Jazz Birthdays: Albert Ammons (1907), John Coltrane (1926) and Frank Foster (1928)

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These jazz birthdays are about success stories in a free market. They are case studies of relatively successful jazz musicians who made a name for themselves, left a body of creative work behind them, and made a living in a free market for music. In almost all cases, the success involved innovation, a subject not well handled in the notion of “perfect competition” that assumes product uniformity. Musical innovation is to some extent embodied in the artist, how he plays, what he plays, how he  modifies the instrument he plays, what groups he forms, songs he composes, and how he does arrangements. For every success, there are numerous unmentioned failures. Even successful jazz musicians struggle, not only against the usual array of obstacles that face us, but also because jazz is not popular music (and neither is classical music). Jazz record sales are only 1-3 percent of total record sales.

What is success in a free market? Is it making money via concert and record sales, i.e., putting bread on the table? Or is it being number one? Is success measured against what others accomplish? I have known two people who committed suicide because they felt they didn’t measure up to people they regarded as their peers, and before they killed themselves they took drugs. Is success achieving a chosen purpose? I find two very different dictionary definitions of success. One is to accomplish an aim. The other is to attain popularity or profit. Most of those who succeeded in jazz wanted intensely to accomplish a primary aim which was to create the music that they loved. At the same time, innovation was the usual means to produce the popularity and profit so that they could live. Ideally, the creative work they did paid the bills. Only a few jazz artists became hugely wealthy. Although competition in a free market proceeds by innovation, imitation eventually reduces the profits of innovators. In the sense of achieving an aim, the people in these success stories found their calling. At the end of the day, they left a creative legacy in their recorded music and innovations.

Let me spell out the economics point from the above. The “economic man” does not seek solely money. He is not a miser with the sole goal of money. He generally has several or many goals, such as a legacy, a bequest, knowledge, good feelings, job or creative satisfaction, glory, immortality, and so on.  Jazz artists may trade off money for the sake of their music and the joys of creating it. Success is not usually one dimensional.

How does one find one’s niche or one’s calling? We find time and again that these musicians started early in life and kept at it. Quite often, there was music in the family, or others were supportive and encouraged them; but those advantages were not sufficient. It is easy to speak of comparative advantage and product differentiation, but finding a niche takes trial and error even when one starts early. Finding an aim that suits one and at which one can succeed often takes a number of tries and failures. We often invest time, money and energy into ventures, education, friendships, marriages, and jobs only to find out we have failed. We didn’t find the right aim for us, and we didn’t achieve it or else we achieved it in part. Our weaknesses and inadequacies derail us, or accidents, circumstances and tragedies hit us.

Albert Ammons grew up in a musical family with both parents being pianists, and his son, Gene Ammons, would become a well-known tenor saxophonist. Although a musical environment helps to spark interest, developing a musical comparative advantage takes concentration on music and long hours of practice. At age 12, Ammons was cultivating his blues-playing ability. At age 17, he teamed up with Meade Lux Lewis for many hours of playing after their ordinary workday. Ammons along with Meade Lux Lewis and Pete Johnson launched the boogie woogie craze that lasted from 1938 to 1945. The boogie woogie style actually goes much further back as a dance and music, such as in Pine Top Smith’s “Pinetop’s Boogie Woogie” from 1928. Pinetop knew Ammons and mentored him. A sample of Ammons’ work is “Boogie Woogie Stomp”. Social connections and arrangements are typically essential to free market success. These fly beneath the radar of most economic theories.

Most of the more successful jazz artists who leave a legacy succeed through innovation fused with a personal sound and style. John Coltrane, tenor and soprano saxophonist, made his name in the hard bop era. There is even a hard bop complex chord progression that he originated that entered the jazz language (“Coltrane changes”). Restlessly seeking new forms of expression, both jazz and spiritual, beyond the harmonic dimension, he pushed further and further into the forefront of jazz sound innovation into modal jazz, free jazz, and atonal music. These involve departures from standard beats and swing, sometimes simpler harmonic bases based on scales, one or a few chords, variable rhythms, and exploration of relatively simple 3 or 4 note themes, rather than complete songs. The new sounds often have a floating and unrooted quality as if rising above earthly tonalities, but they also can express a hectic or even angry quality. Some of this music is like the  music that accompanies avant-garde films. There are really several Coltrane musics. For earlier work, listen to the 1957 “Blue Train”. For later work, one selection is “Spiritual” from 1963.

Frank Foster played tenor saxophone and flute. Like most jazz musicians, he played in a variety of settings. He’s best known for his work in the Count Basie band, at which time he wrote such excellent charts as “Shiny Stockings”, “Blues Backstage”, and “Blues in Hoss Flat”. Well-known big bands have developed a business franchise due to their popularity, their library of charts, and the knowledge of how to play them so as to achieve a distinct sound and character. This is true of the Count Basie Orchestra. After Basie’s death, Foster led the Basie Orchestra from 1986 to 1995. I’ve selected one of his swinging original charts in which he also solos, “Back to the Apple”.

1:16 am on September 23, 2012
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