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Composers as Jazz Innovators

Stefano Zenni


Jazz is primarily a player’s and improviser’s art; it has produced preciously few composers (in the strictest sense of that term). In the light of recent developments in jazz, the emphasis may shift more and more to composition, but this is still a matter of conjecture. If the emphasis on original composition were to continue, as presently exemplified by the compositions of, let’s say, Charles Mingus or George Russell, it would nevertheless be safe to predict that such composing would have very little direct stylistic influence on the players of the future. For it is virtually axiomatic that each succeeding jazz style has been nurtured on the conceptions of the immediately preceding generation of players, and not its composers (it is, of course, quite the contrary in “classical” music). [1]

This statement opened the fourth chapter of Gunther Schuller’s Early Jazz, a discussion of Jelly Roll Morton’s music entitled “The First Great Composer,” and it may appear somewhat outdated to 2012 readers. Schuller was a pioneer in jazz musicology, and it would be unfair to blame him for having been a bad prophet. Here, we focus on the final sentence, for it not only expresses Schuller’s personal stance, but it has become a cornerstone of jazz historiography to date.

This discipline, born out of researching the folk origins of jazz, is typically organized as a parent tree of influences being passed on through generations of improvisers — an approach stressing such values as oral transmission, spontaneity, improvisation, and of course individual creativity. But such approach is not dogma. It is merely a narrative, connecting facts to fit pre-existing criteria, usually an evolutionary/linear approach — the good old trumpet genealogy going from Bolden to Armstrong, from Eldridge to Gillespie, and so forth — and it has been seriously challenged. Lawrence Gushee [2] showed that relationships and influences are more complex and follow sundry routes. It is not only that linear evolution omits some major players (e.g., Jabbo Smith, Booker Little). The point is that another narrative is possible, in which the focus is on innovation by composers who expanded the jazz language and sometimes influenced improvisers, and that such stylistic change displays interaction among improvisers and composers.

Following Gushee, it would be more productive for historians to abandon the pseudo-Darwinian linear-evolution pattern for the bush-shaped parallel evolution, adapting Stephen J. Gould’s and Niles Eldredge’s “punctuated equilibrium” theory to music. [3] But discussing this point goes beyond our scope. In this article, we shall quickly single out a few selected examples of composers epitomizing stylistic change. [4]

The Lindy Hop and Swing

First, let us consider the gradual emergence of the lindy hop, between 1926 and 1933. [5] Most changes in the music were triggered by dancers at the, then-new Savoy Ballroom. They pushed the musicians to leave out the two-beat pulse for the new linear 4/4. The rhythm section, driven by the softer plucked bass (spread by such New Orleans players as Pops Foster, Wellman Braud, John Lindsay, and Steve Brown) and guitar, acquired a smooth fluency; the drummer, producing continuous sound on the hi-hat, blended the whole section. In turn, such a swinging approach served as a springboard for dancers to create new steps, based on four-to-the-beat movements and gestures. But then, brass and reeds needed a new approach as well. Such evolution was not a task for Armstrong, Coleman Hawkins, or Jimmy Harrison to tackle; rather, Benny Carter, Fletcher and Horace Henderson, and Edgar Sampson devised new ways of writing jazz for dancing and listening. The riff was the new key of the music: these composers found a way to balance the simple excitement of the repeated riffs — good for stimulating the dancers — and the need for a complex structure. The change in style was neither linear nor smooth. “Come On Baby”, arranged by Benny Carter for Fletcher Henderson in 1928, is based on solos and riffs, but the rhythm section still plays in two. In the recordings made by Henderson between October and December 1930, such as “Keep A Song In Your Soul”, the 23-year-old Benny Carter writes music perfectly in tune with the steps of his contemporary dancers (John Kirby still plays tuba here, but in 4/4). Sometimes the 4/4 is put only at the end of the arrangement, in the last chorus, to push the dancers to execute the acrobatic manoeuvres known as “air steps.” With an eye to this new trend, Duke Ellington wrote “Washington Wobble” and “Jubilee Stomp” in such a mold.

