The soloist was the member of the jazz band who occupied the spotlight.
They were often trumpeters, saxophonists, and vocalists, but any member of the group could be the soloist—even the drummer. Their duty was to handle the primary tune and to improvise solos. They were the most conspicuous members of the band, and, in some cases, their fame eclipsed that of their band leaders’. Indeed, Fletcher Henderson and Duke Ellington were routinely outperformed by their soloists.
The reason for the popularity of the soloist was that they provided the most compelling aspect of the music—the improvisation. According to audiences, the guy directing the band mattered less than the guy blowing down the house.
Consequently, power struggles often formed between bandleaders and soloists. If a soloist became discontent with a band, then he or she might quit and join some other band—making that other band famous in the process. For example, any group featuring Louis Armstrong was going to be successful, so bandleaders often kowtowed to his wishes.
As the swing era progressed, many other soloists followed Armstong’s lead and stopped deferring to their bandleaders when it came to solo length, tone quality, and song selection.
Many of these soloists began operating as fully-empowered free agents. This blog post will focus on three: Coleman Hawkins, Roy Eldridge, and Ella Fitzgerald.
Hawkins was born in St. Joseph, Missouri. He studied piano and cello as a youth, and began learning the saxophone at age 9. Like other swing-era players, Hawkins was an educated musician; he studied theory and composition at Washburn College in Topeka, Kansas (“Coleman Hawkins” para 4).
Hawkins performed with Henderson’s band from 1923 until 1934. During this tenure, he came into contact with many talented jazzmen, including Louis Armstrong. Hawkins was greatly influenced by Armstrong and adopted the trumpeter’s “hot” style (“Coleman Hawkins” para 5).
When Hawkins left Henderson’s outfit in 1934 to tour Europe, his absence allowed up-and-coming saxophonists like Lester Young to take up his mantle. Hawkins returned from Europe in 1939 and had a successful career making records and leading small combos (Collier 221).
Historians usually declare the song “Body and Soul,” as recorded by the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra, to be Coleman Hawkins most important work as a jazz artist. This song was a popular hit in 1940. It became compulsory for Hawkins to perform this song in concert.
What made “Body and Soul” a hit with audiences was not its head melody, but Hawkins’ improvisation on that melody. Eventually, his solo became the head, and the original melody, composed by Johnny Green (1908-1989), was dropped.
When performing this song, Hawkins would routinely improvise more solos after the first “solo,” which made “Body and Soul” a soloist manifesto (Giddins and DeVeaux 247).
Hawkins was a heavy drinker his whole life, and he died in 1969 of liver disease (Collier 223).
Roy “Little Jazz” Eldridge (1911-1989) was a trumpeter known for his virtuosity and inventiveness. In many ways, his playing anticipated the bebop style that followed the swing era. For this, he is widely regarded as one of the most consequential of all swing-era soloists.
He was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on the North Side. His dad was a carpenter; his mother was a pianist. He started on the drums and moved to the trumpet under the direction of his older brother, a talented musician who played the violin, saxophone, and clarinet. Eldridge was expelled from high school in the ninth grade and began performing with traveling jazz bands soon after. By 1930, he was in New York City—the epicenter of swing (Roy Eldridge para 2-5).
Jazz historian, Gary Giddins, vividly described Eldridge’s exciting style of trumpet playing as follows: “No one more ably personified the excitement than the indefatigably competitive Roy Eldridge, a paradigm of the music’s volatility and joy, whose trumpet electrified the jazz skies of five decades, transforming its fevers with generosity, cunning, and unconstrained elation” (Giddins 188).
Eldridge’s unconstrained manner of play was influenced more by saxophonists than by other trumpeters, and you can hear this saxophone-influenced sound on some of his best recordings. One of these, “Wabash Stomp,” which was recorded in 1937, prominently displays Eldridge’s saxophone-influenced style.
Eldridge fell out of fashion during the 1950s, and the back half of his career was not successful. During these later years, Eldridge mainly played Dixieland jazz as a nostalgia act. He gave up playing entirely in 1980 after suffering a heart attack. He died in 1989 (“Roy Eldridge” para 16-17).
Ella “Lady Ella” Fitzgerald (1917-1996) was a jazz singer whose style was characterized by scat singing, pure intonation, and punctilious diction. She is sometimes called the “First Lady of Song,” the “Queen of Jazz,” or the “Queen of Scat” (“Ella Fitzgerald” para 1; Giddins 199).
Ella Fitzgerald was born in Newport News, Virginia. She moved with her mom and stepdad to Yonkers, New York in the early 1920s. Fitzgerald did well in school until her mother’s death in 1932 at which time she began doing poorly in school, spending time in an orphanage, and—for a time—working as a lookout for a gambling racket operating inside a bordello.
During the early 1930s, Fitzgerald survived on her own by singing on the streets of Harlem (Ella Fitzgerald” para 5-8).
Her first success came through the advocacy of big bandleader Chick Webb (1905-1939) who discovered the teenager while he was looking for new talent in 1935 (“Ella Fitzgerald” para 11).
In 1938, Webb’s group backed up Fitzgerald on a novelty pop song called “A-Tisket A-Tasket.” Although she recorded many more songs throughout her career, this song remained her bestseller (Giddins 197).
Fitzgerald sang pop songs and swing but was especially skilled at singing ballads. The 1939 song “Stairway to the Stars” displays Fitzgerald’s technique for singing ballads in which she sang the first chorus strait and sang the melody for the second chorus with improvised riffs (Giddins 198).
If one had to name the successor to the tradition of scat singing inaugurated by Louis Armstrong, then Ella Fitzgerald is the obvious choice. The 1945 song “Flying Home,” which is entirely composed of scat singing, displays her unimpeachable brilliance in this area.
Like Roy Eldridge, Fitzgerald’s approach to fast swing music was prognostic of the bebop music that followed. She had a successful, varied career that included acting as well as singing. Unlike Eldridge, she was rich and famous. Fitzgerald died in 1996 after suffering for many years with diabetes and heart disease (“Ella Fitzgerald”).
The fast and frenzied style championed by the late swing-era soloists eventually destroyed the popularity of jazz.
Jazz that evolved after the swing era was known as bebop. It was spectacularly unsuccessful. All those notes were simply too much strain on the average listener’s ear.
The end of the swing-era marked the end of the jazz age in American popular music.
“Coleman Hawkins” The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 29 July 2016. Web.
Collier, J.L. The Making of Jazz: A Comprehensive History. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. 1978. Print.
“Ella Fitzgerald” The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 30 July 2016. Web.
Giddins, Gary. Visions of Jazz: The First Century. New York: Oxford UP, 1998. Print.
“Roy Eldridge” The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 29 July 2016. Web.