What Jazz Is - and Isn’t

My generation finds itself wedged between two opposing traditions. One is the tradition we know in such wonderful detail from the enormous recorded legacy that tells anyone who will listen that jazz broke the rules of European conventions and created rules of its own that were so specific, so thorough and so demanding that a great art resulted. This art has had such universal appeal and application to the expression of modern life that it has changed the conventions of American music as well as those of the world at large.

The other tradition, which was born early and stubbornly refuses to die, despite all the evidence to the contrary, regards jazz merely as a product of noble savages – music produced by untutored, unbuttoned semiliterates for whom jazz history does not exist. This myth was invented by early jazz writers who, in attempting to escape their American prejudices, turned out a whole world of new cliches based on the myth of the innate ability of early jazz musicians. Because of these writers’ lack of understanding of the mechanics of music, they thought there weren’t any mechanics. It was the ‘‘they all can sing, they all have rhythm’‘ syndrome. If that was the case, why was there only one Louis Armstrong?

That myth is being perpetuated to this day by those who profess an openness to everything – an openness that in effect just shows contempt for the basic values of the music and of our society. If everything is good, why should anyone subject himself to the pain of study? Their disdain for the specific knowledge that goes into jazz creation is their justification for saying that everything has its place. But their job should be to define that place – is it the toilet or the table?

To many people, any kind of popular music now can be lumped with jazz. As a result, audiences too often come to jazz with generalized misconceptions about what it is and what it is supposed to be. Too often, what is represented as jazz isn’t jazz at all. Despite attempts by writers and record companies and promoters and educators and even musicians to blur the lines for commercial purposes, rock isn’t jazz and new age isn’t jazz, and neither are pop or third stream. There may be much that is good in all of them, but they aren’t jazz.

I recently completed a tour of jazz festivals in Europe in which only two out of 10 bands were jazz bands. The promoters of these festivals readily admit most of the music isn’t jazz, but refuse to rename these events ‘‘music festivals,’‘ seeking the esthectic elevation that jazz offers. This is esthetic name-dropping, attempting to piggyback on the achievements of others, and duping the public. It’s like a great French chef lending his name, not his skills, to a a fast-food restaurant because he knows it’s a popular place to eat. His concern is for quantity, not quality. Those who are duped say ‘‘This greasy hamburger sure is good; I know it’s good, because Pierre says it’s good, and people named Pierre know what the deal is.’‘ Pierre then becomes known as a man of the people, when he actually is exploiting the people.

All the forces at work to blur the lines deplore the purist ethic in jazz, but try to capitalize commercially on the esthetic reputation of jazz. In other fields, purism is considered a form of heroism – the good guy who won’t sell out – but in jazz that purism is incorrectly perceived as stagnation and the inability to change. Therefore, those who are most lauded by the record companies and writers and promoters are those who most exploit the public. The major obstacle facing this generation of musicians is finding out what makes something jazz.

Andre Malraux, in ‘‘The Voices of Silence,’‘ observes that art itself puts the biggest challenge before an artist, not the superficial statistics of sociology: ‘‘Artists do not stem from their childhoods, but from their conflict with the achievements of their predecessors; not from their own formless world, but from the struggle with the form which others have imposed on life.’‘

Feeling as I do that the greatness of jazz lies not only in its emotion but also in its deliberate artifice, I have tried, in helping to shape Lincoln Center’s Classical Jazz series, to convey some of the conscious struggle that has gone into the great jazz of the past and to show how it impinges on the present.

The irony of my generation is that now not just commentators but even many musicians still believe in misconceptions that long ago were rejected by men like Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, who knew that their work was much more than the result of talent forged by adverse social conditions. For too long, people have attributed Armstrong’s spiritual depth and technical fluidity to the supposed fact that he didn’t know anything about music, couldn’t read music and played in the hallowed halls of prostitution, knife fights and murder. But Armstrong grew up in a New Orleans that demanded many levels of musical sophistication. In a highly competitive musical milieu, one had to know melodies, how to phrase them beautifully, the harmonies of those melodies, many kinds of rhythms, and so on. Access to such knowledge allowed younger generations of musicians to develop what had only been implied in earlier music.

Armstrong did that with ragtime, with the popular songs of his day, and with the styles of trumpet players like King Oliver. He knew he was refining what he heard around him, and he didn’t like to be thought of as a ‘‘rough’‘ player, which is why he spoke highly of those who had ‘‘sweet’‘ tones.