Jimmy Mundy for Earl Hines, Edgar Sampson for Chick Webb, Horace and Fletcher Henderson for themselves, all took a similar route. Black composers and arrangers managed to incorporate the dancers’ quest for freedom and loose improvisation in their scores, thus setting the style that became popular in the mid-1930s as swing. In short, the lindy-hop style became the lingua franca of black bands. To keep in touch with the new trend, even New Orleans musicians embraced the riff approach, albeit in a more informal way. At the end of Sidney Bechet’s 1932 “Maple Leaf Rag”, Joplin’s D strain is replaced by a lindy-hop riff.

It is important to stress that such innovations were independent from the development of improvised solos. Neither Louis Armstrong, nor Earl Hines, nor Red Allen contributed to them. True, Coleman Hawkins contributed several riffs and solutions to the “King Porter Stomp” head arrangement for Henderson (1928 and 1932), but none of those ideas came from his vocabulary as a soloist.

Figure 1 shows some connections among late 1920s–early 1930s composers and later swing composers. Such historical-stylistic development lines are alternative to soloists’ lineages.

Early jazz and swing era composer influences

Figure 1. Early jazz and swing era composer influences.

In this perspective, Duke Ellington’s case is of the utmost interest. He held a peculiar role during the Depression, as he was both leader and arranger when any other leader, even Henderson, hired arrangers. His style might sound too personal to have influenced other bands or dance styles. Yet consider how advanced his instrumentation was: his band had been for a while the only one using a baritone saxophone (followed by Jimmie Lunceford) and three trombones; both became fixtures in other bands only in the 1940s. The “Mood Indigo” sound became a model for arrangers such as Sy Oliver. Ellington remained influential on younger men like Gil Evans and Ralph Burns, who tried to change the jazz orchestra sound following in the footsteps of his recordings. For them, Ellington’s lesson was not only one of orchestration (voicing, dissonance, etc.) but a whole philosophy — form and sound as compositional focus. This, in turn, inspired a whole new generation of progressive, cool, and West Coast jazz writing.


Bebop is primarily regarded as an innovative approach to improvisation, and rightly so. But we should not forget that some of its best improvisers were first-rate composers as well. Charlie Parker’s themes are not discussed here; instead, we would stress Bud Powell’s major contribution to jazz composition.

Of course this includes a masterpiece like “Glass Enclosure”, a rare example of sonata form in jazz, as well as a through-composed piece with two contrasting themes, development (closed by a pedal point), and recapitulation. Here, however, we are more interested in the Bud Powell-Horace Silver compositional lineage. Such influential recordings as “Tempus Fugit”, “Celia”, “Bouncing With Bud”, “Dance Of The Infidels”, and “Un Poco Loco” were thorough bebop charts with introduction, theme, interlude, and coda. They display bass and drum obbligatos, breaks, call and response patterns between horns and piano, and unison lines for piano (left hand) and bass. Horace Silver, who had absorbed this language since his early compositions, added a new rule: when a theme has a rhythm section obbligato, this is to be repeated throughout — a nice example of compositional control on the improvisers.

Bebop composition also shows manifold trends. For instance, Tadd Dameron’s warmer moods radically differ from Parker’s and Gillespie’s hectic, nervous lines. As Dameron’s writing was grounded in the big-band tradition, he occasionally avoided recapitulation at the end (an exceedingly rare event in jazz before the 1940s, Ellington’s “Cotton Tail” and “Main Stem” counting among its earliest examples). He also gave his bebop compositions a more lyrical feeling and enriched them with breaks, interludes, and written-out choruses. His approach influenced several later composers, from Horace Silver, in the lyrical quality of his notated out-choruses, to Benny Golson, who in turn left a mark on early Wayne Shorter, such as “Lester Left Town” or his Blue Note albums (consider the B section from “Speak No Evil”). This genealogy shows no relationship whatsoever with the parallel evolution of solo styles in the 1950s, and forms an independent route in jazz history.

