OPINION: "Should jazz musicians start taking shorter solos?"

I mean, really, don’t you think more people would give jazz a chance if we even THOUGHT about taking shorter solos?

Christian McBride’s popular tweet (above) has provoked this response from WALLY HOUSER, a friend of LondonJazz News, who was one of the Directors of Ronnie Scott’s from the 1960’s until the club was sold to Sally Greene in 2005. Wally writes:

Should jazz musicians start taking shorter solos?

Now there’s an interesting if somewhat meaningless question. It is rather like “is it hotter in Birmingham than it is in the summer?”

Jazz is an art form first and foremost. That it is also an entertainment in no way demeans its position as an art form. It merely complicates it. Does anyone ask whether artists should paint smaller pictures or carve smaller sculptures? Should novelists be obliged to restrict their works to fewer than 100 pages to accommodate readers with short attention spans? Back to music. Are Mahler’s symphonies too long? Prokofiev’s too short?

Artistic endeavour is not to be assessed by length.

I about 1964 In my early days as a director of Ronnie Scotts we were thrilled to welcome Sonny Rollins. I was talking to him in the tiny bandroom/office of the old club. He suddenly realised he had been announced. So very politely he excused himself, picked up his tenor and started to play How High The Moon at a medium tempo. This while still in the office which he exited and walked through the club playing. The rhythm section picked it up immediately of course and the tune went on for the whole of the set with Sonny resting now and then to allow Stan Tracey to solo. Sonny was at his magisterial best. Nobody was remotely bored. Sonny’s inventiveness saw to that. From time to time there would be a spontaneous outburst of applause which erupted into a massive standing ovation at the end of the set. It was magic. (ALBUM VERSION FROM 1958 HERE)

Charlie Parker’s tenor solo on Milestones (that is the early Milestones with a very complex set of harmonies not the later modal piece with the same name) consisted of eight bars. (FROM [01:15] HERE)  It too is magic.

My late friend Tubby Hayes tended to play very long solos but when it was thought that he was overdoing it ,his brilliant pianist (the now almost forgotten Terry Shannon) would start to shout out the number of choruses played to try to rein him in. At the end of a long solo by Tubby, Ronnie Scott would applaud vigorously and say “ very, very long”

So length of solo is not the issue. It is content that counts. The difficulty is that many jazz players not quite from the top rank tend to try to disguise their deficiencies by pumping out chorus after chorus . If that is necessary for them Oh dear. A ten chorus mediocre solo is ten times worse than a single chorus turkey!

This country cannot boast many world class jazz soloists: Ronnie and Tubby, Peter King, Dick Morrissey, George Shearing, Victor Feldman come to mind. There are others . Please forgive any obvious omissions.

I could listen to them all night (and frequently have done) The length of their solos is irrelevant.

Wally Houser

Christian McBride will be at Wigmore Hall on June 5th

Categories: miscellaneous

9 replies »

  1. If my wife's reaction to live jazz is anything to go by, it's the automatic rotation of solos round the entire band that is off-putting to non-jazz fans, not the content or length of the individual solo. It shouldn't be considered necessary for everyone to take a solo on every piece.

  2. Re Rollins, as a lawyer Wally you know better than most that hard cases make bad law. Mr McBride has articulated what some of us have been thinking for many a long year.

  3. When musicians start censoring themselves by what they think audiences want the art is in trouble. Next they'll be saying “could you please play less “out” notes in your solos to make it more palatable for us to listen to”. Before you know it, you have some sort of homogenised “jazz muzak”. There's plenty of that out there already, but IMO it's not real jazz, its some sort of sanitised parody.

    Real jazz is serious art. “As serious as your life” as the jazz book title says. It covers every gamut of human emotion from the most joyful and sublime to the most gut wrenching despair. That is the art of jazz, that is its history, to deny that is to deny a century of the art form. Players should solo for as long as the feeling propels them. Period.

    If you don't like the feeling they express because its too “long” or too “difficult”, listen to another jazz artist they will be different, or even another kind of music. If the solos are boring, maybe the players are not that great, or maybe you're not really tuning in to what they are saying.

  4. I think length of solos in jazz have always been dictated by circumstances. Parker's solo length was due to the 3 minute or so restriction on recording time before long playing records, and Paul Gonsalves' solo on Diminuendo And Crescendo In Blue at Newport was dictated by the reaction of a crowd already won over by Ellington's comeback and wanting that excitement. Short solos, as McBride points out, are now to do with making the music commercial. This is often very successful in my opinion (Miles Davis on “Tutu”), but has now got to a point where something is called jazz that has no improvisation at all…I'm not going to get into mud slinging here. The point is about classification…I feel jazz as a genre is “clogged up” with both interesting and vacuous music that is only there because it is instrumental music and would be better in a Library Music album. Music is being presented as jazz that is merely NOT other things (boyband, guitar band, r 'n' b, whatever). This blurring of boundaries is very attractive to people writing about the music, but it has the by now familiar “smell of bullshit to a cattle herder”, as William Burroughs once said. The gradual reduction of music to a lifestyle accessory to match shirt and beard and skinny jeans, and the downside of having a label like “jazz” that no one ever liked (even Ellington and Miles) except Wynton…when digital music eventually runs cold and people need to go out and experience improvisation live again, jazz will come back into its own I think.

  5. Miles (of course) said it all:
    “It's what you don't play that's important.”
    And when Coltrane explained that he often did not know how to extricate himself from long solos “Try taking the fucking horn out of your mouth!”

  6. Wally, I love this post! Anybody who starts of by saying 'Jazz is an art form first and foremost …', then points up jazz's inherent contradictions and rolls out wonderful examples (Rollins story is brilliant) gets my attention/vote. Thank you!


    The follow up is good, too with, amongst others, the comment talking about the demeaning of music as it becomes a 'lifestyle accessory' and the importance of experiencing improvisation at first hand.

  7. Of course Coltrane's extended solos in his 1960's work are amongst the greatest solos in the history of jazz (on numerous levels). Influences from things that he played during those solos can be clearly heard in the every subsequent generation of the great players. If Coltrane had shortened those solos, we would have lost a huge chunk of what most jazz sax players (and other instruments) draw on today. A sizeable chunk of the jazz musician's language would be gone.

    Perhaps a useful parallel would be literature. How would people feel about shortening the Iliad or the Odyssey? Or Paradise Lost perhaps? Hamlet? Henry V? What do you think? Better shorter? I think the idea of jazz players taking shorter solos is just as absurd. Its not about the length its about the content and the artistic concept. You can get boring, derivative and vapid solos of any length of course. And you can get world changing geniuses (eg Coltrane) playing solos of any length.

  8. Actually, 'Hamlet' is nearly always performed in a shortened version. Unabridged, it lasts four hours plus. It seems likely that it was shortened for performance in Shakespeare's day too.

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