Jazz by the pair 

One of the great mysteries for lovers of art is the location of the line that separates importance from mere recreation. Where, for example, does reading Shakespeare cross the frontier that lies between these two qualities of the literary drama? At what point does one find oneself away from his easy chair, where he'd parked to while away a rainy afternoon, and in the intellectual grip of history, romance, tragedy? Where does pleasure end and instruction begin? Or are they simultaneous?

That this division exists surely must be so, otherwise great art would have no more significance than whittling a twig or twiddling the thumbs.

I once put this question to a young college student I know. He gave me a lot of talk about duality and the functions of the various regions of the brain, and he borrowed liberally from all the explanations he'd found in the most recent texts he'd read. But when our discussion ended, he was baffled and I was inspired, because I believe that most people don't like to think about insoluble questions and, as a consequence, miss out on a lot that is valuable all around them. We've had the same talk since, and, though we're not any closer to an answer, we're kicking the notion around so thoroughly that I see his light up as new possibilities occur.

Let us take my young friend's disquisition on duality. His tendency has been to think of this basic question of two natural characteristics, like or unlike, as necessarily exclusive, and I hold that they are not. What to some is duality is to other merely friction. And complements do arise from differences.

Let us apply this to jazz. Are not the very notions of harmony and dissonance products of duality?

Jazz is so absolutely and everlastingly shot through with such examples that a comprehensive list would take months, even years, to compile.

When Charlie Parker recorded with strings for the first time, the departure from the accustomed characteristics of bebop split his audience. It made no difference that hipsters who had sung his praises now offered, at best, bewilderment and, at worst, vilification. But the blending of the two resulted in some recordings that, even at the remove of a half-century, are fascinating documents.

To be sure, not all such experiments are successful. For example, the marriage of electronics with acoustic instruments doen't always work. Despite the success of uniting electricity with the guitar or organ, certain instruments, -- say, saxophones -- sound, well ... amateurish, even when played by a master. Sonny Stitt had a flirtation with an electrified tenor and I can hardly bear to hear it. Or, on such a favorite cut of mine as Les McCann and Eddie Harris' "Compared To What?" Harris blows hard and fine, but his solo always comes out sounding like what one of my friends calls "Eddie Harris on underwater sax."

Nevertheless, this notion of duality does not rule out experimentation; rather, it encourages it, and that is the essence of jazz.

 

Remember: What to some is bewilderingly two-headed is to others merely the occasion of friction. And modification implies some modicum of rejection of previous examples. In matters of approach, style, technique -- yes, even philosophy -- some marvelous things can arise from that friction.

Some other examples:

Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn -- Their musical talents aside, no two men could have been better candidates for favorite enemies than this pair, but they maintained a long and cordial composing and performing relationship that brought us some of the great treasures of jazz, still the standards upon which novice musicians cut their teeth.

Julian "Cannonball" Adderley and Nat Adderley -- Two brothers -- a saxophonist and a flugelhornist -- brought their considerable talents out of Florida and applied them to an exciting and growing subgenre of jazz during the bebop and post-bop eras. The results of their close working relationship until the time of Cannonball's death in the mid-1970s causes one to consider the genetic basis of musical talent. Separate instruments, separate approaches, but the proof's in the grooves.

Miles Davis and Gil Evans -- Davis' humbling imagination went far beyond the trumpet, and Evans' provocative ear for arrangement generated a small shelf of classics, including "Birth Of The Cool," "Porgy And Bess," "Sketches Of Spain" and "Miles Ahead." It's a team I still miss.

Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young -- Young took a lesson from Hawkins, the master, but made practical use of what he'd learned. Hawkins' deep chordal playing gave birth to a more linear and ethereal sound in the playing of Young, a sound that is heard today in much of smooth jazz and also is heard all over the landscape from musicians whose first musical language was bop.

John Coltrane and McCoy Tyner -- Despite the shimmering "sheets of sound" technique that is peculiarly Trane's saxophonic signature, it was pianist Tyner's essentially global sensibility that mortared all those sheets into the monument that exists in the recordings of Coltrane's classic quartet. The modalities in which Trane led the way were second nature to Tyner. Polyrhythms? No problem. Tyner rode drummer Elvin Jones' great waves like a California surfer. Support for the heartbeat? Jimmy Garrison and Tyner could take a turn at duetting that wouldn't have been out of place in a ballroom. All Tyner needed was six ears and another half-dozen hands.

There are other individuals, other examples, other approaches to the duality so beloved of my young friend. I keep an ear open for them.