Listen With Your Eyes? A Gigantic Step Backwards!
Updated: Feb 20
"Popular music consistently progressed for 900 years and then in the 1950's it took a gigantic step backwards from which it has never recovered." (John Elliott).
I don't remember the context of this statement when John said it to me, but I immediately understood what he was saying:
In the late seventies, for some reason I can't remember, I was over at my parents house with a guitar and I was working on a solo guitar arrangement of John's for a song called, All the Things You Are.
My mom, who was a young teenager in the late 1940's exclaimed, "Oh! That's All the Things You Are!" and started singing the lyrics. I didn't even know it had lyrics! I thought it was some obscure instrumental jazz tune. Little did I know - it was written in 1939 and was a HIT pop song in the '40's - more than once. My mother was a Frank Sinatra fan and he had a hit with it in 1945. Another '40's era pop star that did it was Glenn Miller.
I'm not going to get into a technical explanation of the harmonic structure of this song - there's an adequate one on the song's Wikipedia page - suffice to say it's a 36-bar form that involves at least 5 different keys, several disjunct chord changes, and some chromaticism thrown in for good measure. The basic chord-types involved are 7th chords, although there are several altered chords. And pop artists, arrangers and producers would take 900 years of harmonic development and apply it to the form - chord extensions (9ths, 11ths, 13ths), alterations and substitutions (you should see the arrangement John wrote out for me!). Remember, this was a pop song! It's what the kids were listening to on the radio.
Fast forward about 10 years - 1956. Elvis's version of Hound Dog. (My mom disliked Elvis. "He sings flat!") Notice the lack of harmonic analysis on the Wikipedia page contrasted with that on the page for All the Things You Are.
There's a reason for that. (Quote) "Hound Dog is a twelve-bar blues song..." (Unquote)
That's all that needs to be said when analyzing the harmonic structure of the song. That means it's a 12-bar form and there are 3 chords.
Compare, if you will, the respective fake-sheets for these 2 songs:
Compare the chord changes - compare the melodic range. The above is, in a graphic nutshell, what happened to pop music in less than a 10-year span.
And the difference in the "word-smithery"? Well...since I teach guitar and not voice I'm not even gonna to go there. Even though I am a vocalist also and have a strong opinion on the matter (big surprise!).
"You are the angel-glow that lights my star" / "you ain't nuttin' but a hound dog" - sorry, couldn't stop myself! BTW - speaking as a vocalist, the melody line to All the Things You Are is difficult to sing - some technical expertise is required to do it well. All Hound Dog requires is a "shouter."
So if you were a pop musician in the forties, just to play dance music at the local corner bar on the weekends, you had to have 900 years worth of musical evolution internalized - whether formally or intuitively. You had to be able to play and solo over All the Things You Are.
10 years later, all you had to know was 3 chords - actually, less than actual chords if you were playing shuffle patterns on the guitar which consist of alternating 5ths and 6ths. That's 2 notes for each "chord"... And the Minor Pentatonic scale would cover your solo - BTW, that's a 5-tone scale. Oh, and you'd only need one scale for the song because it's in a single key.
So what happened?
Why did pop music take this "gigantic step backwards" - as John Elliott characterized it?
[Please - don't confuse what you happen to like or not like with the objective, demonstrably superior quality of the harmonic content of a song like All the Things You Are when compared to Hound Dog. We're not talking about feelings, we're talking about the crafting of musical content. Both songs have equally valid emotional content - though a quite different sentiment!]
In my opinion, there are two categories of things that contributed to the step backwards; technology and cultural issues.
On the technological side; 2 things - both related to electricity.
In the forties, music was still primarily acoustic. The only thing amplified was the singer. Think about the big bands - no amplification; only the singer used a microphone. And remember, no electricity = no amplification - at least in the sense I'm speaking of here. There are acoustic amplification techniques; they've been built into cathedrals, theaters and concert halls for centuries.
Charlie Christian, who died young in 1942, while not the first to amplify a guitar, was the most influential guitarist to do so in those early days (Eddie Durham - who taught Charlie Christian - was playing an amplified guitar in the '30's). The electric guitar didn't really take off until the '50's with the innovations of Les Paul and Leo Fender. Notice the time frame? The mass production of amplified instruments coincides with the de-evolution of pop music.
Question: why amplify a guitar? There's only one answer: to make it LOUDER!
