Academic journal article Music Theory Online

Conlon Nancarrow, "Hot" Jazz, and the Principle of Collective Improvisation

Academic journal article Music Theory Online

Conlon Nancarrow, "Hot" Jazz, and the Principle of Collective Improvisation

Article excerpt

Introduction: Nancarrow and Jazz(1)

[1] Composer Conlon Nancarrow's experience playing jazz trumpet as a young man is well documented, as is his deep appreciation for early jazz musicians, especially Louis Armstrong, Earl "Fatha" Hines, and Bessie Smith.(2) Nancarrow's brother, Charles, remembered Conlon as "a fantastic trumpet player with superb lip technique" (Gann 1995, 37). Nancarrow's second wife, Annette Margolis, states, "He had his own hi-fi for his record collection, which he kept locked. When my children came [to their home in Mexico City] for their summer vacation and begged him to play some of his Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong and other old jazz records, he would demand complete silence. Sometimes he would discuss the fine points of early jazz. They were awed by his attention and I too" (Hocker 2012, 109). In Example 1 Nancarrow discusses his affinity for jazz during an interview with Charles Amirkhanian, who identifies a "feeling for improvisation" that Nancarrow's music embodies.

Example 1. Nancarrow in conversation with Charles Amirkhanian (1977)

[2] Nancarrow's frequent use of some form of the blues progression and his evocation of blues, boogie-woogie, and jazz styles in early and a few later Studies for Player Piano (especially Nos. 2a, 3, 10, 35, 41, and 45) are perhaps the most obvious manifestations of his relationship with jazz. I propose that the connection to jazz runs more deeply and widely throughout the Studies, however. An awareness of this deeper connection-layered upon the scholarly work on Nancarrow's music to date that illuminates his intricate canonic and temporal structures(3)-might well prompt a new and rewarding mode of listening to the Studies. As we will see, the principle of collective improvisation, which was important in both early jazz of the 1920s and "free jazz" of the 1960s, was valued by Nancarrow, and his discussion of it intimates an aesthetic stance that runs through his music.

[3] Nancarrow wrote a series of four columns entitled "Over the Air" for the journal Modern Music in 1939 and 1940, one of which carried the subtitle "Swing, Jazz, Boogie-Woogie." It is worth quoting at length:

Now that swing has come, gone, and left its mark on popular music, it may be in order to review the results. For several years the word 'swing' has been used to denote almost everything outside the dreamy, Guy-Lombardo-school. Its characteristics are inclusively held to be a heightened individual and orchestral virtuosity, a certain freedom in solo work (solo, but not collective improvisation), rhythmical precision, faster tempi, more advanced harmonic progressions, slick orchestration (including the ability to get from one block of music to another with less stumbling) and a refinement of nuances and phrasing.

The best work done in jazz has very little in common with swing. Besides advancing the idiomatic technic, the main achievement of the swing fad has been to call attention to the existence of certain groups of players. Good jazzmen were summoned from their dives, clothed with respectability and allowed to play at being king. And now they must hang on the bandwagon or go back to the dives and pursue their art.

The outstanding characteristic of 'hot jazz' has always been collective improvisation. This can be heard in certain recordings by Louis Armstrong's old 'Hot Five' and 'Hot Seven,' Bix Beiderbecke and the 'New Orleans Lucky Seven.' The kind of counterpoint achieved in their type of playing violates almost every academic canon except that of individuality of line and unity of feeling. Ignoring accepted precepts (it is not a matter of discarding them; most of these musicians have never even hear the word 'counterpoint') they have built up their own system of unorthodox counterpoint. Although the unifying element in such a collective effort is a definite and pre-established harmonic progression, played by the 'rhythm' section, the result is not harmonic figuration, or even harmonic counterpoint. …

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