In The History of Math Rock Part 1, we present a people’s history of the math rock genre, a peculiar wave of dissonant and odd-metered punk rock that started in the mid-western US and developed across the world. We then traveled back further in The History of Math Rock Part 2, exploring the rise of progressive rock and the intricate links it shares with math rock. In part 3, we are inevitably going back even further.
Why? When we started planning this history of math rock series, it became more and more apparent to us that we simply couldn’t give the impression that the foundations of odd-metered music were conceived by the math rock movement. Nor by the progressive rock boom. We needed to explore another movement, a movement substantially more renowned and popular than either of the aforementioned. The music itself was mostly instrumental with a focus on musicianship, technical ability, and developed out of using polyrhythms as well as syncopation to create non-typical rhythmic patterns in songs. It was a movement that established the first idea of a ‘band’, let alone an ‘odd-metered band’. That movement was jazz, and this is its story…
Pre-1900’s: the dawn of ‘ragtime’
In 1899, an African American pianist and composer from Northeast Texas by the name of Scott Joplin published ‘Maple Leaf Rag’. It was this beautiful piece that cemented ‘ragtime’ in American music history with Joplin its pioneer. Ragtime developed in the late 1800’s, with its peak popularity lasting from around 1895 – 1918. It was a distinctly American musical genre that combined the melodic stylings of European classical music with syncopated rhythmic patterns and polyrhythms that come out of African music. ‘Rags’ were a piano based form of music where the left hand would play the bass notes in a conventional rhythm pattern and the right hand would play ‘ragged’ syncopated patterns that at times would become polyrhythmic to the rhythms of the bass line played by the left hand. The resulting syncopated melodies in ragtime are the central defining characteristic of the genre. This is important to note in a historical sense because the combined rhythmic complexity of syncopated and polyrhythms combined with the virtuosic playing of ragtime musicians was a huge musical development that led to the creation of jazz music in the early 20th century. If you’re interested in American musicals, check out the Broadway schedule located here. We know you want to.
Scott Joplin – ‘Maple Leaf Rag’, first published in 1899
1918 – 1938
Scott Joplin died in 1918, and ragtime is considered to have died as a popular form of music with him. However, it was during this time that ‘jazz’ was solidifying as a stand-alone genre of music. What led to jazz breaking away into its own genre from other genres like ragtime, foxtrot, and blues hinged on a few key factors that, in one sense, mirror the rise and breakaway of math rock from the punk and hardcore genres. Perhaps the most important factor is that jazz is a genre that is heavily indebted to music technology for its formation. The saxophone, which became a jazz calling card, was actually created in the 1840’s as a classical instrument, but never got a solid foothold in European classical music, and by the early 20th century the saxophone had found new life amongst dance music ensembles in New Orleans and Chicago, and with the creation of another new instrument through technology those ensembles became known as jazz bands and a new genre was born.
At the same time the saxophone was being introduced as a contemporary instrument, drummers down in New Orleans discovered that they could play multiple drums and cymbals at the same time as a ‘kit’, changing rhythm in music as we know it. As jazz developed so did the shift to a single drummer playing all the percussion parts for one band, making the jazz group smaller in size than the large marching band ensembles that existed. The creation of the modern snare drum became the first component of the drum set. Before 1900 all snare drums consisted of wood shells, which gave the drum a very earthy tone. At the turn of the century snare drums began to be made of brass and metal shells, which changed the sound of the drum to the high-pitched pop sound associated with the modern snare drum of today and they became the snare drum used by jazz drummers. The Ludwig Drum Company, formed in 1910, created the first American made brass shelled snare drum, and very quickly Ludwig drums became the dominant name in drum making.
Gene Krupa’s Swing Band – ‘Swing Is Here’ from Swing Is Here (1955)
By the 1920’s the basic foundation of the drum set existed, but one man would forge all the pieces together to finalize the drum set and create the standard method of playing. Gene Krupa (the father of the modern drum set) was one of the most prominent drummers in music. Ludwig Drum Company created the bass drum pedal, and Krupa was the first drummer to use it in a recording.
Gene Krupa became the first drummer to use the modern drum set in 1936. Most other drummers quickly adapted to the set-up that Krupa had, which in turn became the standard drum set configuration used in both rock and jazz. In 1938, Krupa authored a book titled The Gene Krupa Drum Method, and it discussed the drum set configuration and playing method used by Krupa.