Classical Influences

In the mid-1940s, while bebop was taking shape, a whole new generation of jazz composers was growing up. We can detect three main areas in it, gravitating around Woody Herman, Stan Kenton, and the Miles Davis nonet. As Figure 2 shows, most of those composers were connected to, and inspired by, classical ones.

Bebop era composer influences

Figure 2. Bebop era composer influences.

While Kenton’s and Herman’s areas display an intimate relationship between jazz and classical composers, the Davis nonet exerted a most enduring influence on improvisers as well. It is known that Davis, Gil Evans, Gerry Mulligan, John Lewis, and Lee Konitz were exchanging ideas about a new approach to sound and composing, that would translate Evans’s experiments with Claude Thornhill’s dance band into a stricter jazz language. Ellington’s ghost was looming large as well, in harmony, voicing, and form. But the results were utterly new. What those composers wrote in New York City forged the sound of the West Coast jazz: soft ensembles, close-harmony voicings with internal dissonances, chromatic movement of inner parts. Some of it also displayed unusual features, such as harmony in fifths, or almost-twelve-tone lines, as in John Carisi’s “Israel”. [6]

Carisi had studied with Stefan Wolpe, who entertained a mutual admiration with Gil Evans and also had a black student, George Russell (a rarity, as most black composers studied with black teachers), who attended the Davis nonet meetings but wrote nothing for the ensemble. Wolpe’s lessons helped Russell produce his Lydian Chromatic Concept Of Tonal Organization, which was to become a strong underground influence on modal jazz. Its 1953 edition was widely circulated among New York musicians, including Davis and Gil Evans. In 1956, Russell recorded for RCA and called young Bill Evans, to whom he dedicated an extended composition, “Concerto for Billy The Kid”. The fact that Evans was experimenting with modes in those very months is no mere coincidence; the Aeolian scale is the only given material in “Aeolian Drinking Song”, one of the first modal post-bop improvisations, recorded with Tony Scott in July 1956. Also, in September 1958 John Coltrane recorded “Manhattan”, a movement of Russell’s New York, N.Y. Therefore, when Columbia Records produced Kind of Blue, four of the musicians involved — Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Bill Evans, Gil Evans — had been exposed to Russell’s thought.

Russell codified scales that improvisers had used on occasion, and suggested patterns to work on them. For instance, a segment of the half-tone/whole-tone scale had been used since the late 1930s in descending lines over a dominant chord, such as E-flat, D-flat, C, B-flat on C7, to end up on A natural on F major (ex. 3). Russell called it the “auxiliary diminished blues scale.” Far from being new, its long history harks back to Romantic music — it used to be a trademark of Russian composers, from Rimsky-Korsakov to his student, Stravinsky. [7] Russell showed it to jazz improvisers and began using it extensively. In the third movement of “All About Rosie” (recorded in 1957), during the Bill Evans solo, the ensemble plays an ascending phrase on that scale (at about the 8:00 mark of the complete piece); then, a few seconds later, Evans grabs it for his solo. This is, to my knowledge, the first occurrence of a pattern that was to become ubiquitous in post-bop tonal improvisation. Here we can see how a composer’s ideas could be transmitted to improvisers and become part of their language.

Example 3. Auxiliary diminished blues scale figure.

