Jazz Swings Back To Tradition

THE CROWD OUTSIDE SWEET Basil, on a Monday not long ago, is so large and so eager that even jaded Greenwich Village strollers stop to ask who’s playing inside the jazz club. David Murray and Wynton Marsalis, they are told; that’s why the place is packed. That made several Mondays in a row that the David Murray Big Band drew full houses, playing a stack of new compositions that cut exultantly across the history of jazz. In the richly voiced chords and leisurely ballads, one can hear echoes of Duke Ellington; in the jumping call-and-response between saxophones and brasses, there’s a whiff of Count Basie. Charles Mingus would have been proud of the band’s gutsy, raw-boned swing.

David Murray, 29, sits at stage left, cradling his tenor saxophone, his ear cocked to the music. He rises for a solo that arcs upward from a sultry melody to harmony-defying squeals and squawks. The music he composes is designed to be shuffled and reshuffled, and it’s likely that it will never be performed in the same order twice. That’s one reason for the full house.

There are curiosity seekers in tonight’s audience, since word has spread that the guest soloist is Wynton Marsalis, the widely praised 22-year-old trumpeter from New Orleans. In a few weeks, the young musician would go on to win Grammy awards for his performances as both a jazz and a classical artist. Marsalis, who invariably performs in jacket and tie, has championed jazz’s legacy as swinging, harmonically sophisticated music; what’s more, he has denounced some avant-gardists as ‘‘charlatans.’‘

Yet he’s right at home in Murray’s trumpet section, studiously concentrating on his parts and waiting for his chance to play a solo. When he gets the nod, he looses high, poised blue notes, then growls with gusto as the band digs into something like a New Orleans stomp. It’s not a battle of styles – it’s an embrace.

That gleeful moment reflects the new priorities of 1980’s jazz: reclaiming jazz tradition from a modern perspective, shifting the balance from the soloist to the group and, more often than not, swinging with a vengeance.

It also marks yet another shift in the role of the jazz composer. Jazz might be defined as music created from the friction between planning and spontaneity, or between written and improvised music. A written score is only the outline of any musical performance, but especially so in jazz, where swinging rhythms defy exact transcription and where improvisation continually changes the balance of a piece. In the big bands of the 1930’s, precise orchestral scores were laced with short and long solos; in the small-group jazz that prevailed after World War II, a composition was likely to be just a quick tune whose chords became a springboard for extended improvisation, repeatedly cycling through the sequence of chords that make up the form of a song. As improvisers broke away from standard harmony during the 1960’s, jazz compositions grew less and less restrictive, and they became almost abstract in the 1970’s, when a composer like Anthony Braxton might specify a register and a rhythm, but leave melody and harmony to be improvised. Now, after the upheavals of the 1960’s and the fragmentation and experimentation of the 1970’s, jazz composers face a historical question: What should they do now that everything is permitted?

It’s a question with no simple answer. Jazz has evolved as a distinctly American mixture of art music, folk music and entertainment – a complex, classic tradition that supports itself primarily in nightclubs. Many of the pioneers who defined jazz while gaining worldwide popularity – among them Louis Armstrong, Ellington and Basie – are now dead. At this point in jazz history, it’s impossible to point to one vanguard style or musician, such as John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman and ‘‘free jazz’‘ in the late 1960’s or Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie and be-bop in the 1940’s. And the jazz audience has dwindled, turning to rock and pop music or to the light, pop-styled instrumentals that the music business categorizes as ‘‘jazz-fusion.’‘ But because the music can be recorded live and inexpensively, jazz has not disappeared from the market. Indeed, this Friday will kick off the 1984 Kool Jazz Festival, a 10-day, 50-concert extravaganza in New York which will feature, among many others, Wynton Marsalis.

While most of the best jazz continues to be made by black musicians, and the lexicon of jazz – its blue notes, its swinging rhythms and the way improvisation and composition meld together – is Afro-American, most of the audience for new jazz is still white, as it has been since the 1960’s.

