Home » music

Jazz Festivals and What They Play There

By (September 1, 2009) No Comment

Photographs decorating the Black Saint recording W.S.Q. show the original members of the World Saxophone Quartet wearing tuxedos. As if both to offer a sartorial contrast to their wildly adventurous sound and to suggest an orderly underpinning to their improvisations (which are deeply rooted in jazz tradition), the musicians regularly donned such suits for concerts. In four separate formal portraits included with the 1981 release, each looks like a holdover from another era, one when performers in evening wear would have been the norm rather than the exception. Three – Hamiet Bluiett, Oliver Lake and David Murray – stand in almost identical positions with their hands on their horns as they look over large bowties directly into the camera. Only Julius Hemphill, with one hand at his side, a smile on his face and sunglasses concealing the direction of his gaze, looks relaxed. By the other end of the decade, in the group portraits adorning 1989’s Rhythm and Blues, all four men look completely at ease as they stand together talking and laughing. Again, they each hold their instruments and, while not wearing identical black uniforms, have their double-breasted suit coats neatly buttoned.

The first time I saw Murray, the group’s tenor player, perform live, he wore sandals and blue jeans. He was leading his own group for that show rather than working with the quartet. Even so, a tuxedo would have seemed particularly eccentric for an afternoon riverside set. Murray’s attire seemed to hint at fundamental differences dividing festivals and concerts. At more informal festivals, which occur mainly outdoors without concert hall conventions of decorum, a less buttoned-up atmosphere prevails.

Or so my early experience led me to believe.

In its early days in the 1980s, Detroit’s annual jazz festival sought credibility via association with Montreux. Though Detroit could boast of substantial contributions to musical history, no city said “jazz” like Montreux. Whatever formal arrangements the two very dissimilar cities made, the potent suggestion of a connection between the American event and the European one no doubt motivated organizers. It was called the Montreux-Detroit Jazz Festival when my parents first took me to performances I was too young to appreciate, and it still used the name later when I truly started responding to the music. At some point the Swiss city disappeared from the posters and T-shirts. A corporate sponsor took its place for a time, before it too exited. Even so, the pairing of Montreux with Detroit lasted long enough that when many years later I took a job in Geneva, I eagerly looked forward to going to see live music at the nearby city that I grew up thinking of as jazz’s international stage. I expected the famous Montreux Jazz Festival to resemble the one that for years borrowed its name by similarly offering multiple stages where musicians young and old, established and unknown, traditional and experimental, would perform freely – and here I refer not necessarily to musicians’ playing styles but to promoters presenting gigs without requiring attendees to pay. If it were to differ significantly, I imagined, it would be bigger and better.

While “Montreux” appropriately remained part of the name used for the series of shows presented there, I found that neither “jazz” nor “festival” accurately applied. “Switzerland hosted one of the world’s highest-profile yearly jazz events, the Montreux Jazz Festival (over time, mixing jazz with other kinds of pop music),” music writer Ted Lathrop says in Jazz: The First Century, but Lathrop understates the extent of that “mixing”. By the mid-1990s, the event once known for spotlighting luminaries like Miles Davis or Les McCann was more inclined to have headliners such as Sting or Van Morrison. While some traces of the music that gave the Montreux Jazz Festival its name could be found, they were more likely to appear in the small clubs or concert halls to which festivals originally offered alternatives. While living in Switzerland, I took the short train trip along the scenic edge of Lac Leman to visit the city I for so long thought synonymous with live jazz, but I never bothered attending any shows there.

Despite Montreux’s shift to a different organizational model and embrace of other styles of music, I did not wholly abandon my idea of what jazz festivals ought to offer. After all, I did attend some in other cities – Brussels, Copenhagen, Montreal – where the opportunities for discovery offered by open air performances persisted, even if they combined the free shows with ticketed indoor concerts, as the Detroit festival initially did before concentrating on the truly festive approach that shaped my musical expectations. Perhaps even without festivals I eventually would have gotten around to seeing James Carter play his horns. If that happened after he had already established himself, it might not have hit me in the soul the same way as did seeing the brash reedman astonish spectators with his speedy saxophonic virtuosity on a side stage near the Detroit River when he had just started to record as a leader. I saw him several times subsequently, both in his and my hometown and elsewhere, indoors and outdoors, but then I knew what to expect and the shows, no matter how strong, did not have the startling power of revelation.

Festivals don’t just aid in discovery of unfamiliar artists; they also allow for improvised incidents unlikely to occur in other settings. A conventional concert most likely would have been delayed or rescheduled if most members of the band did not arrive on time, but festival planners want neither an empty stage nor a disrupted day. This can result in unplanned events like the almost completely solo set by Elvin Jones that I caught in Detroit. The former drummer in saxophonist John Coltrane’s most celebrated band, slated to perform with Ravi Coltrane, who had taken up his father’s instrument, agreed to go on alone until the rest of the performers made it to the bandstand near the end of their allotted time.

Critic Stanley Crouch reminisces about precisely the sort of special episode that can occur at a jazz festival but could never happen at a concert hall or club. As a teenager, he went to the 1964 Monterey Jazz Festival, mainly to see Thelonious Monk and Charles Mingus perform on the same afternoon. Monk’s quartet provided the high point for him: an airplane flew over the stage and first the pianist and then his saxophonist, Charlie Rouse, and drummer, Ben Riley, picked up on the engine’s rhythm, used it, and thereby demonstrated “that an improviser could truly control his environment at certain times, even incorporating or creating a dialogue with meaningless sounds that are transformed by the intent of the player.” Crouch recounts the incident twice in Considering Genius: Writings on Jazz.

