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Jazz Corner: Jazz Hot, Cool and Swing

For over a century jazz has not only entertained us, it has contributed to other aspects of life too

Sunil Sampat Nov 25, 2020

American jazz artists Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. Photos: William P. Gottlieb/Wikimedia Commons; Roland Godefroy/GFDL/CC BY 3.0/Wikimedia Commons

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Jazz has enriched the English vocabulary with terms like “hot” and “cool” and “swing.” These terms have emanated from certain moods of jazz music over the years from its process of evolution. Swing, hot and cool are now a colloquial part of contemporary English and used in common conversations and writing, but with entirely different connotations. The jazz connection needs elaboration.

Since this is a column about music, and jazz music, in particular, let us look at how these terms apply to the music and why temperature (Hot and Cool) has anything to do with it.

As jazz marched through the 1930s, times of economic strife, the Great Depression, times of unemployment and prohibition in the U.S.A., the home of jazz, it provided happy, dancing music played by big bands. Patrons of dance halls and night clubs, which were the platforms for the entertainment, could spend an evening of song and dance – and sometimes a little illicit booze in coffee cups – at affordable prices. Some very fine jazz bands would provide the entertainment. Bands such as those of Artie Shaw, Glenn Miller, Red Nichols, The Dorsey Brothers, Benny Goodman, Count Basie and Duke Ellington traveled around the U.S. and played at these venues. Of course, there were several other bands on the circuit as well, but the music was similar – danceable big band music with saxophones, trumpets, trombones creating the excitement and usually being fronted by a singer. This music was happy and optimistic, and the dancers could swing each other around as they danced the jive. This music was dubbed “swing” and the term got into our vocabulary. Swing, the jazz style became a word in English usage.

As World War II was nearing the end and a new sense of energy boosted the spirits and the economy, peace and sanity returned to the lifestyles of people. This new energy coincided with a new approach to jazz with the advent of a new sound called bebop. Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie were the main protagonists of this jazz style, helming this development. Bebop was a fast-paced, in fact, frenetically paced sound of jazz which came from highly skilled musicians who could create and improvise the sound at a very fast tempo. In many ways, bebop was and has been the greatest single development in jazz and perhaps all contemporary music. To this day, music students – including classically trained ones are deconstructing and analyzing bebop to learn and build on the lessons learned from this development. Bebop because of its compelling energy of expression became a “hot” sound. Another term gets transfused from jazz into English lingo.

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However, there is an echo phenomenon at work in jazz, as in other aspects of the arts. As a musical relief from this hot sound, a new movement took place in jazz from around 1950. Trumpet player and bandleader Miles Davis emerged with an album called Birth of the Cool with laid back arrangements and expressions from him and his fellow soloists.

Around the same time, 1950, and independent of Miles Davis’ “cool” movement, The Modern Jazz Quartet (MJQ) was formed. This band was led by pianist John Lewis and vibraharpist Milt Jackson. Both these brilliant musicians were also accomplished bebop stars and their quartet, with Percy Heath on bass and Connie Kay on drums captured the imagination of jazz and non-jazz listeners alike. Unlike Miles’ single foray into the cool zone, the MJQ produced many albums and continued playing their brand of laid back chamber jazz into the 1960s.

The sensational Dave Brubeck Quartet largely played cool jazz (although it is not a separate genre at all) and skyrocketed the popularity of jazz in the 1950s and 1960s by reaching audiences hitherto not jazz listeners. The easy pace and style seemed more palatable to ears not used to jazz. The easier, more laid-back saxophone solos from Paul Desmond, Gerry Mulligan and a few others brought in a larger audience into jazz listenership. Styles like bebop were left for jazz connoisseurs to dig.

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The cool movement also extended to artists like Chet Baker who seemed to express melancholy and wistfulness in his trumpet playing and singing. Among his many albums, the collaboration with Gerry Mulligan became a popular set of albums of his natural cool. Another popular jazz style had just added “cool” to popular English usage.

Jazz always reflects the social mood of the times. The hot phase after the war, the cool phase as society went into cruise control was followed by the electronic phase starting in the late 1960s with the advent of the electronic age in our lives, with the microchip and computer dominating our focus. There is no term for this phase except perhaps the loosely affixed moniker “fusion” a neither here nor there term which perhaps describes the uncertain phase of life of that time. The great Indian flute player Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia once played fusion with some jazz musicians at Mumbai‘s iconic Jazz Yatra in the early 1980s. He called the music “confusion.” That word could not be added to the English language – it was already in it!

Record companies and their marketing teams have tried to create categories for jazz solely to sell more albums. Thus, genres such as easy listening jazz, smooth jazz, acid jazz, groove jazz and others have been created purely for marketing purposes. Don’t fall for these pigeonholes.

They are Fake News!

Sunil Sampat is a jazz critic and Contributing Editor of Rolling Stone India. Write to Sunil at [email protected]

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