Charles Mingus

Charles Mingus’ role in the dissemination of new compositional and improvisational techniques is well documented, including his descent from Ellington. [8] His is perhaps the best known example of ideas being passed on from one jazz composer to another. Mingus, in turn, exerted a strong influence on later composers, well beyond post-bop. Let us consider some traits of his music from the late 1950s: changes of tempo and meter, open vamps, collective improvisation, aggressive sounds, and idiosyncratic voicings of the horns, still based on Ellington’s example. Most of these innovations fueled the compositional efforts of the new generation of free jazz musicians. It is not difficult to detect a Mingus conception in the three compositions — “Pots”, “Bulbs”, and “Mixed” — that Cecil Taylor recorded for Impulse in 1961. These are extended compositions articulated in episodes displaying different tempos, moods, instrumentation, and chord changes — exactly like Mingus’s “Open Letter To Duke”. The Black Saint And The Sinner Lady showed how to mix the Ellington sounds with flexible tempos and meters, triggering Archie Shepp’s extended compositions “Hambone” and “Los Olvidados”. And Sun Ra derived his musical polyptych approach to form like “Shadow World” from Mingus works of the late 1950s and early 1960s, adding ad lib sections, collective free improvisation, and extravagant instrumental timbres. Mingus’s influence had an even deeper impact on the AACM musicians, including Muhal Richard Abrams and the Art Ensemble of Chicago members. The idea itself that music is theatre, and soloists are characters on the stage, is at the very core of Mingus’s compositional approach, for instance in “Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting”, “Folk Forms No. 1”, and The Black Saint And The Sinner Lady, and is also essential to the Art Ensemble. In “The Spiritual” (1969), a melody takes shape, as on a stage, scene after scene, by means of the sparse interaction among characters embodied by voices, instruments, and noises, in a slowed-down, cryptic version of Mingus’s hectic polyphony.

The 1970s and Beyond

Now that we have some proper historical distance, we can clearly detect how composers of the 1970s influenced the best innovative jazz of the 1980s and 1990s. Tim Berne and Steve Coleman can be singled out as perhaps the most significant composers from the last three decades. Their historical significance is being increasingly confirmed in the work of composers and improvisers from the following generation, such as Vijay Iyer, Rudresh Mahanthappa, and Steve Lehman.

The roots of Berne’s and Coleman’s music can be traced to Anthony Braxton’s and Julius Hemphill’s work of the 1970s. Braxton’s quartet with Kenny Wheeler, Dave Holland, and Barry Altschul introduced a new compositional concept with its long, abstract thematic lines, in pieces like Composition 6I, 40K, 40M, 40O, plus some of the 23 series, including 23B, 23D, 23G, and 23J, and the through-composed 23C. Interest in this peculiar thematic approach — a most widespread one in contemporary jazz — is at the very core of Berne’s and Coleman’s writing. However, Steve Coleman develops his themes on complex rhythmic cycles, and Berne shows a penchant for placing them on ostinatos. Moreover, Berne much prefers unadorned, rough-sounding combos including a cello instead of a bass, a choice first introduced by Julius Hemphill and the Black Artist Group from St. Louis, in the seminal albums, Dogon A.D. and Coon Bid’ness (both 1972). Berne’s long, suspended pieces, built from a slow growth in melody and dynamics — like those his group Bloodcount played in the 1990s — apparently stemmed from both Braxton’s “Composition 23E” and Hemphill’s “Lyric”.

Interestingly, Coleman and Berne share an interest in generating frictions between the horns’ linear motion and the independent flow of the rhythm section. This dual-layered structure has two sources: Hemphill’s penchant for ostinatos (e.g. the rhythmic one in “Skin 2”, from Coon Bid’ness) and Braxton’s experimenting on a more flexible rhythmic section. Two examples by the latter stand out: Composition 115, from Six Compositions (Quartet) 1984, based on a continuous slowing down and speeding up of the rhythm section; and the so-called “pulse tracks”, independent events given to bass and drums, to be performed while themes and solos are being played. Labeled as Compositions 105A-E, these are five tracks for bass and drums — some in traditional notation, some written out as symbols and gestures — that can be added to the performance of any composition of Braxton’s. Steve Coleman’s penchant for an “objective” flow of the rhythm section, independent from the events above it, is obviously linked to Braxton’s separation of the rhythm section from the rest of the group.


