by Howard S. Becker
Howard S. Becker, now a prominent sociologist, was a pianist in Chicago in the late 1940s. He studied with Lennie Tristano and succeeded Lou Levy with Harold Fox's band. He wrote early books about drug abuse among be-bop musicians.
What follows was first given as a talk at the Université Mendes-France in Grenoble, France. It was followed by a 45 minute "recital," in which I was accompanied by Benoit Cancoin, a really excellent bass player from Lyon. A good time was had by all.
Every art work has to be someplace. Physical works, like paintings and sculptures, have to be someplace: a museum, a gallery, a home, a public square. Music and dance and theater have to be performed someplace; a court, a theater or concert hall, a private home, a public square or street.
Books and similar materials take up space too—in bookstores and distributors' warehouses and people's homes. What places are available to exhibit or perform or keep and enjoy works in? Who is in charge of them and responsible for them? How does this organization of place constrain the work done there? What opportunities does it make available?
I'll restrict myself to the case of 20th century jazz, for the most part in the United States, for the somewhat unrespectable reason that this is a subject I know well. And I will rely on my own memory as well as on what scholarship is available.
Jazz has always been very dependent on the availability of places to perform it in. For much of its existence, jazz was played in bars and night clubs and dance halls, places where the money to support the entire enterprise came mostly from the sale of alcohol and secondarily from the sale of tickets. The availability of places for the performance of jazz depended on the viability and profitability of such places.
One of the great centers of jazz development—Kansas City in the 1920s and '30s—drew its vitality from the political corruption which made night life profitable.
Kansas City jazz prospered while most of America suffered the catastrophe of the Great Depression, largely because of the corrupt but economically stimulating administration of Boss Tom Pendergast. Through a combination of labor-intensive public works programs (many of which closely resembled later New Deal programs), deficit spending, and the tacit sanction of massive corruption, Pendergast created an economic oasis in Kansas City. Vice was a major part of this system and gave a strong, steady cash flow to the city. Jazz was the popular social music of the time, and the centers of vice—nightclubs and gambling halls—usually hired musicians to attract customers. The serendipitous result was plentiful, if low-paying, jobs for jazz musicians from throughout the Midwest and an outpouring of great new music.
Pearson writes, "Over three hundred Kansas City clubs featured live music, and many also included floor shows," and explains the consequence, "the constant jam sessions and warm socializing that thrived in nightclubs. K.C. in the thirties enjoyed a remarkable musical community that largely existed in and around its clubs." (p. 107)
He quotes Count Basie:
Oh my, marvelous town. Clubs, clubs, clubs, clubs, clubs, clubs, clubs, clubs. As a matter of fact, I thought that was all Kansas City was made up of, was clubs at one time. . . . I mean, the cats just played. They played all day and tomorrow morning they went home and went to bed. The next day, the same thing. We'd go to one job we'd play on, then go jamming until seven, eight in the morning. (p. 108)
In a setting like that, musical innovation flourished. The jam sessions allowed an experimentation with new forms and ideas, and the chance to improvise at length, to play far beyond the time allowed by a disc or a dance set. There was no audience or they no longer cared what they were listening to.
The setting for jazz changed radically in later years. Boss Pendergast went to prison for corruption and, by the time I arrived in Kansas City in the late 1950s, the jazz scene was comparatively dead.
Innovations in venues can lead to new playing opportunities. Musical innovation began to move out of clubs. Jazz was becoming an art music, no longer an accompaniment for dancing and drinking, but rather a music people listened to attentively in a quiet setting, supported entirely by the synergistic sale of recordings and tickets—the concert hall, where people came to hear the groups they had learned to appreciate from recordings.
I don't know whether the claim is justified, but Dave Brubeck's biographer traces this development of the "college tour," in which a small musical group could travel around the United States performing on the college campuses found everywhere, to his wife's desire to see more of him at home.
