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A JAZZ JOURNEY - 1925-1994


Ken Rattenbury
Parts 1 2/3/4/5/6/7/8/9/10/11/12/13/14/Conclusion

PART V: (1951: just a mention. more later) . . . . .


I SUPPOSE that, from many angles, 1951 was a personal "lift off" year for me; so many things seemed to come to pass, one after the other, that, in retrospect, that particular twelve months has assumed a permanently indelible, rosy aspect in my recollections. And, come to think of it, pretty well all my times in jazz music have been just that - warm, pleasurable, challenging, inviting, adventurous, infinitely exciting and wholly, unashamedly obsessive in their drive. But now, I'm sorely tempted to veer away from anecdotal recollection for a while and root about among the very nuts and bolts of this glorious music of ours. Oh, to heck with it - so I will! Just this once, I promise you . . . . Here comes a sort of Credo, I guess: Was there ever such a vital, questing, thrusting music as this jaxx, I wonder - and then ask myself? No, I answer, for sure there wasn't; a 20th Century phenomenon bristling with startlingly rich potentials and realisations.

Having been reared amidst an atmosphere of some musical naivety, even conservatism (to put it kindly!), I encountered more than a whiff of objection to the ofttimes strange sounds and bizarre timbres which invariably issued forth from our venerable, woebegone, wind- up family phonograph at home. To ears accustomed to the lenitive niceties of the drawing-room ballads, the comfortable conventions of the Silver Prize Bands, the melodic roundnesses of the Gilbert and Sullivan comic operettas, or, in deeper aesthetic waters, the pristine translucencies of your Mozarts and Beethovens, the jazz spectrum, I am bound to say, would surely have conjured up some surface clashes splashed with mismatching hues and anguished cries.

But, no matter, family exceptions dissolved like snow before the sun and I stuck to my jazz: Louis, Duke, Benny, Woody, Earl, Count, Hawk - and later, Pres, Bird and Dizzy - I could go on and on - all became personal buddies, their records were like conversations with the gods. And, gradually, I cottoned on to an indisputable, cast-iron premise; that this music, in the hands of such naturally talented practitioners was by no means the naive, untutored, random, cobbled-up cacophony that the non-jazz minded dogmatists would have us believe it to be.

I once had a brief, pithy altercation with an incorrigibly hidebound, undeservedly highly-ranked (to my way of thinking, then - and now!) herbert from the "serious" (so-called) camp, during which he laid down, with much florid gesticulation, which would have been better employed in conducting a wodge of avant-garde ribaldry, that I was wasting my young life on such a shallow, haphazard, rudimentary anti- music (his description, not mine).

Now, of course, there is absolutely nothing lacking in musics other than jazz (a shattering truism if ever there was one . ..). in their finest manifestations, they are blameless and beautiful and survive the most pernickety analyses of their form, dramatic impact, harmonic content and melodic charm. But so does jazz. Although there is a subtle strain of compartmentalisation: I find it far easier, less hassle (with far less real satisfaction at the outcome). Sure, I find it much more straightforward to break down a typical composed score (where the editing process is built into its assembly by the composer's own stages of rejection, revision and regularisation), than to comment, bar by bar, on the budding and flowering of a jazz improvisation.

Although the same yardsticks of musical practice are rigorously obeyed as in the case of the more leisurely-written, "straight" pieces."Instant Composition" is not an extravagant, hyperbole-scarred label to stick on to a chorus by, say, Louis, Bix, Hodges or Lester Young - their best works are every bit as thoughtful - neat, complete, cogent, comfortably paced and planned (albeit by instinct rather than by painstaking alteration - how could they follow that procedure, in the onward rush of performance?), polished to brilliant reflective incandescence. And so subtle. Because, in the classic blues, in the space of twelve bars we can have instances of vocalised projection, bitonality, extended chromatic chordal voicing, sensuous suspension, all garnished with pinches of piquant, ear-catching dissonance - adding up to a musical exploration of infinite adventure and promise - double-distilled essences of the truest, bluest sounds of jazz; the delta blues, the country blues, the urban blues and so on.

The magnificent Duke Ellington never lost contact, even for a second, it seems to me, with these seminal, juicy sounds. In all of his works - and in the performances of his illustrious sidemen, the poignant timbres and conventions of blues rhetoric were ever-present as a unifying constant. So, yes, now we are able, with the assistance of recorded performances (a miracle facility offering almost total recall), to achieve documentation of all those marvellous musical thoughts and to examine them at leisure and with time to spare, when the true glories and innate complexities are revealed.

This satisfaction was denied to the would-be transcribers and analysts of the pre-recording era, say, mid-nineteenth century, where the subtleties of those smeared blue notes and attendant dissonances (but always properly resolving, never anarchic or random) would have been regarded, I volunteer, as just mistakes, to be corrected before notating to score. With prejudices and technical barriers of this order, it is quite easy to comprehend why the stirrings of the jazz vernacular had attracted such a hostile press shall we say; bringing me back sharply to the aforementioned brush with the musical establishment. Heigh ho!

Of course, you really don't have to go to all that bother - just simply lie back and enjoy it all, as was once suggested in a totally different context. I believe there is no greater compliment, or sense of pleasure, to a jazzman than to observe, "That was a smashing chorus"..... And to take his inspiration, artistry, knowledge and diligently-acquired technical prowess for granted, just glorifying in the polished, finished product, is in itself a generous compliment to the artist. He has spoken to you and you have responded. He has communicated and you have been moved. That's why, I guess, I've moved alongside my beloved jazz for well over a half-century. This essay may well, indeed, constitute a temporary digression from my original brief, a true confession to a lifelong obsession. But there it is - and I KNOW I'm not alone!

Copyright Ken Rattenbury © 1994