‘‘I think that the black community, if they get a chance to hear my music, they appreciate it,’‘ says David Murray. ‘‘But my music doesn’t have the opportunity to reach the total black populace.’‘ Murray is referring to the fact that jazz clubs are expensive places to hear music, and also that radio stations seeking black audiences are far more likely to play pop hits than jazz: ‘‘Black people don’t get a chance to hear their own music on the radio,’‘ he says. But there is some question whether jazz is still ‘‘their own music.’‘ Many young people, black and white, simply prefer music they can dance to and pop songs – idioms less committed to innovation – and would continue to do so even if radio exposed them to jazz.

The 1960’s avant-garde gave new jazz a fearsome, fire- breathing image. Leading jazz musicians claimed an affinity between their music and radical politics; even the labels placed on the music – ‘‘new thing,’‘ ‘‘free jazz,’‘ ‘‘energy music’‘ – suggested revolutionary hopes. The rage expressed by such black spokesmen as Malcolm X and Eldridge Cleaver found an explicit parallel in the intense, expressionistic blowing of saxophonists like Pharoah Sanders and Archie Shepp – who were also working out new musical ideas by breaking down song forms and expanding their sonic palettes.

Younger jazz musicians today are not without their own frustrations. ‘‘Jazz is still put down into a lower class of economics and of acceptance,’‘ says Murray, in a quieter voice than one would expect after hearing his broad-shouldered saxophone tone. ‘‘I think the music should be uplifted. Instead, it’s treated as a kind of slave music.’‘

However, Murray adds, ‘‘I didn’t start a bigger band for any political reason. I did it to hear more notes.’‘

And so, after decades in which forms have been defied and shattered, a new generation of jazz composers have begun to rebuild. They are well-schooled, often in both jazz and the classics; they take virtuosity for granted. They organize bands that draw on not only the entire sweep of jazz – from African roots to swing to free-form improvisation – but the sonorities of folk music from around the world and the complex structures of classical music as well.

‘‘It’s still energy music,’‘ David Murray says. ‘‘It’s just conforming to some things that were forgotten for a little while.’‘

Such ambitious composers as David Murray, Anthony Davis, Henry Threadgill, Craig Harris, Douglas Ewart, David Holland, James Newton, Ronald Shannon Jackson, John Carter and Butch Morris are working their own transformations of older traditions.

‘‘We are in a period of transition,’‘ says Albert Murray (no relation to David), the novelist and author of ‘‘Stomping the Blues,’‘ who is now adapting Count Basie’s reminiscences into an autobiography. ‘‘There is a breakdown of certain conventions in society, and that doesn’t send people looking in all directions. It sends them looking for fundamentals. It might be called postavant- gardism.’‘

‘‘There are going to be more people who can play everything,’‘ is the way David Murray puts it.

Both jazz and classical music were sidelights at the 26th annual Grammy Awards last February. After all, classical music and jazz each accounted for only 6 percent of record sales in 1983. New jazz, like contemporary classical music, represented only a fraction of that, and most of it was recorded by small, independent companies.

On the other hand, rock and pop account for more than half of all record sales – and for the bulk of the Grammy presentations. But on the awards broadcast, as Michael Jackson garnered Grammy after Grammy, something extraordinary happened when another young musician, Wynton Marsalis, in white tie and tails, went on camera.

Marsalis performed the finale of the Hummel trumpet concerto more smoothly than the Grammy orchestra, spitting out every triplet. Then he joined his jazz quintet for the daredevil stops and starts of his own tune ‘‘Knozz-Moe King’‘ (a variant of ‘‘No Smoking,’‘ perhaps). Soon afterward, his second jazz album as a quintet leader, ‘‘Think of One,’‘ and his classical album of trumpet concertos by Haydn, Hummel and Leopold Mozart were respectively declared ‘‘Best Jazz Instrumental Performance, Soloist’‘ and ‘‘Best Classical Performance – Instrumental Soloist (With Orchestra).’‘ Marsalis is the first musician ever to win simultaneous jazz and classical Grammy Awards.

Marsalis has risen more quickly than most young players. His first album, ‘‘Wynton Marsalis,’‘ sold 100,000 copies, a massive number for an album of jazz without electric instruments. His prowess befits the former first trumpeter of the New Orleans Civic Orchestra, a onetime student at the Juilliard School and the Berkshire Music Center at Tanglewood, and an alumnus of the Brooklyn Philharmonia and the ‘‘Sweeney Todd’‘ pit band on Broadway. (He’ll also be performing at the Mostly Mozart Festival this summer.) Yet classical music was barely half of his education. The rest came from his father – the pianist Ellis Marsalis, who has been teaching a generation of young New Orleans jazz musicians – and from playing in local rhythm-and-blues and jazz bands before carving out a national reputation.

