Saturday, October 22, 2011

Jazz? You Mean That OLD Stuff My Grand Dad Listens To?

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When I lived in Washington D.C. back in the 90's, I drove my car a lot. (It seemed like when I lived in Baltimore, I started working in D.C. all the time. And then it reversed when I moved to D.C.; all the gigs were in Baltimore.) And I listened to jazz radio a lot. WDCU and WPFW were the stations; people like Rusty Hassan, Gwen Redding, and Whitmore John played what I thought was a wide variety of jazz, from past to present. Unfortunately, when I moved to New York, I had to get rid of my car (it was so hard to sell for parts my dear beloved grey 1984 Chevy Celebrity. Sure, people laughed when I drove down the street, and sure, the lack of power brakes made my right leg asymmetrically muscular compared to the left, but that car was all paid for....), so I found that I listened to jazz radio a lot less. And when I did listen to WBGO( the main jazz station in New York, which broadcasts from New Jersey), I thought that there was much less variety. It seemed as though the types of jazz you might hear were all within a certain boundary, and much of it was pretty stale to me. It was either music from a long time ago, or "modern" players who played in a very old style, or maybe popular singers who were in a certain framework. And not all of it was bad; I just thought it was a little predictable.

The Andrew Sisters: They really influenced Destiny's Child......
And now that I'm driving again in the United States, I'm getting a similar feeling.(Winnipeg didn't seem to have a jazz station, although there was one station that played sort of "oldies", indeed, "very oldies" might hear something like the Andrew Sisters or Judy Garland or something like that. I usually listened to that station, because the other stations seemed to have a format of Contemporary Crap.) Now, I haven't been in Portland long enough to get the total picture, however, while I was driving today, I heard a lot of great music on KMHD, the local jazz station. I heard Kenny Dorham, Dizzy Gillespie, Harry Allen, and some Brazilian music that I could not remember the name of. But I started to think about how everything I had heard was from many decades in the past, with the exception of Harry Allen (although his playing is what I would call on the conservative side, so it could have been recorded in the 50's).

Frank Zappa:" Jazz Isn't Dead, It Just Smells Funny..."
Jazz, according to Frank Zappa, "isn't dead, it just smells funny." I think this is a big misconception about jazz music; that it is something that comes from a museum, that it is history. Now, as a jazz history professor, I am fascinated by the study of all the greats of the past, and the evolution of America's original art form. But jazz is not history alone. We have so much great music being created by not only young musicians, but older musicians who have paid tons of dues but didn't get big recording contracts. And I'm amazed that musicians and radio stations and writers seem to care more about the classic recordings than the music that is being made NOW. We, the people that care so much about keeping jazz alive, are debatably helping to kill it.

Ken Burns: now what instrument did he play?
The great trumpeter and jazz spokesperson Wynton Marsalis comes to mind when we discuss these things. Marsalis, although always rather conservative musically, was somewhat of a forward thinker when he first came on the scene; listen to recordings like "Black Codes From The Underground", which is one of my all time favorites. His early recordings had a modern spin on so-called straight ahead jazz. His band featured Kenny Kirkland on piano and Jeff Watts on drums, who had a unique, innovative sound; not reinventing the wheel, but at least they played things their own way. At some point, Marsalis became obsessed with Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. Then we had the Ken Burns "Jazz" documentary, which has much merit(I use it in my teaching), but is arguably biased towards Armstrong, Ellington, and more traditional styles and eras of jazz. (In the 10 part documentary, Fusion is dismissed, and many of the great straight ahead players of the 70's and 80's are tragically ignored.)Again, I insist that the knowledge of the past is important; however, if it's so important to listen to all the old music, how can listeners possibly have time to catch up with the new music? Why should we even consider the new music, if the old music is so great, so much greater than what's being made now(as the Ken Burns series might lead you to believe)?

It's no wonder that young people are increasingly less interested in Jazz; it seems as though you have to study all this history in order to make sense out of any recording or performance. I think many people want to just enjoy music for what it is, what they perceive it to be, rather than what Ken Burns or Wynton Marsalis or writer Stanley Crouch (who I respect and he's actually been quite nice to me over the years)think it's supposed to be. Folks in general just want to be entertained, or at least relax, when they listen to music. They don't necessarily want a history lecture all the time. They might like the melody, or the rhythm, or they might respond to the energy. But does Jazz need to "pay homage to the masters" or "authentically swing" or "respect the tradition" in order for people to enjoy it?

Bill Haley and The Comets: So Hardcore.....
When you consider the fact that the "free jazz" movement took place in the 1950's, and yet some musicians still consider free jazz to be "avant-garde" or modern, it creates a weird perspective. It would be like young Rock and Roll fans thinking Bill Haley and the Comets were "really hardcore." Or if today's youth was expected to love Little Richard, or Otis Redding. (And believe me, I'm not saying anything bad about any of them. I think some hip youngsters ARE into them and other golden oldies.)

And although I have opinions about whether or not Jazz should progress, or change with the times, this is a separate issue. Even today's musicians who play in an older style should have as much chance to be heard as a Theolonious Monk re-issue, or a remastered Art Blakey recording. I just think there is something weird about all the CDs that are being put out by LIVING musicians, regardless of stylistic leanings, and yet a box set of Miles Davis "Live at The Plugged Nickel" and the like will always get more attention.

