Johnny Hodges and The Unity of Style by G. E. Lambert

Some prominence has been given recently to the fact that the world of music is split into two factions, the popular and the “high-brow” (this last is perhaps an unfortunate term, although here the suggestion of false pretension is perhaps not altogether out of place). In some ways jazz lies between these factions, although it is interesting to note that in recent years the music has been inclined to adopt this split culture pattern, creating the twin poles of jolly dixieland and “third stream” music. Many of the most valuable contributions of jazz to the body of twentieth century music were made at a time when it was a popular music of a non-merchandised kind, that is before the Negro public had been affected to any significant degree by the uniformity of commercial mass production. The serious European jazz follower stands in a peculiar relation to all this, for he is neither a member of the culture group to which jazz is indigenous nor necessarily allied with either the popularisers or the culture-bugs of European musical society. The relationship of jazz to its original audience was very much that of a folk music and the establishment of jazz criteria has been left wholly to people with a European cultural background, with the inevitable split between popular and “high-brow” attitudes. It is customary among those who approach jazz intelligently to deride the former type of writing as quite valueless, but it should not be forgotten that such devices as ‘blindfold tests’ have given our music a unique record of the thought and attitudes of its leading performers, while the popularity polls (however hilarious they may seem to the knowledgeable enthusiast) will unquestionably be of value to the future historians of jazz.

Serious jazz criticism has inevitably taken a good number of its premises from European musical criteria; but as jazz is not a music of European origin there has been a consequent lack of agreement between art and criteria which has often led to an unbalanced view of jazz. Collective creation (as opposed to collective interpretation) is rarely a feature of European art and has been unknown in European music for centuries. The adaptation of European criteria to jazz has resulted in a major emphasis being placed on the individualistic aspect of the music to the neglect of that other part of jazz which is a form of collective creation. The values established in the evaluation of the solo are reasonable and relevant, as is reflected by the general agreement as to the outstanding recorded solos in jazz —e.g. Armstrong’s Potato Head Blues, Hawkins’ Body And Soul and Parker’s Embraceable You. The only school of jazz criticism to insist on the importance of group creation were the purist critics, who in their more extreme strictures condemned all solos as decadent. It is no coincidence that it was the critical school which had explored the origins of the music which was the first to see jazz as more than a mere appendage to European music, popular or otherwise. As the purists have been the only group to emphasise the importance of the collective tradition in jazz it is not surprising that when ensemble jazz is discussed the inevitable groups to be cited are those of the leading exponents of New Orleans jazz —King Oliver, Jelly-Roll Morton and Bunk Johnson. If the fundamentalists had done no more than establish the music of these bands in an eminent position in the library of recorded jazz then their work may be considered well done, their excesses forgiven. The essence of New Orleans music is that within the basic structure complete individuality of approach is possible, for the unity of style is organic in a way which allows such individual variants as the contrasting manners of Jimmy Noone and Sidney Bechet on clarinet, of Mutt Carey and Freddie Keppard on trumpet. New Orleans was not the only city which was the centre of a regional jazz style, Chicago in the ’twenties and Kansas City in the ’thirties being other obvious examples. Here too we find an unrestricted development of individual style (compare Teschmaker with McPartland, Lips Page with Lester Young) unified by a general agreement of approach and unity of outlook on music.

It is a commonplace of jazz history that the gradual spread of the gramophone, the radio and TV has obliterated forever the regional distinctions which were so noticeable a feature of the early years of the music and which constitute such a helpful framework for jazz historians. Since the early ’thirties this mass diffusion of music has been an increasingly important factor in the development of instrumental jazz, until the old unity of regional outlook which marked the early years of the music has disappeared almost entirely. Some musicians, conscious of the lack of ensemble values in later jazz, have attempted to create stylistic unity by group emulation of certain musical devices—for example the many groups based on the style of the early Basie Band, which flourished in the ’fifties. Although some good solo work was to be heard in such groups hardly ever did the essential collective spirit of great ensemble jazz manifest itself in these surroundings.

Even though we may admire the ensemble qualities of the Lunceford and Basie bands and that fine unity of purpose which gave the Basie soloists so marvellous a freedom, it can hardly be claimed that the traditions developed by these leaders prospered and flourished in quite the same way as the regional traditions of New Orleans and Kansas City. In order to understand the problem of collective creation within the present context of jazz one must appreciate just what is needed for a leader to maintain a musical tradition of this kind single-handed. Only a man combining leadership of the highest calibre with great tolerance, creative ability amounting to genius and a dominating musical personality could possibly offer to his musicians the stable basis of an ensemble style such as that enjoyed by the New Orleans players. These qualities have in fact only been present together in one jazz artist—Duke Ellington. Much of the finest ensemble playing in recorded jazz is to be found on Ellington’s records, while his later bands have been able to encompass within their ranks soloists from all periods of the music’s history—Russell Procope’s New Orleans style clarinet is set against Clark Terry’s modern trumpet playing, Quentin Jackson and Britt Woodman rub shoulders in the trombone section, without in any way damaging the basic texture of the music. It is perhaps because of the jazz critics' almost exclusive concern with the solo that the magnitude of Ellington’s contribution in this direction has been overlooked, for there can be no doubt to anyone familiar with the music of his band over the years that here is a magnificent tradition, a rich and fruitful manner of music making which inspires the musicians without ever restricting their individual expression. The aspect of Ellington’s art which we are dealing with here is perhaps in need of some definition, for we should not confuse this tradition with the surface details of style which identify Ellington’s music to the casual listener—the use of wa-wa and growl brass, the impressionistic harmonies, the concern with carefully wrought tonal structures and the distinctive reed scoring. These devices, essential though they are to the Ellington style are not, so to speak, of the essence. In the library of recorded jazz there are several instances of musicians making use of the styles of great jazz figures with at least some degree of success - the Basie riff manner, the solo styles of Armstrong, Bechet, Hawkins and Parker have been emulated in this way, sometimes to the extent that the listener is momentarily convinced that it is indeed the original stylist himself performing. Why is it that Ellington, whose growl trumpets and clarinet trios appear to make him a sitting duck for such a parody, has never been copied with even the slightest degree of success? I would suggest that the answer lies not so much in Duke's use of these devices but rather in the fact that every Ellington performance is a collective creation by the band in a style quite as inimitable as that of New Orleans. Thus, just as it is impossible for non-New Orleans musicians to re-capture the glories of Canal Street Blues or Smokehouse Blues, so too do non-Ellington musicians find it impossible to recreate the essence of Black and Tan Fantasy or Madness in Great Ones. The Ellington caravan, as it works its way across the American continent is. Musically speaking, a sort of mobile New Orleans or Kansas City, for here is a community in which the creative jazz musician finds a place where free expression is blended with a remarkable organic unity of style and purpose.

