A Tale of Two Tunes

As I’m writing this, I’m thinking about the wide range of approaches to jazz, and how it’s been like this ever since the beginnings of the music.

I was reminded of about this a few minutes ago, as I published the two latest pages in my Jazz Pianist’s Ultimate Guide To The Real Book. The first, “Straight No Chaser,” is about as “bebop” as you can get. And the second, “A String Of Pearls” is pure “pop.” (Albeit “pop” from the early 1940s!)

The fascinating thing about these 2 tunes is that they demonstrate that the history books tend to paint only part of the picture. Open most books about jazz history and we’ll learn that the 1930s were The Swing Era, and that the early 1940s saw a transition to the bebop style which reached full fruition mid-decade.

While yes, this is true, it doesn’t give us a full and realistic picture of the actual cultural scene at the time.

A String of Pearls, which you can learn more about HERE, was a huge hit for Glenn Miller and his orchestra in 1941. Middle America danced to the song in ballrooms everywhere, and its smooth sounds graced the sounds of countless radio stations.

Fast forward a few years to the bebop blues Straight No Chaser, which you can discover more about HERE.

Pianist Thelonious Monk was one of a small group of musicians who developed bebop, which largely began in a tiny Harlem club called Minton’s. Only a few listeners were aware of it for a long time and within a relatively small geographical radius. At the same time, however, we must acknowledge that the “bebop vibe” was in the air, so to speak. Charlie Parker was out in the Midwest, a long way from New York City, and was independently exploring similar sounds and rhythms in his music. (Dizzy Gillespie and others have confirmed this.) We can even go so far as to say that other, less known today, must have been doing the same.

After a while, the bebop style exploded onto the larger cultural scene, and 52nd Street flourished.

So if this is seen as the usual historical timeline, we get: Swing Era – Bebop Style.

But… picture an American living room at the time when Monk as jamming at Mintons. What was playing on the radio?

Glenn Miller.

What did Charlie Parker hear when he went to a dance while in high school? Swing music.

The musical styles co-existed. And they co-existed for a long time. And one came out of the other in a bigger way than we often realize. Both swing music and bebop were a vibrant part of the same musical culture. Swing Era sax legend Coleman Hawkins sat in with the beboppers. The beboppers swing music on played dance gigs. One style didn’t preclude the other.

This week, take a few minutes to check out A String of Pearls and Straight No Chaser.

Here again are the links:
A String of Pearls
Straight No Chaser

Read the historical background. Listen to the recordings. Check out the practice tips. Open your Real Book and play each tune for a while. Absorb it all, both in their historical and cultural contexts and in the way you yourself play them on piano.

Above all, let the repertoire make you a better jazz musician, by diving into it wholeheartedly.

Have fun, and “let the music flow!”

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