Jazz: The Big Jam

Jazz: The Big Jam

By Owen Cordle
first published in The News & Observer, Raleigh, NC, Sunday, Jan. 7, 2001
copyright © 2001 Owen Cordle

All that invention and risk, all that rebellion and fire -- where is all that now?

I wonder where jazz has gone. It's gone from clubs. Gone from commercial radio. Gone from the vanguard of art. Gone to school. Gone to corporate interests. Gone to Europe. Gone to bitterness.

In the old days, jazz fought racism and drugs. Today, it fights itself over power, money, style, age and attitude.

For the first time in the history of the music, jazz's prime mover isn't an innovator. Risk and rebellion have gone out of jazz. Monotony rules, whether it's smooth jazz, hard bop, swing or Miles Davis imitators.

Ken Burns' PBS documentary Jazz couldn't arrive at a better time. For 10 nights this month, it will expose viewers to the history of this century-old music. Companion CDs and a companion book will prompt discussion long beyond the last flicker of the television screen.

The 19-hour series will anger some for its iconic choices -- who's in, who's out. Some will take it at face value as the definitive history of jazz, never questioning its point of view. Some will use it as a catalyst for their own inquiry.

Perhaps the next jazz messiah will be watching.

And jazz, bereft of a charismatic musical innovator since John Coltrane, the Hamlet-born tenor and soprano saxophonist who died in 1967, desperately needs a messiah.

"Jazz is a dynamic art form," says Peter Ingram, a drummer who initiated the Research Triangle's romance with big-name jazz when he opened the Frog and Nightgown in 1968. "Somewhere along the line, someone will come up with something original."

Mike Zwerin, a trombonist and jazz critic for the International Herald Tribune, also believes that jazz is ripe for change. But without different dynamics in the music world, he doesn't know what the next change will bring. "Jazz used to be vertical," writes Zwerin via e-mail from Paris. "Giants stood on the shoulders of giants. Every decade or so would give birth to a new giant, a new style, a new way of listening. This is obviously not happening anymore.

"Now jazz is horizontal. You can find a first-rate rhythm section in Porto, or in Seattle, in just about any city of any size in the developed world. This is new from the 1990s. It will go somewhere. Where? We'll see."

Filming under the influence

Wynton Marsalis is today's most famous jazz musician. He's a superb educator, bandleader and spokesman for jazz. So it's not surprising to find Marsalis interviewed frequently in Burns' documentary.

"He has done an enormous amount to bring jazz to the public," Ingram said in a call. "This may be a greater contribution than his music."

But Marsalis stands at the center of much of today's bitterness over the state of jazz. He burst onto the jazz scene 20 years ago and trumpeted acoustic jazz exclusively as the "real jazz." Though he has tempered his pronouncements since then, his declaration fueled a jazz war, pitting him, his Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra and major record companies preaching a "pure jazz" philosophy against those who espouse diversity.

Marsalis -- young, confident, very talented and a disciple of acoustic jazz in lieu of the then-prevalent fusion, funk and R&B -- appeared in 1980 as a member of Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers and in 1982 at the helm of his own quintet. Columbia Records took advantage of his classical music training as well as his jazz ability and, for a time, issued classical as well as jazz albums by him.

Jazz musicians began wearing suits and ties again, thanks to Marsalis. And because Columbia found success marketing him, other record companies followed. A rush to find young black jazz musicians playing acoustic jazz ensued. Even if they weren't quite ready for the big time.

Marsalis initially based his quintet sound on the impressionistic, acoustic style of Miles Davis' mid-'60s quintet. It was as if the '70s -- a period of capitulation to fusion and electronics -- had never happened. But middle-age jazz musicians -- beboppers and hard boppers -- took a double hit. They had turned briefly to jazz-rock at the insistence of their record companies five or 10 years earlier and now they were being dumped in favor of 20-year-olds -- dubbed Young Lions -- taking up "real" jazz. Many still have not gotten over the insult, especially since they were cast as traitors for following an "impure" trend in the '70s.

"Anybody using another sort of swing besides African-American swing -- let's say Romanian swing -- is suspect," Zwerin writes. "Anyone basing anything on a raga [an Indian scale] is not straight ahead. A sort of musical fascism."

The controversy surrounds Marsalis on another front. Charges of cronyism and age discrimination have accompanied his tenure as musical director of the prestigious Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra and artistic director of the Jazz at Lincoln Center program. The concentration of money, prestige and power -- and the perception of a neoconservative musical bias, real or imagined -- at Lincoln Center have alienated jazz musicians of all stripes. Some of this stems from jealousy, but more stems from a feeling of disenfranchisement.

With Burns' documentary, the trumpeter's detractors worry about his influence behind the scenes as the series' senior creative consultant.

"The talking heads are all 'members' of the same N.Y. mafia," Zwerin writes. "Not that they are evil, or even conscious of it. But jazz is more than just New York. The diversity is overlooked. Certainly diversity of thought. . . . Attitude is the problem."

