The Origins of Modern Jazz Piano in 10 Tracks (1940-1950)
During the decade, jazz keyboardists abandoned ballroom dances in favor of experimental stances—and redefined every parameter of the genre
Even today, jazz pianists rely heavily on the innovations of the 1940s. That includes young keyboardists who haven’t actually listened to these old recordings—but still rely heavily on the musical vocabulary presented in the tracks below. They can’t avoid it because those licks and chords and rhythms are everywhere now.
Below is my quick guide to the changes that took place during that tumultuous decade—ten tracks you can hear in one sitting. I start with the roots of the new sound as played by the Kansas City pioneers, but before we reach the end of the list we will already have one foot in the avant-garde.
If you haven’t heard this music before, be prepared for surprises. At the start of the decade, jazz piano still betrayed its origins in ragtime and parlor piano theatrics. But under the onslaught of these intrepid improvisers, a completely different approach to the keyboard came to the forefront of American music.
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Count Basie, “One O’Clock Jump” (Live at Carnegie Hall, 1941)
Count Basie didn’t participate in the bebop movement that defined modern jazz in the 1940s, but he played a key role in making it possible. Starting back in his Kansas City days, he discarded the orchestral two-handed approach of his predecessors in favor of a more streamlined sound—with the right hand floating over the beat, mostly spinning out monophonic melodic lines, while the left hand provided occasional comping chords, more as rhythmic accents than actual timekeeping. The next generation of pianists built on this foundation, taking Basie’s looser and more flexible approach in new directions—but only after the Count had cleared the way with his radical re-conceptualization of the jazz pulse.
Nat King Cole, “Let’s Try Again” (1941)
Older music fans may remember Nat King Cole as one of the most popular singers of his generation, but jazz musicians know how wickedly good he was as a pianist. Oscar Peterson drew heavily on Cole’s example—in fact, if you double up the speed of some of Nat’s solos they sound almost exactly like Oscar. Cole’s approach to the keyboard lingered halfway between swing and bop. He never embraced the pedal-to-the-metal intensity of Bud Powell or Lennie Tristano, but his rhythmic phrasing is supple and forward-looking. I have no doubt that if he had walked away from all those high-paid singing gigs, instead going on the road with bop legends, he could have matched them solo for solo.
Thelonious Monk, “I Got Rhythm” (Live at Minton’s Playhouse, 1941)
In some ways, this performance is more old-fashioned than the Basie and Cole tracks from the same year. At first hearing, you notice how closely Thelonious Monk sticks to the full-bodied stride piano tradition, which was so popular in New York during his youth. But the more you listen, the more off-kilter it sounds. His all-too-brief solo (at 6:10) is filled with phrases that start when you think they should stop, and stop when you think they should start—with occasional notes accented with the subtlety of a Joe Louis right hook. You listen to this nowadays and call it the birth of bebop, but back in 1941 it didn’t even have a name, and only one person in the world played the piano like this.
Dodo Marmarosa, “The Moose” (1943)
This is a full-fledged bebop piano solo in a commercial record from 1943, when few people who hadn’t been to a Harlem jam session had any notion this kind of music existed. You need to realize that Charlie Parker hadn’t made his Savoy or Dial recordings back then, and Dizzy Gillespie wouldn’t undertake his first studio recording with Bird until 1945. Yet Maramosa is playing this music before D-Day as if he knew bop in his cradle. This tragically under-reorded musician would soon fall from view, and when I tracked him down toward the end of his life, many simply assumed he was dead. But the sad truth was that Dodo had been forgotten by a music business that should have celebrated him as one of the most visionary pianists of his generation.
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