This review is written using the original Smithsonian Collection of Jazz issued on 6 LPs that came in a box with an excellent 46 page booklet. If you are looking for a good way to get an overview of jazz history from New Orleans up to the early 60s, you couldn’t do much better than this one. Almost all of the important players are here and arranged in very logical chronological order, or sometimes grouped by genre and/or instrument. Much effort was made in assembling this package to present jazz as it grew and changed over the years. There are a few omissions and those will be covered later in this review.
This collection starts where it should, in New Orleans in the early 20s, and finally ends with John Coltrane’s “Alabama”. In between you get several cuts by major innovators like Ellington, Parker and Armstrong, and at least one cut from anyone else who was important. A top highlight of this collection comes early on when Scott Joplin’s version of “Maple Leaf Rag” is followed by Jelly Roll Morton’s, and it becomes clear what this new “jass” was all about. From the beginning jazz was a nuanced musical language whereby “hipsters” could transform pop tunes and make them personal creations in a way that was difficult to imitate and in a manner that left “squares” clueless. It’s this attempt to always stay one step ahead of the imitators that has fueled most of jazz’s innovations. Another similar juxtaposition comes when the collection follow’s Benny Goodman’s version of “Body and Soul” with Coleman Hawkin’s version. No doubt Goodman was a major talent, but no one could transform a melody like Hawkins.
Another highlight in the chronology occurs when Ellington makes his first appearance. The Basie cuts preceding Ellington are great energetic rockin swingin numbers, but when the first couple bars of Ellington’s “East St Louis Toodle-Oo” come slinking into the picture, its obvious we have entered a whole new universe. Actually the first couple bars of that tune almost sound like a ‘Knitting Factory’ band in NYC’s 21st Century, but when the tune proper kicks in, there is no doubt that this is Ellington in the late 20s, a couple centuries ahead of his time, and still so today. This whole new universe effect happens again when Parker and Gillespie show up, and once more when Cecil Taylor unveils “Enter Evening”.
This is an excellent collection, but there are some omissions. The most glaring is that nothing is included from Coltrane’s hard bop years, particularly the groundbreaking album “Giant Steps” and even more particularly, the hugely influential title track. Possibly still the most influential tune in modern jazz, the fast moving and difficult chord changes to “Giant Steps” continue to be a holy grail for young saxophone players who want to prove their skills. It was probably hard to include every major player, but if I had to pick the one most missed it would be Eric Dolphy, one of the few musicians who seemed capable of expanding on what Parker had established. Although there is an attempt to show the roots of jazz with one ragtime tune and a couple early blues numbers, it would have been nice to hear even earlier music that demonstrates the relationship between traditional African music and pre-jazz brass bands. Recordings of rural Louisiana brass bands, as late as the 1950s, playing in a very African style that preceded jazz, do exist.
There is a CD re-issue of this collection that corrects a few other omissions, particularly the Bill Evans Trio and Wes Montgomery. The CD collection also quite slyly jumps a decade and a half at the very end to feature one cut from 1979 by The World Saxophone Quartet. The implication being that the fusion/smooth jazz years were merely a diversion, the real innovations in jazz will be coming from guys like Julius Hemphill, Oliver Lake, Hamie Bluiett and David Murray.