The Young Of Jazz: Not All Are Restless

JAZZ demographers, if there are any, will mark 1991 as a turning point for the annual JVC Jazz Festival in New York City. This year, the median age of headliners plummets by at least a decade. After years of being dominated by venerable headliners — many of whom are still part of this year’s lineup — the festival has also made way for a younger generation of musicians who want to join the mainstream instead of revolutionizing it.

At the same time, a counter-festival at the Knitting Factory, called What Is Jazz?, will present musicians outside JVC’s mainstream, showing that not all young improvisers are willing to play by the rules of the be-bop tradition.

Two of the JCV festival’s most coveted tickets are for concerts at the 400-seat Equitable Center auditorium called “Swing: 40 and Younger” and “Be-Bop: 40 and Younger,” featuring musicians who have dedicated themselves to the styles that, for many, were in the mainstream years before they were born. (Pity the musicians who just turned 41.) Another is for “Jazz Futures,” a concert on Saturday night at Avery Fisher Hall that features nearly a dozen young musicians on a bill headlined by the 29-year-old trumpeter Wynton Marsalis.

More than any other musician, Mr. Marsalis almost singlehandedly created a jazz revival in the 1980’s by showing younger musicians that purist jazz was still worth pursuing. Mr. Marsalis started out by reviving challenging mid-1960’s hard-bop — the music whose dizzying complexity exploded into the free-jazz revolution — which demands that its players master extended harmonies and whiplashing melodies; in recent years, he has broadened his music to invoke styles from Coltrane to Ellington to traditional New Orleans jazz. At the “Jazz Futures” concert, he will share the bill with two other trumpet players, Roy Hargrove and Marlon Jordan, as well as the guitarist Mark Whitfield, the saxophonist Antonio Hart, the pianist Benny Green and other young musicians who have devoted themselves to mastering the lexicon of hard-bop.

“The reason this music came back is that you can’t keep a good idea down for too long,” Mr. Marsalis said by telephone the other day. “If people stopped cooking food next year, how long would it be before someone said, ‘Wait a minute, didn’t there used to be cuisine?’

“I’m proud of younger musicians, because it’s hard on them individually. All of them have had to stand through their teen-age years and study and learn and practice this music without support of their peers — and that’s the most important thing for a lot of teen-agers. They’re trying to deal with the substance of the American tradition.

“Right now, the music has to be backward-looking because a lot of music that is so-called young people’s music doesn’t come out of a knowledge of American popular music. It comes out of a commercial decline of that music and a desire to make money off the developing sexuality of teen-agers. If you’re going to be forward-looking, you have to look back and on what somebody like Duke Ellington was doing and really learn about it. And then, eventually, you can begin to address the modern world.” The Mainstays Remain

The JVC festival hasn’t turned its back on its more venerable mainstays. Ray Charles, Ella Fitzgerald, Bobby Short and, on a double bill, Miles Davis and B. B. King are all on the schedule; the powerhouse Cuban singer Celia Cruz and the percussionist and band leader Tito Puente, frequent festival performers, will return with crackling mambos and sultry boleros, likely to be extended with jazzy solos from Mr. Puente’s band.

As usual, the festival also has a handful of tribute concerts. One is for the 86-year-old trumpeter Doc Cheatham, whose trumpet-playing colleagues onstage Monday night will include Dizzy Gillespie, Harry (Sweets) Edison, Jon Faddis and Mr. Marsalis. A tribute to the late Sarah Vaughan on Tuesday will convene the singers Carmen McRae, Shirley Horn, Joe Williams and Billy Eckstine. Next Friday, a tribute to the late saxophonist Dexter Gordon will include music, film, drama and the tap-dancing of Jimmy Slyde.

But the festival has also departed from business as usual. After a decade, it has welcomed back Ornette Coleman and his jazz-rock-funk band Prime Time, who are to perform on June 29. And on Sunday afternoon, the JVC festival will team up with Lincoln Center Out of Doors to present a free concert of jazz by musicians who emerged in the 1960’s, 1970’s and 1980’s, and who take chances with structure and harmony.

The bill includes the soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy and his sextet, whose piquant, epigrammatic pieces apply the spirit of French cabaret to the legacy of Thelonious Monk; the Microscopic Septet, which plays warped, affectionate swing and be-bop parodies; the alto saxophonist Donald Harrison’s quintet, which plays hard-bop and beyond; the tenor saxophonist David Murray and his trio, a bare-bones group that gives Mr. Murray space to croon, zoom and holler, and a quartet led by the alto saxophonist Arthur Blythe, who has one of the most singing, impassioned styles of anyone in jazz. Mr. Blythe is also performing tomorrow night at the Ritz in a concert called “Jazz Meets the Blues,” a jam session that matches jazz musicians with the likes of Bobby (Blue) Bland and Elvin Bishop. Rediscovering Structure

On Sunday, Mr. Blythe, who is 51, will perform with Kirk Lightsey on piano, Cecil McBee on bass and Reggie Nicholson on drums, the more conventional of his two working groups; the other one includes tuba, guitar, vibraphone and drums. As the 1980’s began, Mr. Blythe, who had arrived with the free-wheeling loft jazz scene of the 1970’s, was one of the first harbingers of jazz’s return tostructure; he called a quartet In the Tradition and played standards as well as originals, working through conventionl chord changes while leaving himself room to go outside them. But Mr. Blythe has philosophical differences with younger musicians who disdain the possibilities opened up by free jazz.

