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NPR’s top ten jazz songs (and mine)

John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderly, Miles Davis, Bill Evans; (Photo by Frank Driggs Collection/Getty Images)

NPR asked its jazz listeners to rate their favorite songs, and gleaned from those responses a list of the top ten Jazz songs of all time[1]. What is interesting about the lists is not that they can establish what is “best,” whatever that might mean, or what is most popular (sales records, etcetera, show that). Looking at the lists causes people to discover or rediscover great music to listen to – that is of course what matters most. It also can prompt us to think about what we love and why. Below is NPR’s list, then mine, then some discoveries that I made, in the process of choosing songs, about how I think about jazz – questions about what is a jazz song, and whose song is it.

Also, because he is so central, I try to explain my complicated feelings about John Coltrane’s work, and then finish with a short note about each item in my list.

NPR’s List:

Dave Brubeck, “Take Five”

Miles Davis, “So What”

Duke Ellington, “Take The A Train”

Thelonious Monk, “Round Midnight”

John Coltrane, “My Favorite Things”

John Coltrane, “A Love Supreme (Acknowledgment)”

Miles Davis, “All Blues”

Weather Report, “Birdland”

Stan Getz & Astrud Gilberto, “The Girl From Ipanema”

Benny Goodman, “Sing, Sing, Sing”

Here’s my list:

Miles Davis/John Coltrane/Bill Evans, “So What”

Thelonious Monk, “Round Midnight”

Billie Holiday/Lester Young/Ben Webster, “Fine and Mellow”

Charles Mingus, “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat”

John Coltrane, “Naima”

John Coltrane, “Alabama”

Thelonious Monk, “Tea for Two”

Lester Young, “Tea for Two”

Duke Ellington, “Solitude”

Miles Davis/John Coltrane, “Surrey with the Fringe on Top”

Bud Powell/Charlie Parker, “Ornithology”

The criterion I used in picking mine was to ask myself, What music could I not live without? What music, if subtracted from my world, would leave me feeling bereft and forlorn? So if my list of ten has eleven in it, that’s why.

Now for the discoveries:

Gershwin, Kerns, Monk and Coltrane: What is a jazz song, and who is it by?

The first thing I noticed working on my list is that I wasn’t sure what a jazz song is. Not in the sense of “is it jazz or is it rock or pop or whatever,” but because a jazz song is not simply a tune with a name and an author. Many jazz pieces, including the very best, began life as tunes written by songwriters who were not ‘jazz’ songwriters or musicians. Later, a jazz musician (or just as often a jazz group) picks it up, plays with it, works their imagination on it, thereby creating something new. This is not an accident of history, but fundamental to what jazz is – music rooted in improvisation, hungry for ideas from the wider culture around it, from the past and from the wider world.  For example, “Tea for Two” began as a song written in 1925 for the musical “No, No, Nanette”, but it is on my list (twice!) in the completely reworked versions by Lester Young and by Thelonious Monk. So I found myself thinking of items for my list as particular great jazz performances, particular recordings or renderings, not an abstract/concrete copyrighted object.

Individual and Collective jazz performance

My list favors ensemble performances where we think of more than one performer as leading the song: so “Fine and Mellow” is by Billie Holiday, Lester Young, Ben Webster and more; the performance of “Ornithology” on my list is by Bud Powell and Charlie Parker, equally. While I dropped it off the list, the cut of “Embraceable You” that I love is not one of Charlie Parker’s 3-4 minute takes, but the ten minute version consisting of five great horn players succeeding and comparing each others version: Roy Eldridge, Lester Young, Tommy Turk, Parker, Flip Phillips. This also is not an accident: the live communication between performers is part of what makes jazz jazz. Reaching into the past for tunes with unexplored possibilities, and connecting one performer to another in the live creative moment, are of the essence in jazz.

John Coltrane’s Sound and Fury, On and Off These Lists

John Coltrane’s name stands out in both lists, as writer, lead performer, as well as ensemble member. But whereas NPR’s highlights him for “My Favorite Things” and “A Love Supreme,” he’s on my list “Naima”, “Alabama”, and (with Miles Davis) “Surrey with the Fringe on Top.” This divergence is the only one I want to talk about. As it happens, in both cases I’m talking about pieces that I once revered but now have come to question.

It is an understatement to say that Coltrane’s ballads are the most beautiful ever recorded. I could have chosen “You Don’t Know What Love Is”, or “After the Rain”, or many others, instead of or along with “Naima” and “Alabama”. In the sixties Coltrane moved from hard bebop to abstract ‘out-of-the-box’ compositions, showing amazing virtuosity in this avant-garde “New Thing”. Though many brilliant pieces of music came out of this style, so did some unfortunate consequences: young saxophone players learned how to play extravagant solo riffs a la Coltrane and impressionistic compositions, and neglected rhythm and melody and traditional notions of sonorous beauty. Much of jazz drifted in that direction. Therefore, although Coltrane is as great a horn player as ever walked the earth – only Charlie Parker, in my opinion, is his equal – I think that his legacy, particularly as composer, is mixed. The two Coltrane pieces on NPR’s list exemplify this perfectly, as follows.

