FROM JAZZ BANDS TO JAM BANDS


Photo by Anne Cline
Initially the show at the Triple Door was pretty listening-intensive, and the first two tunes required significant concentration on my part. As the set progressed, though, the five musicians sounded like a cohesive unit, and at times like a single instrument. Generally speaking, the structure of the tunes was pretty straightforward: introduction > melody/hook > head/lyrics > individual solos from each member > close. Each tune was fairly similar in that respect, though there may have been some shuffling of parts. The solos were, of course, highly improvisatory and loosely followed a new, or sometimes pre-established, structure. Starting to sound familiar? Let’s take an example that I imagine most of us are more familiar with.


Photo by Anne Cline
The Grateful Dead's "Fire On the Mountain." This song, and much of the Dead’s music, follows a jazz oriented structure to a tee. Both Phil Lesh and Jerry Garcia were heavily influenced by John Coltrane’s seminal albums My Favorite Things, Africa/Brass, and A Love Supreme, and Lesh later posited that the Grateful Dead was more like a jazz band than a traditional rock band in their approach to music. When Miles Davis and the Bitches Brew Band, forerunners in jazz-fusion (jazz with a rock 'n' roll beat), opened for the Grateful Dead at The Fillmore in 1970, Lesh and Garcia recalled their embarrassment at being the headlining band: “Ridiculous,” said Garcia; “Made me feel so dumb,” recalled Lesh.

One of jazz’s biggest influences upon jam bands is a technique known as modal playing. Instead of relying on a definite harmony played around a standard chord progression, modal playing uses rhythmic space as a melodic structuring element, emphasizing one scale, usually just a couple of chords – a major and a minor. This way, a soloist isn’t locked into a chord progression and theoretically has the freedom to play until all the notes have been exhausted. Miles Davis and John Coltrane pioneered modal playing, essentially improvisatory jamming over just a couple of chords. Think about the jams and the solos in “Fire On The Mountain,” or “Wharf Rat,” “Eyes of the World,” or even “Viola Lee Blues”--lengthy improvisations taking place over just two or three chords. Bluegrass music, too, has a fair amount of modal playing and of course an improvisatory nature. The Grateful Dead’s respect for the history of jazz and other styles of music allowed them to take these intellectual components and wed them to a rock 'n' roll backbeat with success still unmatched.


Photo by Anne Cline
When the members of the Grateful Dead formulated their band’s vision, they used Coltrane’s improvisatory ideas as a template. “It was the simplest thing to do because you didn’t have to remember any chords,” said Lesh. Plus, members of the Dead actually played many different styles of music, and gained a flavor that you can’t get simply by listening or imitation. Many times jazz players sat in with the Dead, saxophone players Branford Marsalis appear on Without A Net, and Ornette Coleman and David Murray played with them many times as well. Garcia played on Coleman’s album Virgin Beauty in 1988. A while back Chris Littlefield explained to me his take on jazz as this, “Jazz and soloing are about a language… It’s about understanding the function of scales, chords, melody, harmony and rhythm at the same time and being proficient enough to communicate that way.” The big picture is that Coltrane influenced the musicians who later formed the Grateful Dead, who inadvertently influenced every other jam band out there whether they know it or not; the Dead are jam band royalty.

Both the early and the late shows at the Triple Door were sold out, as were the two nights the quintet had played in Portland, Oregon the two previous evenings. Immediately giving credence to the ideas I’ve discussed, I noted a solid third of the audience was under 30 years old. A red velvet curtain rose, exposing the quintet against a black and fiber-optic lit screen, much like the ceiling in New Orleans’ Saenger Theatre. The set began with the Ravi Coltrane’s composition “For Zoe,” and as the band took solos I noticed it seemed that every note played, and those not played, seemed perfect--that this tune could not have been constructed or played any other way. Of course with jazz or other improvisatory music, we suspect the opposite is true, but it struck me as perfect. A tune called “Saturn” from Rashied Ali and John Coltrane’s original album Interstellar Space was played next. More emotive that many types of music, at times jazz sounds to me like the repeated cycle of instrumental conflict and resolution. One moment Workman would be furiously bowing at his impossibly large bass, the next you could hear his calloused fingers traverse the strings. Notes, tone, and timing often tell you more than words ever can.


Photo by Anne Cline
With the beaming pride of a parent, Ali announced that he was renaming the next tune “J Man,” after its composer, Jumanne Smith. The audience, filled with friends and family, loved that, and it may have been the most blistering tune of the evening. Sounding more elemental and aggressive than either of the previous tunes, it was easier to follow, although complexity didn’t seem to be sacrificed. The audience was becoming more vocal as the evening went along and many of the graying jazzbos kept turning to look from whence the enthusiasm came, as though their stern looks could hamper what was transpiring. Coltrane’s “Mr. PC” was next, followed by “Night Dreamer” by Wayne Shorter, which closed the run. The show was like a musical landscape, each tune a sight along the way, the ebb and flow of the notes dotting it masterfully.

So will jam bands be able to bridge the gap to jazz for a new generation? I’d argue that unless artists go deep into the musical history of the American jazz tradition and take the time to get comfortable, there will be a fundamental communication gap. That’s not to say that music won’t be palatable, but the integrity and quality of the craft are at stake. It’s similar to musicians educating themselves in musical theory. The reason that the Rashied Ali Quintet show at the Triple Door was so phenomenal is that the younger players have taken the time to learn the history--standards, charts, scales and modes--and diligently apply themselves to the craft of improvisatory composition. Chances are, artists who have a pure love of music, learning styles new and old, have a far better chance of creating something unique and meaningful than artists who think jamming began with the Dead. It began with the freedoms taken by visionaries John Coltrane and Miles Davis’ quartets and quintets in the ‘50s and ‘60s. It continued with artists like the Grateful Dead, who brought jazz concepts to the mainstream. Now it is in the capable hands of bands like Medeski Martin & Wood, Garage A Trois, and the Bad Plus. It is these bands, among many others, that I now rely on to be the soundtrack of my life, in the words of Mr. Copland, to “give it expressive meaning,” and for that I am eternally grateful.

Courtnay Scott
JamBase | Seattle
Go See Live Music!

Works cited:
» All About Jazz website: www.allaboutjazz.com
» Jazz website: www.jazz.com
» McNally, Dennis. “A Long strange Trip, The Inside History of the Grateful Dead.” Broadway Books, New York. 2002
» Moses, Bob. “Rashied Ali, Mastery and Mystery,” Modern Drummer Magazine, January 2003
» Personal interview with Chris Littlefield, Summer 2003
» Rashied Ali Quintet Coe Brothers Presents press release
» Relix Magazine, Parting Shots, 2003

[Published on: 5/3/04]

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