Marsalis cannot be blamed for the entire rift. Record companies contributed, too, not only by rewarding conservative acts but also by flooding the CD market with reissues. Reissues are cheaper to produce, and they also amplify the trend of retro jazz by taking listeners back to an original source. In some cases, midcareer and veteran musicians who have reissues on the shelves can't get a current record contract. Ironically, in the scheme of record companies, a dead Miles Davis is worth more than a live Gary Bartz.

All dressed up and no place to play

Changing times also have affected the health of jazz. In the '60s, the back page of Down Beat listed club appearances in cities across the nation: Bill Evans at the Village Vanguard in New York, Oscar Peterson at the London House in Chicago, Eddie Jefferson at Baker's Keyboard Lounge in Detroit, Miles Davis at the Blackhawk in San Francisco, Shelly Manne and His Men at Shelly's Manne Hole in Hollywood, Ramsey Lewis at the Bohemian Caverns in Washington, Gabor Szabo at the Jazz Workshop in Boston . . . The places and names were magic, and each city boasted several clubs. Raleigh's Frog and Nightgown even made it into Down Beat's "Caught in the Act" column a couple of times.

The scene began to erode in the '70s. Changing tastes in music, rising costs of business and transportation, and increased competition for the entertainment dollar contributed to the demise of jazz clubs and sustainable traveling bands.

In the meantime, formal jazz education escalated as jazz musicians found teaching positions in college music and black studies departments. In the past 20 years, schools and graduates have codified concepts and sounds based predominantly on Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers and the mid-'60s Miles Davis Quintet. Young virtuosos abound, each well-educated and fluent in this bop- and modal-based music yet nearly indistinguishable from another. What jazz has gained in mass production it has lost in individuality and creativity.

"This is the most noncreative period in the whole history of jazz," tenor saxophonist and bass clarinetist David Murray says in the December issue of JazzTimes. "It's catch-up time for people who want to play what's been done before. They've stopped the clock and gone back to the '50s and '60s to define jazz."

In the same story, "The Sound of Sameness" by Stuart Nicholson, the author says jazz has outgrown its birthplace and America is no longer its exclusive steward. Subtitled "Why European Musicians No Longer Turn to America for Inspiration," the story describes a diverse and vibrant overseas jazz scene.

In the '60s, black jazzmen such as Johnny Griffin, Dexter Gordon, Kenny Clarke and Bud Powell moved to Europe to escape racism in America. They found respect and an open creative climate, although they missed the energy of America. That, too, has changed.

"There was a time when European musicians would basically find an icon from America and emulate him," Nicholson quotes Courtney Pine, the British tenor and soprano saxophonist. "But now we're not happy with that. We're going for our own thing."

Ingram still finds jazz exciting.

"It depends on other things going on around the world in music," he says. "People incorporate different things in jazz, such as world music. Jazz has always done this.

"But I'm a little concerned about the retro focus. The caliber of young musicians is excellent. But jazz is the lowest thing on the totem pole with regard to popularity. And smooth jazz is reprehensible. It has nothing to do with jazz."

Effects of Burns' series

Jazz reflects little of today's bitter state of jazz. Burns spends the first nine programs exploring the music from its origins to 1960. He devotes the final program to the period between 1961 and 2000, ignoring or barely touching groups that developed along electronic lines after Miles Davis' fusion landmark Bitches Brew, recorded in 1969.

Where are Joe Zawinul and Wayne Shorter's Weather Report, the Mahavishnu Orchestra and Chick Corea's Return to Forever?

Burns has no moral imperative to film a definitive history of jazz. But Zwerin worries that the series will be viewed as an official history, that it will establish "another bureaucracy, another office full of people saying, 'This is where it's at' or 'should be at' or 'There is no other way.' "

Still, he hopes that "Jazz" will help the music grow by stimulating discussion, even if it is angry discussion. But the effects remain to be seen.

Will it re-establish America as the home of the brave -- the risk-taking jazz musician? Perhaps, if enough musicians follow the possibilities revealed by our heroes' lives and music instead of the literal notes of their recordings. Imagination must replace reproduction.

"It may even reinforce the more subtle impact of jazz in everyday life," Ingram said, listing such examples as jazz in film scores and television and radio advertising.

Will it make people buy the music? Steve Barbour, manager of Schoolkids Records in Cary, foresees increased CD sales as a result of Jazz. "Anyone with a sad story will sell," he says. The romance of the tragic, doomed artist -- Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, Lester Young -- still exerts a strong attraction. But when is Gary Bartz's next album coming out?

Will it lead to subsidies for jazz? "Jazz is what it is," Zwerin writes. "It deserves no special favors. People who play it have to reach enough people who listen to it to make a living -- with as much help from subsidies as a symphonic orchestra or the opera, proportionally, I mean. But serious help is needed. Nothing wrong with that."

And will it make live performances -- the salvation of jazz -- viable again?

"We need more jazz in the forefront instead of in the background while people are eating and drinking," Ingram said.

Attendance is required. Attention is vital. Appreciation must be shown. Dare to hug a jazz musician. Maybe musicians will get the message to embrace each other again.

As the song says, I wonder where our love has gone.

C o m m e n t s

No comments yet. You can be the first.
[<<] [<] [>] [>>]