By W. Royal Stokes
Traditionalists & Revivalists in Jazz
by Chip Deffaa
(The Scarecrow Press and the Institute of Jazz, Metuchen, New Jersey, 391 pp., $42.50)
from Jazz Notes 6/3 1994Copyright © 1994, W. Royal Stokes
This collection of fourteen profiles fills a gap in that it is the first book-length documentation of repertory jazz. In terms of the music re-created by these individuals, the spectrum covered is from ragtime through the Swing Era. The volume is a valuable addition to jazz historiography because each of Deffaa's subjects is important to the effort to perpetuate the performance of earlier jazz styles, yet only one (Marty Grosz) has heretofore been profiled in a book. In the context of the recent surge of concert tributes to such major figures of the past as Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Benny Goodman, all too often by musicians ill equipped by training, inclination, or temperament to deal convincingly with the music of such masters, it is refreshing and encouraging to read these in-depth interviews with a mere few of the many who have devoted their lives to the understanding of historic jazz.
There are, as in any such collection, some glaring omissions, as far as prime movers in this effort, for example, Bob Wilber, Jim Dapogny, and the New Black Eagle Jazz Band. In addition, most welcome would have been some discussion of the late Martin Williams' contribution. His 1970s Smithsonian Institution concert programs devoted to the re-creation of the music of Morton, Fats Waller, James P. Johnson, Bix Beiderbecke, and others, along with the recordings issued of these sessions, were seminal in establishing repertory as a valid genre and pivotal in persuading the jazz critical establishment to take seriously the then fledgling movement. Yet his name does not once occur in the book.
Of course, there are those who dismiss the re-creation of earlier styles as an "artistic dead-end." Trumpeter Peter Ecklund hastens to disagree, pointing out that he himself "plays Renaissance music written hundreds of years ago," and "no one complains . . . . How can anyone argue it is wrong to play jazz in a general style that flourished earlier in this century? Or even to re-create, note for note, classic older recordings?"
Succinctly alluded to in that brief quotation are the two schools of thought on the proper approach to repertory. Leader and multi-instrumentalist Vince Giordano uses written arrangements transcribed from the original recordings and insists that his band members play the solos note-for-note, fearing that, if given rein, his musicians ("They're into all kinds of music.") would unconsciously allow, e.g., "Coltrane licks" to insinuate their way into a 1920s solo. Terry Waldo demurs: "I think when you're doing charts, if you're doing re-creations, you never get it right. You can get all the notes and it's still not as good as the original records. You're always copying and it's a different mindset. You're not creating spontaneously, you're not doing jazz . . . . My philosophy basically is to let the guys do what they can do and take advantage of the talent you have in the band."
What it comes down to, Waldo adds, is that "there really aren't that many musicians that can do the stuff." Ecklund tellingly observes that "Jazz musicians who, by preference and experience, are primarily into bebop have real trouble playing" in an earlier style. Deffaa, describing the stabilized personnel of Giordano's orchestra, points out that "Through constant practice, the musicians came to develop a feel for the idiomatic phrasings of the 1920s and '30s - something that star-studded orchestras put together for one-time-only concerts could not duplicate."
In addition to expatiating upon these larger issues, i.e., the validity of jazz repertory, how to go about it, etc., the conversations are far ranging and provide in most cases a good sense of the person behind the instrument. Eddy Davis recounts his experiences with the mob, Waldo recalls his pot-smoking 1960s past, trumpeter Richard Sudhalter outlines the conflicts inherent in his former dual existence as writer and musician, Stan Rubin tells of his adjustment to a devastating illness, Joe Muranyi reminisces about working with Louis Armstrong and other jazz greats, and Carrie Smith talks about her gospel roots.
No question about it, Chip Deffaa has a knack for eliciting the essentials from those he interviews. He gets musicians talking about how they play and what and why. A most rewarding book.