Iola one day came up with an entirely new concept that quite incidentally revolutionized the old one-nighter, road-trip concept. She searched the list of colleges and universities in the World Almanac for every institution on the West Coast, and personally wrote to more than one hundred of them, suggesting the Brubeck Quartet as a great entertainment for campus concerts, citing their recordings and reviews. So successful did these events become that they spread nationwide and opened an entirely new avenue for expression and income for jazz groups everywhere. Before that, many bands had played college dances and fraternity parties, but very few concerts. [Hall, 1996 #445] (p. 50)
College campuses contained large numbers of bored young people, most of whom had an interest in popular music and some of whom were jazz fans. Between the two, enough would buy tickets to fill a medium-sized auditorium and thus pay the expenses and salaries of such a traveling operation. Students came to the concerts because they wanted to hear Brubeck play the kind of jazz they had become acquainted with through his recordings. The recordings created an audience for live performance, and the live performances created an audience for the records.
In the university concert halls, Brubeck could play music that was undanceable, like his experiments with unconventional (for jazz) time signatures like 5/4 ("Take Five") or 9/4 ("Blue Rondo à la Turk"). He could play at whatever length pleased him and indulge the experiments of his colleagues as well. The people who bought the tickets had come to hear him do just that. The place made the musical opportunity.
My own memories take place on a smaller stage and deal with more specific, detailed, and much less impressive, variations and results. But they illustrate the general point that where jazz players perform affects what they perform.
I was playing at a place on 63rd Street in Chicago, around 1950, when this picture was taken. The little item attached to the keyboard is a small-time version of an electric organ, on which you could play the melody while accompanying yourself on piano. The gangster who owned the place wanted me to play this contraption. I kept surreptitiously breaking it until the repairman told me the boss was getting wise.
What do I mean by a "place?" First of all, it is a physical place: a building, or part of one, or an enclosed place in the open air. It is also a physical place which has been socially defined—by its expected uses, by shared expectations about what kinds of people will be there to take part in those activities, and by the financial arrangements which underlay all of this.
A place is defined further by a larger social context which provides opportunities, and sets limits, to what can happen. A place, so defined, can be as large as a city (as large as Kansas City in the above descriptions) or as small as a nightclub or concert hall. And of course we must recognize, as the story of Kansas City illustrates, that places change more or less continuously. What can be played in a place will vary as well.
I played the piano in Chicago in the '40s and early '50s, a time when live popular music was performed in hundreds of public places by professional players who were paid for their services. The entrepreneurs who owned and managed these places (the word "venue" has now become a general term for performing places) had a variety of motives for their activity, but in general the presentation of music was a business activity undertaken for profit.
To be profitable, these places had to attract patrons who would pay something to hear the music played, either directly, or by buying liquor. The music my colleagues and I played had to be acceptable to the bosses we worked for and their customers. If it wasn't, we were fired, or not hired again, and someone who played more acceptably took our place.
What kinds of public places were there in Chicago then for the performance of jazz? Who went to them and what did they want? What kinds of music did we get to play? I will present this picture in some detail and discuss some alternative ways of organizing jazz performance that existed then or have grown up since, and how those changes affected what's played. It's important to understand that the organizations I will describe no longer exist and that much of what now seems "natural," the only possible way these things could be done, was not then in existence.
There were very few places devoted to playing jazz without apology or disguise—"jazz clubs" where you went because some form of jazz was being played and you wanted to hear it. There were almost no "jazz concerts" or presentations. A few clubs presented Dixieland music (I have forgotten their names, since this was not a kind of music I cared for) and one or two clubs in the Loop (the city center), such as the Blue Note, presented small jazz groups. Several large clubs, some of them in the major hotels, presented big bands, many (but not all) of whom played one or another version of big band jazz, although always for dancing as well as listening.
Duke Ellington occasionally appeared at the Boulevard Room of the Stevens Hotel, and a succession of major bands—Woody Herman, Benny Goodman, Count Basie, Cab Calloway, Tommy Dorsey, etc.—appeared at the Sherman Hotel's Panther Room. Les Brown and Bob Crosby, among others, played at the Blackhawk.
