East Coast jazz players and West Coast jazz players developed distinct styles and approaches to jazz music in the mid-20th century.
I have long been aware of, and interested in the differences between East Coast jazz and its musicians and West Coast jazz and its musicians. Music and the arts in general often give us a mirror image of ourselves at any given moment, should we choose to observe, listen and learn. Such is the accidental fate of the arts, and of jazz, that most expressive form of music.
I know, I know… how expressive can any form of music be without lyrics? Ha, don’t get me started on that one. No lyric can touch the depth of the soul of a jazz musician, on any topic. Nope. And if you aren’t getting it, that only tells me you aren’t really listening. Good instrumental jazz paints pictures that hit you deeper than any painting can, and it conjures feelings and memories that words can’t touch within you.
That ranted, it would stand to reason that jazz music is, and has been, a reflection of the culture it serves. Serves?? One could also say “the culture it shouts at and abuses.” Because it can, and does, hit it’s listeners with some brutal truths from time to time, especially East Coast jazz, and right there is one of the reasons I’m trying to understand it better.
I have heard some of the East Coast greats, Joe Henderson, Elvin Jones, Miles and the like, sometimes sounding as if they’re musically shouting out to their modest audiences… crying out in frustration, telling us how it really is, where they’ve come from, where and why they hurt, and how deeply. To me it’s painfully obvious that the best of them told not only their story, but the story of humanity, and of the culture they live in. So often they sounded angry, frustrated, hurt to the point of sounding… yes, abusive.
Most folks who have ever heard the honking and squeaking of an angry saxophonist hated and said so. I was one of them. I hated it when I heard it, and always felt they were ruining jazz for thousands of people who otherwise might have learned to at least appreciate it. But finally I started to get it… to first understand that they could, if they wanted to, play circles around most good saxophonists, and do so very musically. Obviously they had moved on from “nice” and “musical” and “pleasant.” Understanding that led me to Listen beyond their screeching notes into the emotion of those notes, and it became clear. They were playing their very souls. And they were all black men.
Understanding it, finally, didn’t do a thing for my relationship with most black musicians. To them I was a mediocre vanilla-playing white boy with no soul. And of course they were right. Oh, I had a little soul, but certainly not even close to their level. I had never touched the depths of despair or felt the hatred of the white community… hell, to them I was part of the problem! Still, their anger and frustration was no longer wasted on me. I slowly grew into it and began to appreciate it.
I got none of that anger ever, with the West Coast Jazzers. Rather, they tended to play more about sunny days with tall palm trees waving in a modest ocean breeze. They seemed to play of swimming pools and cocktails, fancy cars and contented people with an ease of life, with bright futures. Any angst in the West Coast scene was virtually impossible to find, I think. Oh, Chet Baker maybe… a trumpet player from the West Coast, playing at the Jazz Workshop in Boston one evening, said to his friend on the break, “I know what I want to say, I just can’t say it.” Yup, that’s right. And that’s the extent, to my knowledge anyway, of the anger or frustration with life of a West Coast jazzer. And Chet had a bad drug habit, which was pulling him down. He was no longer seeing, or playing the tall palm trees.
For awhile there I got fairly “white boy” angry along with the East Coast players, as I learned a little of what our white culture did to their music. And yes, jazz was and is their music. Case in point – two black composers and arrangers, Fletcher Henderson and Jimmie Lunceford started big bands in the mid-twenties. Long story very short, they grew popular with white audiences in and around New York, to where a white musician from Colorado, Paul Whiteman (ironic?) saw dollar signs in their music and started a big band of his own, largely copying the Lunceford and Henderson sound. Wikipedia tells us, “Detractors suggest that his ornately orchestrated music was jazz in name only, lacking the genre’s improvisational and emotional depth, and co-opted the innovations of black musicians.”
Fletcher Henderson in 1943
chatGPT says this, “There have been accusations that Paul Whiteman, a popular bandleader in the 1920s and 1930s, stole music and ideas from other musicians, including Jimmie Lunceford and Fletcher Henderson, who were also prominent bandleaders of the time. However, it is difficult to make a definitive statement on this matter because there are varying opinions and interpretations of the evidence.
“On one hand, it is clear that Whiteman was heavily influenced by African American music, particularly jazz, and he often hired Black musicians to play in his band. Some of these musicians, including Bix Beiderbecke and Jack Teagarden, are now considered jazz legends in their own right. However, some critics have argued that Whiteman appropriated the music of Black musicians and presented it to white audiences in a more palatable, less “authentic” form.
“On the other hand, Whiteman himself has claimed that he did not steal from other musicians and that he simply took inspiration from various sources to create his own unique sound. He also reportedly paid royalties to the composers of the music he performed. Additionally, it is worth noting that jazz and other forms of popular music in the early 20th century were highly collaborative, with musicians often borrowing from and building on each other’s work.
Ultimately, it is up to individuals to make their own judgments about whether or not Whiteman stole music and ideas from Lunceford, Henderson, and other musicians. However, it is clear that Whiteman was an important figure in the development of early jazz and popular music, and his influence can still be felt today.”
