Hard Bop During Hard Times: More From Blue Note’s Rudy Van Gelder Series

By Brian L. Knight

The late 1950s and entire 1960s were a turbulent time for American society. As the nation was waning from its post-World War II affluent boom, the cracks of serenity began to widen on an international and national level. In world politics, the Middle East was a continuous hotspot as the Arabs and Israelis were in and out of conflict between the major wars of 1956 and 1967. The cold war was being fought on every front: from the quarantine of Cuba to the U-2 spy plane incident, the tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union were anything but relaxing. The Cold War even made its way to a small jungle country in Southeast Asia. As a nationalistic leader, who modeled his country’s Declaration of Independence after the United States, was fighting for his nation’s autonomy, the United States was sending its youth away to die for an unclear cause. The dissatisfaction with the war Vietnam rippled back to the home front. Being the first truly televised war, the nation witnessed the carnage while eating their TV dinners. As a result, the level of civil unrest began to rise. Coupled with the dissatisfaction of the war, there was the continuing and burgeoning civil rights issues. The roots of the unrest can trace its way back to the 18th Century, but the 1950-1960s were important years for the civil rights fight. From Rosa Parks to Malcolm X; from the burning of Watts to the "Letter from a Birmingham Jail", the nation was cast into a decade of conflict and unrest.

The Jazz world during the 1960s and 1960s was a reflection of American society. Just as racial strife was the dominating American issue, jazz musicians were experiencing the same issues. There were countless examples of racism within jazz circles. One of the most prevalent problems concerned the opportunities for black jazz musicians. Afro-Americans sensed a certain bond towards jazz as they felt that it was their creation. Arguably the Afro-Americans had the bragging rights to jazz. The music form traced its lineage to the African continent and some of the idiom’s most talented musicians were Afro-American. Despite this fact, the white players seemed to get all the well paying jobs, recording contracts and publicity. During the swing era, bandleaders such as Tommy Dorsey and Benny Goodman were the most popular big bands while Duke Ellington and Count Basie, although much more influential, were relegated to endless tours and minimal publicity. This disparity continued on into modern jazz as the David Brubeck, Stan Getz, Zoot Sims, Al Cohn and Gerry Mulligan were the most popular musicians to the American public.

Despite the strife within the jazz world, black and white musicians alike were creating some remarkable music. The 1950s-1960s brought forward the jazz style of hard bop. The most notable purveyors of this style were the members of the Jazz Messengers, and the bands of John Coltrane and Miles Davis. The type of music that came from these artists during this period can be described as hard-bop or free-bop as each of these artists pushed their improvisational abilities to the limit. Some musicians created lengthy, introspective recordings of collective and structured improvisation while others brought in new forms of music such as R&B, soul and Latin.

These differences between the hard bop styles of the Jazz Messengers, Coltrane and Miles Davis were ever so slight and there was mutual admiration amongst all of the musicians who created music during this period. Horace Silver, one of the original Jazz Messengers and one of the most gifted composers of the era, spoke of John Coltrane: "We’re now entering the Aquarian Age and musicians, who are quite sensitive to these things, are picking up these vibrations and getting attuned with spiritual concepts of life through their music. I think we can thank John Coltrane for leading the way." (Chasin’ the Trane)

Although both styles were considered components of the hard bop style, the R&B influenced sounds of the hard-bop of the Jazz Messengers and the modal innovations of Coltrane and Davis were considerably different in approach. The sounds of the Jazz Messengers tended to swing much harder and maintain a faster pace; while Davis and Coltrane tended to slow down pace down and explore within the song’s framework more. Even though Coltrane and Davis explored modality improvisation together in Davis’ 1950s bands, the two would develop their own versions of hard bop in the years following. Both Davis and Coltrane created a style of music that was somewhere between be-bop and the avant-garde. Their songs contained structure yet there was a free element that allowed for musicians to let go. Davis accomplished this through a structured collective improvisation while Coltrane put more emphasis on the solos. Meanwhile, the sounds of Jazz Messengers also put the emphasis on the solos but in a much tighter song structure.

In his book, The History of Jazz, author Ted Gioia, explains the impact that the Jazz Messengers had on modern jazz. "Eventually, these funky and soulful sounds would become stale cliches in the jazz world, but for a period during the 1950s their simpler attitudes – grooving two steps, guttural backbeats, insistent melody lines drenched with blue notes – offered a healthy alternative to the aggressive strands of modern jazz." In other words, before the organ trio sounds of Jimmy Smith, Jack McDuff and Richard "Groove" Holmes became the dominating, and ultimately the numbing sound in jazz, the Jazz Messengers incorporated R&B into their be-bop sound, which created a very swinging, fast paced style. It was the Jazz Messengers sound that would become the "Blue Note Sound".