From the '50's on, pop music got louder and louder. Especially as the music became more and more guitar-centric. At first, by amplifying the instrument, the guitarist was simply trying to be heard as a soloing instrument - like a horn player - a la Charlie Christian. But before long, the guitar was so loud the horn player had to be amplified to be heard over the guitar. Things kept escalating. By the eighties we had:
When things get louder, the sound gets more distorted. And not just the amp - the human ear distorts. (For you tech-geeks, here's an explanation of different types of distortion.) The more distorted the sound is, the simpler the music has to be to sound good. When an electric guitar is overdriving the speaker and distorting the sound, or artificial means are being used to distort the sound (as in a distortion pedal), a basic major 7 chord sounds like mush - never mind a double-altered 9th. On the contrary, the simple interval of a perfect 5th sounds HUGE when distorted (thus the nomenclature, "Power Chord").
So, as pop music got louder, distortion increased, and by necessity harmonic content (chords) got simpler. You didn't have to internalize 900 years of musical evolution, all you had to do was plug in, turn up and play a simple, perfect 5th. Presto! Pop musician! A million bucks!
The second technological thing that happened, which overlaps into the cultural, is the emergence of television. Television became affordable to the average american household in the fifties.
Thus began the process of programming the masses to listen with their eyes!
Elvis would've never made it like he did without television. Think about it. In the '40's Frank Sinatra was just as big as Elvis - bigger actually - but there was no television; everybody listened to the radio. That means no visual! Remember my mom's problem with Elvis? "He sings flat!" My mom was still listening with her ears. The visual aspect of Elvis wasn't a factor in her judgement.
John Elliott once told me, "I hate the strident sound of rock music!" "Strident" equals "distorted" and he was talking about the sound. John was listening with his ears instead of his eyes. John was basically the same generation as my mother, though a little older.
Today it's actually worse; at least Elvis was really singing when in concert - now, 50-some years later, many just lip-sync. It's not about the music, it's about the dancing, costumes, lighting and special effects. It's 100% visual and about 15% human - if that much.
Pre-1950's, because people listened with their ears instead of their eyes, the general public could "hear" the sophistication of a song like All the Things You Are.
But with the 50's generation - the baby boomers and beyond - because of television it flipped to visual and at the same time, because of amplification, everything got louder, more distorted and therefore simpler. It was a perfect storm that caused the "gigantic step backwards."
"So what are you saying, Jay? Are you some kind of Jazz Nazi?"
No, not at all. I'm a baby boomer. I was less than a year old when Elvis recorded Hound Dog. I came of age in the mid to late '60's. I cut my musical teeth on the Beatles, Cream, Jimi Hendrix and the like - all derivatives of the "gigantic step backwards." I did go through what I would characterize as a "Jazz Nazi" stage in the mid to late '70's after I was exposed to and realized the content-superiority of the music, but ultimately I realized that attitude is counter-productive and managed to extricate myself from it before it ruined me - I mean before my attitude ruined me, not that jazz music could ruin me. Indeed, being able to play jazz has elevated me as a player and made everything else I play better, no matter what genre it happens to be. That is another story for another blog.
And while I agree with John Elliott's characterization of the issue and in spite of my love and gratitude to John for everything he gave me, I've used him as a negative example in my own life when it comes to adopting a realistic, healthy attitude concerning the vicissitudes of music and the music business. It's just not healthy to remain in bitterness about the "gigantic step backwards" - no matter how true or justified it is. It's a set-up for being very unhappy. I understand and sympathize with John but I think it's sad - tragic in a way - that he was apparently never able to come to terms emotionally with what happened.
It's easier for me; I didn't grow up having to master the culmination of 900 years of musical evolution in order to be a pop musician only to have it yanked out from under me immediately afterwards. John said, "I had about 10 good years and then guys started taking gigs away from me that were doing nothing but making f@#$%^-ing noise!"
I back-doored into the 900 years of musical evolution after growing up with the de-evolved result. I could play the pop music of my day before I learned how to play "Jazz." John once told me, "I get it; people like what they grow up with." That's precisely what the Rolling Stones said; "I know it's only Rock-n-Roll, but I like it!"
The perfect storm that caused the "gigantic step backwards" was reinforced by other cultural developments during the same era - especially the sixties. It seems to me that the divide between generations which I suppose has always existed to one degree or another, was greater between my parents generation and mine than any other that I know of. So much so that a phrase was coined for it; the "generation gap". The gap was certainly greater between me and my parents than what existed between me and my kids, or their kids.