Something about playing outdoors, in not-fully-predictable circumstances, contributes to a looser atmosphere, encouraging musicians to be more open to the sort of creative exchange Crouch chronicles. Festival players resist what I came to think of as the Carnegie Hall Effect – the tightened-up assumption of stifling seriousness that can overcome musicians ensconced in high culture vaults like the one on Fifty-seventh Street and Seventh Avenue. I enjoyed some memorable sets when jazz musicians started performing in Zankel Hall (in the Carnegie’s basement), but I also saw many players become tense, as if they felt they needed to be on their best behavior.

Festivals can be crucial for working musicians. While Jones had already established himself through records like Coltrane’s A Love Supreme as well as his own, and Detroit’s event might not have been prominent or prestigious enough to have launched Carter’s career, festivals contributed mightily to the music’s history. Festivals have often been name-makers that later look like hinge events in artists’ lives. Mingus’s biographer Gene Santoro, for instance, says the bassist’s “tumultuous triumphant performance at the landmark Monterrey Jazz Festival,” the same one Crouch witnessed, “ushered [Mingus] into the jazz pantheon.” Particular jazz festival performances can also provide evidence of a once-derailed artist’s comeback, such as when Miles Davis impressed listeners at the 1955 Newport Jazz Festival following his years of debilitating drug use.

The festivals in Montreux and other European cities operated as an economic lifeline for musicians when other genres displaced jazz as the preeminent popular music in the United States. “Small as it is, the European jazz public has long played a significant role in jazz since it formed a much more stable body of support than the very volatile American public,” historian Eric Hobsbawm writes in a 1994 essay. “This was to be important in the 1960s and 1970s, when the wave of rock swept jazz almost from sight in the USA, and American musicians, often actually based in Europe, came to rely largely on the European concert and festival circuit, as indeed many of them still do.” Even if rock started to eclipse jazz before and during the Vietnam War era, some of the work that emerged during that period – such as those records Coltrane made with Jones – are now classics. Musicians eager to incorporate elements of new styles, like Davis, could still attract large audiences then. Compared to what followed, the time of transition Hobsbawm identifies looks vital, defining. Jazz receded further from the mainstream in later decades, and made those European jobs even more crucial for jazz musicians’ livelihoods.

The intrusion of rock into jazz territory greatly disturbs figures like Crouch, who professes definite ideas about what can and cannot occur under the jazz rubric. Crouch, a co-founder (along with Wynton Marsalis) of Jazz at Lincoln Center, adamantly objects to the “thinking that there was no definition that could be applied to jazz, that there was no characteristic sound to the music, that all someone had to do to be considered a jazz musician was to say that he was a jazz musician.” Although improvisation throbs as its heart, jazz is more than “‘improvised music’ free of definition,” Crouch believes. He defines it as “an art music that swung on dance rhythms.” More specifically, he outlines a “quartet of fundamentals” comprising 4/4 swing, which can be fast, medium and slow; the blues; the ballad, which he sometimes qualifies as romantic or meditative; and Afro-Hispanic rhythms, also know as “the Spanish tinge.” After immersing himself in jazz and jazz criticism in the 1960s, Crouch “discovered that a big controversy was going on in the world of jazz.” While Coltrane and Ornette Coleman were at the center of the clash he read about in Down Beat, Crouch, along with Marsalis, sparked one of the music’s later internecine disputes by advocating such a conception of the music.

Stanley Crouch
Crouch defines jazz in order to indicate what the term does not cover, and for him that means rock and roll, including any efforts to blend it with jazz. Crouch regards fusion not as an extension of the jazz form or an innovative reconfiguration of jazz but as a corruption of jazz and an “aesthetic death.” Those who participated in the “fusion phenomenon” or the “fusion ruse” effectively abandoned the jazz essentials, he asserts. “While the mixture of jazz and rock did create something that had not existed before, it also introduced instruments and beats that had nothing to do with swing, the propulsive essence of jazz phrasing.” In place of core jazz attributes, fusionists offered “static rock and funk beats, electric pianos, and bass guitars.” By rocking instead of swinging, they tried to become pop stars, and Crouch is “not particularly interested in the careers of pop stars.”

Davis’s fusion work from the late 1960s on possesses the attributes Crouch despises. He reports that his friend and colleague Marsalis “also stood up against the fusion or jazz-rock that has as its godhead Miles Davis.” Crouch classifies Davis’s late 1980s group as a rock and roll band – and as evidence of greatness lost. He says that the trumpeter became “so obsessed with novelty” that he made a fool of himself in the last decades of his life.
Crouch suspects that mercenary impulses motivated the “sellouts to the rock-and-roll god of fusion.” The pursuit of popularity is the problem.

“In my early experience,” Crouch reminisces, “it seemed that jazz was always something liked by people who had separated themselves from the trends and the crowds of the time.” He admires young musicians “learning how to play jazz while fully aware that it was not the kind of art in which anything lucrative was guaranteed.” Crouch believes Davis made records like Bitches Brew and On the Corner exclusively for commercial rather than artistic reasons. He bemoans Davis “mining the fool’s gold of rock ’n’ roll.” He worries that the lowest common denominator is mistaken for an ideal, that popularity is confused with quality. Instead, what is widely embraced should be regarded with suspicion, lest it corrupt the soul, as happened with the material-success-seeking Davis. For Crouch’s ally Marsalis, when Davis started using the sounds of rock, he neglected the proper pursuit of a musician, which is to confront the challenges posed by the best artists in their own idiom.

