posted: 11/12/08 @ 06:18:am
Originally featured in the Tucson Jazz Society newsletter
“I don’t want to listen to that, play some real jazz.” I think all jazz fans feel that way about the music they prefer. Since the beginning of jazz, musicians and fans alike have stated their preferences by denouncing some other form of the music. Many of the traditional New Orleans players felt that Real Jazz was lost once it went up river to Chicago. When group improvisation gave way to a primary melodic soloist with a backing group, jazz purists cried that “Jazz is Dead.” French critic Hugues Panassie’ wrote in his book Real Jazz , a summation of Lester Young - “His sonority is small and frankly ugly, and in the lower registers frequently reminds one of an automobile horn. His melodic style is over decorated and often choppy. He affects queer phrases which have no continuity.” One can only imagine his reaction upon hearing Ornette Coleman! Critic Rudy Blesh in Shining Trumpets declared the music of Duke Ellington ”ridiculous and pretentious hybridizing.” From today’s vantage point, we can clearly see the delusion in these statements, yet these writers had their followers.
Bebop was once a revolutionary force in jazz, polarizing the scene into squares versus hipsters. Yet upon listening to the mid-1940’s recordings of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, it’s hard to imagine the uproar created by this music. Later in the bop era, the music diverged again with the battle between East Coast “Hard Bop” and the West Coast “Cool School”. Hard Bop was supposedly the only Real Jazz as it swung, and emphasized the blues. West Coast jazz was seen as too cerebral, without passion, and “too white”. Never mind that Miles Davis is widely credited (although erroneously) as the originator of the Cool School with his 1949 release The Birth Of The Cool (recorded in New York with a multiracial band). Unfortunately, the essence of Real Jazz has and continues to be defined by some in terms of racial profile. Pianist Bill Evans is dismissed by Tom Piazza in his Guide To Classic Recorded Jazz - “...I have trouble sitting still for his work for very long. He doesn’t swing enough, he can’t play the blues, and I don’t feel close to his soul.” While Bill Evans swings in a very different way than Oscar Peterson, the same could be said for Count Basie’s piano style - it’s different. To dispel the myth that Bill Evans can’t play the blues, one only need listen to the classic Oliver Nelson recording Blues And The Abstract Truth. Every song is blues oriented and Bill Evans certainly bares his soul.
Miles Davis has fueled the fires of jazz controversy ever since the Birth Of The Cool sessions. He was castigated for using John Coltrane in his late 1950’s group. Coltrane’s detractors said he didn’t swing (sound familiar?), his tone was harsh, he didn’t use vibrato. Miles was also criticized for using Bill Evans for many of the above mentioned complaints. He was lambasted for sowing the seeds of free jazz with his 1960’s quintet with Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Tony Williams and Ron Carter. He was demonized for “selling out” when he recorded his electric jazz/rock fusion opus Bitches Brew. Yet through all the hubbub, Miles followed the only path he could, that of his own vision.
While the list of aforementioned jazz greats were all considered at one time to have diverged from the path of Real Jazz, over time their contributions have been absorbed into the mainstream of jazz. In a sense, their once revolutionary concepts have become the new mainstream. When players like Eric Dolphy, Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler, Cecil Taylor, Pharaoh Sanders (and many others) stretched the limits of tonality to create highly visceral improvised music, once again, the purists tolled the bell for Real Jazz. The dissonance in these artists’ music went beyond what most jazz listeners were willing to accept, yet the same level of dissonance is found in the highest circles of contemporary “classical” music and is lauded as genius. As with other forms of jazz, the “avant garde” has assimilated into the mainstream, though to a lesser degree.
Looking back, we can see the battle to protect the supposed “Jazz Tradition”. At each critical juncture in the music, pundits exclaimed the values that made their jazz the only Real Jazz. But in hindsight, we can see that the only true jazz tradition is that of change and growth. It is that tradition, or the lack thereof in today’s jazz scene that makes me wonder if we are not indeed seeing the death of Real Jazz. The current assertion is Real Jazz must be created with a limited palette - using only colors between Louis Armstrong and Miles Davis’ early 60’s work (but not his electric forays). Exclude the entire West Coast movement, as it “doesn’t swing”, and forget about the free jazz movement completely as it is “noise”. Skip the music of Benny Goodman because he was white, even though most of his greatest numbers were written by the great black arranger Fletcher Henderson, and he led the way for public integration in jazz by hiring Charlie Christian and Lionel Hampton. These boundaries largely define what the record companies and print media call Real Jazz.
It seems that jazz is no longer expanding, but rather turning back in on itself, a Mobius strip of “young lions” in designer suits regurgitating the once daring advancements of jazz gone by. Here’s a thought: perhaps Real Jazz is not even about stylistic parameters, racial profile, social value or marketability. Perhaps the only Real Jazz is the jazz that you hear performed live. Eric Dolphy once said “Once the music is in the air, it’s gone.” Or to quote Eric Nisenson from Blue, The Murder Of Jazz [DaCapo], “...the only way for the music to evolve is...in the existentialist situation of musicians defining themselves in the moment by playing the music with other musicians in front of an audience.” Now THAT’S Real Jazz.