In celebration of the hard bop era, Blue Note Records continues with its release of the Rudy Van Gelder series. The musicians who comprise this Rudy Van Gelder series reflect the transition between hard bop and post bop. From the soulful sounds of Horace Silver to the borderline avant-garde of Tony William’s Life Time, the music during this period symbolized a transition. Many of the hard boppers slowly transformed their sound into soul-jazz and ultimately funk; while others headed towards the modal post bop style similar to Miles Davis and John Coltrane and then on to the avant-garde. The 1960s were a transition period in which jazz was constantly been redefined. Some went a more commercial route via the groove while others went ant-commercial via the dissonance.


Johnny Griffin/A Blowin Session (April 8, 1957)

The original Jazz Messengers(Art Blakely, Horace Silver, Hank Mobley, Kenny Dorham) broke up in 1956 with Blakey keeping the name alive for the next thirty years and the remaining members going their own ways. While Blakey seemed to have all of the talent come his way (everybody from Wayne Shorter to Wynton Marsalis), Silver and Mobley formed the Horace Silver Quintet while Kenny Dorham made five distinguished albums with saxophonist Joe Henderson. In the same year that the Southern Christian Leadership Conference was established and President Eisenhower sent the National Guard to Little Rock, Arkansas to segregate the schools, both the old and new Jazz Messengers met up with future members of Miles Davis’ first great quintet. With original Jazz Messengers Hank Mobley, Art Blakey; new Jazz Messengers Johnny Griffin and Lee Morgan and future Miles Davis players Wynton Kelly, Paul Chambers and John Coltrane, this session stands out as one of the greatest musical collaborations. The name of the album says its all with the presence of three great tenor saxophonists. Griffin had already established himself as a tremendous horn player through his stints as the "fastest gun alive" with Eddie ’The Lockjaw" Davis while Coltrane’s unconventional technique and Mobley’s robust sound had been displayed in the Miles Davis quintet and the original Jazz Messengers, respectively. The history legacy of these three tenors is almost unfathomable. While Griffin and Mobley both serve the distinction of playing the Jazz Messengers, Griffin and Coltrane would spend the following years playing with Thelonious Monk. At the time, trumpeter Lee Morgan was a fresh member of the Jazz Messengers but had made a name for himself by playing second trumpet in Dizzy Gillepsie’s bands. This tremendous front line of sound was supported by future Davis alumni Wynton Kelly and Paul Chambers and the man himself, Art Blakey who provides his trademark high hats and bass drum bombs throughout the session. Throughout jazz history, there has been an inherent passion for players to outplay each other. The competition amongst players was intense as each player tried to outdo the other in what was known as a "cuttin’ session." Although this was the norm for the time, A Blowin Session was not a jazzmen’s pie eating contest but rather a mutual admiration of gifted players.


Donald Byrd/ A New Perspective(January 12, 1963)

Two days after the controversial George Wallace was inaugurated as governor of Alabama, the somewhat less contentious Donald Byrd recorded A New Perspective. While George Wallace gained notoriety for his divisive civil rights policy, Donald Byrd would unfortunately receive criticism for his 1970s disco-jazz. Long before his crossover problems, Donald Byrd was one of the foremost trumpeters. As a member of the Jazz Messengers, Byrd filled in the roles of Kenny Dorham and Lee Morgan masterfully. For this winter recording, Byrd recruited original Jazz Messenger saxophonist Hank Mobley, Miles Davis pianist Herbie Hancock, vibist Donald Best, bassist Butch Warren, and drummer Lex Humphries. In addition, there is the presence of guitarist Kenny Burrell. Hancock and Byrd held a special bond, as it was Byrd who initially brought Hancock to New York City. A New Perspective stands out from other Blue Note albums for it is collaboration between jazz instrumentals and vocals. With the help of choral director Coleridge Perkinson and arranger Duke Pearson, Byrd creates a unique blend of gospel chants and jazz improvisation. In the original liner notes, Byrd spoke of the album: "I mean this album seriously. Because of my own background – my father was a Methodist minister – I always wanted to write an entire album of spiritual-like pieces. The most accurate way I can describe what we were trying to do is that this is a modern hymnal." This respect for Byrd’s father was immediately shown as the album’s first song, Elijah, was named after his father.