While particularly dismissive of what he calls jazz-rock, Crouch also evinces strong skepticism of avant-garde jazz generally. He claims that most of “what was called avant-garde … did not have or create the feeling of jazz.” He deems it a misguided project rather than an inadequately realized one. “When it wasn’t inept or pretentious,” Crouch writes, “most supposed avant-garde jazz was more an improvised version of European concert music.” He again enlists Marsalis as a backer, noting that the trumpet player “took a position against … most of what was considered avant-garde jazz because it reminded him too much of the twentieth-century concert music he had played in orchestras under the batons of men like Gunther Schuller.” He says that Marsalis insists that artists ought to focus on “continually reimagining the basics” rather than on pursuing “constant innovation.” Artist who do seek a new sound succeed when innovation remains rooted in, rather than severed from, tradition. Writing of Monk, Crouch observes: “What made him avant-garde was his determination to sustain the power of the tradition rather than reduce it to clichés, trends, novelties, or uninformed parodies.” All actual innovators are students of tradition, Crouch contends. Marsalis echoes him when, in a 1988 New York Times article he asks: “How can something new and substantial, not eccentric and fraudulent, be developed when the meaning of what’s old is not known?” Because of this determined emphasis on the past, Crouch and Marsalis earned reputations as progress-impeding classicists limited by their own nostalgia.

Given Crouch’s view of the avant-garde, praise for the World Saxophone Quartet might seem out of character for him. Yet that is precisely what he offers in the liner notes for W.S.Q. If he had described them (somewhere else) as committing “mindless honking and squeaking,” I would not have been surprised, given his condemnation of other performers considered outside the Marsalis-endorsed tradition. Instead, Crouch says the foursome provide relief from such noise. Despite being part of “what is known as avant-garde jazz,” the quartet achieved legitimacy for Crouch, mainly because it “swings so hard.” Personal connections might also color his assessment. For about a year, Crouch booked performers at a club where he claimed to have introduced the World Saxophone Quartet to New York City. Prior to leaving California for the East Coast in the mid-1970s, he had befriended a future member of the group. Before he stopped playing drums and concentrated on writing, Crouch performed with David Murray and Low Class Conspiracy, as documented on Flowers for Albert, recorded in 1977.

Crouch also likes their clothes.

He pays scrupulous attention to musicians’ attire, which he takes as evidence not only of individual style but also of artistic integrity. When writing of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, for example, he records with noticeable displeasure that saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell wore “street clothes,” trumpeter Lester Bowie donned his usual white lab coat and other members appeared in “face paint and African getups.” He chides Coltrane for being “always … simply dressed” and quotes Hattie Gossett contrasting the saxophonist’s “corny-like” and “country” attributes, including ill-fitting suits with too-short trousers revealing white socks, with the intricacy of his music, which was “so complex you could get a headache from it if you weren’t ready.” Crouch disapproves not only of the sound of rock music; he abhors its freakish fashions. He says “Davis’s music became progressively trendy and dismal, as did his attire,” which included oversized sunglasses and padded shoulders that made him resemble “an extra from a science fiction B movie.” Such a look announces “the expensive bad taste of rock ’n’ roll,” Crouch writes. He celebrates trumpeter Freddie Hubbard’s decision to shed “the platform shoes and plaid pants of his fusion days” and to cultivate instead a resemblance to Louis Armstrong by wearing “exquisitely cut suits, beautiful shirts, and silk ties.” Crouch says Marsalis “turned his back on the ragamuffin minstrelsy of the fusion period and his sartorial example got most musicians out of coming on bandstands ragged up as though they were rehearsing in somebody’s funky basement or were dressing the part to get a job with a rock band.” He cheers Marsalis for emulating Duke Ellington and asserting “bandstand elegance.” Pinstriped peacock James Carter’s certainly sizeable tailor’s bill would single him out as a sophisticate by Crouch’s standards. Spying a connection between appearance and performance, Crouch says the World Saxophone Quartet’s “fine-fitting tuxedos and patent leather shoes” match the sharpness of the tracks on W.S.Q.

Despite an almost reflexive rejection of avant-garde efforts, Crouch’s animus allows for additional exceptions, as long as the musicians keep their innovations fundamentally grounded. Pianist Andrew Hill, although “associated with the avant-garde,” deserves acclaim because his music reinterprets jazz tradition instead of avoiding it, as Crouch implies too many other musicians do. Crouch also holds the alto saxophonist Ornette Coleman in high esteem: “he laid down what remains the heaviest body of purely avant-garde jazz.” Despite operating in that dubious area, Coleman “proved how much jazz could do with its own tradition.” In Crouch’s assessment, “Coleman’s signal achievement is that one does not have to have a panel discussion to argue about whether or not he is a jazz musician.”

Crouch and Marsalis eagerly convene such panels to make those determinations. The avant-garde pianist Cecil Taylor might achieve impressive velocity and grandeur, but without sufficient “jazz feeling” and with too much European music in his personal mix of influences, he produces music that “had little to do with jazz,” pronounces Crouch (who also disapproves of Taylor wearing a knitted cap on stage). Marsalis admired Miles Davis when he played jazz, which he unequivocally states Davis stopped doing.

Marsalis also complains about what became of the jazz festival. He recounts completing a tour of the European festivals Hobsbawm says sustain jazz artists and finding that only twenty percent of the participating musicians played in 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 esthetic elevation that jazz offers,” Marsalis writes in his New York Times piece. He argues that the tendency to lump jazz with other types of music reflects an “openness to everything” outlook that ultimately shows contempt for jazz and disdain for its tradition. His remarks on the non-jazz jazz festival phenomenon I saw for myself several years later grow directly out of his understanding of what qualifies as real jazz. Does my similar concern about the fate of festivals mean I share his conception of the music?

If so, how could such a thing happen?