In 1980, at 19, the trumpeter dropped out of Juilliard to join Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, a group that since the 1950’s has been a springboard for young, aggressive jazz musicians. Marsalis’s pure, pealing tone and mercurial solos caused the jazz press to declare him a prodigy. Then Marsalis joined the Herbie Hancock-V.S.O.P. quartet, with an even more demanding repertory. When he was barely 21, Marsalis began leading his own quintet, and became one of the few new jazz musicians signed directly to a major record label, Columbia.

In his Grammy acceptance speech, a slightly nervous Marsalis pointedly thanked ‘‘all the guys who set a precedent in Western art, and gave an art form to the American people that cannot be limited by enforced trends or bad taste.’‘

Little by little, the history and performance of jazz have been accepted as an academic discipline, and a number of leading jazz musicians are teaching on college faculties: Archie Shepp and the drummer Max Roach at the University of Massachusetts; the saxophonist Jackie McLean at the University of Hartford; the bassist Richard Davis at the University of Wisconsin. Rutgers University has an Institute of Jazz Studies in Newark, and the music faculty at its New Brunswick campus includes the pianist Kenny Barron, the guitarist Ted Dunbar and the drummer Michael Carvin; the bassist Larry Ridley has tenure on the Rutgers faculty.

Outside the universities, such organizations as the Association for the Advancement of Creative Music in Chicago, the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts and a creative-music workshop in Woodstock, N.Y., have, in the last decade, fostered a new respect for the jazz tradition.

It is a climate in which, even as the inventors of the jazz tradition die out, younger musicians are exposed to all the history they want to hear, including reissued recordings. Marsalis, for one, has emerged from such training a vehement jazz traditionalist who believes in ‘‘swing, melodic invention and harmonic correctness.’‘ As he puts it, ‘‘Without chords and harmony and a rhythm – without the obstacles – improvisation is nothing.’‘

Marsalis has been criticized for sounding like an encyclopedia of jazz trumpet styles, from Miles Davis’s melancholy to Louis Armstrong’s growls to Fats Navarro’s liquid phrasing to Clifford Brown’s clarity to Dizzy Gillespie’s puckishness. ‘‘If you play trumpet and you don’t sound like Miles or Dizzy or Clifford or Fats, you’re probably not playing jazz,’‘ Marsalis argues. ‘‘If you don’t sound like somebody else, you sound like nothing.’‘

In much small-group jazz since the be-bop era, performances have taken the shape of theme-solo-theme. Marsalis’s own quintet is up to something more, shifting keys and tempos from solo to solo, continually reorchestrating the themes. It is as if the late 1960’s and 1970’s, with their free-form experiments, never happened; Marsalis is grafting the complex forms of the 1980’s onto the daring harmonies of the 1960’s.

‘‘The sincerity has to come back into music,’‘ Marsalis insists. ‘‘The 1960’s let a lot of people in who were willing to be charlatans, some sort of noble-savage profundity. Each of our generations got weaker instead of stronger.

‘‘To me, you definitely have to study be-bop,’‘ Marsalis continues. ‘‘It’s like Beethoven having to know counterpoint. It’s not enough for a guy to grow up in Texas and eat chicken and ham hocks, or whatever that 1970’s social- critic view was. Music is precise; cats should know the chords and the theory. The old stuff has not been absorbed yet. Duke Ellington was writing hip arrangements in 1938, and they’re still hip.

‘‘The next thing is going to swing,’‘ he adds. ‘‘The key is in the rhythm. It’s not in harmony or melody. The next innovation is going to be when somebody does something in the rhythm.’‘

‘’ I don’t lose an hour of sleep worrying about whether my music ‘swings,’ ‘’ says pianist Anthony Davis, who has emerged from classical training with his own conclusions. Along with such other jazz composers as John Carter, George Lewis, Douglas Ewart and John Lindberg, the 33- year-old Davis has taken the postavant-garde direction of complex structures and extended pieces away from the bandstand toward the concert stage. He is probably the most abstract and classical- sounding composer among his peers: While improvisation threads through his pieces, the music’s momentum comes not from a syncopated beat, but from the working out of compositional tensions, as it might in a piece by Schoenberg or Stockhausen.

