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Modal Jazz and Change

"There is nothing permanent except change."
- Heraclitus (535-475 B.C.)

What!? Ancient philosophical quotes in a modern music format? Change is needed, change is necessary. Then, along comes Miles Davis. This article is about modal jazz of the 1950s and a closer look at the change that swept the jazz world.

From the ragtime era of jazz came great musicians, and the groundwork for what was to become jazz improvisation. Musicality grew and technology expanded the scope of jazz music, and a change occurred: the Big Band/Swing era of the 1920's and 30's. Ellington, Henderson, and Basie immediately comes to mind as masters of this era. Things were calm, yet a storm was brewing. Then, radical changes occurred -- almost a rebellion -- and Bebop was born. Leading this change were names like Parker, Gillespie, Monk, and Miles Davis. Yet, from this band of "rebels", there was still unrest.

"The concept of linear soloing enabled the soloist to construct melodic lines based on scales and modes rather than run the changes."
Looking at some of the characteristics of bebop you see an almost virtuosic approach to playing. There was a rapid succession of chords, with changes often occurring every two beats. In bebop, the approach to soloing was often dictated by the harmony of the moving chords. Modes were used, but a more vertical approach to improvisation a la Parker, Hawkins, and Eldridge seemed fitting, particularly over the more up-tempo songs. Even during the swing era and into the bebop era, a single saxophonist was signaling the change with a more linear, more melodic approach to soloing -- Lester Young, the "Prez."

Modal Jazz or "Cool" of the 1950s was a reactionary response to the uptempo, vertical approach of bebop. The concept of linear soloing enabled the soloist to construct melodic lines based on scales and modes rather than run the changes. The tempo was slowed and chords became more sparse giving the soloist that much more room to develop ideas and express themself more fluidly. Miles Davis was a student of bebop, and during those early days of his career, his solos stood out, being more simple and melodic, and often lacking that "BANG!", as opposed to Dizzy Gillespie. Change was happening in the form of Miles' masterpiece, Kind of Blue. Songs like "So What" and "All Blues" paved the way for this change. Spawned by such icons of the jazz world as John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, and Bill Evans, along with Eric Dolphy, Freddie Hubbard and many others, modal jazz became the ultimate form of soloing, of expression, and of experimentation. Modes were rediscovered, foreign scales explored, and music theory and harmony expanded like never before.

And just when things seemed to calm, another storm was brewing in the form of Ornette Coleman, free jazz, and the tumultuous 60's.

Frederick Burton is a Philadelphia-based jazz guitarist and teacher