In the late '40s and early '50s, some bars presented well-known players fronting small groups of five or six players—Miles Davis at the Crown Propeller Lounge on 63rd Street, Charlie Parker at the Argyle Show Lounge. These groups played for people who paid especially to hear them play some form of jazz. All these places presented performers from outside of Chicago, groups more or less well-known to the relatively small group of Chicago jazz fans, many of whom were themselves working musicians.
I did not play in any of the places that presented jazz, nor did most of my colleagues. We performed (we would have said "we worked") in a variety of commercial entertainment venues, which took several forms. We played for "private parties," that is, entertainments presented by private persons or groups for the pleasure of their members and guests: weddings, bar mitzvah parties, and parties given by organizations for their members, were the most common kinds.
These typically took place in establishments rented for the occasion: a country club, a hotel ballroom, an ethnic meeting hall, a church social hall. The hosts typically provided food, most often prepared by a commercial caterer, and music, provided by a small band made up (though our employers usually didn't know this) of musicians hired for the occasion, who might never have worked together before.
We called these performances "jobbing dates." Or, more simply, "jobs." (The term varied from city to city; in other cities they might be called "casuals" or "club dates.") The bandleader the partygivers had hired had a stake in providing suitable entertainment because he hoped to have the hosts recommend him to other partygivers. But the musicians themselves (the "sidemen") only wanted to do a good enough job that the bandleader would hire them again or recommend them to some other leader.
The band could be as few as three people or as many as 15. The smaller groups mainly improvised, the larger groups often had a large library of arrangements written for their extended instrumentation. (You could buy printed arrangements which could be played by groups of from five to 15 instrumentalists; these were known as "stock arrangements." There were, of course, many more jobs for small groups than for large ones.
What we played on such occasions varied with the class, age, and ethnicity of the group attending the party. Wedding customs of ethnic groups vary substantially, often requiring special music. If we played for an Italian wedding, we had to be prepared to play "Come Back to Sorrento," "O Sole Mio," and some tarentellas to which the older people danced enthusiastically. A Polish wedding called for polkas.
Some ethnic groups' musical requirements were too exotic for the average player, and a special ethnic band might be hired in addition. So, one night when I played for an Assyrian wedding, an Assyrian band made up of a tenor banjo and a tambourine alternated with us. We played for "American" dancing and they played for the more traditional dances in which the families of the bride and groom competed to give money to dancers from "their side." Greek music was too difficult for most of us too, since most of it was played in unfamiliar—to us—time signatures like 5/4 (which became more familiar after Dave Brubeck recorded "Take Five").
Many kinds of bands existed in this setup. Some came together only for the one occasion, that night's job, the personnel being chosen ad hoc, perhaps even, in those days, at the local union hall, where musicians would assemble to look for work and leaders for players. Some groups were more established and much the same personnel assembled night after night to play the same material.
The usual party lasted three hours. That, at least, was what we were usually hired for, although a lively party might provoke the host into splurging on an extra hour or so. We played perhaps 45 minutes or more out of every hour, and played music that people could dance to (which meant not too fast) and that they recognized.
We usually played a mixture of currently popular songs from "The Hit Parade" and older "standards," chosen from the ever-growing collection of tunes musicians liked to play, often ones that had been played on recordings by jazz players we liked. We almost never played "straight" jazz songs, that is, songs like the ones Count Basie's band invented for themselves and recorded, which were not known to the general public.
Because people were dancing and might want to change partners, we stopped and started frequently, seldom playing more than three choruses of anything (3 x 32 bars, 32 being the number of bars in the conventional popular songs we played, or 96 bars total). We varied the tempos, but of course never played the very fast tempos a lot of jazz players liked to play. And we usually played the melody or something that didn't depart too much from it. This limited how much "jazz," however defined, we could play on a jobbing date. Not much. At best, one of us might improvise a chorus of the song we were playing, never straying too far from the melody.
