While It falls to very few jazz musicians to reach the status of true jazz virtuosi all jazz musicians, particularly instrumentalists/horn players devote much effort to achieving a unique sound. Better still one that is instantly recognisable. And this imperative applies to the small coterie of jazz genii too. Charlie Parker, Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, Ornette Coleman, Sonny Rollins, and Miles Davis are all immediately recognizable for their distinctive sound and timbre long before they are assessed for their status as enduring jazz masters.
What comes across in all the studies and biographies of jazz greats is that their early apprenticeship in the music -often extending to months and years of lengthy and intensive practice was initially focused on copying the sounds and styles of the jazz masters who had particularly impacted on their early listening and exposure to jazz. Their signature sound was developed through a forensic study of the sound world of their chosen heroes. Charlie Parker progressed through Louis Jordan, Don Byas and Lester Young before achieving his own sound. Similarly, Sonny Rollins’ youthful devotion to the sound of Coleman Hawkins his near neighbour in Sugar Hill Harlem was an early influence on the development of his unique sound. While Ornette Coleman is often associated with free jazz his sound is rooted in a deep immersion in the work of myriad journeymen Texas blues saxophonists of the 30’s and 40’s.
So, while the distinctive sounds of great jazz musicians became instantly recognisable, often at a very early stage in their careers, their sound was almost always the product of acute listening to instrumentalists of an earlier generation.
Each of these musicians has, in my option left an indelible mark on both 20th and 21st century music (and not just jazz) in the same way as the influence of J.S. Bach has continued to be felt across the development of “classical music (and of course jazz) up to the present day. Given the immediacy of jazz as a musical form it has been as necessary for the small company of jazz genii to burnish their personal sound landscape as to achieve widespread recognition for their compositional, harmonic, improvisational or rhythmic contributions to the music.
None of the small coterie of jazz revolutionaries, musicians who have left an indelible mark on the development of the music do not also have an instantly recognisable sound.
At a level below the true greats of jazz, by which I mean musicians whose legacies are still being studied, followed, and developed, is a much wider group of musicians who have earned their places in jazz halls of fame through the uniqueness of their sound while embellishing and personalizing the legacy of, say the giants of the bebop generation. I would put Stan Getz, Jackie McClean, Paul Gonsalves, Tubby Hayes, and Freddie Hubbard into this category-much as I have tried to avoid rigid categorisations in my blogs!
Sonny Rollins courtesy of jazzinavailablelight.com
I have no intention of trying to describe the sounds of great jazz performers, that is the role of the accompanying playlist where you will find individual tracks covering 21 modern jazz stylists whose personal sound passes the test of being immediately recognisable. Listen out particularly for;
- Yesterdays the early 60’s track pairing Sonny Rollins with his childhood mentor Coleman Hawkins.
- The steely tenor sound of Charlie Rouse, a fixture in Thelonious Monk’s quartets for 20 years
- Joe Henderson on his debut album playing his own composition Recorda-me that quickly became a jazz standard
- The languid tone of Paul Gonsalves a mainstay of the Ellington band here heard in an obscure London recording in the mid-60’s,
- The chance to compare Gonsalves to the great Scottish tenor player Bobby Wellins whose tone always reminds me of the great Ellingtonian, here playing on Stan Tracey’s classic interpretation of Under Milk Wood.
- The incomparable sound of trombonist Gary Valente on Carla Bley’s The Lord Is Listening to Ya Hallelujah
My playlist focuses predominantly on saxophonists. This is not to say that a similar selection could not be devoted to guitarists, pianists, bassists, and drummers, although I think that might be a more challenging task. Maybe I’ll rise to that challenge in a future blog.