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A Short History of the Jazz Flute

by Peter Guidi

(an extract from the method 'The Jazz Flute', volume II)

© 1997, Molenaar Edition B.V., reproduced by kind permission of the author and publisher.

Although some early ragtime arrangements contain parts for flute and piccolo, the flute was little used in jazz ensembles until the nineteen twenties and did not truly emerge as a solo instrument until the early fifties. The comparatively low volume of the flute and the absence of electronic amplification made it difficult for band leaders to incorporate the flute into their arrangements. Today, through the use of sophisticated microphones, the solo jazz flutist can express subtleties and nuances that would have been unthinkable in the early days of jazz. In the rowdy dance halls and jazz venues of the twenties and thirties the principal solo instruments were the trumpet, trombone, and saxophone which required no amplification producing a sound big enough to fill a large hall. Any flute player reckless enough to sit-in at a jam session would have had to play the entire solo in the third register to have any hope of being heard above the band. For these reasons the few ensemble or solo parts that were written for the flute were usually played by saxophone players who could double on the flute. Despite these difficulties however, a small group of pioneering jazz flutists began to make themselves noticed as early as 1920 even though the flute was at first considered to be somewhat of a novelty instrument in the jazz environment.

The earliest known example of a recorded jazz flute solo is by Cuban clarinetist Alberto Socarras, who recorded 'Shootin' The Pistol' in 1927 with the Clarence Williams band. His other recordings include 'You're Such a Cruel Papa To Me', with vocalist Lizzie Miles in 1928, and 'You Can't Be Mine' in 1930, with Bennett's Swamplanders. In the thirties Alberto Socarras went on to lead his own bands which featured first rate sidemen such as Cab Calloway and Mongo Santamaria. Both later to achieve international fame as band leaders in their own right.

While acknowledging the contributions made by the early pioneers, jazz historians generally credit saxophonist Wayman Carver as being the first true jazz flutist. In the thirties he recorded extensively with many famous bands. In 1931 he recorded 'Loveless Love' with Dave Nelson, and two years later in 1933, 'How Come You Do Me Like You Do?', and 'Sweet Sue, Just You' with Spike Hughes. In the same year he recorded 'Devils' Holiday' with the band of legendary saxophonist/arranger Benny Carter. From 1933 to 1937 Carver performed with the influential big band of drummer Chick Webb. The band, which included the young Ella Fitzgerald on vocals, enjoyed a long residency at the famous Savoy Ballroom throughout the thirties and is considered to be one of the outstanding orchestras of the period.

In the forties multi-instrumentalist Jerome Richardson joined the successful Lionel Hampton big band with whom he recorded flute solos on 'Kingfish' in 1949, and 'There Will Never Be Another You' in 1950. From the end of the forties onward the use of improved microphones and sound systems became more widespread, allowing the flute to slowly gain acceptance and recognition as a versatile and expressive jazz instrument.The late forties and early fifties saw the height of the 'Bebop' era, with musicians such as alto saxophonist Charlie 'Bird' Parker and pianist Bud Powell at the peak of their creative powers. The decade also marked the beginning of the ‘crossover’ Latin influence in jazz through the pioneering work of trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie. During these adventurous and stimulating times jazz musicians were eager to explore new musical directions. One of the most famous developments occurred in Southern California in and around the city of Los Angeles. This led to the advent of the 'West Coast' school of playing, also known as 'cool jazz'. This new branch of jazz was strongly influenced by the relaxed style and, delicate whimsical sound of pre-bebop tenor saxophonist Lester Young. In view of this development, the light, airy sound of the flute became more desirable and flutists such as Bud Shank and Buddy Collette came to prominence.

Alto saxophonist/flutist Bud Shank began his career with the band of Howard Rumsey at the famous Lighthouse on Hermosa Beach near Los Angeles. He later left Rumsey to join the revolutionary big band of Stan Kenton. Buddy Collette played and recorded with the influential group of drummer Chico Hamilton, which was later to host a long line of illustrious flute players including Buddy Collette, Paul Horn, Eric Dolphy, and Charles Lloyd. A fine example of the flute playing of that era can be heard on the recording 'Collette's Swinging Shepherds', which unites four of the prominent flutists of that time, Buddy Collette, Paul Horn, Harry Klee, and Bud Shank. Buddy Collette also became the first jazz musician to record on all of the orchestral flute family. In the second half of the fifties the flute established a new role for itself in the larger ensembles with recordings such as 'Blue & Sentimental' by the Buddy Rich Big Band, where Buddy Collette's flute can be heard in combination with muted trumpet.

