The Arts

That Was Jazz

Peter Batten reflects on the passing a Great Briton…

Marian McPartlandEarlier this year I wrote about the great jazz pianist Marian McPartland. Originally from the UK, she had a great career in the United States. Sadly it was announced recently that she has died, aged 96.

Marian’s career really took off in the 1950s. She led her own trio at the Hickory House, a famous jazz bar in New York, and made the first of a series of recordings which were admired all over the world.

As I thought about her achievement, I began to realise how lucky she was. In the 1950s jazz probably reached its fullest development. A hundred years ago jazz music had hardly begun; it did not have a name and its first exponents were often treated with contempt. Nevertheless it rapidly found an audience. By 1919 it reached Britain and the Original Dixieland Jazz Band were hired to play at Buckingham Palace. (Thanks to the Prince of Wales, who always loved to shock his parents.)

Improvisation is fundamental to jazz. At first the amount of actual improvisation was limited; in the early years clarinet players probably did more improvising than other instrumentalists. But, with the arrival of saxophones, in the 1920s, longer solo improvisations became more common. This development co-incided with the development of the popular song. As jazz moved into the 1930s, soloists, and above all saxophonists, began to improvise solos on the more challenging harmonies of the songs of Gershwin, Porter, and many others. This development of jazz reached a peak in 1939 with an outstanding recording of the song “Body and Soul” by the tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins.

At the same time the 1930s saw the rise of Big Bands and the popularity of “Swing”, which thrived from 1935 to after the end of World War II. However, the arrangements of the big “Swing” bands allowed little scope for jazz improvisation. The would-be jazz soloist had to practise his art with small bands in restaurants, clubs and bars. This trend was encouraged by the arrival, during WWII, of Bebop, a style of jazz with a small cult following which baffled the general public, and many jazz fans.

So, by the early 1950s jazz had arrived at what was to be its mature style. It was now a music heard mainly in clubs and bars. A typical jazz band seldom had more than 5 or 6 players. The most common group consisted of a wind instrumentalist, usually a saxophonist, accompanied by a trio of piano, bass player and drummer. The music played would be chosen from the great popular songs, a few original jazz compositions and some 12 bar blues. The focus would be on the improvising ability of all the players involved. This basic group set-up continues to the present day all over the world.

Throughout the 1950s this “mature” jazz enjoyed its greatest success, both as music played “live” and in the recording studios. Marian was very fortunate. She developed a very fine piano jazz trio with the great drummer Joe Morello and her talent was recognised and rewarded. After some problems in the 1960s she went on to even wider recognition and was able to perform her elegant style of jazz almost to the end of her life.

But luck was with her in the 1950s. She mastered the mature style of jazz improvisation just at the time when it was most widely appreciated. Her playing was admired and respected by the leading US jazz musicians and she was able to thrive in New York, the leading jazz city of the world.

As I said in my earlier article“, we should be proud that a British woman had such a remarkable career in the homeland of jazz.

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