Syncopated Beats and Here Comes the Swing
A lot of interesting development was taking place towards the late 30’s. Syncopated rhythms gave the rise to beats that would ‘swing’ and complex melodies arrangements were composed around these. Musicians started taking extended improvisational solos in songs, which lead to compositional complexity and virtuoso playing distinct elements of jazz that made it stand out from other contemporary forms of popular music of the time. Musicians in jazz bands were becoming popular not because of songs they were composing, but because of the virtuoso and creative performances they were giving on stage. And, as luck would have it, another cultural change was happening that called a need for these new small, mobile ensemble bands creating new sounds and rhythms: prohibition.
1940 – 1960
Dizzy Gillespie – ‘Be-Bop’ from Something Old, Something New (1963)
As jazz became more and more popular after the end of prohibition, and the emergence of swing music becoming the dominant form of pop music, there were many who wanted to expand the genre into new and more experimental territories. This is where bebop, cool jazz, and free jazz come into the story. Groups of young musicians in New York in the 1940’s started playing together informally without the desire to make commercially viable music that swing was at the time. They were trying to challenge themselves and create ‘musician’s music’ characterized by fast tempos, asymmetrical phrasing, intricate melodies, and a heavy reliance on improvisation and solos. Many bebop musicians included Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, and Dizzy Gillespie.
Bebop took jazz in a more experimental direction and pushed the melodic and compositional boundaries of popular music. And by the 1950’s there were jazz musicians pushing bebop into even more experimental territories and disrupting traditional time-keeping in general, a movement coined as ‘free jazz’. While early swing jazz and later bebop had complex compositional aspects in terms of melody and harmony, and use of syncopation and polyrhythms, the music was still generally played to a 4/4 time signature.
Free jazz usually contained a general rhythmic pulsation for a beat but experimented with odd meters, or sometimes no time meter at all. Free jazz took an open approach to rhythm as well as harmony and is usually played without any harmonic structure, which coupled with improvisational playing allowed jazz musicians like Ornette Coleman to take his songs into chaotic realms of frantic drumming without any sense of 4/4 time or meter time at all with bursts of call and response from lead melodic instruments. You might say that Ornette Coleman was the Hella of the 1950’s.
Dave Brubeck Makes Odd-Time Cool
Dave Brubeck‘s famous debut Time Out, released in 1959
One of the central themes of our math rock history series is the proliferation of the odd time signature through time. To tell this story, it is important to discuss the man who brought odd-timed music into the mainstream: Dave Brubeck. And it is here within the realm of ‘cool jazz’ where his story unfolds.
Cool jazz (or ‘West Coast jazz’) came about as a response to bebop and bop styles of jazz. Cool jazz had a generally more relaxed feel in contrast to the fast and bombastic bebop style. Cool jazz also started incorporating elements of European classical music and was influential on the development of jazz modal music, and it also contained musical elements from Africa, Eastern Europe, Latin America. The defining album of cool and West Coast jazz came out in 1959, by the Dave Brubeck Quartet, and it took the world by storm.
Dave Brubeck discusses odd metered music in a historical interview
Time Out by the Dave Brubeck Quartet is one of the most important albums in the history of odd-time metered music. The album was purposely crafted as an experiment to use different musical styles and odd-time signatures to try and push the enveloped of contemporary western music. Most of the album experiments with time signatures outside of 4/4, including the opening track ‘Blue Rondo à la Turk’ which also features musical elements of traditional Balkan and Turkish music; the top 40 single ‘Take Five’ played in 5/4; ‘Three To Get Ready’ which alternates between 3/4 and 4/4 throughout; and the last two songs on the album “Everybody’s Jumpin” and “Pick Up Sticks”, both in 6/4. Brubeck believed that it was the job of jazz musicians to challenge the public and make them think in terms of more advanced rhythms.
Despite the off-kilter time signatures, Time Out was a huge commercial success. It reached #2 on the Billboard Charts and had a long-lasting effect on using odd-time signatures and modal harmonies in other forms of western music. ‘Blue Rondo à la Turk’ was later covered by progressive rock supergroup and math rock influencers Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, which is an example of where the odd-time signature elements of jazz started to creep over into experimental rock music that eventually gave way to the development of math rock.