From 1953 onwards tenor saxophonist/flutist Frank Wess began to specialize on the flute and was frequently featured on that instrument during his ten year engagement with the Count Basie Big Band. The huge following of the Count Basie band via the radio helped to popularize the instrument, as did Frank Wess's debut flute recording on 'Perdido' recorded in 1954. When Frank Foster and Frank Wess played at the BIM Huis, Amsterdam in 1998, I asked Wess how he got started on the flute. He told me that his teacher was none other than the legendary Wayman Carver mentioned above, pioneer and ‘father’ of the jazz flute. He also told an interesting story that Count Basie had no idea Wess could play the flute when he hired him. He was originally hired as a tenor sax player to complement Frank Foster. (The Basie band had a long tradition of two battling tenors which started in the thirties with Lester Young and Herschel Evans.) One day a friend of Wess’s said to Basie ‘Hey Base, you ever heard this mother-lover play the flute? He plays the hell out of the darned thing.’ Basie was curious to hear it so he told Wess that he could substitute a flute solo for one of his allotted tenor solos as a try out. Wess chose ‘Perdido’ and the Count was so impressed that he decided to record the piece in 1954. The success of this recording led to new arrangements being written as features for the flute (often in combination with muted trumpet) and another lasting tradition was born. When Wess left the Basie band the torch was handed over to tenor saxophonist/flutist Eric Dixon. Other recordings made by Wess on the flute during his stay with Basie include 'The Midgets' 1955, and 'Cute' 1958. In the same year arranger Gil Evans used flutes to good advantage on his arrangement of 'Summertime' for the Miles Davis album 'Porgy & Bess'. The flutes are also represented on the album 'The Individualism Of Gil Evans' where both the flute and the bass flute can be heard to great effect on 'Barbara's Song'.

In 1956 Down Beat Magazine established the 'Best Flutist Award'. Jazz flute fans of that era were divided into two rival factions supporting either Herbie Mann or Sam Most, both of whom greatly contributed to the growing popularity of the jazz flute. Despite the rivalry, or perhaps because of it, these two influential flutists recorded together in 1955 and often appeared in concert together. At these events the followers of Sam Most would voice their support by shouting the slogan - 'Most is the man!' - at which the fans of Herbie Mann would reply -'Mann is the most!'.

Although in his formative years Herbie Mann also played the saxophone, (listen to the album 'Flute Soufflé' with Belgian Bobby Jaspar where they both double on the tenor sax and flute), Mann was the first modern jazz flutist to base a career on playing only the flute. His blend of jazz with a variety of ethnic styles from Latin America and the Middle East, led to great popularity and success.

Another emerging flutist strongly influenced by Eastern and Oriental music was Yusef Lateef, whose flute playing can be heard on the albums 'The Sounds Of Yusef Lateef' recorded in 1957 and 'The Golden Flute' 1966. Lateef, who was to gain international recognition in the early sixties as a member of the famous Cannonball Adderley Sextet, was the first jazz flutist to use different types of ethnic flutes such as the Chinese flute, the Arab 'nai' flute, and the 'ma ma' flute invented by himself.

Sam Most is generally credited with being the first to sing or hum into the flute while playing. This technique was also adopted in the sixties by Herbie Mann, Sahib Shihab, and Yusef Lateef who also spoke syllables into the instrument to achieve unusual articulations. Multi-instrumentalist Roland Kirk both sang and spoke through the flute to create a rasping buzzing quality as on 'You did it, you did it', from the album 'We Free Kings' recorded in 1961. As well as being able to play on three hybrid saxophones at the same time, Kirk also recorded on unusual flutes such as the bamboo flute, the nose flute and various kinds of whistles. (Note: Playing three saxes was no 'gimmick' but a serious musical experiment. By modifying the key mechanisms Kirk was able to use these instruments creatively and could play both in unison and in harmony. On the conventional flute he was one of the first to introduce the use of key clicks and other percussive sounds. Kirk would have probably played the cleaning rod if a musical use could have been found for it!.)

