Archive for the ‘Jazz History’ Category


The Life and Legacy of Glenn Miller

September 14, 2011
This photo from a US Government website (http:...

Image via Wikipedia

By Devin Grant

There are some incredible jazz musicians alive today who astound us with their sound, their originality and their skill. Artists like Wynton Marsalis and Sonny Rollins blow us away, but we should be careful not to forget the people who came before, who laid the groundwork to help jazz develop to what it is today, and who are legends in their own right. One such jazz legend is one of the greatest, if not the greatest, band leader to ever live, Glenn Miller.

Early Life

Son of Lewis and Mattie Lou Miller, Alton Glenn Miller was born in Clarinda, Iowa on March 1st, 1904. Moving from Clarinda to North Platte, Nebraska, and then on to Missouri and Fort Morgan, Colorado, Miller’s musical start came in North Platte around 1914 when his father bought him a mandolin, which – as any good brass player would – he promptly traded for an old horn. In 1916 in Missouri Miller switched – as any good brass player would – to the trombone, and by the time he was going to Fort Morgan High School in Colorado he was practicing almost non-stop, to the point where due to the difficulty of making it in the music business his mother once said “It got to where Pop and I used to wonder if he’d ever amount to anything.” For a time her fears seemed justified; after enrolling at the University of Colorado, but spending more time on the road auditioning and playing gigs, Miller dropped out after failing three out of five courses one semester, deciding instead to focus entirely on his music.

Beginning of a Career

After touring with several orchestras, Miller ended up in Los Angeles, in the band of Ben Pollack (playing alongside future fellow band leader Benny Goodman). It was with this group that Miller began distinguishing himself as a composer and arranger, arranging songs for Pollack and co-writing his first original composition, “Room 1411”, with Benny Goodman. After Ben Pollack’s band moved to New York Miller married his high school sweetheart Helen Burger, and in 1934 Miller joined the Dorsey Brothers’ Orchestra, playing with the group for a year. In 1935 Ray Noble approached Miller to assemble a band for him, resulting in the Ray Noble orchestra containing such members as trumpeter Charlie Spivak and saxophonist Bud Freeman.

Building His Own Name

In 1937 Miller decided to break out on his own, and formed his own band. Despite a couple of recordings for Decca and Brunswick, Miller’s band mainly only played a few one night stands and was unable to distinguish themselves among the multitude of big bands at the time. After parting ways at the end of 1937, Miller realized he needed to give his band an original sound, and used a technique he had first developed for the Ray Noble Orchestra of having a clarinet holding the melodic line while the tenor sax plays the same note, supported by the harmonizing of the other three saxophones. This sound, particularly thanks to lead clarinet Wilbur Schwartz, was something completely original that no other band seemed to be able to copy, and in March of 1938 the Glenn Miller Orchestra was born.

The Golden Years

The Glenn Miller Orchestra’s big break came in 1939 with an engagement at the Glen Island Casino in New Rochelle, New York, where they set an attendance record with an opening night crowd of 1800 listeners. This became a bit of a trend for Miller, attracting the largest dancing crowd in Syracuse history at the New York State Fair, and topping Guy Lombardo’s all time record at the Hershey Park Ballroom in Pennsylvania, capped off by a performance at Carnegie Hall with other greats Paul Whiteman, Fred Waring and, you guessed it, Benny Goodman.

The Glenn Miller Orchestra had found mainstream success, and it showed in the charts. Miller had 17 Top 10 hits in 1939, followed by another 31 in 1940, and 11 in each of 1941 and 1942. These hits included such jazz standards as “In The Mood” (the original theme of which was written by Miller himself), “Moonlight Serenade” (written by Miller) and a number of well-known Miller arrangements such as “A String of Pearls”, “Little Brown Jugs”, and “Tuxedo Junction”. This success culminated in two film deals for the band, 1941’s Sun Valley Serenade (which introduced the hit song “Chattanooga Choo Choo”) and 1942’s Orchestra Wives (featuring “(I Got A Gal In) Kalamazoo” and using “At Last” as a motif throughout the movie).