After all, when I arrived in New York, I would have espoused exactly the openness that Marsalis opposes as well as the idea that “the tradition of jazz is innovation” that Crouch dismisses as “imbecilic.” I moved to Geneva in 1996, the year that Lincoln Center raised its jazz program from a concert series to an equal constituent with the Metropolitan Opera, the New York City Ballet, the New York Philharmonic and the Film Society of Lincoln Center. I rented my first Brooklyn apartment in 1998, the year when New York City’s mayor Rudolph Giuliani (after urging from Crouch) arranged to have space set aside for Jazz at Lincoln Center in the tony complex of offices, hotel rooms, restaurants and shops planned for Columbus Circle. In late 2001, assembling of “the world’s first performing arts facility built specifically for jazz” had begun near Central Park’s southwest corner. Dissent from the Crouch-Marsalis school grew louder as Jazz at Lincoln Center grew in stature. “Institutions create institutional music, and that is not what jazz is about,” Jazz Journalists Association head Howard Mandel remarked in what Mark Jacobson in New York magazine described as “the often-heard objection against the supposed canonization” initiative led by Marsalis and Crouch. “The fear is, while the legacies of Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington will be forever celebrated on Columbus Circle,” relays Jacobson, “such post-Coltrane artists as Cecil Taylor, Don Cherry, Albert Ayer, and Sun Ra will be written out of the music’s history.”

Even Crouch’s buddy David Murray denounced the outfit’s institutionalization of standards as “fuckin’ macabre necrophilia or some shit.” As Jazz at Lincoln Center’s perch in the Time Warner building neared completion, other critics chimed in. Ian Carr, author of a biography of Miles Davis, described Marsalis as “dictatorial and over-orthodox.”

I feared the Carnegie Hall Effect would spread, finding another place to stymie spontaneity. “What about innovation?” Lester Bowie, he of the lab coat and Groucho Marx mien, asked of Marsalis’s project. “If you retread what’s gone before, even if it sounds like jazz, it could be anathema to the spirit of jazz.”

Alto saxophonist John Zorn, a musician eager to juggle a multitude of sonic sources, epitomized that spirit for me, which would probably appall anyone with a purist understanding of jazz. Zorn’s Naked City project – with Bill Frisell on guitar, Wayne Hovitz on keyboards, Fred Frith on bass, Joey Baron on drums and Yamatsuka Eye on vocals – was ravenous to mix together all sorts of sounds, to flout conventions and to disregard genre distinctions. “Jazz Snob Eat Shit” a title on one of the albums shouts. Another record lists, and displays, inspirations ranging from the Crouch-endorsed jazzmen Mingus and Coleman to punk and hardcore bands Corrosion of Conformity and Agnostic Front as well as the likes of Conway Twitty, Carole King, Booker T. and the M.G.’s, Ennio Morricone, Frank Sinatra and Funkadelic.

Crouch and Marsalis correctly insist that jazz cannot encompass every kind of music. Jazz would become a meaningless word if indiscriminately applied to any and every kind of sound. Yet even if jazz does differ from rock, country or any of the other genres discernable in Zorn’s individual blend, it can be fruitfully enlivened by them. With Zorn, the music itself became the festival: jazz as carnival.

While festivals and carnivals are not the same thing, festivals can involve elements of the carnivalesque. “Carnival is not a spectacle seen by the people; they live in it, and everyone participates,” writes literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin, who also says that “carnival does not know footlights, in the sense that it does not acknowledge any distinction between actors and spectators.” This much more precisely describes the punk rock shows I went to in the 1980s, with both attendees and band members repeatedly climbing onto and diving off the stage into the swirling pit of sweaty people, than any of the far-more-sedate jazz festivals I have ever seen. Even so, Crouch notes the jazz connection via Mardi Gras: “the soaring self-assertion and mocking false faces of the parades and social clubs of New Orleans provided the local musicians with a Renaissance sense of carnival.” If festivals do not fully erase the distinctions between performers and watchers, they can smudge them a bit. One of the many times in New York that I saw Zorn, he played at an event under a tent that had trappings of a festival. Working only with drummer Milford Graves, the saxophonist blasted through a typically boisterous set. During one of Zorn’s solos, Graves left his kit and in what seemed like an unscripted burst of adrenalin-driven enthusiasm, climbed off the stage, wandered into the seating area and lifted a spectator above his head. Zorn – with a rock musician’s long hair and wearing his omnipresent tzitzit hanging down the legs of his army fatigue trousers – continued to play unaccompanied until Graves set the startled viewer down and returned to his stool. “In the world of carnival,” Bakhtin says, “all hierarchies are cancelled.” Zorn’s music defiantly cancels them, too.

Although I did not come across Zorn until I had already expanded my range of aural enthusiasms beyond the hardcore of my teenage years to include jazz, I cannot help but think of him as a bridge between the two. His work also intertwines with what I listened to even earlier. Scholar Patrick Garland may be on to something when he observes that “a lifelong love of jazz turns on the performances one heard first,” but Zorn is an emblematic figure in my personal musical history, even if he doesn’t really fit into the story in a strictly chronological way. I remember the first jazz recordings I ever owned, and the first time I heard certain musicians’ work, but the first music to move me was rock and roll, with rhythm and blues and funk always in the mix as well. Zorn did not direct my attention to jazz, but I imagine that he could have if I hadn’t turned there already. Before fully immersing myself in the raw racket of the Ramones and the Sex Pistols, I found it quite easy all at once to enjoy Kiss and Parliament, AC/DC and Teddy Pendergrass, Motown and Alice Cooper. This no doubt influenced how I heard music – and what I wanted to hear – later on. I grew up ready for John Zorn.

While I remember going downtown to the jazz festival as a youngster in Detroit, the music I heard then did not leave a lasting impression. It was not until I went away to college that I started to explore the music. (At about the same time, the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, guided by Marsalis, first started playing the Classical Jazz Series, the precursor to Jazz at Lincoln Center.) Cassette tapes in dorm rooms prompted me to ask for records by Monk and Davis for the birthday that followed my first term in college. At that particular technological moment, compact discs had not displaced twelve-inch vinyl platters, and the first jazz recording in my collection came in both formats. Before I went to school, I had a friend whose father had once worked as a booking agent. I’d heard his memories of Davis, vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson and others, but it was not until I returned to the city of my youth that I started really listening. After my exciting exposure to Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s Rip, Rig and Panic (on which Elvin Jones drums) and hearing about the blind mastermind blowing multiple instruments simultaneously or playing the flute with his nose while singing, I decided Kirk had something of the punk rock ethos.