Davis, the flutist James Newton and the cellist Abdul Wadud were invited to be part of the New York Philharmonic’s Horizons ’84 festival of new American music earlier this month as improvising soloists in Davis’s ‘‘Still Waters.’‘

Davis’s Manhattan Plaza apartment shows the depredations of his 4-year-old son, yet around the piano things are orderly. A pencil is close at hand; Bach keyboard compositions top a stack of music on the piano itself; nearby shelves hold Davis’s own scores, some in his own spidery handwriting, others bearing the clearer notations of professional copyists.

‘‘I would be hard-pressed to tell you exactly what key this is in,’‘ he says, opening one of them to point out which parts are composed and which are improvised.

Davis, who studied classical music at Yale and the drumming of southern India at Wesleyan, played in jazz bands around New Haven. In New York, he worked his way up the jazz circuit, performing as a solo improviser and in groups led by David Murray, the trumpeter Leo Smith and others. Eventually, however, his ambitions as a composer led him away from the three- sets-a-night routine of club performance.

Davis writes pieces that are openly influenced by modern classical music, as earlier jazz was influenced by marches, hymns and pop tunes. In conversation, he is as likely to mention Steve Reich or Jacob Druckman – composers whose music uses no improvisation – as he is to cite Ellington. Davis’s pieces are heady and atmospheric; they often use lush harmonies and intricate repeating patterns to create a sense of suspended time. The merits of Davis’s music have been debated by classical critics as well as by jazz fans who want straightforward swing in their music.

‘‘I don’t think these traditions are as separate as some people would have you believe,’‘ Davis argues. ‘‘Afro- American music has always been American; Scott Joplin was obviously listening to a lot of music, including classical music, and I think that’s true of Jelly Roll Morton, too. I came to the realization that I really wasn’t concerned whether people looked at my music as jazz or not. I’m writing American music, and it draws on a whole spectrum of influences in all kinds of traditions. If somebody uses tradition as a way of limiting your choices, in a way that’s as racist as saying you have to sit at the back of the bus. Ellington and Mingus are very important in the tradition of what I’m writing, but I have also studied Stravinsky, Messiaen and Takemitsu. What’s so heinous about European influences? I think now there’s an idea of finding common sensibilities rather than sticking to your own little community.’‘

Davis has all but abandoned the usual jazz circuit in favor of places like the Brooklyn Academy of Music and an avant-garde performance loft in SoHo, the Kitchen, which recently sponsored him for a grant to write an opera based, intriguingly, on the life of Malcolm X. (A portion of ‘‘X’‘ will receive a workshop performance in Philadelphia on June 29.)

‘‘I feel I’m liberated from the commercial function that this music had to perform before 1940,’‘ Davis says. ‘‘I don’t feel it’s my job to sell drinks. I’m writing art music, and I feel the responsibility to create the best music I can.’‘

Only in recent years has jazz begun to get the kind of institutional help that American opera companies and symphony orchestras are used to receiving. The National Endowment for the Arts (which awards Federal grants for arts projects and, in its choices, signals a direction for private- foundation support) started a jazz pilot program in 1970, giving $20,050 to 30 individuals and organizations. By 1979, jazz grants to performers, organizations and educational programs had reached $1 million. In the past two years, N.E.A. jazz support has been approximately $1.3 million, out of a $13-million music budget.

Meet the Composer, an organization that awards grants to support live appearances by American composers, gave some 30 percent of its budget to jazz composers last year. Such support – and a new willingness by such classical-music presenters as the Carnegie Hall Corporation, which this year featured both jazz artists and composers at the Carnegie Recital Hall – allows composers to try out new forms that might not go over in a club setting.