In the fifties and early sixties these innovators mentioned above were breaking down many taboos by experimenting with sounds that nobody had produced before. Radical changes concerning flute playing were also taking place in Europe in the field of modern classical music. Composers such as Edgard Varèse and Luciano Berio were breaking new ground with adventurous compositions for the modern flute. At the same time flute virtuosos such as self-taught Severino Gazzelloni were experimenting with new sounds and techniques.

The two very different worlds of jazz and classical flute playing began to exert a strong influence on each other. When the revolutionary jazz flutist Eric Dolphy was touring in Europe he arranged to have lessons with Severino Gazzelloni during his stay in Italy. Already the possessor of an awesome technique, Eric Dolphy became extremely interested in the experimental work being done by Gazzelloni. (Listen to Eric Dolphy's composition `Gazzelloni' on the album 'Out To Lunch' dedicated to the great Italian flutist). Gazzelloni in turn was impressed by the adventurous rhythmic innovation used by Dolphy in his improvisations. Eric Dolphy was also deeply inspired by the sounds of nature and seriously studied how to reproduce them on the flute. Some of these sounds, such wind and bird songs, he later incorporated into his solo improvisations and cadenzas. Eric Dolphy was a work-a-holic who practiced at every possible opportunity, even during the breaks between sets. He neither used drugs or drank alcohol. His premature death was caused by the fact that he was unaware of being a diabetic. Having started a natural health diet, he ingested large quantities of honey while on a particularly long and arduous European tour. The intake of so much sugar led first to sickness then quickly to a state of deep coma from which he never recovered. In the turbulent drug-ridden jazz environment of the sixties it is ironic that Eric Dolphy should die from an overdose of honey. His flute was bequeathed to his close friend, the legendary saxophonist John Coltrane, who played it on one of his last recordings.

While the sixties saw the development of bebop into 'hard-bop', exemplified by the ‘Jazz Messengers', the powerhouse band of drummer Art Blakey, the decade also marked the beginning of a growing interest in the West for the music of the East. It was at this time that flutist Paul Horn moved away from his bebop roots and concentrated on the development of a beautiful sound. Combined with his interest in transcendental meditation he became strongly influenced by the music of India and made several recordings exploiting unusual acoustical settings. The most successful of these was his 1968 solo album 'Inside' recorded in the Taj Mahal, and in the Great Pyramid of Cheops in Egypt.

The mid sixties also saw the emergence of British flutist Harold McNair, who incorporated all of the jazz flute techniques prevalent at the time and added his own perfect blend of lyricism and driving swing. Recordings by him are few and are now hard to find, but his incomparable phrasing can be heard on the albums 'Affectionate Fink' 1965, and 'Harold McNair' 1968. Other flute players to emerge in the sixties were Leo Wright and James Moody, who both played alto sax and flute in the bands of trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie.

This decade also marked the advent of the 'Bossa Nova' craze, which spread quickly from Brazil to North America and Europe. The Bossa Nova, or 'new thing', began with Brazilian composers Antonio Carlos Jobim, Luis Bonfa, and Joao Gilberto who blended elements of the Brazilian samba with cool jazz. Its rich harmonies and soft rhythm made it an instant favorite with jazz musicians. In 1962 guitarist Charlie Byrd together with tenor saxophonist Stan Getz achieved international popularity with the hit record 'Desafinado' and soon many other jazz musicians followed suit. The relaxed, subdued atmosphere of what became known as 'jazz bossa', made it a perfect vehicle for the flute. Good examples of this genre can be heard on 'Do The Bossa Nova' by Herbie Mann, and 'The L.A. Four Scores!' recorded by Bud Shank with Brazilian guitarist Laurindo Almeida.