****To Be, Or Not To Bop*****
My bottom line on all that is that Whiteman stole, whether accidentally or on purpose, most of the white jazz audience and virtually all the radio and recording time that the Henderson and Lunceford bands would have otherwise enjoyed. All black jazzers knew this; all white jazzers either didn’t know it or ignored it. And as much as I dislike what Whiteman’s music did to the early black bands, still I have to grudgingly agree with chatGPT – that “Witheman was an important figure in the development of early jazz and popular music, and his influence can still be felt today.”
Here’s a clip of the Lunceford band at the top of their game. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uHc6kXWQRbI
Once again, here’s what chatGPT has to say about the differences –
“East Coast jazz, which originated in New York City, was characterized by a fast, energetic, and often complex style of improvisation. This style was heavily influenced by bebop, a jazz style developed in the 1940s, and its key figures such as Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Thelonious Monk. East Coast jazz musicians tended to favor small ensembles, and they often played in nightclubs and other small venues.
“On the other hand, West Coast jazz developed in California in the 1950s and was characterized by a more relaxed and laid-back sound. West Coast musicians, such as Chet Baker and Dave Brubeck, were heavily influenced by the cool jazz style that had emerged on the East Coast in the late 1940s. They favored larger ensembles, and their music often had a more polished and smooth sound, with a greater emphasis on melody and arrangement.
“The American East Coast and West Coast are two regions with distinct cultures that have developed over time. Here are some differences between the two:
1. History and Architecture: The East Coast has a longer history and thus more historical landmarks and architecture, such as colonial-era buildings, historical monuments, and museums. In contrast, the West Coast is relatively younger and has more modern architecture and landmarks.
2. Climate: The East Coast has four distinct seasons with cold winters and hot summers, while the West Coast has a more temperate climate with mild temperatures year-round. The West Coast is also known for its sunny weather and low humidity.
3. Lifestyle: The East Coast is known for its fast-paced lifestyle, with a focus on work and ambition. On the other hand, the West Coast is known for its laid-back lifestyle, with a greater emphasis on quality of life and work-life balance.
4. Diversity: The East Coast has a more diverse population, with a mix of cultures and ethnicities. In contrast, the West Coast has a larger population of people of Asian and Hispanic descent.
5. Food: The East Coast is known for its seafood, pizza, bagels, and other comfort foods, while the West Coast is known for its fresh produce, healthy eating, and fusion cuisine.
6. Entertainment and Media: The East Coast is known for its theater, Broadway shows, and traditional media, while the West Coast is known for its film industry, TV shows, and digital media.
“Overall, while both regions are part of the United States, they have distinct cultural differences that reflect their history, geography, and social influences.”
Most popular instrument in each –
“The most popular jazz instruments on the East Coast and West Coast varied depending on the era and the specific style of jazz being played. However, there were some instruments that were particularly prominent in each region.
“On the East Coast, the most popular jazz instrument was the saxophone, particularly the alto saxophone. This was due in part to the influence of bebop, which emerged in New York City in the 1940s and was characterized by fast, complex improvisation. Bebop musicians such as Charlie Parker and John Coltrane helped establish the saxophone as a lead instrument in jazz.
“On the West Coast, the piano was the most popular jazz instrument, particularly during the 1950s and 1960s. Pianists such as Dave Brubeck and Bill Evans were influential in developing the “cool jazz” style, which emphasized melody, arrangement, and a relaxed, polished sound. The West Coast also saw the rise of the “West Coast jazz” style, which featured larger ensembles and arrangements that were often more complex and structured than those in East Coast jazz.”
** I agree with, and appreciate chatGPT’s input on this subject. **
Along those lines, I feel the interplay between different players, black and white, provides a good canvas for better interracial relations. In my 40 years in the music biz, I found that once the music started, we all went color blind, regardless of our race. And when the music ended, we remained color blind, for we had communicated on a higher level and now understood and appreciated each other.
Oscar Peterson, the great Canadian jazz pianist, put it like this:
If you’re still with me, you must be one helluva jazz lover, or at least a dedicated music lover. That’s good, because in my way-overblown attempt to explain the difference between our East Coast and West Coast jazzers, I’ve stumbled upon some of the history of how our music in general grew and evolved over the years. As I’m sure you know, there is much more to the cultural geography of jazz than what I’ve touched on. Where the blues came from, the Dixieland sound, the first rock & roll, and so on. No time for all that, and besides, this tome is already WAY too long, and very likely important only to me.
A small token of my appreciation for your indulgence in this long article – here’s a tune done by me and my computer back in ’06 or so. Crystal Silence, by the incomparable chick Corea. Hope you enjoy, and thanks for sticking with me!
You’ll have to forgive me. The truth here is that jazz has been such an integral part of my life; it literally blew me into some kind of a reasonable person who, with its help, grew to appreciate form, beauty and the depths that a new language, music, could reach within us. I’d say that qualifies as being reason enough to love it and cherish it as I do. And selfishly, I will sleep better at night, knowing that I shared a thread of its history with you.