Having recently read Bakhtin, I also recognized the carnivalesque. I thought the same thing about the music itself, including its use of sirens, breaking glass and other sounds not made by the usual instruments. The Case of the Three-Sided Dream in Audio Color, featuring Kirk’s reworking of “The Entertainer” as well as “Freaks for the Festival,” confirmed for me that he was the most serious kind of joker. Zorn wears jester’s motley, too, as a rival for Kirk’s carnival king crown. When I first heard a Naked City record, everything clicked – the new old music I’d been exploring didn’t exist in some separate sphere. Instead, worlds collided and made sounds I recognized – punk sounds, jazz sounds, funk sounds, all kinds of sounds, sounds discordant and making perfect sense.

Nonsense,” I can hear blasting from the Crouch-Marsalis camp (even as Zorn proclaims himself “safely outside any camp,” as he does in the liner notes to 2008’s The Last Supper: Film Works XXII).

Crouch and Marsalis police the boundaries in order to protect the art of jazz from the rabble din of rock and roll. Early in Considering Genius, Crouch writes of discovering “a truth that still applies: the Negro community, which has produced an extraordinary number of artists, has little or no value for art and will always, like most communities, drop to its knees before entertainment clichés or trends.” He puts jazz in the art category and, when charting Davis’s degeneration, places rock in the bin for trendy trash. In the same vein, Marsalis posits jazz as a positive alternative to the debased and debasing outrage of contemporary pop and hip-hop.

Yet for all the insistence on a strict definition of jazz, Crouch and Marsalis are not as rigid as some of their controversy-courting statements suggest. Crouch calls Davis a sellout for blending jazz with rock, but he does not completely oppose incorporation of outside influences. Before Davis went too far with fusion, he flirted with pop rhythms while remaining firmly in jazz territory. Crouch sees the trumpeter’s “Mademoiselle Mabry” as related to guitarist Jimi Hendrix’s “The Wind Cries Mary” and as

proof of what Davis might have done had he kept control of his popular sources, rather than succumbed to them. The borrowing was in perfect keeping with the tradition begun by Armstrong’s alchemical way with banal popular songs. In fact, what Davis does with popular influences throughout this recording shows off his sophistication and his ability to transform yet another universe of music in his own image.

For Crouch to pair “banal” with “popular” here amounts to redundancy, since for him popular music is by definition ignorant and obviously inferior to jazz. He explains that it is “the fusion of passion and intellectual depth that distinguishes jazz from the music of the concert or popular worlds, neither of which offers the combination of the inflamed soul and the mind in such perfect synthesis.” Commercial striving extruded the woeful sounds of fusion, and exclusionary ideology also produced dispiriting bleating, Crouch argues. He thinks that constraining identity politics prompted some artists to turn their backs on enriching influences. “Coltrane was as much an heir to all that Bach and his descendants gave the world as he was to the blues,” and his best work (specifically, that recorded prior to mid-1965) “reflects that confluence of races and influences.” So unjazzy influences are not automatically negative, and can be quite fruitful, if on the order of Johann Sebastian Bach. Even the influence of popular song can contribute to decent music if the lowly material is sufficiently mastered and transformed.

As Crouch struggles to protect jazz’s virtue from rock and roll’s ravaging, he venerates other types of hybridity. Jazz, like the country that gave rise to it, necessarily involves combination of elements. He says he learned the following from Ralph Ellison (author of numerous essays on jazz in addition to Invisible Man) and Albert Murray (author of Stomping the Blues and, like Crouch, a mentor to Marsalis): “America is a land of synthesis in which every ethnic or religious group tends, over time, to become part of every other.” A similar dynamic characterizes jazz. He likens the Constitution to jazz because it “values improvisation, the freedom to constantly reinterpret the meanings of our documents.” He assert that “jazz is the highest American musical form because it is the most comprehensive, possessing an epic frame of emotional and intellectual reference, sensual clarity, and spiritual radiance.” He says that black American musicians “reinvented every kind of American music they came into contact with, from folk to religious music to dance tunes, and finally achieved the order that is jazz, where all those aspects of American musical expression were brought together for a fresh synthesis.” Crouch says great art in general “is always a protest against limitations.” He insists that “jazz is an art in which improvisation declares an aesthetic rejection of the preconceptions that stifle individual and collective invention.” Crouch quotes with approval Ellison’s observation that when, as a jazz musician, “you went to the record store, you were looking for anything that could help you achieve your own aspirations; you weren’t concerned about seeing yourself in the limited terms that someone else might.”

As Marsalis once phrased it: “You have to look at the world around you and the things that happen to you and take them inside yourself and make something out of it. That’s what jazz is.” If so, then what Davis and Kirk produced throughout their careers certainly qualifies. Crouch describes Monk’s aim of “forging a music that could make use of a variety of elements” as a positive attribute, just as I do with Zorn and his even more various array of musical building blocks. Crouch recognizes the impact of diverse genres such as “sanctified Negro church and flamenco” on Mingus (whose The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady inspired the name of the label that issued W.S.Q.). Crouch favorably cites musician and scholar James Newton’s conclusion that “Mingus obviously learned from Duke the importance of pulling in everything you knew and testing your imagination on it until something that came out that was yours.” Crouch says jazz distinctively mixes “African, European, Caribbean, and Afro-Hispanic elements.” Ornette Coleman illustrated how “jazz could build on its Negro-American origins while maintaining its universality” and Crouch explains that by “Negro-American” he “means the national mix with a certain interpretation informed by parade music, blues, spirituals, gospel, dance tunes, chants, and so on.”

