by Scott Yanow
Blue: The Murder of Jazz
by Eric Nisenson
(St. Martin's Press, 262 pages, $22.95)
from Jazz Notes 1/1 1998Copyright © 1998, Scott Yanow
Eric Nisenson in his recent work is quite pessimistic about jazz's future. Despite his book's provocative title, he does not feel that jazz has been killed off but he is very worried that it is in danger of becoming a museum piece. Alarmed by the pronouncements of Wynton Marsalis and Stanley Crouch, the programming policy of the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, and the rise of the Young Lions, Nisenson feels that what he calls the "neoclassicists" are causing the jazz mainstream to move to the right. He particularly detests the pronouncements that swing and blues are essential elements in jazz and feels that the "reactionaries" are taking control of the music's future, stopping its evolution stylewise around 1965.
In his third book (following works on John Coltrane and Miles Davis), Nisenson talks about how he came to the music, what he sees as the problem with the current scene, and the racial politics in jazz both in the past and on today's scene. He traces the battles between revolutionary players and conservative critics throughout jazz's history. Nisenson does a good job of comparing the ideas of Marsalis, Crouch, and Albert Murray to Mezz Mezzrow, Hugues Panassie, and Rudi Blesh (who believed that true jazz should remain ensemble-oriented and in the style of old New Orleans) and shows how the major innovators always succeeded in moving the music ahead of what was considered acceptable at the time by keepers of the jazz status quo.
There are some factual errors (particularly covering the 1920's and '30s)which should have been fixed by a knowledgeable proofreader. Count Basie did not take over the Bennie Moten Orchestra when Moten "retired" (Moten died unexpectedly), the Dukes of Dixieland did not precede the Firehouse Five Plus Two (it was the other way around), it is not true that Fletcher Henderson "unsuccessfully led his own big band of the 1920's" (and Nisenson does not seem to realize that most of Henderson's pre-1927 recordings were actually arranged by Don Redman), King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band of 1923 was not "stylistically past its peak at the point when it was recorded" (the original band only lasted two years!), etc. He includes James Carter as one of the Young Lions which, considering how he plays, seems a bit silly. Nisenson gets a bit carried away about Marsalis, even stating that "Nobody in the history of jazz got more publicity than Wynton Marsalis after his historic signing with Sony Music." What about Benny Goodman in 1935 after he caused a sensation that launched the Swing Era? His description of Joshua Redman's style as "part Sonny Rollins, part Coltrane, and part Wayne Shorter" is also far off the mark. These errors are a little annoying but do not take away from the author's premise.
The main flaw with the book lies with Eric Nisensen's perception of the 20 years of jazz history. Outside of the rise of the Young Lions, Nisensen barely comments on the history of jazz once it passed the late 1970's, giving listeners the impression that little has happened since the decline of creative fusion. There is hardly any mention of the current avant-garde, whether in Europe or at the Knitting Factory. So-called "smooth jazz" is quickly written off without much discussion, acid jazz is not mentioned, and Nisensen seems unaware of most developments outside of the city limits of New York. He greatly overrates the influence of the erratic Lincoln City Jazz Orchestra (never mentioning the Mingus Big Band, Maria Schneider, Bill Holman, etc.) and says virtually nothing about the current Afro-Cuban jazz scene,the comeback of swing, or any vocalist other than Billie Holiday. One would be searching in vain if trying to locate any reference in his book to Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Geri Allen, Marilyn Crispell, Bill Frisell, John Scofield, Pat Metheny, Evan Parker, Tim Berne, David Murray, Arturo Sandoval, Dave Douglas, Kenny Wheeler, Ray Anderson, David Sanborn, plus dozens of other important current players, none of whom are "neoclassicists" or Young Lions.
Throughout the book (which is really an extended essay), Nisenson gives the "neoclassicists" far too much credit, essentially saying that they are responsible for stopping jazz's evolution. But the main question left unanswered is: Whom have they stopped? It is true that jazz's evolution, which went at a dizzying pace during 1915-75, has not moved as quickly during the past two decades, but to blame it on Marsalis, Crouch, Murray, the Lincoln Center Orchestra, a group of musicians in their twenties, the large record labels, the New York Times, and the mass media is clearly overstating their influence. It is easy to ridicule many of the statements of Crouch and Murray (such as the latter's contention that Bix Beiderbecke was not a significant jazz musician, presumably because he was white), and I applaud many of Eric Nisenson's arguments. But he clearly does not prove his case, which is that jazz is essentially being strangled by the neoclassicists. Perhaps if he really dug into the current jazz scene instead of only concentrating on the programming of the Lincoln Center Orchestra (which is irrelevant outside of New York City) and the releases of the large record labels, he could find other reasons for the slowing of jazz's evolution.