Joe Henderson/Page One (June 3, 1963)

During the spring-summer of 1963, the United States was experiencing a wave of civil rights strife. Down in Alabama, the bodies of three northern activists Mickey Schwermer, Andrew Goodman, and James Cheney, were found dead near a dam and the leader of NAACP, Medgar Evans, was murdered outside his home. During this same summer, over 250,000 people marched on Washington D.C. to listen to man who had a dream. Meanwhile, up in northern New Jersey, a Texas born tenor saxophonist had a dream of recording his first album for Blue Note. Joe Henderson teamed up with the John Coltrane’s pianist McCoy Tyner, ex-Coltrane drummer Pete LaRoca and bassist Butch Warren. In addition, original Jazz Messenger trumpeter Kenny Dorham contributed two originals to the album, including the immensely popular "Blue Bossa". Like Donald Byrd, Henderson felt a bond to his family as he dedicated Page One to his mother father. Two months prior to this session, both Henderson and Warren played on Dorham’s Una Mas with Herbie Hancock and Tony Williams. Shortly after this session, Henderson tore up the studio with his playing on Grant Green’s Idle Moments.


Horace Silver/Song For My Father (October 31, 1963)

Four months after Joe Henderson’s debut release on Blue Note, he entered the studio with Horace Silver to record Silver’s A Song For My Father. Besides Art Blakey, no other musician defines the hard bop sound than pianist Horace Silver. While playing with Blakey, Mobley and Dorham in the Jazz Messengers, Silver’s funky piano playing added a simpler R&B flare to the complex be-bop sounds. After the breakup of the Jazz Messengers, Silver formed his own quintet which elaborated upon the foundation laid down in the Jazz Messengers. 1963’s A Song For My Father signified a further change in his musical approach. Like Donald Byrd’s A New Perspective and Joe Henderson’s Page One, Silver chose to pay tribute to his father. Silver’s father was from the Cape Verde/Portugal area and Silver wanted to incorporate the music of his father’s country into jazz. The end result was an influx of the bossa nova, which contributed even more to the funky sounds of Silver. In the original liner notes, Silver spoke of the album’s title track: "The tune is an original of mine, but it has flavor to it that makes me think of my childhood days. Some of my uncle, used to have musical parties with three or four stringed instruments; my father played violin and guitar. Those were happy, informal sessions."


Andrew Hill/Point of Departure(March 21, 1964)

Haitian born but Chicago raised pianist Andrew Hill may be one the more underrated pianists alive. Influenced by the work of Bud Powell, Art Tatum and Thelonious Monk and similar to the works of Cecil Taylor and McCoy Tyner, Hill came to Washington in 1963 when he was touring with Dinah Washington. Upon his arrival in the Big Apple, Hill was almost immediately recruited by Blue Note Records where he would record eighteen albums for the label during the 1960s. The most influential was 1964’s Point of Departure. Although Andrew Hill was never a member of either the Jazz Messengers, Miles Davis Quintet or the John Coltrane Quartet, his band for the legendary Point of Departure(1964) featured a relatively whos’who of 1960s hard-bop jazz. Even though the album is distinctly a Andrew Hill creation as the gifted pianist composed all five tunes on the album, it is the trumpeting of original Jazz Messenger, Kenny Dorham, that steals the show for the album. In addition, Hill is backed up by Miles Davis alumnus Tony Williams as well as Coltrane compatriot Eric Dolphy. Dolphy, who made the famous tour in Europe with Charles Mingus during the same year, was a remarkably gifted reedman who left this world too early. Saxophonist Joe Henderson, although never a member of the Jazz Messengers, played in both original Messengers, Kenny Dorham and Horace Silver’s band during the early 1960s. Trumpeter Kenny Dorham and saxophonist Joe Henderson had met long before this Andrew Hill session as the two of them recorded five albums for Blue Note as a sextet during this period.

In the span of eight month period between the summer of 1964 and the spring of 1965, the members of the Miles Davis Quintet all went into the studio to record their own albums as leaders. These albums were Wayne Shorter’s JuJu, Tony William’s Life Time and Herbie Hancock’s Maiden Voyage. In his autobiography, Miles Davis spoke of these four (including bassist Ron Carter) talented players: " If I was the inspiration and wisdom and the link for this band, Tony was the fire, the creative spark; Wayne was the idea person, the conceptualizer of a whole lot music ideas we did; and Ron and Herbie were the anchors. I was just the leader that put us all together."


Wayne Shorter/Juju (August 3, 1964)

Wayne Shorter serves as the perfect bridge between the hard bop sounds of the Jazz Messengers and the modality of Miles Davis. While playing with Art Blakey, Shorter introduced slower tempos songs which created a much moodier sound then what was par for the fast paced Jazz Messengers. Once joining Miles Davis, it was these type of compositions that would dominate the quintet throughout the 1960s. 1964’s JuJu was the first album that Wayne Shorter recorded as a leader after his successful five year tenure with the Jazz Messengers and it was recorded four months before Shorter joined the Miles Davis Quintet. For this album Shorter teamed up with Reggie Workman, who also served as a bridge for the hard bop styles. Workman worked with Shorter in the Jazz Messengers and he also played with John Coltrane before Jimmy Garrison became his primary bassist. The Coltrane presence felt even more with McCoy Tyner and Elvin Jones, the steady pianist and drummer for Coltrane, sitting in for the entire album. In the original liner notes, Shorter spoke of pianist McCoy Tyner: "McCoy has a certain freedom of movement, mentally as well as physically. He is not only an unusually resourceful pianist, but he puts so much of himself into the instrument that I can feel him coming out of it. In his case, his instrument is really an extension of himself and that is why he has that much freedom with it. Another thing about McCoy is that you don’t have too talk to him much. Once you explain something musically, he’s got the idea and proceeds to make a lot more out of it than what you told him."