What Crouch does not explain is why rock and roll does not make up part of that “and so on.” Why should combination with certain regional music be permissible but mixture with other styles be off limits? Why take a narrow view and close the music off from other possibilities? After all, as Crouch puts it, “a society is best of and most in touch with the vital when it eliminates all irrational restrictions on talent, dedication, and skill.” He believes maturity characterizes jazz, while rock is necessarily immature: “jazz is a music built on adult emotion while rock is focused on adolescent passion.” Jazz is made by serious people for serious people. However, Crouch also says jazz “allows for the expression of every passion.”

There is no convincing reason, beyond a subjective dislike, to disbar rock and roll’s instruments and time signatures from jazz’s means of expressing the full range of human emotional states. He is also mistaken if he really believes rock music has no grown-up aspect. Although he celebrates jazz as “the most sophisticated performing art in Western history,” Crouch also writes of it in less lofty terms, unwittingly describing it as akin to rock and roll, which also lacks a purebred lineage. “That combination of high-minded expression and the gutbucket funk of the blues – the sweet stink of love and the filth of the rot ever encroaching on existence – is what makes a jazz moment particular in its feeling,” he writes. It is a colorful line, but jazz is not the only music to manifest the thrills of sex and fears of death by means high and low, dirty and clean. Rock and roll unquestionably qualifies as part of the U.S. “national mix.” Like jazz, it has undeniable ties to the blues. With Ike Turner’s “Rocket 88,” recorded in 1951, having claims to being the genre-originator, rock and roll also has its origins in the creativity of black Americans. Crouch believes that “what gives an art its deepest identity is the quality of its dialogue with the past.” Rather than foreign to the jazz tradition, rock and roll is related to it, and it has entered into the dialogue – whether Crouch likes it or not.

Even with their procrustean proclivities, Crouch and Marsalis champion a lively tradition. “It is joined onto the past like a man’s arm to his shoulder,” essayist A.J. Liebling writes to describe historical continuity in prizefighting, and the same can be said of jazz. The music’s legacy may not be transmitted with the forceful immediacy of a left hook to the liver or an uppercut to the chin, but it is passed along person to person in a way no less real, no less direct. While the hand off of the championship from one boxer to another too frequently results from an aged and spent warrior succumbing to a fitter and faster younger fighter, musicians of different generations performing together develop and extend jazz genealogy in a far more wholesome, even uplifting, fashion.

Festivals routinely enact jazz’s vibrant legacy. The first time I saw James Carter play in Detroit, he led a band of close contemporaries, but on one fall day, the saxophonist appeared as part of Lester Bowie’s New York Organ Ensemble, having previously recorded with the trumpeter before assembling his own bands. On another day in Detroit, he dueled with David Murray. Later, I caught the James Carter Organ Trio working with another member of the World Saxophone Quartet, Hamiet Bluiett (sans tuxedo), as well as guitarist James “Blood” Ulmer at the Blue Note in New York, where they demonstrated that this phenomenon I associate with festivals animates the music on a nightly basis.

James Carter

The concert held to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of Sonny Rollins’s first Carnegie Hall performance provides another such moment. In September 2007, Rollins, together with drummer Roy Haynes and bassist Christian McBride, played “Sonnymoon for Two,” “Some Enchanted Evening” and “Moritat (Mack the Knife),” like the tenor player had done with a different group in November 1957 on a bill that also featured Monk’s quartet including Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie’s orchestra and Billie Holiday. When the three men – a seventy-seven-year-old Rollins, a drummer five years older and a bassist who was born fifteen years after the concert being memorialized – stepped on stage, they carried jazz history with them. (After an intermission, Rollins returned with other long-time associates for a set filled with upbeat calypso-infused material much like I’d heard him play at an outdoor festival many years before.) Beyond the bonds formed by playing together that night, the trio shared others with musicians of various periods and styles, some of whom were in the room that night. My wife and I had balcony seats among several, including Joe Lovano, who sat in the box next to ours. Over their long careers, Rollins and Haynes played with virtually every famous name in jazz, including Monk, Coltrane and Davis. Haynes also made records with Rahsaan Roland Kirk.

McBride most vividly demonstrated how jazz’s strong arm reaches backward and into the future. He was part of the set captured on Lovano’s Quartets: Live at the Village Vanguard, a 1996 recording said to show Rollin’s influence on Lovano, who was born five years prior the debut of Rollins’s trio at Carnegie Hall. A decade after Quartets, McBride along with Lovano played with former Coltrane pianist McCoy Tyner. McBride habitually records with performers close to his own age, like saxophonist Javon Jackson (born 1965), as well with players such as pianist Cedar Walton (born 1934), drummer Jimmy Cobb (born 1929) and Hank Jones (born 1918), the pianist who paired with Lovano on Kids, which was recorded in the same room where I saw Lovano and Elvin’s brother play soon after that CD came out. Still earlier in 2007, I’d seen Cobb perform with Geri Allen. (A reviewer likened the Detroit pianist’s playing to Tyner’s.) At the time, Cobb stood as the sole living contributor to Davis’s Kind of Blue, the album that popularized the modal method of playing outside the confines of chordal movement that encouraged longer, freer improvisations.

As that album and innumerable others show, this intergenerational network cannot be confined to jazz. While Hobsbawm sees rock displacing jazz and Crouch sees it as a sullying threat, plenty of jazz artists (and not only Davis) saw the ascendant sound as offering ways of expanding the range of their own. Indeed, Rollins, whom Crouch declares “the greatest titan of saxophone rhythm since Charlie Parker,” did not find rock and roll beneath him. Rollins plays on multiple tracks on the Rolling Stones’ 1981 album Tattoo You (even if his name does not appear in the credits). Other examples abound. Guitarist Marc Ribot’s discography includes recordings such as Saints, a tribute to saxophonist Albert Ayer, and albums made with Tom Waits and Robert Plant, the former Led Zeppelin frontman. Ornette Coleman contributed sax sounds to a Joe Henry record.