The Many Contradictions of “My Favorite Things”

Coltrane’s version of this originally super-sweet Mary Martin/Julie Andrews tune from “The Sound of Music” might seem the ultimate example of jazzman-reworks-pop-tune-into-jazz. The song became Coltrane’s signature tune as he toured the world. He ingeniously releases the melody from its original context, and demonstrates its intriguing power. But everything else is changed as well – not just the pure-as-the-driven-snow words, but the feel, mood and the meaning of the song. As he reprised it over the years it moved away from the original sentiment of gratitude and pleasure into one of pained searching, and in the end one with an ominous, perhaps angry tone[12]. It became an assault on the original song, disguised as a reworking of it. I think it expresses Coltrane’s attempt to bring together the more gentle, soulful side of his work with his later cacophonous saxophone exploits. I loved this song for a decade or so after it came out, but now when I listen to it I feel a sadness. I think that’s because I sense that no one’s favorite things are truly expressed here; I imagine that I hear Trane looking for them, but not finding them.

Jazz, Spirituality, and “A Love Supreme”

“A Love Supreme” changed the course of jazz music, and was a watershed experience for those of us listening in the sixties. It’s a masterful and beautiful piece, and its four movement structure successfully makes a bold classical statement. But for me it is flawed by its emphatic religiosity. Late in his life Coltrane, along with a number of other jazz musicians of the time (notably, his wife, Alice Coltrane) became involved with a sort of pan-religious sentiment, ascribing to the popular notion that all the “world’s great religions” “teach the same thing.” He supposedly said that “I believe in all religions.” He joined Alice, Pharaoh Sanders and others in apparently believing that Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Christianity, and Ancient African/Egyptian religious traditions are all reconcilable and worship the same God.

I guess this kind of straining after God was (and remains) very compelling to some people.  But I find it emotionally and intellectually discordant. I hear the chanting of ‘A love supreme, A love supreme’ as the low point, not the zenith, of this piece. I suspect that many who praise this piece are engaging in a kind of Musical/Spiritual Correctness – i.e. “If Coltrane was into it, it must be profound,” or, even worse, “White people shouldn’t criticize the intense mystical beliefs of this holy African-American artistic genius.” On the contrary, I think the powerful, angry, brave, beautiful and secular free-thinking tradition which jazz is a part of – the yearnings expressed by Miles, Monk, Ellington, Parker, Lester Young, Mingus and Coltrane at his best – these very human expressions of truth, beauty and courage are more bold, compelling and therefore spiritual than the self-conscious mysticism of “A Love Supreme.”

Notes on my favorite songs

Miles Davis/John Coltrane/Bill Evans, “So What”

Also on NPR’s list, this opening song on Kind of Blue is eternally fresh and astonishing.

Thelonious Monk, “Round Midnight” [2]

Has a special and exalted place in the jazz repertoire. Almost everyone has a stab at recording it, but no one displaces Monk as the master of this masterpiece.

Lester Young/Billie Holiday/Ben Webster “Fine and Mellow” [3]

Made famous by being captured on film by CBS, this performance has a glorious depth to it and gives us a sense of the connection between the members of this ensemble: Roy Eldridge, Gerry Mulligan, and Vic Dickinson are soloists, along with Young, Holiday and Webster.

Charles Mingus, “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” [4]

An loving elegy for Lester Young so lovely as to be worthy of the man.

John Coltrane, “Naima” [5]

One of Coltrane’s many extraordinary ballads, a love song to his first wife.

John Coltrane, “Alabama” [6]

The most beautiful protest song ever. A response to the bombing of a black church in Birmingham that killed 4 young girls; an elegy like no other.

Duke Ellington, “Solitude”

This tremendous composition, like Round Midnight, became a platform on which a never-ending stream of musicians could build their versions: Duke’s big band arrangement[7], his trio with Max Roach and Mingus[7b], Sonny Rollins’ astonishing 8 minute solo version[7c], as well as versions by Louis Armstrong alone[7d], or in combination with Ellington[7e].

Lester Young, “Tea for Two” [8]

Young’s take is different from Monk’s but has a magnificent sense of width, of openness: as if his horn is ready to express anything he finds in the world.

Thelonious Monk, “Tea for Two” [9]

The 17 note ending that Monk plays here is stunning, perfect, elegant,

beautiful and unforgettable.

Miles Davis/John Coltrane, “Surrey with the Fringe on Top” [10]

A perfect piece: spare, acute, pure, lovely. For me, this is the most remarkable transfiguration of a show tune (Oklahoma!) into high art. Davis etches a magnificent and brilliant outline, and Coltrane fills it in such rich sound.

Bud Powell and Charlie Parker, “Ornithology”[11].

The two great geniuses of jazz in the fifties showcase what can be done with an alto and a piano playing off each other.

[1]NPR list

[2]Monk, Round Midnight

[3]Holiday,etc Fine and Mellow

[4]Mingus, Pork Pie Hat

[5]Coltrane, Naima

[6]Coltrane, Alabama

[7]Solitude, big band version

[7b]Solitude Ellington in trio w/Max Roach and Charles Mingus]

[7c]Solitude, Sonny Rollins solo version

[7d]Solitude, Louis Armstrong]

[7e]Solitude, Ellington & Armstrong]

[8] Young, Tea for Two[8]

[9] Monk, Tea for Two on the album “Criss Cross”

[10]Davis & Coltrane, Surrey

[11]Powell/Parker Ornithology

[12]See Geoff Dyer on “My favorite things” in “Lives of the Great Song”, ed. Tim De Lisle, Pavilion Books, 1994.

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2 Responses to NPR’s top ten jazz songs (and mine)

  1. fred stark December 16, 2011 at 12:20 am #

    I like Bob Mason’s picks better.

  2. DjM December 16, 2011 at 2:49 pm #

    Nice list… i’d like to see more Bill Evans, and something from Keith Jarrett. But ten tunes is really not a lot. Thanks for posting

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