June 24, 2024

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Coltrane killed jazz – An excerpt from Brad Mehldau’s memoir։ Video, Photos

In this excerpt from Brad Mehldau’s memoir, Formation: Building a Persona Canon, Part 1, the pianist talks about the lessons he learned from jazz legends Barry Harris and Lou Donaldson.

Many of us were in our late teens but playing the part of elder statesmen, even dressing the part. Suspenders and tweed were prevalent, and some would keep that look at all times of the day, not just on the bandstand. A lot of the guys had a studied sourness. Everything going on around us, everything that wasn’t what we were doing, was “jive” – not valid, not authentic. That was a favorite word of ours, a blanket condemnation of lots of other jazz. It’s still a good word now and then, when used with precision.

We took lessons from Barry Harris in this regard, because, in showing how righteous bebop melody and harmony was, he implied that much of everything else was not. Barry Harris was the patron saint of bebop piano, one of the musicians who was still around from the early second wave that immediately followed Bird and Bud. He had a way of teaching that was unparalleled. He taught masterclasses at the New School, University of the Streets in the East Village, and other places. A group of Barry’s acolytes would show up at every one. These were events.

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It was easy enough to learn Bird’s licks. Many of us had already been transcribing Bird’s solos onto paper already, and there was even a shortcut available, something called the Charlie Parker Omnibook, with several of his solos already transcribed. I had done quite a bit of transcribing of Bird and Bud, and it was a great way to dive into their melodic vocabulary and start getting it under my fingers in various keys. Barry widened the lens for us, though, connecting those melodies to the harmony underneath them. It was theory but also a model for praxis – he demonstrated it on the piano. Barry would teach, and then you’d go hear him later that night at Bradley’s. You dug it like you already had, but you began to understand why, and then you dug it even more.

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He had built on Bud’s harmony and melodic phrasing. It informed his own playing, and, when he taught, he would hold you to it – there were do’s and don’ts. It was a complete aesthetic. This was a strong example: Yes, you had to learn vocabulary, but you wanted to also learn what made it great. It was how you developed a personal aesthetic; it was how you might become a stylist in your own right, with your own calling card. Going forward, if you decided to drop one of those do’s or don’ts, or supplant it with another, you could justify your reason. That justification wasn’t necessarily for anyone else, although it might play out in one or another polemical quarrel. It was a step towards further self-knowledge. Vladimir Horowitz expressed the same idea in a different context, saying that, in order to move beyond mere virtuosic display, you have to learn how to be a virtuoso first. He meant that if you don’t own something first, then you can’t rightfully discard it – you never had it to begin with.

The most refined, most elder, most withering sourpuss whom we all feared and loved, the one we tried to imitate in vain, was the great alto saxophonist Lou Donaldson. Lou was from the hard bop generation and had been on some of the legendary records we prized, so the first time I was even close to him my temperature was up. This was the guy who was in the front line with trumpeter Clifford Brown on Art Blakey’s A Night at Birdland (Volumes 1 and 2). Lou had what we wanted: not just the bebop language, but a real romanticism in his expression, like his reading of the melody on a ballad like “If I Had You” from Volume 2, with his heart right on his sleeve.

Yet Lou could have had a second career as a comedic roaster. Really, he was nothing but kind. He would come down to our fledgling gigs and listen to us try to play the music he had played decades before us, and he stuck around. With Lou, as with Barry, the sourness wasn’t truly sour, because it was coupled with a big heart. We felt that. It was incredibly important to have someone like Lou at your gig – intimidating and inspiring all at once. You knew how scathing Lou’s criticism was of most everything, apart from Bird, Bud, and a few others. Everyone has their favorite Lou phrases; mine is when he was talking about a band he had just seen at Sweet Basil called The Leaders, led by tenor player Chico Freeman, son of the great Chicago tenor stylist Von Freeman.

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“The Leaders? . . . I’d sure hate to see the followers!”

These roasts were ingenious in their timing, delivered in Lou’s hipster cadence, with his characteristic high voice, and in the deadpan way they fell out, devoid of mercy, with just a touch of a smile. Yet I was often hesitant to laugh. Most of the people Lou dissed were further along in the game than I might ever get – they had been out there and were respected by their peers and audience alike. Their music had touched people, myself included. But not Lou. It was Lou who introduced the idea that a whole period of jazz could be bullshit, with no exceptions. One night, he came to Augie’s to see Peter Bernstein, Larry Goldings on his organ set-up, and Bill Stewart on drums. Augie’s was a bar uptown where a lot of things happened for all of us early on. After the set, Lou was holding court with all of us, and without warning, made a statement of biblical weight:

“I got news for you. Coltrane killed jazz.”

I was shaken, but I took it in because it was Lou saying it. It was where he was coming from, from his generation. There was this beautiful, melodic thing that Bird had brought, full of fire but also romance. He was witness to that as it happened and went on to draw from it in his own playing. When Coltrane came along, he seemed to dismantle all that, willfully. From my perspective, it was simple: Coltrane had made something new for jazz. I loved it as much as the earlier stuff; it was another case of apples and oranges. Compared to Lou, though, I was a time-traveling tourist. I was perusing through these different periods of jazz, digging on all of them, but I hadn’t ever lived through any of them. Chronology was irrelevant to me in the sense that it was all way before me. For Lou, chronology was everything: Coltrane came along, and bebop was effectively over. Coltrane may not have killed jazz, but he killed Lou’s jazz.

Brad Mehldau Formation

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