Connections go beyond the makers to the material, with jazz musicians taking on rock music and vice versa. The Art Ensemble of Chicago covered Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze” and band member Bowie regularly reconfigured pop songs by such diverse performers as Michael Jackson and Marilyn Manson in his Brass Fantasy project. Hendrix expressed admiration for Kirk, who recorded the Beatles’ “And I Love Her.” (Hendrix and Kirk also jammed together at a London nightclub once in 1969.) James Carter made an entire CD of Pavement songs, and the liner notes to Gold Sounds mention members of Marsalis’s band playing with the likes of Eric Clapton. While the Bad Plus developed a repertoire including Black Sabbath’s sludgy, thudding “Iron Man” and Nirvana’s angular, angsty “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” the fact that players associated with jazz’s most vocal traditionalist worked with rock stars means it’s not only avant-gardists who recognize merit in genre mixing.

Influence works both ways, with rock bands also incorporating jazz songs into their set lists. The group Friends of Dean Martinez shifted Monk’s “Ugly Beauty” from piano to electric guitar. Steely Dan interpreted Duke Ellington’s “East St. Louis Toodle-oo” in an explicit statement of the formative role jazz played in that band’s sound; the group also brought jazz players like saxophonist Wayne Shorter into the studio to record Aja. Critic Francis Davis, in notes for the fiftieth anniversary edition of Kind of Blue, charts the albums influence on rock, classical, rhythm and blues, and pop music:

Beginning with the Byrds, the Doors, Carlos Santana, and the Allman Brothers, most rock improvisation has been modal. What Davis and Coltrane did in 1959 … helped set the stage or minimalist composers like Steve Reich and Philip Glass. And if a certain horn riff on recent hits by Amy Winehouse and Christina Aguilera strikes you as familiar, that’s because their producer Mark Ronson borrowed it from James Brown’s 1967 hit “Cold Sweat” – a riff that the tune’s composer, Pee Wee Ellis, freely admits to lifting from “So What.”

This cross-category chain of influence extends still further. Zorn lists Reich and Glass among those who contributed to his development as a performer and composer. In a roundabout way, then, links exist between Zorn and an album Crouch sees as containing the qualities of swing, blues, and idiomatic lyricism that make it a jazz record, one he calls “perhaps [Davis’s] most influential album and certainly one of his finest achievement.”

Jazz and rock also intersect in the unlikely figure of Sting. Both Davis and Marsalis lost members of their respective bands to the former Police singer. A bass player left Davis to work with the better-paying pop star, while Marsalis’s brother Branford opted to work as a sideman playing a different style of music. So maybe Sting deserved to headline at Montreux after all. Such already-famous attractions probably do not need the support festivals can provide, which cannot be said of artists toiling in the esoterica called jazz, but if musicians associated with other genres attract listeners to events where jazz also can be heard, then perhaps such festivals loosely using jazz in their names are not such bad things after all.

I, like Marsalis, remain unconvinced.

As the driving force behind Jazz at Lincoln Center, Marsalis did not impose the sort of limitations his opponents anticipated. “Marsalis and his adherents are said to have codified the music in a stifling orthodoxy and inhibited the revolutionary impulses that have always advanced jazz,” David Hajdu reports in a 2003 Atlantic Monthly profile of Marsalis. However, in my experience, the “retro ideology” attributed to his “museumlike” organization did not keep the very players deemed outside the jazz canon from appearing in its shiny hall. Crouch accuses Dave Douglas of bringing in un-jazz-like sounds into his work. He allows that the white trumpeter “can play what he can play and … should continue to do whatever he wants to do” but expresses annoyance that the “far from … bad musician” gets critical accolades Crouch believes certain superior “Negro” players more rightly deserve.

Despite Crouch’s complaints, Marsalis welcomed Douglas onto the institution’s stage. I saw Douglas there in March 2005 on my first visit to the venue. I was curious to see how an official outsider would go over in the House of Swing, but also intrigued by his sharing a bill with none other than Marsalis himself. Douglas’s set did not differ dramatically from the one I taken in a couple months earlier at the Knitting Factory, though I don’t recall any women with fur coats at the downtown club (which was then on Leonard Street in TriBeCa, but not really as far from Midtown as I had thought). Though I would guess that many of the ticket holders were there to see headliner Marsalis, the audience did not evince any displeasure or disappointment with Douglas. If anything surprised me, it was how much I enjoyed Marsalis’s set, which he and his band kicked off by marching onto the stage already performing, as if in a parade. Crouch says Marsalis gigs possess “a festive quality.” I agree.

On a more tumultuous night, I saw Douglas play Jazz at Lincoln Center, again in the opening slot, as part of Masada, another group led by Zorn, who obviously violates Crouch’s strictures concerning both music and clothing. Yet there Zorn was, with the fringe dangling down beside his pockets declaring his religious convictions, which could also be heard in the music’s Klezmer tinge. (If Crouch sat in the room that night, he probably groused about the inelegance of Zorn’s attire.) Though the tunes included Zorn’s characteristic skronks, speed and sharp turns in tempo, they also included sections with melodies clearly distinguishing them from some of his other works, like those of the less exuberantly joyful Naked City. Zorn declared it one of the last performances of Masada, for which Zorn prepared hundreds of compositions, providing a structure both orderly and flexible, allowing space for other members to improvise. Zorn encouraged his band mates to have fun, though he also ensured that each song was solid and cohesive. Naked City dweller Joey Baron played his drums using his hands rather than sticks for extended sections of some songs, looking to Zorn for direction all the while. Some in the crowd obviously knew what to expect, while others seemed to have only a passing awareness of the Jazz at Lincoln Center brand. Although Zorn felt out of place – “What are we doing here?” he asked – the audience reacted favorably, or at least respectfully, toward Masada.

