Make Me Smile: A brief look at Bob Brookmeyer and the modern big band

            Bob Brookmeyer is an integral figure in jazz both in his role as a composer and performer as well as an educator. (Stewart 2007) (Robinson, 2002) (Argue 2009) Along with other pioneers of composition for large jazz ensembles such as Gill Evans, Brookmeyer has been integral in developing the modern jazz compositional style (Schneider 1998). Despite near universal acclaim for Brookmeyer's contributions, scholarship has been slow to recognize him and the modern big band as a viable source for artistic expression in jazz.
    For example, in his The History of Jazz Ted Gioia discounts big bands saying that they are “more a tool of historical pedagogy than a means of artistic expression.” (Gioia 2011, 251). Scott DeVeaux takes it a step further by saying, “A jazz orchestra of fifteen or more musicians suggests either nostalgia, the specter of superannuated bodies shuffling to yesterday’s dance music, or the academic sterility of the university lab band.” (DeVeaux 1997, 2). Gunther Schuller is perhaps the most damning in his indictment of big bands saying, “…very little truly innovative achievement in arranging concepts can be claimed after 1960.” (Schuller [1988] 2002, 662).
     These arguments reflect a broader view that composed or arranged jazz is somehow less substantial than improvised jazz. This view stems in part from the now decades long movement to classicize and nationalize jazz as America’s chief art form (Taylor 1986, 21) (Sales 1984, 11). This perspective values improvisation above other musical elements. In this context improvisation is viewed as a metaphor for a national identity, embodying the ideals of freedom, individualism, and democracy (Monson 1998, 149) (Taylor 1990). According to this view, the more improvisation contained in a piece, the more it reflects this assumed national identity. Put simply, quality is determined by the amount of improvisation contained in a piece. In this line of thinking, big band music is perceived as containing less or lower forms of improvisation and therefore cannot be of the same caliber as styles that rely exclusively on improvisation.
     This line of reasoning seems to be based more on opinion than of empirical evidence. Who determines what kind of music is a means of artistic expression and how these distinctions made? Are we to take Scott DeVeaux’s advice and discount all modern jazz groups containing more than fifteen musicians? There is clearly more to be said on the subject.
     Ironically it is Scott DeVeaux who advocates for a more detailed historiography and a rethinking of conservative models in jazz history. According to DeVeaux, the current narrative is a simplification that “raises as many questions as it answers” and should be replaced with a more nuanced view of jazz history. (DeVeaux 1991, 526). Indeed, with this in mind we see that the broad generalizations made about the big band are merely a result of an incomplete narrative rather than the findings of an in depth study of the last seven decades of big band music.
     Recent work by Alex Stewart has begun to address these issues as they pertain to big band. (Stewart 2007) (Stewart 2004). Stewart’s work establishes the necessity of big bands as a training ground for musicians seeking to develop their musical skills and technique. Equally important to Stewart, big bands provide a means for musicians to create and maintain professional networks in an ever more competitive market. While Stewart has established the vitality of big bands in jazz communities, his work has so far focused on big bands as institutions and how they affect the music communities. As a study of musician communities Stewart’s work is invaluable, but there is more to say regarding the music itself. Very little of Stewart’s research has gone past categorizing compositional differences among current big bands. More work needs to be done focusing on the music these bands make.
     The goal of this paper is to question the current historical models and provide a more detailed understanding of the role big band music has played in jazz in the last thirty years. This will be done through the lens of the 1982 Bob Brookmeyer composition Make Me Smile. This study will ask two basic questions: (1) how does technique reflect the quality of a piece of music? (2) How do the musical elements in Brookmeyer’s Make Me Smile create an artistic vision? In support of my arguments I will use John Litweiler’s supposition from his book The Freedom Principle: Jazz After 1958 (Litweiler 1990) that freedom of expression comes when musical tools become a means for expression rather than a series of well-executed techniques. From this perspective, a successful composition would be able to “reveal what cannot be revealed in any other way” (Litweiler 1990, 14). Using Litweiler as a tool, I will argue that while form, orchestration, voicing, and texture are not in themselves artistically expressive, it is in their masterful combination that a unique artistic statement is made.

     In 1980 Bob Brookmeyer became the music director for the Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra. Brookmeyer took the role Thad Jones had recently vacated, in the Orchestra’s previous incarnation as the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra. The opinion among critics in the early 1980s was that the Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra was in decline after the departure of Jones (Davis, 1982, 106), (Wilson 1982, 100). Brookmeyer and Lewis quickly disabused critics of this notion with a series of live records released in the early years of the 1980s. Make Me Smile is the title track of the third such offering, Mel Lewis and the Jazz Orchestra: Make Me Smile and Other New Works, recorded and released in 1982.
     Make Me Smile functions as the first movement of a four movement suite. While it may have been intended on being performed through-composed, each movement ends with a board fade and all tracks except the first one begin with material from the previous movement. This is presumably because the album was recorded live at the Village Vanguard over a five day stretch from January 7th through January 11th 1982 and the best takes of each movement were selected rather than the best performance of the suite. Further evidence supporting this suite as a through-composed work is seen in the published editions of these pieces by Kendor, (Brookmeyer 1981) where the material heard at the beginning of each track is absent in the score.
     Each movement features a different member of the Orchestra. Mel Lewis compares this to the tradition in the Ellington and Kenton bands of writing compositions around special soloists (Lewis 1982).  Make Me Smile features a twenty nine year old Dick Oates on alto saxophone, The second movement Nevermore features trumpeter Tom Harrell, The Nasty Dance, the third movement features tenor saxophonist Joe Lavano, McNeely’s Piece is the final movement and features pianist Jim McNeely.
    