But the noble-savage cliche has prevailed over the objective fact of the art – and this is manifest in my generation’s inability to produce more than a few musicians dedicated to learning and mastering the elements like blues and swing that gave Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk and Charlie Parker such unarguable artistic power. Young musicians who want to follow that path these days cannot find anywhere to practice their art. In schools that I teach in around the country, I find the teaching of the arts and of American culture almost nonexistent; perhaps that’s because jazz is central to American culture. While faced with this problem, musicians are also faced with the constant clamor for something ‘‘new.’‘ How can something new and substantial, not eccentric and fraudulent, be developed when the meaning of what’s old is not known? Could we have gotten to the moon without even understanding Newtonian physics?

I am not saying that there should not be artistic variety. How could I say that, when so much of jazz results from the work of great individuals? But those great individuals all had in common the pursuit of quality and the painful experience of discipline. To accomplish what they did, each of the great individuals in jazz took the time and effort to master particular things. They were not satisfied to stand above the engagement that is necessary to perfect craft.

With these thoughts in mind, we designed a Classical Jazz series this year that deals with the music of Duke Ellington, Tadd Dameron and Max Roach, as well as with evenings given over to singers and instrumentalists interpreting standard songs. The series focuses on two things as ‘‘classical’‘ in jazz: the compositions of major writers and the quality of improvisation.

In the first case, musicians have struggled with the problem of creating the sound of jazz in preconceived notes, rather than in on-the-spot improvisation, in tones that have been pondered and edited until the writer is satisfied. This doesn’t mean that the individual piece won’t be reworked every now and then while still remaining in progress. (Ellington and Charles Mingus were noted for this.) In the second case, when jazz singers or instrumentalists take over a song, they use all of the sophistication Louis Armstrong first brought to a very high level of craft, virtuosity and feeling. This is the classical form of jazz performance: when improvisation works so well that it can stand on its own as composition. This kind of improvisation is what jazz musicians raised to an art through deep study and contemplation.

While enjoyment and entertainment are paramount matters in the Classical Jazz series,it should be clear that we also feel a need to help promote understanding of what happens in jazz. An important part of the series, therefore, are the program notes by Stanley Crouch, which seek to explain the intent of the musicians as well as the meaning of the art. Although jazz can be enjoyed on many levels, from the superficial to the profound, we feel that the proper presentation of notes, song titles and even small discographies will help audiences better understand the essential elements of the music and thereby enjoy the music even more.

Duke Ellington exemplifies a mastery of the relationship of knowledge to development. He was present almost at the beginning of jazz; his career spanned five decades of continuous and unprecendented musical development: he continuously proved that no one was more capable of translating the varied and complex arenas of American experience into tone. His recorded legacy gives us the most accurate tonal history of the 20th century. Duke Ellington developed the implications he heard in the lines and phrasing of Armstrong’s improvisations, and he expanded upon the compositions and arrangements of everyone around him, including Jelly Roll Morton, King Oliver and Fletcher Henderson.

Max Roach is part of this serious hierarchy of musical giants. All great instrumentalists have a superior quality of sound, and his is one of the marvels of contemporary music. The drum set is actually many intruments in one – the bass drum, the snare drum, tom-tom, sock cymbal, crash cymbal, and ride cymbal – and they all have unique characteristics. To play them all at once requires an individual touch and attack for each one. The roundness and nobility of sound on the drums and the clarity and precision of the cymbals distinguishes Max Roach as a peerless master of this uniquely American instrument.

His stature as a musician, composer and bandleader is the result of his having created a larger and more varied body of work than any other drummer-leader. He has done solo pieces, pieces for drums and voice, for jazz ensembles, percussion ensembles, for choirs, and has performed with video. While working with Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell and Clifford Brown, he developed a unique vocabulary that gave the drums another level of identity. He played the drums in a way that not only kept time and accentuated the beat, but he also developed the call-and-response idea central to the foundations of American music. He has refined his style over the course of the years, and his playing now has the grandeur found only in those who had exceptional talent to begin with, and matched that talent with an ongoing dedication to sustained development.

Classical Jazz at Lincoln Center – whether celebrating the work of an individual artist or using the improvisational talents of masters like J.J. Johnson, Jon Hendricks, Tommy Flanagan, Hank Jones, Sweets Edison and the other artists on the programs – is intent on helping to give to jazz, its artists and its products their deserved place in American culture. I also feel that the Classical Jazz series gives Lincoln Center additional reason to regard itself as a center of world culture.

