David Rosenthal, Hard Bop: Jazz and Black Music, 1955-1965

Article excerpt

David Rosenthal, Hard Bop: Jazz and Black Music, 1955-1965

The importance of geography to jazz and African American musical aesthetics has always been decisive. Musical sounds were somehow representative of specific areas but could adapt to and alter the sounds of other areas. The early New Orleans sounds of Kid Ory and King Oliver, for example, led to the exportation of that style to New York via Louis Armstrong in 1924. Again in the early 1950s the development of distinctly "California" sounds crystallized into cool jazz (after Miles Davis' 1949 "Birth of the Cool" session with several West Coast players), and shortly thereafter a flesh jazz style emerged with a renewed boppish vigor, mostly in New York. David Rosenthal's Hard Bop: Jazz and Black Music, 1955-1965 chronicles this development in New York-based African American jazz aesthetics. What Dizzy Gillespie sparingly refers to in his autobiography as the "...more earthy, crunchy sound" of hard bop is intimately connected, Rosenthal argues, "to soul music, rhythm and blues, and other popular African American musical idioms...by accretion rather than rupture."

Rosenthal's book moves at times like an encyclopedia through a pantheon of players divided into four general groups, "the borderline between jazz and the popular black tradition" (Horace Silver, Cannonball Adderley, organist Jimmy Smith); those "more tormented" (Jackie McLean, Tina Brooks, Mal Waldron, Elmo Hope); those "of a gentler, more lyrical bent who found in hard bop a more congenial climate than bebop had offered" (Benny Golson, Gigi Gryce, Art Farmer, Tommy Flannagan, Hank Jones); and those "Experimentalists consciously trying jazz's structural and technical boundaries" (Monk, Mingus, Andrew Hill, Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane). Each contingency came together in New York and recorded mostly for the two major New York labels releasing hard bop recordings, Prestige and Blue Note.

Rosenthal's study marks the fact that no in-depth study of many of these players or of the New York mainstream jazz scene during 1955-1956 exists. This reviewer finds his musicological discussions often reductive and too focused on adjective -laden descriptions of specific representative tunes at the expense of historical contextualization, which is often hinted at but rarely accomplished.

While Rosenthal manages a fairly thorough exploration of heroin addiction and the early deaths of scores of these players, he has trouble doing anything more than mentioning albums, tunes, and players' untimely deaths. Pianists Wynton Kelly (1931-1971), Elmo Hope (1923-1967, and Sonny Clark (1931-1963), none of whom reached forty-one, have rarely seen the light of book pages and mention of them are welcome here, despite my misgivings about Rosenthal's too-brief discussions of them.

To establish a context outside the players' individual lives, Rosenthal discusses urban New York with a paucity of historical sources but with his eye carefully trained on the city as a vague geography for aesthetics. His section "Jazz in the Ghetto," seeks to reveal how hard bop reached for and incorporated the expressive qualities of African American popular traditions like blues and gospel into the more elaborate and complex bebop of the forties and on. The importance of the bar or night club is presented here via the newly pervasive jukebox and the sale of jazz singles by New York jazz labels. Rosenthal says, "Blue Note and Prestige each issued approximately three hundred 45 rpm singles between 1955 and 1970." Average sales for these singles (mostly "ballards and groove numbers") was around 3000 for jukeboxes and 1000 for individuals. …