Phil Schaap, A Walking Wikipedia of Jazz
I'm a jazz musician, so it's in my best interest to see jazz flourish and live. As I said, I do teach jazz history by day. But I am not content to just teach the history; I want to PLAY! I have my own ideas on how the music should go(as did all the dead masters). This is what we are supposed to be doing; writing our OWN songs, playing our own style. (Again, don't get me wrong....I have spent a lot of time learning old tunes and listening to old recordings. I'm no Phil Schaap, not even close, but I am continually intrigued by history. However, I don't merely want to emulate, I want to use that knowledge to my advantage. If Stravinsky had merely imitated Rimsky-Korsakov, we wouldn't know Stravinsky. If Picasso merely imitated the impressionists, we wouldn't know Picasso.)

One problem I see in today's Jazz education, and even in my own playing, is a focus on very old tunes.(Although I do stand by my argument that you should NOT be allowed to graduate from jazz school if you can't play "All The Things You Are" convincingly.) And, yes, there are so many great old tunes, and I love to discover new-to -me old standards and so forth. And I say this as someone who spent part of the 90's and all of the 2000's in New York, playing mostly original music by contemporary players. Before I moved to New York, I learned many Monk tunes, Wayne Shorter tunes, Benny Golson tunes, etc... And these tunes are great, BUT, why aren't we playing tunes by Mark Turner, or Kevin Hayes, or David Gilmore, or Christian McBride? I do see modern tunes pop up more and more, but this should be the norm, not the exception. If the infamous Real Book is what people are pulling out on gigs and jam sessions, then we are talking about very old tunes; all pre-1970's tunes(the Real Book came out in the 70's...).

Why not a Real Book for the New Millennium?
I don't know if this idea has already been done, but I think it's time for a (legal, of course)Real Book for the New Millennium. This New Real Book should have jazz from at least the last two decades, if not the last three. I think that this will help to keep the music alive, current, and relevant. It will make students and listeners all over the world more interested in today's living musicians, as opposed to over-obsessing about music of the past masters. I would like to see how something like this could be organized. I can't promise that I would be the one to do it, and obviously, if it hasn't been done, someone could easily steal the idea after reading this! But I believe we need to bring the focus back to today's jazz, and that will help the music in the long run, so that jazz doesn't go the way of the Dodo Bird.


  1. You're preaching to the converted here baby! I can remember when WRVR, in the mid 70s, would cover all styles of jazz, from Lee Morgan and Dexter Gordon to new recordings by younger cats on the scene. And even when the format became more narrowed by the end of the decade (and more fusion-focused), at least I heard great new stuff by Herbie, Corea, McLaughlin and pre-Orchestrion Metheny. Why aren't the new innovators on the radio today? Hell, even recent recordings by a few older guys who used to get airplay rarely turn up on the stations, because there seems to be a fear that their current sound may be too "disturbing" to early-morning listeners. I dig Art Tatum and Horace Silver, but I want to hear more performers like you, George, when I'm getting ready for work!

  2. the chuck sher books feature many more contemporary jazz tunes, but it seems the musicians themselves fall back on the lowest common denominator. you simply can't call a tune out of the "all jazz real book" unless it's a piano or guitar trio, the horn players can and are willing to transpose, or you're lucky enough to have a working "band."

  3. If that project gets off the ground please let me know - I'd be more than happy to share my the charts and leadsheets i've prepared.

  4. we're living in a post-scriptum-era and 99,5% of the art that is produced nowadays is just bullshit if you really compare it with the great masters of the past (which saxophone player today plays as "out" and wild and inspired as Mr. Shorter does on those incredible Plugged Nickel recordings? and that's just one example) ... maybe it's nice to listen to today's jazz in concert but on records it's rather not so happening ...

  5. It's the people like the above commenter that help to kill the interest in modern recordings. Someone hears something they don't like and would rather listen to Wayne, and then they preach about how there's nothing good. Nothing's more ridiculous and ignorant.

    I think the first step to compile a modern Real Book is encouraging modern composers/players to release their tunes to the public notated. Knowing the inconsistencies in the current Real Books, I'd be afraid if they didn't come from an official source. I give thanks to musicians like Pat Metheny, Dave Binney, Dave Holland, and Chris Potter for at least selling their charts.

  6. Great post. I think there's a lot of support among jazz students for your point of view. It's not unusual to hear a Robert Glasper tune at a jam session in New Brunswick, NJ or the Lower East Side venues where college students hang out.

    Personally, I'd just do away with the Real Book.

  7. Hi George- You might be interested to know about the NL Real Book- a volume of 32 works by as many Dutch jazz musicians. The first edition was published recently by the Music Center of The Netherlands. For a US-based musician like myself, I found myself constantly surprised by the inventiveness and diversity of the charts published here. While you might have hard time getting all the the tunes played at a jam session in the US, I think it is a worthwhile addition to any serious musician's collection. Combined with the ease of getting legal mp3 downloads of performances this a great learning and performance resource.

  8. I'm all in favor of adding newer songs to the jazz canon, but it appears that of the 1000 most recorded jazz standards, 992 were composed before 1970, and 934 before 1960!

    So, since the role of real books is arguably to document and support the common vocabulary of jazz musicians, they can't be faulted for not including newer songs, when hardly any newer songs are part of that common vocabulary (My impression is that newer compositions in Jazz tend to be played mainly by the composers themselves).

    Of course, one could also be wondering how defines a "jazz standard".

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