1960 – 1990s
As the 1960’s progressed jazz lost its footing in commercial popularity, as rock and roll became the dominant form of popular music. With the creation of rock and roll it was only a matter of time before experimental jazz musicians added rock to their repertoire leading to the creation of jazz fusion. Miles Davis, who came up with the bebop scene in the 40’s, started experimenting with cool jazz in the late 50’s, and by the late 60’s was fusing complex jazz and raw-energy rock together. As discussed in Part 2 of this series, a lot of rock bands were also experimenting with jazz elements in the late 60’s: the ‘progressive rock’ movement saw the likes of King Crimson, Yes, Genesis, Frank Zappa, The Moody Blues, Soft Machine, and Gong all blending odd-timed jazz with elegant rock music ballads.
Mahavishnu Orchestra – Celestial Terrestrial Commuters from Birds Of Fire (1973)
Many of Miles Davis’ collaborators on albums like A Silent Way and Bitches Brew went on to form jazz fusion bands and continue the foray of mixing rock and jazz. Some of these bands included The Mahavishnu Orchestra, Tony Williams Lifetime, Return to Forever, and Weather Report. The Mahavishnu Orchestra maybe more than any other fusion is the most important single influence in the creation of math rock. As discussed in Part 1 of this series, Black Flag was highly influenced with Mahavishnu when they started experimenting with instrumental music and odd-time signatures in the early 80’s, which led more and more punk bands to be experimental and adventurous in their song writing and led to post-hardcore as well as early angular math rock.
The story of jazz and odd-time signatures doesn’t end here. In the 1980’s after the downtown scene and No Wave movements began to die out in New York, a new genre called Modern Creative came about, which was about creating music without natural structure to relate it to and the avant-garde nature of the music flowed somewhere between jazz, rock, and the absolute absurd. A defining characteristic of Modern Creative is incorporating free-form playing into structured compositions and modes. Musicians associated with Modern Creative include John Zorn, Bill Frissell, Fred Frith, Tim Berne, Cecil Taylor and Ornette Coleman. John Zorn best defines the Modern Creative and his band Naked City as well as many of his solo albums took influences from genres such as grindcore and thrash metal and combined them with everything from traditional bebop jazz to progressive rock, dub, ambient, and surf music. Zorn was an influential force in the creation of spazzcore.
Wrap-up: the connection to math rock
Maybe at this point you’re wondering what all this has to do with math rock history? Once you understand the culture in which jazz was created you can start to see more and more similarities with the math rock of today. Jazz may sound very much stuck in its ways to many, but how it emerged a century ago is very similar to emergence of math rock over the past couple decades. Math rock of today is very indebted to the experimental free jazz of musical pioneers like Don Cherry, Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman, Charles Mingus, Sun Ra, Pharaoh Sanders, Max Roach, Milford Graves, Tony Williams, and later John Coltrane.
Math rock is so much more than just odd-time signatures, and the lifeblood and feel for math rock is derived from the combination of various musical elements. Jazz is just as important as punk or prog in the musical makeup of math rock. You don’t get Tera Melos, Hella, or Don Caballero without The Minutemen, Black Flag, and John Zorn; and you don’t get Black Flag and the Minutemen without The Mahavishnu Orchestra. You don’t get The Mahavishnu Orchestra or John Zorn without Miles Davis, Dave Brubeck, Ornette Coleman, and Dizzy Gillespie. You don’t have a starting place for Miles David and Dave Brubeck to take off from without the groundwork in musical experimentation done decades earlier by musicians like Gene Krupa, Buddy Rich, and Benny Goodman. It’s very difficult to paint a complete picture of math rock without including all the experimentation with rhythm and melody that flourished in the 20th century jazz scene and its key stake in odd-metered or, dare-we-say, ‘math’ music.
 Blesh, Rudi. Scott Joplin: Black-American Classicist. New York Public Library, 1981.
 Berlin, Edward. “Ragtime”. The Grove Music Dictionary. Oxford University Press.
 Scaruffi, Piero. A History of Jazz Music: 1900-2000. New York: Omniware, 2007.
 Bruford, Bill. An Introduction to Summerfold Records. Bill Bruford. Summerfold Records BB001, 2005. Compact Disc.