The evening’s main event, in contrast, puzzled many of those who saw all or part of it. After Zorn left it, Cecil Taylor, the pianist Crouch says plays something other than jazz, shambled on stage. (If the critic was there, did he have a fit when he glimpsed shoeless Taylor’s baggy trousers tucked into socks with holes in them?) Whatever its category, Taylor’s music started driving people out of Frederick P. Rose Hall even before the first song ended. “Thank God,” I heard someone behind me gasp when it did stop. The exodus continued throughout his set. By the end of the show, the room was half empty. It was the leavers’ loss, since the pieces in the later part of the concert were superior to the earlier ones. The performance represented the premiere of a trio including Pheeroan AkLaff, a drummer from Detroit, and Henry Grimes, who alternated between violin and an upright bass covered in chipped olive drab paint and glitter. Dispensing with conventional concepts of melody and rhythm, the group operated like workers at a building site engaged in their separate tasks and not obviously in sync with each other at any given moment but who nonetheless do assemble a structure. They do not construct a regular building with square corners; instead they make a maze in which listeners can get lost. Before the band started, an announcer listed the songs Taylor planned to play. One of them had a title something like “The Waves that Envelop,” a name that could describe many of the dense songs, with their ceaseless torrents of potentially overwhelming notes. Like Dostoevsky at the keyboard, Taylor hammered out intense, aggressive works that seemed intended to convey what happens inside a madman’s head. About an hour and fifteen minutes into the set, the house lights came on mid-song. Was this the electric light equivalent of a hook yanking an act off-stage? Did the technical crew walk out too? Taylor just kept on playing. He, along with AkLaff and Grimes (who previously played with the likes Ayer and Cherry as well as Mingus and Rollins), stopped about fifteen minutes later, having divided the remaining audience between the enthusiastic and the baffled.

When I saw one of the trumpeters Crouch judges as superior to Dave Douglas perform at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola – the Jazz at Lincoln Center room where Joe Lovano and Hank Jones recorded Kids and where I enjoyed numerous other shows – he included a rock song in his set. Nicholas Payton played Joe Jackson’s “Steppin’ Out,” a move no more outside jazz tradition than using a tune from a Broadway musical, like Rollins did, a few blocks to the east, when he played one from South Pacific. In doing so, they recast as jazz songs written by individuals who would not be considered jazz composers but who clearly were influenced by the music, a description that applies as well to Jackson as to Rodgers and Hammerstein.

Louis Armstrong, the very embodiment of the jazz aesthetic for Crouch, “ignited the consciousness of his listeners by charging often uninteresting songs with artistic power, spontaneously transforming them through both an editing and embellishing process.” Payton seemed to be trying to emulate Armstrong in this respect (though he lacks the distinctive singing voice of his predecessor). Regardless of whether Payton succeeded with that song, his decision to look outside the jazz idiom narrowly defined suggested that Marsalis did not rigidly implement any limitations derived from the hierarchies he cherishes. The musicians could play freely – and here I refer only to their style. Perhaps Marsalis, who as a youngster played trumpet in the streets of New Orleans as a member of Danny Barker’s Fairview Baptist Church Brass Band, retains more of the festive spirit than he sometimes lets on in his commentary.

Since I believe jazz at its best, regardless of where musicians make it, features irrepressible festiveness, I do not want to unduly romanticize festivals themselves. Though free shows provide the invaluable service of introducing musicians to listeners, the most memorable shows I saw at festivals in Europe and Canada, such as Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter in Montreal, were ticketed, indoor events. Besides, some of the least enjoyable shows I ever saw occurred under festival banners. Soon after moving to New York, I learned that Friends of Dean Martinez were scheduled to play at a place called South Street Seaport. Despite their nods to jazz giants like Monk, I would not have considered the band an obvious candidate for a jazz festival, but I envisioned an atmosphere like that which I earlier enjoyed in Detroit. Instead, they played on a stage set up in the food court of a shopping mall. Just like the fast-food eateries surrounding the space, the show could have been anywhere. The whole thing felt decidedly unfestive. It lacked that indefinable jazz feeling.

Some of the best live jazz I ever experienced happened in places not known for being especially jazz friendly. I saw Ornette Coleman perform on a summer night in Manhattan’s Bryant Park, and I saw him in stately Carnegie Hall. I cannot say the more relaxed surroundings of the former contributed to a better music than the rarified air of the latter. Indeed, there is something to be said for padded seats and sightlines not obscured by trees. In any case, Coleman indoors proved immune to the Carnegie Hall Effect. And I never noticed that syndrome affecting musicians at Jazz at Lincoln Center.

Nevertheless, my old Montreux-Detroit Jazz memories convince me that good old fashioned festivals could not be fully replaced by what started to masquerade as festivals: concerts not meaningfully different that those held any other nights, in the same venues, at the same prices, As jazz moved into its second century, David Murray’s tuxedo no longer looked out of place at what went by the title “festival.” Whatever Crouch might think of nattily dressed jazzmen, and no matter how festive Marsalis can be, sometimes that costume does not belong at the carnival.

John G. Rodwan, Jr.’s essays and reviews have been published by The Mailer Review, The Oregonian, Spot Literary Magazine, California Literary Review, Logos, Slow Trains, Shaking like a Mountain, The Brooklyn Rail, American Writer, Free Inquiry and The Humanist.

Join the Open Letters facebook page

Return to the Main Page

No Comment »

1 Pingbacks »

Leave a comment!

Add your comment below, or trackback from your own site. You can also Comments Feed via RSS.

Be nice. Keep it clean. Stay on topic. No spam.

You can use these tags:
<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

This is a Gravatar-enabled weblog. To get your own globally-recognized-avatar, please register at Gravatar.