants and make a list of your own. You'll come away with an idea of jazz that is new, yet familiar. I guarantee it.