A history of jazz in four versions of “Oh, Lady be Good” by Hawkins, Young, Parker, Konitz:
1. Coleman Hawkins in 1934. Note the rhapsodic, operatic quality, non-diatonic notes, and a key change. Recorded with the English musicians Stanley Black, piano, Albert Harris, guitar, and Tiny Winters, bass.
2. Lester Young in 1936. Pres’s most famous solo is probably his LBG with “Jones-Smith.” Countless musicians have memorized these 64 bars. If rhythm track were taken away you could still follow Young’s beat. The great Walter Page is transcribed as well.
3. Charlie Parker in 1940. Bird was only 20 when he took this marvelous chorus with a Jay McShann group in Wichita, Kansas. It’s an astonishing collection of perfectly formed phrases, several of which are Presidential in nature. McShann is on piano with Gene Ramey and Gus Johnson, a band very much in the Basie-Page-Jones tradition.
4. Lee Konitz in 1953. With Gerry Mulligan alongside Chet Baker, Joe Mondragon, and Larry Bunker. This is one of the most obviously virtuosic solos on this page: go ahead, Lee! 1953.
There are several more bootleg Lester Young LBG solos from the magical pre-1941 period. Certain Youngian phrases return with regularity but Lester always plays something surprising. Konitz was right to suggest that Young’s bridges could be where the unexpected happens.
Crammed into the tiny Famous Door with the rest of the Basie band, Herschel Evans soloed first and Young cleaned up. The two versions from 1938 are not that different. Based on these (and a couple of other things I know, like the magnificent “Blue and Sentimental”) it seems like Herschel Evans had a huge sound, explored tonal color, and didn’t play many lines. Playing a line was Young’s department.
On the 1939 Carnegie Hall concert, LBG was performed twice. With the Kansas City Seven (Basie, Freddie Green, Page, Jo Jones), Young foreshadows Warne Marsh to an amazing degree. In a blindfold test I would guess the final eight bars to be Marsh! Page breaks up the quarter note a bit, too.
The second version is a long jam with drummer Nick Fatool and possibly Artie Bernstein on bass. Is Young playing in 7/4 when going into the second bridge?
The final bootleg from that era is from when Young, Basie and other Basieites sat in with some of Benny Goodman’s band. Young clearly plays several bars of 5/4 towards the end of his solo.
Chu Berry took over Herschel Evans’s chair for the Basie band studio recording of LBG. (Evans had suddenly taken ill and tragically died of a heart ailment shortly after; Berry would die far too young himself.) Berry’s beat is more traditionally Hawkins than modernistically Young, but his surprising chromatic lines prefigure bebop.
Young feels the heat, and responds with an avant-garde statment. People don’t like this solo (Büchmann-Møller, Evensmo, and Schuller are all dismissive in the extreme), but I love it. It’s a true WTF? moment, and and arguably prefigures future surrealists like Thelonious Monk and Eric Dolphy.
Lewis Porter suggested this solo to me in conversation; I had not heard of it before. This “avant” solo—so very different from the canonical one—sparked the idea of transcribing all the pre-1941 LBG Young solos.
Charlie Parker and Lester Young both played on a famous LBG jam with Jazz at the Philharmonic. Both Parker and Young’s styles have changed dramatically from their earlier LBG performances. Parker is now non-diatonic and plays with deep blues feeling and high bebop phraseology. Young is heavier and slower than before. With Arnold Ross, piano, Billy Hadnott, bass, and Lester’s brother Lee Young, drums. 1946.
The final Pres LBG I took down is from a Carnegie Hall concert with JATP in 1950. The rhythm section is Hank Jones, Ray Brown, and Buddy Rich. It’s in F, not G. Young’s diatonic harmonic conception is the same, although a couple of chromatic lines might allude to bebop. I only took down the first two choruses: as you can hear, the rest of the performance is colorful honking.
The audience clearly loves the honking. Ornette Coleman said in Four Lives in the Bebop Business: “The tenor is a rhythm instrument, and the best statements Negroes have made, of what their soul is, have been on tenor saxophone…The tenor’s got that thing, that honk, you can get to people with. Sometimes you can be playing that tenor, and I’m telling you, the people want to jump across the rail.”
However, in the same book, Coleman discusses how disappointed he was the one time he saw Young live in Texas, Young played in a style “where you ride the same note for about forty to fifty bars.” I myself wish that there were less honking and fewer one-note rides on some of the later Young records… but, perhaps live, I would have jumped the rail myself.
“Oh, Lady Be Good” was a basic repertory staple for many years. It’s kind of a mix of the blues and rhythm changes: the second bar is a fat dominant IV chord, just like the blues, and the form is AABA, just like rhythm. Pre-bop jazz players were understandably pleased by its cheerful folkloric qualities.
We know that jazz used to be an oral tradition. Dave Gelly says that Young never learned to read chord changes. If true, that’s not really surprising: how many pianists who play Bach today can read figured bass? If you don’t do that kind of math as a kid, it’s really a bother to learn it as an adult.