There were some exceptions to this rule, reflecting the influence of ethnic and age differences. I worked for perhaps a year with a band called "Jimmy Dale," actually led by Harold Fox, who had a custom tailoring establishment where he made suits mainly for criminals, police, entertainers, and musicians.
Harold was a (very bad) trumpet player, but his shop brought him into contact with many well-known bands, for whom he made matching suits that they wore as uniforms. He persuaded many bandleaders to let him use their band's arrangements (we called them "charts") for the 15 piece band that was his hobby. (I call it a hobby because he often lost money on an engagement, getting paid for ten or twelve people although he hired and paid fifteen). We thus played the same arrangements as several of the well-known jazz oriented big bands of the era, especially Basie, Woody Herman, and Stan Kenton.
The band was racially mixed, which in segregated Chicago in 1950 was unique. Places which catered to white audiences seldom wanted Black players, and never wanted a racially mixed band which openly defied well-understood patterns of segregation. As a result, we only played for Black dances and parties (with the exception of the meat cutters union, which was also racially mixed). These difficulties were increased, in ways I never completely understood, by the racial segregation of the musicians union.
This band mainly played for large dances in ballrooms. On occasion we played for a formal dance (tails and evening gowns) given by one of the fraternities for adults which were a feature of the upper reaches of Chicago's Black society. Mainly, however, we played in places such as the Savoy Ballroom, Parkway Ballroom, and the ballroom at the Sutherland Hotel, where people paid at the door and bought drinks from the bar.
The audiences were entirely Black and usually young and enthusiastic. They liked our hip big band sound. There were some difficulties for me, because the audiences often had favorites that had to be played exactly as they were played on the recordings that the originating bands had made. So I was required to play Eddie Heywood's solo on "Begin the Beguine" exactly as Heywood had played it, and similarly with Avery Parrish's famous piano solo on Erskine Hawkins' "After Hours," and Stan Kenton's grandiose solo on "Concerto to End All Concertos."
But this was unusual. A smaller variation from the standard pattern, which allowed some accommodation between our desire to play jazz, and what our audiences wanted, occurred when we played for Jewish audiences. Stereotypically, and often enough in fact (for reasons I don't know), these audiences liked to dance to Latin American music: rumbas, sambas, mambos.
Bands like Tito Puente had made the mambo, especially, desirable to jazz players; we felt that these songs "swung" in a way that ordinary popular music, played as people wanted to hear it, didn't. The same thing happened some years later when the bossa nova became popular enough for that Brazilian form of jazz to be acceptable to dancers.
We—I'm still talking about the ordinary, non-famous musicians, of whom I was one—also played "steady jobs" or "gigs," in bars and taverns and clubs, which were open to the general public, and which made their money by selling drinks. The numbers and kinds of such bars and clubs varied from city to city, as a result of local laws governing the sale of liquor, and the general demand for these services.
Chicago, laid out on a grid, had eight parallel streets to the mile, both east-west and north-south. Every half mile, the street was a "major" street, wider than the others and usually with some form of public transportation on it. Where major streets, and their accompanying transportation facilities of buses and trams, crossed, a "major intersection" provided commercial facilities. These intersections often had several bars and, in the time I am speaking of, before television provided the major form of entertainment in bars, many of them, at least one and often more, had live music, usually a trio or quartet.
None of the musicians who played in these neighborhood bars were well enough known to attract people who wanted to hear them play jazz in sufficient numbers to satisfy a club owner. So we played for whoever came into the bar, people who had come there to drink and see their friends. Many of the bars we played in catered to a very local trade, people who knew one another and who "hung out" in this club, among others. We provided background noise for the socializing that went on in the bar.
Such venues had their advantages for us, as would-be jazz players. People did sometimes request a specific song, which we then had to play so that it could be recognized, which meant no extensive improvising, staying close to the melody. But people sitting at the bar usually paid very little attention to the band or to what we played. Since they weren't dancing, tempos didn't matter and we could play as fast as—well, as fast we could play, if we wanted to.
