Is Jazz Improvised? and, What About McCoy, Herbie, Keith, and Chick? (Twitter Files 1)

I have been on twitter a bit over a decade.

Many of the more interesting things I’ve tweeted have ended up here on DTM or on my newsletter Transitional Technology. However, when I downloaded my Twitter archive, I was surprised at how much I’d forgotten.

In recent years my follower count has swelled and there has been more interaction, prompting the occasional multi-tweet rant. Two recent threads are presented here, now lightly edited.

One of the “joys” of Twitter is a basic agreement that everyone is working fast within strict confines. Accuracy and good grammar go out the window, and a certain amount of overreach is acceptable (if not even encouraged).

I’ve seen wonderful Tweeters simply unable to write breezy and readable Substacks. By the same token, taking the tweets out of Twitter and editing them into prose is bad for the content.

It is what it is.

Thread 1:

The more I learn about the tradition, the more I think jazz is NOT improvisation. It’s a repertoire, including what gets played in the solos. Billy Hart calls it “America’s Classical Music” for many reasons.

[In response to Jacob Garchik’s comment about Coltrane’s marvelous opening line on “Limehouse Blues”] Yes! It’s precisely worked out, and I suspect Coltrane told Wynton Kelly, “Hey, don’t comp for my first 8 bars.” In general, the faster the lines, the less improvised they are. That’s why Coltrane practiced so furiously all the time, he was working out his ever expanding repertoire.

True bebop (Bird and Bud) or anyone else authentic in the style sound a certain way because of just how much they aren’t improvising each phrase. The melody, harmony, and rhythm have to land just so.

Of all the greats of his era, Monk might improvise the least. Each phrase is carved in immutable granite, just so. Perfection. As far as I know he never played a wrong note.

Of course Monk mixes it up, he mixes it up constantly, but I’d be surprised if you could find many truly unique phrases during any given Monk solo. My guess is that almost every lovely, perfect phrase exists somewhere else on another Monk record.

Every single 12-bar blues Monk wrote is in B-flat. (This clarity of intent recalls Jimmy Yancey, who ended every blues in E-flat, regardless of key of the piece.) Also, Monk plays similar (and gorgeous) B-flat riffs on every blues. Makes total sense. A practical signature.

Some of my thinking on the topic of improvisation is informed by teaching jazz in recent years. In general, there is simply too much improvisation at the student level. Enough already. Learn the repertoire. My manifesto!

The Tristano school likes to bang the “pure improvisation” drum. However, a big space of “improvisation” in modern jazz is interaction. Paradoxically, the three greatest Tristano school players sound best with a fairly placid rhythm section — just one flaw of their whole “pure improvisation” rap. (To be clear, I love Tristano, Konitz, and Marsh.)

The great Sonny Rollins….Obviously, a thematic improviser of the highest order. But his work also always has fast and essentially un-improvised bebop lines woven into the texture. Those moments of pure bop are just as important as the spontaneous melodies. Both Rollins and Sonny Stitt each take a chorus on “Sonny Side of the Street” with Dizzy Gillespie. Rollins is motivic, Stitt is mostly thrashing through the bop repertoire. Both great. Rollins is obviously improvising more…yet Rollins also needs a few bop phrases for finished statement.

Pure improvised melody with no bop repertoire is valid. My man is Paul Bley (Rollins dug him too). But Bley also sacrifices swing and clarity by taking such risks. It’s great! But it ain’t true bop, let alone “better.” In the classroom I like to make these distinctions clear.

[In response to Todd Bashore’s comment about Gary Bartz.] Bartz says he is a composer, not an improviser, and Billy Hart says this is America’s Classical Music. Why? It’s one way of protecting black music writ large. Jazz education frequently starts in the most Caucasian parts of America with kind of a casual attitude: “Here’s a chart on ‘So What.’ Any of the white notes are ok for the first 16 bars. Play what you feel!”

Treating the jazz greats as composers with specific languages enforces some kind of helpful gatekeeping. It’s fun to play jazz, of course, but it’s not only fun.

Thread 2:

I grew up with the big four: McCoy Tyner, Herbie Hancock, Keith Jarrett, and Chick Corea. There are many other pianists who are just as great but somehow those were the four, at least for my generation.

Needless to say — but I should say it anyway, especially on Twitter — all four are AWESOME. Getting into the weeds and discussing who I love best and why is an exercise in personal taste. A pointless and highfalutin dinner party game. Still can be fun!

The four divide in to two twos: McCoy and Herbie are greater than Keith and Chick. It’s totally obvious, in terms of true command of the true jazz language.

Between McCoy and Herbie, I give it to McCoy. Something about the big four is simply about burning jazz at a quick tempo over interactive bass and drums. There’s no comparison: McCoy all day long. Also, McCoy is the founding father. None of the other three exist without McCoy.

Between Keith and Chick, I give it to Keith. At times he channels something so spontaneous yet also truthful. He’s a huge virtuoso but always puts the music first. Plus, Keith is the most “two-handed” of the four, he actually might sound better without bass and drums.

Chick is a better jazz player than Keith, he knows a lot more about bebop and latin music than Keith. However, Chick’s spontaneous blowing thing can be kinda frantic and one-dimensional. Chick also made an appalling number of terrible, even unlistenable, LPs.

On the plus side, Chick can sit in with anybody and take it to a whole ‘nother level. Herbie can do that too. But when recently listening to Joe Henderson and McBride records from the 90s, I actually thought Chick’s guest appearances were more awesome than Herbie’s.

Don’t leave out quantity, though. In terms of a track record in the studio, Herbie has the fewest duds (and of course many are masterpieces). Almost every Herbie record as a leader (or even as sideman) does what it is supposed to do. This is not true of the other three — by a long shot.

What about the blues? McCoy is the most relaxed blues pianist. It goes from Jimmy Yancey to Monk to McCoy, just back porch casual goodness, strumming a guitar. Herbie is more like Oscar Peterson, a blues thing that (while great) is more studied and notey.

Chick’s blues thing is metallic and abstract, Keith’s blues thing is gospel. Both those approaches are also very cool…but neither have that extra level of unforced blues truth that McCoy has.

McCoy has one final advantage: He was not just John Coltrane’s pianist: Coltrane’s music would be unthinkable without McCoy’s contribution. In the end I regard John Coltrane as the greatest musician. So, another reason to make McCoy the supreme god of the four gods.