A Call To Arms

With the introduction of the United States to the war in 1942, Miller decided to serve his country in the way he knew best, and convinced military higher-ups to allow him to enlist, eventually taking control of the Army Air Force Band. Miller modernised the group, constructing a 50 piece jazz group with marching band influences, and obtained permission to tour the group around England entertaining the troops. In the span of a little under a year, Glenn Miller’s Army Air Force Band made over 800 performances, including 500 broadcasts heard by millions and over 300 personal performances including concerts and dances. Sadly Miller was absent for the last six months of these activities.

Tragic Death

Just before Christmas of 1944, the Glenn Miller Army Air Force Band was scheduled to do a six week tour of Europe, operating out of Paris, France at that time. As such, on December 15th, 1944, Miller boarded a flight for Paris to set up the accommodations for his band. This was the last time that Miller was seen alive, and his official status is missing, presumed dead on December 15th, 1944. While it is possible that weather caused the crash, reports suggest that it is possible Miller’s plane was accidentally struck by bombs jettisoned by British aircraft over the English Channel, after returning from an aborted mission. Whatever the cause, that day the world lost one of the greatest musical minds of its time.


The impact that Glenn Miller has had on jazz, and music in general, is undeniable. He was awarded the first ever gold record for his recording of “Chattanooga Choo Choo”, and was a charter inductee into the Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame. Three of his recordings have made their way into the Grammys Hall of Fame: “In The Mood” in 1983, “Moonlight Serenade” in 1991, and “Chattanooga Choo Choo” in 1996. Miller was awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2003.

Miller’s writing and arranging had a very distinct style, which was different from that of the time. Taking some importance away from featuring a solo artist, which many groups would do, Miller focused more on having a precise, tight sound from his entire band, believing that melodies and a perfect background were more important. Many critics criticized Miller for this at the time, claiming that he was straying from real jazz, but in retrospect Miller is widely regarded as one of the best band leaders of all time, creating an incredible sound and showing just how much a band can come together and play as a single entity, a wish that any jazz band player will recognize coming from their conductor. Miller’s iconic tunes are seen as excellent indicators of the music of the time; his songs “In The Mood” and “Moonlight Serenade” are jazz classics, and his recording of “Jukebox Saturday Night” even references notable names of that era, with friendly parodies of Harry James (at that time the trumpet player for the Benny Goodman Big Band and a future band leader himself) and the Ink Spots (an excellent male vocal group of the time – I highly suggest you give them a listen if you’ve never heard them before). The jazz world has a lot to thank Glenn Miller for, not the least of which is the incredible music that we continue to listen to, and will for years to come.

Related Links: – Official Site of Glenn Miller – Official Site of the Glenn Miller Orchestra


Jazz Styles Family Tree (Post-World War II) Part 2

August 30, 2011
American jazz saxophonist Ornette Coleman

American jazz saxophonist Ornette Coleman Image via Wikipedia

In part one we featured Vocalese, Cool Jazz /West Coast Jazz, Hard Bop and Bossa Nova. In Part two we continue our journey through the post World War Two jazz family tree. (To read part one click here)

Some artists, most often but not always those following in the Bebop-Hard Bop progression, wished to continue the train of freedom of improvisation that these genres had started. It is due to this wish that Modal Jazz and Free Jazz were born. Modal Jazz moves past the Western tradition of major and minor scales, opening their music, and particularly their improvisation, to entirely new sounds. The followers of Free Jazz, led by Ornette Coleman, took this progression even further, creating songs not necessarily based on any preset melody or even chord progression. This allowed artists a complete range of originality to work with, enabling complete spontaneity in the music. This could often be seen in the form of group improvisation, where an entire group (generally smaller combos) would improvise together to create something completely original. John Coltrane is perhaps the most famous Free Jazz player, also contributing to the development of Modal Jazz.

Splitting from Hard Bop in the opposite direction, Soul Jazz was perhaps the most popular style of the 1960’s. Relying on simpler, bluesy melodies and dance-like rhythms it distanced itself from the more complex improvisational techniques being developed in Free Jazz. It was greatly influenced by rhythm and blues, as well as gospel elements, and was often driven by – and is the reason for the popularity of – the Hammond organ, seen in the playing of Les McCann as well as many others. Tenor saxophone and guitar were often featured as well, a prime example being the saxophone stylings of Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis.