Jazz commentary is too often shaped by a rebellion against what is considered the limitations of the middle class. The commentators mistakenly believe that by willfully sliding down the intellectual, spiritual, economic or social ladder, they will find freedom down where the jazz musicians (i.e. ‘‘real’‘ people) lie. Jazz musicians, however, are searching for the freedom of ascendance. This is why they practice. Musicians like Art Blakey, Sarah Vaughan, Elvin Jones, Max Roach, Sweets Edison and Betty Carter are rebelling against the idea that they should be excluded from choosing what they want to do or think, against being forced into someone else’s mold, whether it be the social agendas of the conservative establishment or the new fake liberal establishment of which many well-meaning jazz observers are part. They feel knowledge gives them choice; that ignorance is bondage.

The late Ellington pieces that will be featured – ‘‘Such Sweet Thunder’‘ (1957), ‘‘Suite Thursday’‘ (1960) and ‘‘Anatomy of a Murder’‘ (1959) – show how well Ellington mastered the integration of rhythm section and band; these extended pieces prove that he is one of the great musical thinkers as well as one of the great masters of musical form. Integrating the rhythm section and the rest of the band is not a simple job, and I believe the jazz pieces of concert composers are almost always failures because they have not mastered that idea. Concert composers must accept the fact that a rhythm section is part of the sound in a very different way than anything in European music; but they settle for corny syncopations, which only partly suggest the range of force and impetus provided by the rhythm section.

Genius always manifests itself through attention to fine detail. Works of great genius sound so natural they appear simple, but this is the simplicity of elimination, not the simplicity of ignorance. This kind of intricacy is abundantly evident in these late works. Not only are difficult form schemes arrived at and executed harmonically, melodically, rhythmically and texturally, but Ellington also successfully manipulates interrelated dance moods and tempos that imply a totally innovative vision of form as it applies to movement. Even more amazing than the complexity of these pieces is the fact that we can still hear quite clearly the sound of the early New Orleans polyphonic style that attracted Ellington to jazz as a young man.

Though Tadd Dameron is not as well known as many other giants, he was one of the finest composers jazz has produced. He created a body of material of great originality and personality that still addresses the fundamentals of jazz – blues and swing. What distinguishes Dameron is how successfully he transformed the sound and the substance of the jazz ensemble through skillful adaptation of the innovations of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. His work is difficult and beautiful, which is what I consider the greatest challenge in modern music. As Duke Ellington once said, some people think that something has to be ugly in order to be modern. Like Ellington, Dameron didn’t believe that.

His music has a melodic and harmonic complexity that is angular, but it always has a singing quality, which he probably got from Ellington, who was one of his artistic mentors. An avowed fan of Louis Armstrong from his youth, Dameron understood the majestic powers of the trumpet when it sings melodies that rise above the ensemble with relaxed, lyrical boldness.

A recent experience showed me just how much Dameron’s compositions contributed to the language of the music. I was listening to a recording of John Kirby’s Sextet from the late thirties, a well-rehearsed and exceptional band with intricate arrangements. Yet, when I put on some of Dameron’s music, recorded with the trumpeter Fats Navarro 10 years later, it sounded almost like an entirely different idiom. Dameron learned to apply keen melodic and harmonic sense to the rhythmic innovations instigated by Charlie Parker. In other words, his music swang and sang and had intellectual stang. JAZZ AT TULLY HALL

While jazz festivals over the years have largely been eclectic affairs, more recent developments have seen some jazz festivals becoming more focused. The Classical Jazz series at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall has been following the newer pattern, with this year’s festival focusing on composition and on jazz as an art form.

The festival, presented in conjunction with radio station WBGO/FM and with major funding from Yves St. Laurent, opens Friday with the music of Tadd Dameron and featuring Tommy Flanagan, George Mraz and Kenny Washington and the ensemble Dameronia, which includes Clifford Jordan, Walter Davis Jr. and Benny Powell.

On Saturday, the program is titled ‘‘Saturday Night Songbook’‘ and features artists like Anita O’Day, Jon Hendricks, Earl Coleman, Joe Lee Wilson and Frank Morgan. There is no Sunday program. On Monday, Aug. 8, the program is called ‘‘Standards on Horn,’‘ with the participants including Wynton Marsalis, Harry (Sweets) Edison, Doc Cheatham and J.J. Johnson among others.

The offering on Tuesday, Aug. 9, is titled ‘‘Many Eras of One Man’s Music’‘ and focuses on Max Roach. Mr. Roach will, course, be on the program as performer as well as composer, along with the Max Roach Quartet, the Max Roach Chorus and Abbey Lincoln Moseka.

The final program, on Wednesday, Aug. 10, is ‘‘A Duke Ellington Tribute,’‘ in which the performers will include, in addition to Mr. Marsalis, Jimmy Hamilton, Milt Hinton, Norris Turney, Jaki Byard and Jimmy Knepper.

by Wynton Marsalis
Source: New York Times

« Previous Entry

Next Entry »