The music my kids grew up listening to wasn't that different from the music I listened to when I was growing up. But the music I listened to was way more different than the music my parents listened to when they were growing up. The gap was bigger. It was the difference between All the Things You Are and Hound Dog. The gap between Elvis (50s) and Nirvana (Curt Cobain was a '90's version of Elvis - think about it) or even Elvis and Taylor Swift or Bruno Mars isn't near as wide.
The generation gap expressed itself in all kinds of ways - politics, lifestyle, hair, fashion, philosophy - and music. It made the perfect storm even more of a perfect storm.
I had many conversations with John about the musical aspect of it. He acknowledged what I call "glimmers of light" in the darkness. He thought Steely Dan was pretty hip. Stevie Wonder had some good stuff. He thought Alan Holdsworth was "the Chick Corea of the guitar." Steely Dan and Stevie Wonder would be artists categorized as "Pop." Alan Holdsworth, though he came out of popular rock bands in the 70's, evolved into a class of his own - not pop at all. John was speaking of Holdsworth's jazz-fusion music.
John also had what I would call "ear-blindness" - an aural blind-spot - when it came to distortion. I once asked him what he thought of Mike Stern. "The guy's got a lot of chops but he doesn't really play through changes" he said. I was flabbergasted that John couldn't hear that Stern solos through changes constantly. I've heard him solo through the changes of jazz standards countless times - the guy obviously knows what he's doing. But Stern commonly uses massive rock-style distortion - a "strident" sound that John hated - and I don't think John could "hear" the music if it was distorted like that. The inability to "hear" the music when volume and distortion are involved is a generational thing - part of the gap between John's generation and mine.
As I said, occasionally there are glimmers. I recently had to learn a current Bruno Mars tune for a gig. Underneath all the production, the shimmery vocal effects, robot voices, scratcher sounds, computer-generated drum tracks and dance moves, there was a chord progression lurking that had a major 7 chord, a dominant 7 chord, a minor 9 (11) chord and, wait for it, a dominant sharp 9 chord. Yes, an altered 9th chord! In a pop song! Buried, but there. It is an illustration of the "gigantic step backwards" that I get excited about a single altered 9th chord in a pop song. In the pop music of the '30's and '40's altered 9ths were common.
Many of the pop stars of the 60's and '70's have, in their latter years, revisited the music of their parent's generation and put out albums of "standards" - Eric Clapton, Rod Stewart, Bob Dylan, Steve Miller, Linda Ronstadt and Elvis Costello come to mind. Some of those versions leave a lot to be desired IMO - still, glimmers.
Linda Ronstadt's recordings of standards are wonderful - because the arrangements are by Nelson Riddle, who knows what he's doing - she also recorded with real jazz musicians, not rock musicians trying to sound jazzy. In the above concert video of Linda Ronstadt with the Nelson Riddle orchestra, notice there's a classical style orchestra fused with a '30's type jazz big band which includes a jazz piano/guitar/bass/drums rhythm section. There's a seamless integration of classical music with 20's through 40's era pop music. The 900 years of musical evolution is on display right there. Whether or not you LIKE it is a different issue; the fact remains that it represents a culmination of centuries of musical progress.
Several years ago I had lunch with Bob Dylan's guitar player, Stu Kimball. At the time, he'd been with Bob Dylan for 11 years. He was a great guy, I really liked him. Like me, he is a boomer. Unlike me, he'd never learned the pop music of his parents generation. I'm not being critical of him, or disrespecting his accomplishments, after all, he's playing with Bob Dylan and I'm not. Anyway, he was talking about what he had to learn in order to play on Dylan's tribute recording to Frank Sinatra. He told me he had to take some lessons to learn the chords to those songs. Very emphatically he said, "There were, like, minor 7 flat 5 chords!" I struggled to keep a straight face and didn't say anything, but many of my students play minor 7 flat 5 chords everyday! One of the differences between me and Stu is that I discovered that era of music and took my lessons when I was in my 20's instead of my 50's.
No, I'm not a musical snob - I've played Hound Dog live on countless occasions - and I even liked it! I can do that and yet still maintain that All the Things You Are is superior music. Because I'm able to play All the Things You Are, my Hound Dog is better than it would be otherwise.
My ultimate agenda for every student is not to turn them into jazz nazis - it's to make whatever they play better, more intelligent and deeper; cognizant of and drawing from the content from before the "gigantic step backwards" - 900 years worth - and integrate that with what has happened since - even as I endeavor to do with my own playing.
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