These qualities are also evident in the small group recordings made by the Ellington musicians even when Duke is absent and the music is not noticeably Ellingtonian in style. Compare the music on Johnny Hodges and the Ellington All Stars or on The Big Sound with that of even the best of current mainstream groups and their ensemble superiority stands out at once. Three sessions of the late ’fifties are particularly interesting in this respect, as each includes a number of non-Ellingtonians in the personnel—the Hodges band titles on the Side by Side and Blues-a- Plenty LPs and the Strayhorn Sextet on the Cue for Saxophone album. There is no attempt to create an Ellington atmosphere on these sessions—not a single Ellington theme is used—yet there is an overall unity about the performances which is characteristic of Ellington contingents.

Six of the titles on Side by Side feature a small Hodges group of seven pieces. Of the contemporary Ellington band only Hodges and Strayhorn are present along with alumni Lawrence Brown, Ben Webster and Wendell Marshall, plus two musicians with no Ducal associations—Roy Eldridge and Jo Jones. On four of these titles Hodges riff themes are used as a simple framework for the solos, yet even within so rudimentary a structure the overall impression is of a wholeness absent from most contemporary small group records; this quality is also present on Just A Memory and Let’s Fall In Love, which are given over wholly to solo sequences of superb quality. It is worth noting here how this context enhances Lawrence Brown’s playing, for while away from the Ellington musicians he often sounds a mediocre player, here his solos show up well even alongside those of Hodges, Webster and Eldridge at their best. The evenness of this music is characteristic of Ellington units, although here, with non-Ducal soloists and themes, the reasons for the presence of this quality are not obvious. We have noted that Roy Eldridge has no previous connection with the Ellingtonians, yet his music on both Side by Side and Blues-a-Plenty has a stability and a sobriety which contrasts with the erratic quality of many Eldridge sessions. To suggest that the overall balance of this music removes Eldridge’s need for the excessive flambuoyance of his jam- session manner seems no exaggeration.

The music on Cue for Saxophone relies to a greater extent on ensemble arrangements, although these are of the most simple variety. Strayhorn’s general direction of this session is masterly, with well calculated routines, a beautiful use of Procope’s clarinet against the band and a most skilful management of dynamics. The only non-Ellington musicians here are Al Hall and Oliver Jackson, both of whom play magnificently, but the surprising thing about the session is the way in which Procope’s Mezzrow phrases and Hal Baker’s Dizzy Gillespie licks are heard in consecutive solos without the slightest incongruity of style. The term ‘mainstream’ is overworked and sometimes abused these days, yet if there is a mainstream of jazz it is surely where such extremes of style can blend into a satisfying whole. This Strayhorn LP, which contains perhaps the most consistently fine Hodges solos of recent years, is the most successful of Stanley Dance’s Felsted LPs, primarily because of the fine overall balance of the music.

Blues-a-Plenty is a lesser release than these two, for the three ballad tracks by Hodges and rhythm are, by Johnny’s own high standard, routine ‘production’ items. Nor is the balance of the album (the seven piece band is given four slow and one fast blues) really satisfactory. Here Roy Eldridge, Vic Dickenson and Ben Webster join Hodges and the Ellington rhythm section (Strayhorn is on piano) and once more the ‘outsiders’ rise to the occasion magnificently.

Johnny Hodges is a leader of considerable ability, but the bands he led during his spell away from the Ellington organisation from 1951 to 1955 do not by any means equal the units from the Ellington band he has directed over the years. In ensemble quality these Hodges bands were hardly up to the best of the other non-Ellington mainstream units, such as those led by Buck Clayton and Vic Dickenson. It would appear that as a leader Hodges reaches his full potential only when performing regularly in the jazz tradition in which his style is rooted—that of Duke Ellington. The presence of Billy Strayhorn on the Hodges contingent dates is always a potent factor, and the value of his contribution as arranger/director on the Cue for Saxophone date is obvious, that of his valuable but rather reticent piano on all these LPs perhaps leas so. The extent of his contribution as arranger and ideas-man on the other sessions is impossible for an outsider to assess; Billy’s work in the Ellington organisation is reticent to an extent which makes his stature as a jazz musician apparent only to those who are prepared to look beneath the surface of the music.

These Hodges albums are great jazz recordings by any standard, yet we must acknowledge the fact that, just as the Oliver and Morton records could never have been without the New Orleans background of the musicians, so too this series derives its fine collective qualities from the Ellington tradition which lies behind Hodges and most of his bandsmen. Today the Ellingtonians are almost alone in cultivating that collective aspect of jazz making which has been so important a factor in the heritage of the music.

 Jazz Journal - June 1962

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