In 1962 tenor saxophonist/flutist Charles Lloyd joined the influential group of drummer Chico Hamilton and appeared on the album 'Passin' Thru', recorded in the same year. Lloyd was one of the first to be influenced by the revolutionary music and new harmonic concept of tenor saxophonist John Coltrane. He later achieved wide recognition by joining the Cannonball Adderley Sextet (replacing Yusef Lateef) and through a series of recordings for Atlantic Records, including 'Of Course Of Course' 1966, and 'Charles Lloyd In Europe' 1968, featuring the emerging young piano talent Keith Jarrett.

In the mid sixties Hubert Laws demonstrated that an outstanding classical technique could be adapted to bebop and modal jazz. As well as recording pieces from the jazz standard repertoire, his classical background led him to record jazz adaptations of works by Bach and Stravinsky, which can be heard on the album 'Afro Classic' recorded in 1971.

The seventies were the years in which jazz musicians first experimented with jazz-rock 'fusion' (this involves the fusion of jazz harmonies with pop and rock rhythms). One of the first musicians to achieve this successfully was flutist Jeremy Steig with his group 'Jeremy Steig and the Satyrs'. As well as singing with the flute, Steig employed many other sounds such as key clicks, percussive sounds, and air sounds.

One of the most influential groups to emerge from this decade was 'Return To Forever' led by pianist Chick Corea. This group firmly established the playing of tenor saxophonist/flutist Joe Farrell. He later recorded extensively on the flute on albums such as 'Benson and Farrell' 1976, with guitarist George Benson, and 'Flute Talk', in duet with flutist Sam Most in 1978.

The early part of the decade also saw the addition of flutist and alto saxophonist Sonny Fortune to the group of pianist McCoy Tyner on the recording 'Sahara' in 1972. Fortune went on to lead his own group with which he recorded his debut album 'Long Before Our Mothers Cried', in 1974 followed by 'Awakening', in 1975.

At the same time the developments in jazz flute playing were beginning to have an effect in the pop world. Flutist/band leader Ian Anderson was strongly influenced by Roland Kirk and developed a technique of singing and overblowing which became the trade mark of the highly successful pop group 'Jethro Tull'. The huge popularity of this band did much to introduce the flute to a whole new generation.

In the late seventies and throughout the eighties classically trained flutist James Newton achieved a wide reputation in the genre of avant-garde (or 'free' jazz), where improvisation is not tied down to any harmonic sequence. Two other flutists of that period who made considerable contributions to the development of this idiom are Sam Rivers and George Adams. The eighties saw the collaboration of Hubert Laws with classical flutist Jean-Pierre Rampal with whom he performed several live concerts. In this decade Laws also began recording jazz/rock ‘fusion’ albums of a more commercial nature. The eighties also saw a memorable series of recordings by trumpeter Chet Baker, which established his then sideman Italian flutist Nicola Stilo as one of the leading bebop flute players of the modern era.

In recent years there has been a growing mutual influence and cross-pollination between jazz and many different forms of ethnic music. The continuing development of the flute in Indian music, pioneered by Pannalal Ghosh and further developed by Raghunath Seth and Hariprasad Chaurasia, has stimulated jazz flutists to incorporate some of these techniques into their own idiom. In the field of modern western classical music there is much investigation into the unexplored and unexploited potential of the flute. Pioneering research in the field of multiphonics has been carried out by American flutist Robert Dick, whose book 'The Other Flute' is to be strongly recommended to the serious student of modern flute playing. Dick has also ventured into the territory of improvisation in a recording entitled ‘Jazz Standards on Mars’, 1998. In 1999 a collaboration between British flutist Mike Mower and Irish flutist James Galway produced the interesting recording ‘Tango del Fuego’. In this ‘crossover’ recording ‘improvisations’ written out by Mower are jauntily and convincingly played by Galway.

Naturally, many outstanding flute players could not be mentioned in what is but a brief account of the history of the jazz flute. Many of the jazz styles discussed above are still being explored and developed by flute players all over the world. In the rich, ongoing history of jazz music the flute is now firmly established as a serious jazz instrument and constantly evolving. Styles old and new are combining in a dynamic process which promises an exciting future for the flute in jazz.

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