Friday, November 29, 2013


A few years ago, I had sent my materials to a college in the hopes of winning a teaching job in their jazz program. The school was quite a distance from New York, so the search committee decided that it would be best to administer a preliminary interview by telephone. This is becoming more common and understandable. Indeed, a SKYPE interview would save a lot of time and money. ( I also had a phone interview for the position I have now.) This was my first phone interview, and it was actually quite unsettling, mostly because every time I answered a question, I couldn't get any sort of visual feedback. I got this strange impression that the committee members were sort of dark and unfriendly; however, I was able to convince myself that it was only the technological medium which gave me that impression. " Oh, it's only because I cannot see their faces. I'm sure they are nice people." (When I did make the trip and actually met the panel, I realized my first impression was correct.)

Many of the questions were strange to me("If a student comes to you with a complaint regarding another faculty member, what do you do?"), but one in particular stood out to me. " Yes, Mr.
Colligan. We received your CD, "Blood Pressure," along with your resume. I haven't listened to it yet, but I'm just wondering.....this CD is all original compositions. Do you know any jazz standards? Do you teach jazz standards?"

I'm betting if any of my students read this, they might be quietly chuckling. I almost didn't know how to answer; first of all, if they had bothered to look at my resume, they might have seen all of the vocalists I worked with, and all of the older jazz legends I was fortunate to work with, and maybe they would have deduced that perhaps I know at least a few standards. Indeed, I don't know anywhere near as many as Harold Mabern, who apparently knows around 5000 tunes( he's forgotten more tunes than many of us have ever learned.) Nevertheless, I
Harold Mabern: has forgotten more tunes than you have ever learned!
spent many hours and years learning standards and playing standards on gigs and playing standards in all keys. I'm really trying to insist that my Portland State University students learn jazz standards. Our jazz camp, "The Shed," is based around a list of 20 tunes that we all work on during the week. Furthermore, I LIKE the standards, and I like playing them, and I think learning and knowing certain standards is an unavoidable part of becoming a jazz musician.

However, I also love to compose music. My original reason for trying to improve as a pianist was because I wanted to be a composer. I think developing as a composer is what turns musicians into artists. Improvisation and composition are so similar, and one can inform the other. I love to write new tunes or pieces or songs because it's really my own world and I have total power over everything in that world. I love to bring new songs to a band and see what they do with the material; maybe they'll play it like I hear it, or maybe they will bring a whole new perspective.

I don't think an artist has to be always breaking new ground to be relevant, but I do think there has to be some lean towards newness to be relevant. Be it new music, or a new take on a standard, or an arrangement, or a group of musicians who have never played together, or something, I think this is the beauty of jazz and the beauty of art; there are infinite combinations of notes, chords, rhythms, and musicians that can make us pay attention.

I guess the contradiction lies in this insistence on standard repertoire but also an insistence on
innovation. I think the view of jazz at the moment is plagued by this contradiction in terms. Indeed, the wide spectrum of variety that you will hear by groups or artists classified under jazz will make your head spin. ( Years ago, I was at Newport playing with Cassandra Wilson. On the same bill was Maceo Parker, Celia Cruz, Dave Douglas and John Zorn, and Boney James and Rick Braun!) So you will hear guys playing standards, or all originals, or a mixture, or perhaps they will play NO tunes and play completely improvised music. All of these things will be called jazz.

Now, just to gain a perspective, in the more contemporary world of rock, pop, hip hip, and country music, I would argue that in terms of material, there is a constant need for new material. There is no prerequisite for playing "standards." Dave Matthews Band isn't validated by their performance of "Johnny Be Good," or "Rock Around The Clock" or some Beatles tunes. Kayne West isn't expected to perform "Fight The Power" by Public Enemy. Toby Keith isn't validated by performing Conway Twitty songs. I'm not saying that those artists didn't learn or don't know any classic songs. I'm just saying that we don't ask or expect them to perform "classic" material, or "covers" as they say. We, or should I say, their fans, expect them to play their own music, and if they didn't, they would be considered "unoriginal." I'm not saying those artists are great; however, I think we could agree that, for better or for worse, those are relevant artists in the recent music marketplace.

All of this being said, where does jazz stand in this? Do we need to think the same way? I believe it's worth considering, only because jazz, since 1959, has been declared dead time after time. The prevailing wisdom is that jazz is dead because other forms became more popular and jazz fell by the wayside. I believe that one of the concepts Nicholas Payton was driving at during the whole "BAM" mishagos was that jazz might be dead because it's been put in a box. "What IS jazz? THIS is jazz! THAT isn't jazz!" So is jazz evolving, or is it not? If a young musician plays a standard, is this part of the evolution? If a musician of any age plays original music for an audience that wants to hear "standards that we know," then what does that mean for jazz?

Sometimes, we as musicians have little choice; when a record label tells you to record standards, or a
club owner or promoter tells you to play more standards, and then the critic writes, "this group isn't breaking any new ground," then what? Sometimes it seems to me that jazz is caught in this horrible Catch-22, where it's either too new or too old. What is the solution? Any solution has risk. My personal philosophy has been versatility. Learn standards AND write originals. Be able to play tradition AND be able to play free. You might eventually gravitate towards something more specific, but that's normal. Cecil Taylor isn't going to get called to play standards with a singer. But what does he care? He's FREAKING CECIL TAYLOR!

I suppose some folks who hear my latest CD, "The Endless Mysteries," might hear(or see) all originals and wonder "Yeah, but does this dude know any standards?" Well, you only have to go back a few CDs; I released "Living For The City" in 2011 and it's all tunes you might know. I haven't decided what my next project will be; I have it narrowed down to either a completely improvised recording or a Christmas Album. Or, perhaps a tribute to Conway Twitty......

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.