These are only sparse examples showing how incidents in jazz history may be reconsidered from a compositional perspective. More could be said about 1970s English jazz-rock and contemporary odd rhythms; or conduction techniques from Mingus to Gil Evans down to Butch Morris; or the development of mixed tonal/modal harmony from Coltrane to Shorter to Kenny Wheeler; or compositional innovations in early jazz, from brass band to ragtime to Morton. One could also consider Afro-Cuban bop, from Machito to Gillespie to Cubano Be Cubano Bop; or the entire “counterpoint school” from Mulligan to Jimmy Giuffre and beyond. One thing is sure: telling history of jazz from a compositional perspective can help uncover new, unexpected musical connections.


  • Eldredge, Niles, and Stephen Jay Gould. “Punctuated Equilibria: An Alternative to Phyletic Gradualism.” In Models in Paleobiology, edited by T.J.M. Schopf, 2–115. San Francisco: Freeman Cooper, 1972.
  • Gushee, Lawrence. “Modes of Reception/Influence. The Influence of Louis Armstrong.” Musica Oggi 21 (2001): 22–28.
  • Schuller, Gunther. Early Jazz. New York: Oxford University Press, 1968.
  • Spring, Howard. “Swing and the Lindy Hop: Dance, Venue, Media, and Tradition.” American Music 15, no. 2 (1997): 183–207.
  • Taruskin, Richard. “Chernomor to Kashchei: Harmonic Sorcery; or, the Stravinsky ‘Angle’.” Journal of the American Musicological Society 38, no. 1 (1985): 72–142.
  • Tirro, Frank. The Birth of the Cool of Miles Davis and His Associates. Hillsdale: Pendragon, 2009.
  • Zenni, Stefano. Charles Mingus. Polifonie dall’universo musicale afroamericano. Roma-Viterbo: Stampa Alternativa, 2002.
  • Zenni, Stefano. Storia del jazz. Una prospettiva globale. Roma-Viterbo: Stampa Alternativa, 2012.


[1] Gunther Schuller, Early Jazz (New York: Oxford University Press, 1968), 134.

[2] Lawrence Gushee, “Modes of Reception/Influence. The Influence of Louis Armstrong,” Musica Oggi 21 (2001): 22–28.

[3] Niles Eldredge and Stephen Jay Gould, “Punctuated Equilibria: An Alternative to Phyletic Gradualism,” in Models in Paleobiology, ed. T.J.M. Schopf, 2–115 (San Francisco: Freeman Cooper, 1972).

[4] The project proposed in this paper stems from a new perspective on history of jazz developed in Stefano Zenni, Storia del jazz. Una prospettiva globale, (Roma-Viterbo: Stampa Alternativa, 2012). [History of Jazz. A Global Perspective].

[5] Howard Spring, “Swing and the Lindy Hop: Dance, Venue, Media, and Tradition,” American Music 15, no. 2 (1997): 183–207.

[6] Frank Tirro, The Birth of the Cool of Miles Davis and His Associates (Hillsdale: Pendragon, 2009).

[7] Richard Taruskin, “Chernomor to Kashchei: Harmonic Sorcery; or, the Stravinsky ‘Angle’,” Journal of the American Musicological Society 38, no. 1 (1985): 72–142.

[8] For a complete analysis of Mingus’s compositional output see Stefano Zenni, Charles Mingus. Polifonie dall’universo musicale afroamericano (Roma-Viterbo: Stampa Alternativa, 2002). [Charles Mingus. Polyphonies of the African-American Musical World].

Author Information: 
Musicologist Stefano Zenni serves as a professor of jazz at the University of Bologna and artistic director of the Metastasio Jazz Festival in Prato, near Florence. He is chairman of the Italian Society of African-American Musicology and is an on-air personality for Italian National Radio. He is the author of Il segreti del jazz, Charles Mingus: Polifonie dall’universo musicale afroamericano, and Storia del jazz: Una prospettiva globale.

Histories of jazz often employ the model of a “tree of influences,” following generations of improvisers and asserting that jazz is essentially a player’s art. However, another narrative is possible, in which the focus is on innovation by composers who expanded the jazz language and sometimes influenced improvisers, and that such stylistic change displays interaction among improvisers and composers.

jazz, composition

How to cite this article:

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