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From Charlie Parker to Eddie Johnson, remembering jazz centenarians during a pandemic

Howard Reich, Chicago Tribune on

Published in Entertainment News

This was going to be a year of great jazz centennials.

For 1920 marked the birth of several jazz musicians who either changed the course of the music or deeply enriched it. Festivals, themed concerts and other events around the world would have celebrated their centenaries and honored their vast legacies.

But all that has been canceled or postponed as the coronavirus has shut down clubs, concert halls and festivals.

So for the time being, let's raise a glass to some of the innovators, visionaries and iconoclasts who made 1920 an indelible year in jazz and changed the way we hear and think about the music:

Charlie Parker, Aug. 29, 1920 -- March 12, 1955. Of all the jazz languages that coursed through the 20th century, none has been more dominant or shown as much creative resilience as bebop. And no one did more to invent its syntax than Parker. Alongside trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and others, Parker crafted an idiom of fast-moving chord changes and faster-flying figurations. There was more than just speed and technical wizardry involved, though, for Parker developed complex improvisational methods that transformed the way musicians understand harmony and dissonance. That Parker also happened to be the most formidable alto saxophone virtuoso ever to bring a reed to his lips broadened the scope of his achievements.

Dave Brubeck, Dec. 6, 1920 -- Dec. 5, 2012. Early in his long career, pianist-composer Brubeck was condescended to by a certain subset of jazz aficionados. How could a musician so popular among the masses and so prolifically played on the radio possibly have anything to offer those who considered themselves cognoscenti? The joke was on them, of course, as Brubeck's music teemed with new ideas in rhythm, meter, structure and scale, all the while subtly embracing elements of Western classical music. Then, too, Brubeck's role as a champion of social and racial justice enhanced his importance in American culture, and beyond. And no one played the piano quite the way Brubeck did, an unmistakable sense of joy emanating from every grandly conceived chord.

John Lewis, May, 3, 1920 -- March 29, 2001. Just about everything that pianist-composer-bandleader Lewis did ran counter to conventional notions of what jazz was supposed to be. The elegance and tenderness of his pianism, the heightened subtlety of his arrangements and the unmistakable influence of centuries-old classical music argued that there was more to jazz than just its rambunctious, freewheeling spirit. In Lewis' hands, the art form could capture fragility, delicacy and transparency. All these welcome characteristics, and others, radiated from the Modern Jazz Quartet, which Lewis led for decades, opening up new realms of sonic possibility.

Clark Terry, Dec. 14, 1920 -- Feb. 21, 2015. Some musicians are at least as important for the influence they have on others as for the music they create themselves. Trumpet masters such as Miles Davis, Wynton Marsalis and Nicholas Payton have credited Terry for having encouraged them in the earliest days of their careers. The golden lyricism of Terry's work on trumpet and flugelhorn (an instrument he brought into the jazz mainstream) affected those trumpeters and uncounted others. Terry also helped shatter the color barrier on national TV, in the 1960s earning a place in Doc Severinsen's "Tonight Show" band. At the center of it all, of course, was Terry's sound, as warmly inviting and nimbly dexterous as any in jazz.

 

Peggy Lee, May 26, 1920 -- Jan. 21, 2002. Singer-songwriter Lee proved that a vocalist needn't shout to be heard around the world. Her soft-and-sly vocals delighted jazz devotees and brought the music to huge audiences across the decades, thanks to hit recordings such as "Why Don't You Do Right?" "Fever," "It's a Good Day" and "Is That All There Is?" There were no vocal acrobatics involved, no virtuosic scat singing, no sense of self-regard or ostentation. Instead, Lee taught the jazz world the value of understatement, the eloquence of minimalism, the beauty of saying everything with a few well-chosen notes. The voiceovers Lee did in the Disney film "Lady and the Tramp," as well as the tunes she wrote for the film with Sonny Burke, proved there was so much more beneath the seemingly simple surface of her work than casual listeners may have realized.

Art Van Damme, April 9, 1920 -- Feb. 15, 2010. Jazz can find its voice on practically any instrument -- yes, even the accordion. Anyone who doubts it surely never heard Van Damme in concert. What Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie could do on their horns, Van Damme could articulate on an instrument long unfairly mocked, thanks to generations of terrible practitioners. To hear Van Damme toss off lightning-quick runs on the bebop standard "Robbins Nest" or producing a feathery touch at a breakneck tempo in "Look Down That Lonesome Road" was to marvel at what the accordion can do – in the right hands. Just as no vocalist ever has matched Ella Fitzgerald's technical prowess nor any pianist equaled Art Tatum's keyboard feats, so no accordionist ever has approached Van Damme's mastery, and none probably ever will.

Hazel Scott, June 11, 1920 -- Oct. 2, 1981. Women never have received equal time, attention or support in jazz and still don't. But pianist-vocalist-composer Scott somehow transcended long-standing barriers, bringing her ebullient art to clubs, concert halls, recording studios, radio, TV, Broadway and movies. Her musical cameos in Hollywood films captured her ferocious energy and Lisztian manner on piano, Scott proving that classical technique and jazz-swing rhythm are thoroughly compatible. When she played stride piano, you had to marvel at the dexterity and marksmanship of her extraordinary left hand.

Eddie Johnson, Dec. 11, 1920 -- April 7, 2010. If you frequented jazz sessions on Chicago's South Side a few decades ago, you invariably encountered the big and bluesy sound of Johnson's tenor saxophone. It seemed to embody so much of what mid-20th century Chicago jazz was all about. When Johnson played a ballad, there was no resisting the tonal depth and melodic ingenuity of his work. As Chicago saxophonist Eric Schneider once told me, "I always used to say, 'Fellas, hold on to your ladies, because Eddie Johnson's going to play a ballad, and you may lose 'em.'"

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