The 1970’s were a difficult period for jazz. Due to the growing popularity of the television, and the access that provided to the popular music of the time, Rock & Roll was quickly overshadowing the jazz scene, with the help of Disco later on. As such, many jazz artists, particularly those from the progression of Hard Bop, transferred their skills to the Fusion school of jazz, which combined jazz improvisation with the new, high energy rhythms of Rock & Roll. Fusion is interesting in that not much of its influence is seen in today’s jazz; it has actually influenced rock to a much greater degree.

Moving into the 1980’s, the biggest addition to the scene was that of Afro-Cuban or Afro-Latin jazz. A blend of jazz improvisation and infectious rhythms from South and Central America, this genre is related to the earlier Bossa Nova but with much more influence from the traditional Bebop, as seen in the Afro-Cuban recordings by Dizzy Gillespie. This style was pioneered by trumpeter Mario Bauza and percussionist Chano Pozo, and can be seen in the works of artists like Arturo Sandoval.

The final addition to an already diverse repertoire of jazz genres came in the 1990’s, by the way of Smooth Jazz. Growing out of Fusion, and adopting the mindset of their Cool Jazz forerunners, Smooth Jazz leaves behind the energetic solos and wild dynamics of Fusion, focusing more on its polished, slick sound. This results in a very unobtrusive style, including the abandoning of improvisation, leading some jazz “purists”, often fans of the Bebop and Free Jazz schools, to question whether Smooth Jazz can truly be counted as a subgenre of jazz. Aside from Smooth Jazz however, the 90’s saw a resurgence of older jazz styles, often referred to as the Hard Bop Revival, Retro Swing, and Neoclassicism (For the resurgence of Bebop, Swing, and New Orleans Jazz, respectively). This occurrence, along with the continuation of Free Jazz and Afro-Cuban, accounts for the variety of jazz seen today, resulting in a rich jazz culture that can be seen all around the world.

View our previous articles on the Jazz family tree;

Jazz Styles Family Tree (Pre World War II)

Jazz Styles Family Tree (Post-World War II) Part 1


Jazz Styles Family Tree (Post-World War II) Part 1

August 2, 2011

By Devin Grant

Dave Brubeck in 1954.

Dave Brubeck was a key figure in post war jazz music. Image via Wikipedia

At the end of our article Jazz Styles Family Tree (Pre-World War II), we left off in the history of jazz with the Gypsy Jazz (or Jazz Manouche) of Django Reinhardt and the Swing music of such greats as Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw. However with many band leaders and members serving in World War II (and some, such as Glenn Miller, losing their lives in the war effort), this period saw the breakup of the “Big Bands”, leaving the field open for smaller groups and a new style of jazz, called Bebop. Led by such jazz legends as Charlie “Bird” Parker and John “Dizzy” Gillespie, this style moved away from the melody-based improvisation seen in most big bands and toward chordal improvisation, the style most readily seen today. In Bebop an artist would be free to explore whatever improvised melody they saw fit, as long as it fit within the chord structure of the piece.

This era also saw the birth of Vocalese, a rather unique style of jazz in which pre-existing melodies, and even solos, would be given lyrics and then sung by artists in the style of the previous instruments. Considered by many to have been invented by Eddie Jefferson, Vocalese did not see much success until more recently, with more well-known artists such as Jon Hendricks and The Manhattan Transfer (who won a Grammy for Best Jazz Fusion Performance for their Vocalese performance of Birdland).

Descending directly from Bebop in the 1950’s was Cool Jazz, also known as West Coast Jazz due to the heavy influence out of the western states, especially California. A mixture of Swing and Bebop, Cool Jazz is most easily recognized for its harmonic tones combined with much more smoothed out dynamics, avoiding the more aggressive styles and tempos of Bebop. Such artists as Lester Young and Miles Davis are considered to have contributed heavily to the feel of Cool Jazz, and many successful recordings have come out of this style, such as The Dave Brubeck Quartet’s “Time Out”.

While the Cool Jazz style was growing in recognition, some artists wished to recapture both the excitement and the audience of the Hot Jazz and Swing era. An extension of Bebop, Hard Bop filled this need, partially returning to both the Bebop and Hot Jazz of the past while drawing inspiration from Rhythm and Blues and even Gospel to a degree. Hard Bop tunes often had simpler melodies than its Bebop predecessor; with an emphasis on its now more sophisticated rhythm section. Horace Silver and Art Blakey of The Jazz Messengers are well known for their work in Hard Bop, with a prodigious talent for innovation keeping their pieces interesting for the audience. Both Funky Jazz and Gospel Jazz can be seen as natural extensions of Hard Bop.

