Sunday, May 26, 2013

The story of "So What"

While we were discussing the convoluted story of the "Rhythm-A-Ning" riff, my worthy constituent Michael 'Jazz Lives' Steinman, purveyor of happiness, said that
certain riffs and variations are "in the air"
which is absolutely true. From outright plagiarism to excessive, but unintentional, "inspiration", these things can happen (I once put together a really pretty set of chords worth of Rachmaninov, so much so that... you get my drift). And it can happen to anyone, even master composer Benny Golson, as he explains to another master composer, Horace Silver, here.

That's all very well, but in American popular music there was ("was", hopefully) laxity when it came to naming the author(s) of a tune. Take Thelonious Monk's "'Round Midnight". How much did Cootie Williams have to do with it, beyond being the first band leader to record it? This is just an example: any unlikely name, from disc-jockey Alan Freed's name on rock'n'roll records, to manager Irving Mills's on Duke Ellington's, it'd be healthy to raise a brow or two.

Another example: Gil Evans only discovered that "Donna Lee" was not Charlie Parker's tune when he asked him about it, to arrange it for Claude Thornhill, and Parker sent him to his  sideman, Miles Davis, who was just 21 at the time.

Besides this being the beginning of a beautiful friendship between Evans and Davis, Bird's policy seems to have stuck with Miles. From Chuck Wayne's "Solar" to Bill Evans's contributions to the best-seller album Kind of Blue, he was never shy to borrow. That record actually starts with "So What", one of the most recognizable tunes in which is, arguable, the most iconic jazz album ever. It's just based on a minor scale but it's bluesy, and churchy, and sophisticated... all at the same time.

But it was also controversial: Oscar Pettiford, a man known for his volatile temper, was none too happy with this because, to his ears, it had been obviously lifted straight from his own "Bohemia After Dark", recorded in 1955 (there's an earlier recording by the Adderley brothers, in their first session, for Savoy, under Kenny Clarke's leadership). This is from Pettiford's own recording:

Mmm... the phrase itself, the accents by the piano... It could be argued that "So What" is just some fooling around with a minor scale, so other possible sources are likely to appear. Duke Jordan's "Jordu", for instance, is not too far, either. This is Jordan's own recording, as "Minor Escamp", in 1954:

Kind of Blue is forever tied to Bill Evans. He had already left Davis's band, and he returned specifically for this project; "Flamenco Sketches" is undisguised variation on "Peace Piece", and his musical conception is all over the record. However, "So What" is not only a bassist's riff, but the bassist's tune: as Ben Givan has pointed out, the exact same phrase pops up in several instances prior to Miles's recording, such as his version of "Yesterdays".

More importantly, this is what author Mark Gridley recalls from an interview he had with Bill Evans when he was doing research for his widely known book Jazz Styles:
Bill Evans told me that [Gil] Evans and Davis had discussed some ideas for the Kind of Blue session at Davis's residence before the record date but that Davis was not clear on exactly what he wanted to do. Davis had modes in mind but that was about all. The D-Dorian was one of the modes, and when the entire band got to the session they had suggested that Paul Chambers do something with it. So Chambers composed the melody line on his bass. This became "So What."
Credit where credit's due, but no one can deny Miles Davis's talent to surround himself with talent.


PS (May 28, 2013): Going back to the great Oscar Pettiford's anger at Miles Davis and "So What",  I sort of knew that I was forgetting something. Nicolás Peña, radio host of jazz programme La Quinta Disminuida (The Diminished Fifth), in La Paz, Bolivia, emailed me today pointing out Pettiford's response to Miles, "Why Not? That's What!", recorded three months before his death, in October 1960.

I checked Hans-Joachim Schmidt's site (as you do for all things Pettiford), and interestingly, it quotes Pettiford himself about this tune (my italics):
"the title contains a message for Miles on behalf of Paul Chambers and myself."
which may or may not refer to Chambers having composed the tune. Still, there you are.

And yes, from Bolivia, of all places. Lest we forget jazz is truly an international phenomenon.

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