Tony Williams/Life Time(August 21, 1964)

During the late 1960s, drummer Tony Williams joined up with organist Larry Young and guitarist John McLaughlin to form the band Lifetime. Together, this trio pushed the boundaries of jazz-rock fusion in a way that sounded like Bitches Brew meets Purple Haze. Long before these landmark album, Williams cut an album called Life Time. Instead of pushing jazz-rock to the limits, on this debut release, Williams made deep forays into the world of the avant-garde and hard –bop. Recorded at the ripe age of eighteen, Life Time features William’s fellow Miles Davis cohorts Herbie Hancock and Ron Carter as well as avant-garde visionaries Bobby Hutcherson and Sam Rivers. Rivers, who later made an impact with his "New Thing" sounds, briefly served with the Miles Davis Quintet and was responsible for molding William’s free improvisation techniques as well as introducing the young drummer to Miles Davis. An interesting cut on this album is "Barb’s Song To the Wizard", which was written by Williams, but it is only performed by Carter and Hancock. As a member of the Miles Davis Quintet, Williams primarily displayed his skills behind the drum kit. For Life Time, Williams shows his percussion skills as he plays the tympani, wood block, maracas and triangle.

In between the dates for the recording of JuJu and Life Time, America witnessed some of its worst domestic violence in 100 years. Across the river from Van Gelder’s studio, back in Harlem – the location of so many great jazz moments- riots broke out. Within a week, Watts was burning. In the middle of this violence, the men of Blue Note were recording the most thought provoking and intense music. There were blacks and whites working together amidst a country on the eve of revolution.


Herbie Hancock/Maiden Voyage(March 17, 1965)

While President Johnson was escalating the war in Vietnam and the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act were making their way through Congress, Miles Davis pianist Herbie Hancock recorded the highly acclaimed Maiden Voyage. Recorded during a break from his stint with Miles Davis, Hancock brought in fellow Davis cohorts Ron Carter and Tony Williams as well as Jazz Messenger trumpeter Freddie Hubbard. (Hubbard and Hancock had played together for Hubbard’s Hub-Tones). The most interesting presence on this album is tenor saxophonist George Coleman, who played on Miles Davis’ My Funny Valentine and Seven Steps to Heaven. Coleman played along side Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams but left the band and was ultimately replaced by Wayne Shorter (who had just arrived from the Jazz Messengers and recording his own JuJu). While playing for Miles Davis and on Hancock’s Maiden Voyage, Coleman provides a blues feel to saxophone playing which comes from his days playing with BB King during the early 1950s.

The musicians who comprise these releases shared a common bond of returning to their heritage and tradition. On a nationwide level, the civil rights movement symbolized the African-Americans search for their roots. Long before Afro-Americans were brought to North America, the blacks lived a simpler tribal life. African-Americans changed their ‘white names’ and there was a widespread interest in ones ancestry. There was a longing for a return to a time when there was equality and freedom. In the same respect, the jazz musicians during the 1960s felt a similar wave of nostalgia that they translated into their music. In some cases, the African/Caribbean roots were incorporated into their music through complex polyrhythms and beats, the use of traditional instruments or simply with song titles such as "JuJu" and "Nefertiti The search for nostalgia was further exemplified by the musicians’ homage to their family lineage. Donald Byrd, Joe Henderson and Horace Silver all dedicated songs to members of their own family". For many hard boppers, there was the use of traditional R&B/gospel sounds into their music. As for the avant-gardists, the search for freedom directly translated into their free music. Just as the African-Americans were looking to release the restrictive bonds of American Society, the avant-gardists looked to forego the existing structures of music.

Despite all of the turmoil that was sweeping across the country, the jazz musicians who entered Rudy Van Gelder’s Studios were able to put the troubles of American society behind them. The most amazing thing about these sessions was that Blue Note’s main men, Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff, had escaped from Nazi Germany and the racial persecution that was happening courtesy of Adolf Hitler. These two men knew just as much about inequality as the majority of their musical counterparts. On top of that, in a quiet New Jersey suburb, black musicians would flock to a white man’s studio to make beautiful music. It was as if the Blue Note studios offered an oasis from all of the strife that was sweeping the country.

Read Part 1 of the Rudy reissues

Read Part 2 of the Rudy reissues