Moving back to the other end of the spectrum, Cool Jazz had been mixing with the more European sensibilities and styles of South America, and by the time it worked its way up to North America in the 1960’s we had the new style of Bossa Nova. A lighter genre of jazz, even in comparison with that of the West Coast musicians, this “Brazilian Jazz” relied heavily on samba rhythms and acoustic guitar, often with English or Portuguese vocals. Bossa Nova gained popularity as an alternative to the Hard Bop of the time, and also due to the contributions of such artists as Charlie Byrd (Not to be confused with Charlie “Bird” Parker) and Stan Getz.


What’s Christmas Without Jazz?

December 14, 2010

In this festive season there are many things that get us in the Christmas spirit. One of those things is music.

There is a long tradition of Christmas Jazz by a wide array of artists. We have compiled a small list of some of the best regarded Jazz Christmas Songs and albums.

  • Ella Fitzgerald – Wishes You A Swinging Christmas – This album recorded in 1960 includes some of the most popular Christmas songs sung by a true jazz legend. This album is a must for any music lover.
  • Vince Guaraldi Trio – A Charlie Brown Christmas – What is Christmas without Charlie Brown. The music from the Charlie Brown Christmas Special brings back the memories of Christmas as a child.
  • Oscar Peterson – An Oscar Peterson Christmas –Recorded in 1995, Petersen has worked his magic on some Christmas classics. This is not only a great Christmas album but a great jazz album too.
  • Louis Armstrong – Christmas Through The Years – An album which features some Satchmo classics. A great album to play with friends and family.
  • Various – Very Best Of Christmas Jazz – A compilation album that features many Christmas jazz classics and features artist such as John Coltrane, Count Basie, Ramsey Lewis and many more. This is certainly the pick of compilation albums.

You can find and purchase all these albums at the new Wreckhouse Jazz & Blues Store on Amazon. Click here to find a selection of Christmas albums and the albums of some of the 2010 WIJBF performers


It Don’t Mean A Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing: A History of Swing

May 21, 2010

Duke Ellington & Loius Armstrong

The era of swing jazz is said to have began in the early 1930’s and carried on into 1940’s but, like any musical style it is next to impossible to get a handle on what exactly defines the different stylistic periods within the music’s history.

Swing is said to have been born when rhythm sections in jazz bands started using a four-to-the-bar beat instead of the two-beat emphasis commonly used in Dixieland and New Orleans style jazz. This new rhythm coupled with the horn sections that used more surprising syncopation techniques gave the music a sound that seemed to have a swinging motion, leaving listeners with the compulsion to get up and dance. Some argue that it was the dance that inspired the music and not the other way around. It is said that when people started dancing to jazz in an “edgier” fashion the performers had to adjust their style to keep up with the people on the dance floor. Regardless of its origins there is no debate over the fact that both the music and the dance go hand in hand giving birth to such sensational dance forms as the Lindy Hop, the jitterbug, the St. Louis shag, and countless other extravagant dance moves.

The swing era may have started in the early 1930’s, but the seed was planted in the 1920’s. Many claim that it was in the mid 1920’s that Louis Armstong, with his unique timing, phrasing, and overall style on the trumpet, was the pioneer beginning the evolution of swing jazz. Through its growth stages, it wasn’t until the mid 1930’s that swing had really “taken off” with appearance of “The King of Swing,” Benny Goodman. Although Goodman is credited with the popularizing of swing music, much of the success belongs to jazz greats such as Fletcher Henderson, Duke Ellington, Bennie Moten, and Count Basie, who were not given the recognition they deserved, due to the colour of their skin in a time where racism was prevalent.

Though the swing era is often considered the golden era of jazz, it, like many things, couldn’t survive the Second World War. Due to the large number of band members that got drafted, the remainder of the band was forced to hire whoever they could to fill the void, often resulting in taking on unskilled musicians. Another factor contributing to the death of swing was that during the war fuel rationing made touring next to impossible, especially since most swing bands were comprised of more than ten musicians. Through the necessary demise of the swing era, just as its predecessors, it made way for the perpetually changing sound of jazz.