‘‘Government support is a very small part of what makes an art scene run,’‘ cautions Nancy Weiss, coordinator of the new-jazz program at New York’s Public Theater. ‘‘In the long run, the survival of a kind of music has do with the marketplace; an art form is going to come and go on the basis of its audience.’‘

Is it possible to reconcile the formal innovations that fascinate Davis and other chamber- jazz composers with the swing that traditionalists like Marsalis demand? A number of jazz composers are betting on it.

Some of the most exciting music anywhere is now being made by an axis of groups whose style might be called avant-gutbucket jazz – a loose rubric for the music of David Murray’s big band and octet, the Henry Threadgill Sextet, Craig Harris’s Aqua Band, Olu Dara’s Okra Orchestra, Ronald Shannon Jackson and the Decoding Society, the Dave Holland Quintet, the Butch Morris Ensemble and other ‘‘little big bands,’‘ as they have been dubbed. At their best, these bands don’t just look back; they offer a kaleidoscopic view of jazz from the roots up.

‘‘If I can give somebody an inkling of how this part of the tradition links up with that part of the tradition,’‘ says Murray, ‘‘if they can hear that in my playing, that’s wonderful.’‘

Murray heard those connections as he was growing up, learning the saxophone as he listened to his mother play piano at the Berkeley, Calif., Missionary Church of God in Christ. ‘‘I was just down in Midland, Texas,’‘ he says, ‘‘at the church where my father is head deacon, playing a piece with the organ player. I put all the ingredients in that I’d put in a solo concert, all the squeals and squawks. All those sounds that are supposed to be new and avant-garde are also an expression of the blues in a religious form, speaking in tongues. I always feel like I’ve been a person who’s playing the melody, and hooking that up with the rhythm. I come out of the church, and the church is all melody.’‘

Murray is generous with his own melodies. In the Greenwich Village apartment where he lives with his wife, the photographer Ming Murray, he can lay his hands on some 130 original pieces, many of which intertwine three or four melody lines at a time. ‘‘Every part makes it work,’‘ Murray says. ‘‘It’s not separate tunes, it’s all one thing.’‘

Among those pieces are arrangements for standard jazz quartet (piano, bass, drums, saxophone), for Murray’s octet, for string orchestra, for the big band and for the World Saxophone Quartet (a new- jazz supergroup, with Murray, Julius Hemphill, Oliver Lake and Hamiet Bluiett on saxophones). Critics have compared this quartet without a rhythm section to a chamber- music group, while Murray likens it to street-corner doo- wop singing.

Because a sideman in one avant-gutbucket band may be the leader of another, the little big bands can trade ideas and may even build up a shared repertory – something that jazz hasn’t enjoyed since the 1960’s. ‘‘There’s getting to be a group of about 25 to 30 musicians that I associate with,’‘ says Murray, ‘‘and any one of those musicians knows my music. They may not know my newer music, but there’s usually something that we can concur on and play. Or I may know some of their music.’‘

Yet composers like Murray, as opposed to bandleaders of an earlier era like Ellington, seldom have a stable, working band to use as a compositional laboratory. To subsidize such occasional, large-scale projects as his big band or his string orchestra, David Murray writes theater and dance scores and tours the circuit of European summer jazz festivals.

In a briskly professional rehearsal on Sweet Basil’s bandstand at noontime before a Monday night gig, Murray’s big band whips through a dozen intricate tunes in two hours, pieces that pile melody on melody in counterpoint that would challenge Hindemith – although Hindemith never stomped like this. ‘‘Fire it up!’‘ says Murray, urging the band to hit a tune harder. As that piece reaches its last chord, a few onlookers at the bar can’t help applauding.

Such infectious, intelligent music seems destined to find its audience eventually. There appears to be something in it for everybody – free spirits, intellectual rigor, complex cross-references, old-fashioned melodies and an unstoppable beat.

The new jazz still has to overcome its image from recent decades – as muisic that is forbidding, incoherent or too complex for nonspecialists to understand. But with or without an increase in popularity, and with or without governmental support, the music itself has forged two invaluable connections: Jazz’s past has become a respected resource; jazz’s future – its young musicians – shows enthusiasm and tenacity.

‘‘If you can play this music,’‘ says Wynton Marsalis, ‘‘you don’t want to play anything else. You’re always thinking that you’re on the brink of something.’‘

by Jon Pareles
Source: The New York Times

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