     Brookmyer’s compositional technique has been well documented in works by Rayburn Wright (Wright 1982), Fred Sturm (Sturm 1995) and others. Brookmeyer preferred new approaches to orchestration, form, harmony, voicing, and texture that not only broke new ground in composition, but also helped establish the band’s own sound. (Wright 1982, 115) This is not to say that the band abandoned its history under the direction of Thad Jones or the big band tradition in general. Indeed in the liner notes Mel Lewis attributes the band’s new sound and approach to Brookmeyer saying that “We are concerned with the future through the past. In short—first we swing, then we look ahead….” (Lewis 1982)
     The orchestration of Make Me Smile is at once new and unique. The piece begins with the trumpets and the woodwinds playing various percussion instruments in a slow syncopated ostinato. Brookmeyer alters this rhythm in the ninth bar, thus introducing the material that will return at the close of the piece.
     Brookmeyer’s solo writing for Dick Oatts at once puts to rest possible complaints about limited time for improvisation. While it is true that with the exception of Oatts’ alto solo there are only cameo appearances of improvisation by other members of the band, Oatts has plenty of time—just over half of a ten minute composition—to improvise over the elaborate formal structures devised by Brookmeyer. During the improvised sections the extensive and detailed figures provided by the band add momentum and direction for Oatts. These sections are less akin to backgrounds and instead when the alto begins to improvise, the band takes up the melody as a continuation of the character of the piece. This can be seen during the improvisation section from 2:28-7:54 (mms 122-326). It is also worthy to note that Brookmeyer’s composed melodic statements are so idiomatic to Oatts’ style that they are difficult to distinguish from his improvisations.
     A hallmark of Brookmeyer’s orchestration is his preference of cohorts of different instruments rather than sections to define a theme. (Sections are often used to support themes with pads hits and backgrounds, but rarely are sections employed to state major melodic sections.)  This has been discussed in detail in many books on composition. (Wright 1982, 117) (Sturm 1995, 100-102). The use of cohorts to state melodic material puts more textural options in play. As a result textural contrast varies widely and often times rapidly such as at 1:27 (m.65) when the saxophones briefly state the melody in unison, or at 7:54 (m. 326) when the entire band plays the melody together in dense voicings, or at 2:02 (m. 99) where a cohort of horns are instructed to burst in on an intimate section with only the instructions “Ad lib—Silly”(Brookmeyer 1982, 6), or at 5:50 (m. 226) when the piece moves on a dime from a raging shout with all horns to an intimate rhythm section moment. All these are extremely effective techniques and provide drama and intensity to the piece, but due to the forces required for these textures, they are exclusive to big bands.
     Make Me Smile eschews typical strophic approaches to form. In addition to having a dramatic effect on how ideas are presented, as seen in the large form of the piece (see fig. 1) it also has a profound effect on the harmony. For instance in the opening of the piece from 0:42-2:28(mms. 29-122) the form is ABA’CA’’. The first time the A section appears at 0:42 (m. 29) it begins in Eb, quickly moving in a characteristic motion downward (Ebmaj9 | Dbmaj9 | C7sus | Ab7sus | G-7b5| etc. The root movement seen here always appears with the A sections throughout the composition.) When the A section returns at 1:38 (m. 75) it appears not only changed melodically but also in a new key, F major. This happens again just before the solo section when the A section returns briefly at 2:23 (m. 113), this time heard in a cohort of trumpets and trombones in Db major. This constant modulation and alteration of themes is a technique not common in most jazz writing, either for big band or smaller ensembles, particularly in 1982. The formal manipulation seen in Make Me Smile is a sophisticated interpretation of melody and harmony that adds depth to the composition.
     Brookmeyer’s use of orchestration, texture and form are perhaps some of the most striking aspects of his compositional output. These are techniques that can elevate a composition from something that is merely good to something that it could not have been if not for these devices. Technique is something that has long been dismissed by jazz writers as a barrier to expression. (Stewart 2007, 2-5) But it is in the mastery of technique that freedom of expression is achieved. In this sense there is no difference between the devices that make Charlie Parker’s solos great and those that make a composition great.
     It is in this way that great music becomes more than the sum of its parts. Brookmeyer’s mastery of techniques such as form and orchestration give him the freedom to be expressive. Brookmeyer creates a statement that could not be made another way with different tools, therefore this piece must be artistically expressive. This is not to say that it is good or bad it is only that this piece is a representative example of Brookmeyer’s artistic vision.
     So far the discussion of big bands has largely been focused on their commercial zenith during the 1930s and 40s. While it is true that there have never been as many bands than during the so called swing era, it does not follow that the music made by the remaining orchestras after this period is no less valid than music made by other artists. There seems to be a prejudice amongst critics that the authenticity of a jazz performance is dependent on the number of musicians in a band. (DeVeaux 1997, 2). This view is less a statement of fact and more an aesthetic opinion.
     Alex Stewart’s work on the relationship between big bands and jazz communities has been a great step towards a better understanding of big bands. More work is study is needed to shed more light on the music itself. With the success of current composers such as Maria Schneider, Darcy James Argue and John Hollenbeck, the time for a detailed discussion of modern big band music has arrived.


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