People in the bar sometimes really didn't care at all what we played, and therefore the bar owner didn't care either, and we could indulge ourselves in playing the kinds of jazz we wanted to play. I worked in a few clubs where, late in the evening, the boss let us welcome other musicians who had finished their jobbing dates to the stand, where an old-fashioned jam session would take place.
Then we would play like people did in the legendary jazz clubs of the east or west coasts. Every player on the stand took long solos, several choruses at least, just like on the records made by the famous players we idolized. We played songs no one in the audience had ever heard of, in styles that were unfamiliar to them as well. This didn't happen often, but when it did we prized our luck.
We played a lot in these clubs. At the time I speak of, some Chicago clubs had a license which allowed them to stay open until two in the morning; others had a more expensive license that let them stay open until four. So we played, usually, from nine in the evening until two or four in the morning, either six nights a week or just the three weekend nights.
For a young player like me, this was a form of practicing, and was crucial to the development of technical skills and, more importantly, improvising skills. We played the songs that were the basis of the jazz repertoire over and over, hundreds of times in a year, so that improvising on their chords became effortless and we had countless opportunities to experiment with melody and harmony and rhythm.
Some of the clubs we played had "entertainment," mainly strip tease dancers. This was a sophisticated and legal way of extracting money from members of the Army and Navy on temporary leave, from convention goers out for a "big night on the town," and from people who for whatever reason wanted to look at some almost nude women. The dancers might request certain songs, but never had actual scores for us to play from. Still, we had to play in a sort of stop-and-start pattern, accompanying the removal of their costumes, that wasn't really conducive to jazz improvisation.
I occasionally worked at places that had real entertainment: "acts," which is to say people who performed as singers, "real" dancers, magicians, jugglers, or comedians. They sometimes had written or printed scores we had to play more or less as written, without rehearsal. Since their music was usually quite conventional, that was never difficult, except when the music was so faded we couldn't read it. There was seldom any room for anything resembling jazz.
A few venues featured well-known jazz players from elsewhere, but those jobs were never available to people like me. I studied jazz piano with Lennie Tristano, a Chicagoan who soon moved to New York, where the opportunities were somewhat better, and I don't think he ever worked more than a few nights anywhere in Chicago.
But most of what musicians like me played was "commercial" music, meant for dancing—at a party, in a club, or ballroom—or as background noise in a bar or club. Most of the jazz we played by sneaking it into the performance of other kinds of music we had been hired to play.
In short, our repertoire and style of playing were completely dictated by the circumstances of the places we played. We knew what we wanted to do, which was to play like our heroes—in my day, the big bands of Basie, Herman, and others; the small bands of Gillespie, Parker, Stan Getz, etc. But we seldom could do that. Most of the time we played what the "place"—the combination of physical space and social and financial arrangements—made possible.
That was Chicago as I knew it. Shortly after I left Chicago, in the early '50s, everything changed. Television became the major form of entertainment in neighborhood bars, and the places that had formed the basis of my brief career were no longer available.
The obvious and important conclusion to be drawn from this lengthy exposition of the possibilities for jazz playing in Chicago is that a place like a city can house a great variety of smaller places, each providing its own combination of circumstances affecting what the musicians in it can do. Most of them, almost all, will neither be places totally hospitable to jazz as its most enthusiastic adherents would like to hear it nor so devoid of possibilities for occasionally playing "the real thing." Which means, in turn, that most musicians, playing in the full range of places available, played in a complex and varied repertoire of styles, each its own variation on what the popular music of the day offered.
Finally, that it would be wise to guess—in trying to understand the output of any player or group—that what they did in one place affected what they did in another, so that the music of even a very serious jazz group might bear the traces of the less than pure music they had played in some other place on some other night.
You can visit the author's website at www.soc.ucsb.edu/faculty/hbecker/
Photos used with permission of the author.