Archive for August, 2010

The case for Bob Graettinger and other musical experimenters of the late 1940s

I wrote this short little essay a few years ago for an email group I belong to, so I thought I might post it here.

When the big bands of Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, Artie Shaw and Harry James were at their height of popularity in the late 1930s and early 1940s they primarily played popular tunes designed for their dancing and light entertainment value. With the rise of other popular forms of music, especially vocalists, and the waning public interest in big bands as entertainment vehicles, some of the surviving bands of the mid-to-late 1940s began to experiment with music that was designed to be listen to. This change in musical direction also accompanied a gradual shift in performing venues, from ballrooms to concert halls. The biggest names to go in this direction were Duke Ellington, Boyd Raeburn, Dizzy Gillespie, Woody Herman and of course Stan Kenton.

Removing many of the necessary musical requirements to please the dancing public composers and arrangers, by the late 1940s, became free to try writing jazz music that incorporated elements such as irregular rhythms, the absence of a bass line or a steady pulse from the drums, original melodies that were not singable, dissonant harmony, different types of ensemble voicings, longer sections for improvisation. While some of the music written during that time is forgettable, or rather more graciously heard as “noble experiments,” there are many memorable pieces including George Handy’s The Bloos and Dalvatore Sally, George Russell’s Cubana Be Cubana Bop, Eddie Sauter’s Hangover Square, as well his exquisite arrangement of Summertime, Ralph Burn’s Summer Sequence, Gil Evans’ arrangements of La Paloma and Spanish Dance, Duke Ellington’s The Tattooed Bride and The Clothed Woman, Bob Graettinger’s City Of Glass and the many compositions and arrangements of Pete Rugolo and Stan Kenton, including the Prologue Suite and Artistry In Percussion. I hear the musical explorations of that time as being very liberating and that these musical experiments, failed or not, deserve to be seriously considered for what they helped to give to the future of jazz arranging and composition. Consider the mere idea of a Fugue For Rhythm Section (Pete Rugolo) let alone its intrinsic value.

While European musical developments after WWII had a long musical history to build upon, or reject, jazz composers had no extensive history of big band music as a form of ‘art music’ and were creating something quite new. Duke Ellington’s large scale work Black, Brown and Beige from 1943 was criticized for its failings in relation to European composition. But, there was no structural model, or tradition, for Duke’s new ideas. The same can be said about the work of Pete Rugolo, Eddie Sauter and Bob Graettinger.

Despite the mixed results of Graettinger’s work for Stan Kenton, I feel that both his compositions and his arrangements of standards are the ultimate in musical liberation for their time, akin to the work of Charles Ives, another musical anomaly. Yes, Graettingter’s music is audacious and sometimes totally overwhelming in sound. However, judged in its place in time it should be, if not loved, appreciated for what it helped bring to jazz composition and arranging.

By the late 1950s this tendency to incorporate concepts of classical composition into jazz music was finally given a label by Gunther Schuller - Third Stream Music. While this term does tend to evoke the late 1950s, the idea is still with us in the present work of Bill Holman, Bob Brookmeyer, Jim McNeely, Maria Schneider and many other contemporary composers and arrangers. These writers have moved away from the formulaic chorus forms of jazz to a more European model of compositional ideal - that of musical development. On top of this they bring the rhythms of jazz, space for improvisation and opportunities for self expression by the performers. With more time (roughly 60 years) modern jazz composers have developed a greater sense of control and balance in their work. Those musical experiments of the mid-to-late 1940s are what we have built many of our present day big band compositional and arranging aesthetic values upon. I am very grateful to our preceding masters for having shown us a way.

Categories

Archives