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One Never Knows, Do One? Fats Waller a True Entertainer

May 20, 2010

Thomas Wright Waller (May 21, 1904 – December 15, 1943)

On this day, over a century ago, Thomas “Fats” Waller was born to Adaline Locket Waller, wife of the Reverend Edward Martin Waller. At the tender age of only six years old Fats began to play the piano which later led to his mother teaching him classical music on the organ of his father’s church. Fats, being the colourful character he was, wanted to play more than just classical pieces, and took on the task of teaching himself to play Jazz, the music of the time.

In 1918 he won a talent contest playing “Carolina Shout” a tune by iconic stride pianist, James P. Johnson, which he learned from watching a pianola (a self playing piano) play the song. James P. Johnson later took on the task of becoming Fats’ mentor after hearing him play the pipe organ. Not long under Johnson’s direction, did Fats’ skill on the piano begin to flourish. With Fats’ greatly improved skill as a pianist, Johnson introduced him to his first Harlem rent party. Much of Waller’s success can be contributed to the exposure he got from playing at rent parties where tenants who were having trouble making their rent would open their apartment doors and charge a fee to see Fats perform.

Fats was one of the most popular performers of his time receiving great critical and commercial success with famed pieces such as “Honeysuckle Rose”, “Ain’t Misbehavin'” and “Squeeze Me”. With his great fame came great danger. After leaving a performance in 1926 Waller was forced into the back of a car at gunpoint where he was driven to the Hawthorne Inn where he was lead inside and sat behind a piano and told to play. Waller began to ease a little upon realizing that the intention wasn’t for the gunmen to kill him, but instead to have him perform as a “surprise guest” at their boss, Al Capone’s, birthday party.

Fats Waller continued to entertain enthused audiences throughout the 30’s and early 40’s until his unexpected death at the young age of 39. He died of pneumonia on Dec 15, 1943 somewhere near Kansas City, Missouri while he was traveling by train.

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Jean “Django” Reinhardt, the Story of the man Behind Gypsy Jazz

May 14, 2010

Django Reinhardt 23 January 1910 – 16 May 1953

Just over one hundred years ago, in Liberchies, Belgium, the legend Jean-Baptiste Reinhardt was born. More commonly known as “Django” Reinhardt, a nickname from his Romani roots meaning “I awake”.

Django was immersed in music from an early age, learning how to play violin, banjo, and guitar just Gypsy encampment just outside Paris where he lived. It was in these Gypsy encampments across France and Belgium that the word of Reinhardt’s musical gifts quickly began to spread, and where the young prodigies’ talents were nurtured.

At the age of only 12 Django was already playing professionally and rapidly growing both his audience and his talents as a musician. It seemed as if the future of the young virtuoso’s musical career was set to be one of great magnitude, until disaster struck the home of 18 year old Django. In 1928, after returning home late from a performance, Django knocked over a candle on his way to bed, setting his caravan on fire, quickly engulfing it in flames. Luckily, Django’s family and neighbors were quick to rescue him from the fire, but, unfortunately, he didn’t escape unscathed. Django suffered severe burns to over half of his body, leaving his right leg paralyzed and the third and fourth fingers on his left hand badly injured. Believing he would never be able to play guitar again Django fell into a deep depression.

“Django” never would regain the use of his paralyzed fingers but spurred on by the gift of a guitar from his brother he began to play again. Django, as his name suggests, had “awoke” from his depression. He had to relearn to play the instrument using only two fingers, developing an instrumental technique and sound entirely of his own.

With his new technique and second chance at pursuing his musical career, Django along with Parisian violinist Stéphane Grappelli formed the “Quintette du Hot Club de France,” one of the few well-known jazz ensembles composed only of string instruments. From then on “Django” enjoyed a full and wonderful musical career performing and touring with jazz giants such as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Coleman Hawkins, Benny Carter, and Rex Stewart.

Sadly on May 16th 1953, Jean-Baptiste Reinhardt passed away of a stroke at the young age of 43. Although his life was short, it was filled with great disappointments and monumental achievements, creating a legacy with his music and the Gypsy Jazz style he created. “Django” Reinhardt will be forever remembered as a pioneer of jazz.

See also our article on Gypsy Jazz

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