When did chord changes come in, anyway? Did Bird read changes or only play by ear? Are there changes on Monk’s own charts? Did they ever start appearing in the Duke Ellington library, and if so, when?
At any rate, jazz musicians are stuck with chord changes now. I think that’s a mixed blessing—and I’m going to try to show why with these LBG solos.
For bar two of LBG, most of us today would write “C9” since there’s a strong melody note, D, over a C dominant chord.
The first and third bars have more leeway: I personally would write only “G,” but many would put “G major seventh” or “G6.”At any rate, the first three bars would look something like this: G/C9/G.
A IV-dominant that doesn’t go anywhere but back to the tonic resembles the blues. LBG’s popularity with the early jazzers must be partially due to this easy blues feeling in the second and third bar. It’s Gershwin’s “blues move.”
With me so far?
Ok, check this out: hardly any of the above solos really observe the “blues move,” especially Young, Parker in 1940, and Konitz. Usually everyone just plays in the tonic key until the 5th bar. Tellingly, even though Basie plays C9 when he plays LBG’s melody, he doesn’t insist on it behind Young when comping. Instead, Basie frequently plays just a C6, often with a spicy C# diminished seventh towards the end of the bar. Basie is probably doing this because he knows his soloists are more likely to play B natural than Bb on the second bar.
I expected this diatonic or “hiding the blues” from Young and Konitz, but was rather floored by how everybody else does it too. (See especially Hawkins’s rhapsodic moment in bar 12, although he is also the only player who arpeggiates a C7 in bar 28.) The person who threads the changes the most is Bird in 1946, but his whole solo is drenched in the blues anyway.
I looked around my collection to see what even more modern musicians did. LBG is not nearly as popular after 1950, but Sonny Stitt and Dexter Gordon don’t do much of the “blues move” when they played it together in 1960. Perhaps most tellingly, Thelonious Monk’s version of LBG’s changes is in F as “Hackensack,” and the second bar is not Bb9! Instead, it’s F min 7 going to Bb7 flat 5. It’s a moment of bebop changes, not Gershwin’s “blues move.”
My real point so not to prove anything about LBG or the blues in general. What I’m interested in is how loose and harmonically open all this earlier jazz is. Some of my peers regard earlier jazz as harmonically restricted. It’s less complicated, true. But those unworried diatonic/bluesy rubs seem more harmonically open than today’s common practice of carefully agreed-upon changes, substitute changes, and advanced extensions.
When the soloist, pianist, and bassist all move in lockstep, with everybody playing exactly the same chords and chord scales at all times, it can get pretty antiseptic. There’s no “funk.”
Early jazz is much more funky. Jelly Roll Morton and James P. Johnson do not always reflect the same harmony their left and right hands. It’s funky: not overtly in a blues sense, but in a diatonic sense. It’s almost next door to Stravinskyian neo-classicism: any note is acceptable as long as you are playing in the key. That’s exactly the way all the solos on this page relate to the band.
But even within the band there’s often a casualness to the harmony, an aesthetic that confuses academics like Gunther Schuller. In the massive volumes Early Jazz and The Swing Era, Schuller frequently criticizes the bass, guitar, and piano when they aren’t together harmonically. (Schuller takes time out to note Page and Basie’s “collisions” in “Shoe Shine Boy”—collisions that I’m sure have only bothered one listener in history: Gunther Schuller.)
I think Schuller is not just uptight but completely wrong. Indeed, it’s technically and historically correct for the rhythm section not to be precisely together. It makes it “funky” or “raw.”
The “raw” aesthetic has extended to modern jazz as well, especially in the bass. It’s how Jimmy Garrison played with John Coltrane and how Charlie Haden played with Keith Jarrett.
These days, many young jazz players learn about how to play on standard chord changes by looking at a sheet from a Jamey Aebersold Play-A-Long. To go back to LBG for a moment: I worry that handing a soloist a sheet of paper with the second bar marked “C9” and the scale C E D F# G A Bb on it is far less musically valuable than knowing whatever pool of common-practice tradition all the above players possessed.
Lester Young had another argument for not bothering with the paper. Lee Young said to Patricia Willard:
[Lester] loved to play jam sessions and loved to not to know the tune…. If you were playing a tune the instrumentalist – the soloist – didn’t know, well, it was fashionable for the pianist to turn around and say, E-flat-seventh, you know, D-flat, C major – he wouldn’t want that. If he didn’t know the tune, he’d say, “Don’t call the chords to me. Just play the chords, and I’ll play.” And I’d seen him do it many a time, you know; they just started playing, and he didn’t know it, but he would play it.
But he would say that it confines you too much if you know it’s a Db7, you know, you start thinking of the only notes that will go in that chord, and he would say that’s not what he would hear. He wanted to play other things and make it fit. And he did. And I think most of the great musicians could do that, you know?