“The younger musicians are working it out,” he said a few days ago, “and a lot of them are further along in a lot of ways than I was at their age. Sooner or later, they’re going to bust out with some personal stuff, something depictive of their time rather than of Charlie Parker’s time. It will have elements of Parker’s time because that’s the tradition, but each group of cats that comes through has to deal with the time they live in. I hope they’ll bust out and understand how to use the history and tradition in making their reality now. They’ve worked on copping the older stuff, now they’ve got to work on finding themselves. And that’s the hard part, that’s the stuff that’s not written down.”

“The music is only what is in the individual,” he continued. “The saxophone is cold metal; my breath is what warms it up. Nothing else can be said but what is in the interpreter.”

Between the Sunday afternoon concert and the concert on June 29 by Ornette Coleman, the JVC Jazz Festival is extending some recognition to the 1960’s and 1970’s avant-garde — a word musicians don’t like. “The word conjures up inaccessibility to people,” Mr. Blythe said. “But the music is not just random something that has no reference point; it still has the musicality and its own manfestations of logic, and people might like it. The technicalities aren’t important. The question is, how does it sound, what does it make me feel? That’s the proof of the pudding.” Denying Arteries Are Hardening

But as a survey of jazz history, the JVC festival paradoxically suggests that musicians sought greater freedom and greater complexity through the 1970’s, only to settle back down into established styles in the 1980’s. The Knitting Factory’s What Is Jazz? is intended to say it ain’t so.

In the last two years, the Knitting Factory put on concerts under auspices of the JVC festival that didn’t draw much of an audience, partly because of overly formal surroundings (Alice Tully Hall) or odd scheduling (5 P.M. concerts). This year, the club is back on its own.

“At first I didn’t want to do a festival, but I was talked into it,” said Michael Dorf, the club’s executive director. “We’re still trying to offer an alternative. If you were someone who came to New York because you’d heard about this great period of jazz in New York, and then you formed your parameters based on the JVC festival, your idea of what’s going on would be misaligned and fairly myopic. We called the festival What Is Jazz? because we’re playing with the whole concept of jazz, and we’re not trying to define it or make a definitive statement. We want to continue with the ambiguity of what we’re doing, and this year, the festival offers some of the best stuff we’ve had here in a consolidated form.”

The lineup includes some improvisers with most of their roots in jazz and others who dip into rock, contemporary classical music and noise. Tonight and tomorrow, the Jazz Passengers romp through hard-bop, Minimalism and anything else that sounds good to them. On Sunday, the percussionist Samm Bennett and the cellist Tom Cora continue their Third Person series, in which they improvise regularly with a different third person — this time the saxophonist Kazutoki Umezu; they will be followed by the Oliver Lake Quartet, led by the World Saxophone Quartet’s longtime alto saxophonist. Ronald Shannon Jackson’s Decoding Society, on Monday, plays hard-hitting jazz-rock and funk.

On Tuesday, the pianist Marilyn Crispell, who sweeps across the piano in great chromatic gusts, will lead a quintet including Mr. Lake. The drummer Bobby Previte will lead his group Empty Suits on Wednesday, in his muscular but precise compositions, followed by a quartet led by Roscoe Mitchell, alto saxophonist and composer of the Art Ensemble of Chicago. Thursday’s bill includes a quintet led by Marty Ehrlich, who plays most woodwinds and who writes thoughtful pieces that evolve in unexpected directions. On Friday, Butch Morris leads an 11-piece ensemble whose music is assembled on the spot by Mr. Morris, an improvising conductor. Semantics, one of three trios performing on June 29, mixes crisp rhythms and unruly noise. And that is just a sampling of the festival’s double and triple bills.

What Is Jazz? reveals that some young musicians are still questioning and reshaping the instrumentation, structure and vocabulary of jazz; the JVC festival reassures fans of mainstream styles that the talent pool is renewing itself. Together with the continuing offerings of the jazz clubs in New York, the festival and counter-festival add up to a contentiousness that can only mean continued vitality for jazz. TWO JAZZ FESTIVALS: WHO, WHERE AND WHEN

by jon Pareles
Source: The New York Times

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