By January 26, 2013 0 Comments Read More →

Jazz is dead, man: exhibit A.

Since we’ve already posted obituaries for rock & roll and country music, we’d better get down to the real business of this blogsite: jazz. As we’ve begun to prove, jazz—and every other form of American music—is dead. Just how and why will be explored at length as we move forward, but we thought it would be at least a little illuminating to cite some anecdotal evidence for starters.

The Smithsonian Institution, which our Uncle Earl still insists is an “institute”, is beyond reproach as America’s attic, the nation’s scrapbook and a repository of things both wondrous and enlightening. As a purveyor of subjective insight, their reputation is only a little less sterling. In 1973, they released a “Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz”, a six LP box set chronicling the history of that genre. The set included an extensive book-as-liner-notes written by Martin Williams. It garnered some criticism, understandable for a volume that purported to tell the story of an entire art form, but mostly was released to favorable comment and reviews from the jazz establishment.

It seemed to hit all the salient points, and dispel all the usual myths, while trying to give the listener/reader a real sense of how the music evolved. Its elevation of Jelly Roll Morton and Louis Armstrong to singular status above all other pioneers doesn’t seem radical now, but 40 years ago there was still disagreement over their place in the foundation of the music. It downplayed the contributions of people like Benny Goodman, Dave Brubeck and Stan Kenton, which would have been a radical departure even a few years earlier, and celebrated all things Ellington, Parker, Monk and Young. Again, fairly tame stuff now, but more scholarly and analytical than most jazz research that had come before it. The most common criticisms of Williams’ conclusions and inclusions were the absence of any mention (or recording) by the hard boppers or “soul jazz” practitioners like Art Blakey, Horace Silver, Lee Morgan, etc., and his seeming disregard for any of the atonal, free music that flourished from the mid-1960’s on. The absence of players like Django Reinhardt and Clifford Brown seemed excusable for simple reasons of space.

coltraneThe collection concludes with John Coltrane’s (pictured) 1963 studio recording of his composition “Alabama”, which left the last ten years prior to the Smithsonian collection’s release untouched by Williams’ analysis. He makes mention of this at the conclusion of his notes by stating something to the effect (and we’re paraphrasing) that “more recent music needs to prove itself” before it can be included in any accurate historical analysis. A lukewarm argument, but one supposed at the time that later editions would address these omissions.

Well, years went by, and while the collection remained in print, no revisions were forthcoming. Finally, in 1987, the Smithsonian decided to migrate the collection to the relatively new CD format. Jazz geeks presumed that the post-1965 era would be addressed in some detail, given the passage of almost 15 years, but in fact only minor tweaks were made to the musical content. For instance, Django appeared, along with Bill Evans and Jimmie Lunceford, and Robert Johnson disappeared when Williams apparently decided the blues were a subject for another collection altogether. Williams updated his notes a bit to reflect these tweaks, but the thrust remained the same. Amazingly, the only post-1965 recording to make this new version of the collection was a 1979 recording by the World Saxophone Quartet. A fine group, but not exactly representative of 15 years of jazz. Or, was it?

When one begins to analyze the music after 1965, jazz does seem fairly stagnant. Sure, there were dandy players and performances, and there still are, but one could argue that the last important, and truly original, movement in jazz was the shift towards free improvisation and atonality. It began, like clockwork as this argument is concerned, right around 1965. Using the frameworks of both Ornette Coleman and the later music of  Coltrane, artists like Albert Ayler, Anthony Braxton and many, many others exploited this sub-genre for at least 15 years. We’ve tried and we’ve looked, but we just can’t come up with a truly “new” movement in jazz occurring after this one. As to why this is important might be lost on aficionados of folk musics, where the tradition is more important than the creation of new material, but it might be useful to point out to whippersnappers that jazz was a constantly changing, volatile, evolving form in this era.

Jazz critics of that era argued that “fusion”, at least the jazz-rock amalgam played by Miles Davis in the years after 1967, didn’t qualify as “real” jazz somehow. We’ll grant them their argument on grounds of purity, but their contention skirts the fact that a genuinely interesting and viable form of music was created. At its best, fusion was a legitimate outlet for that era’s most facile improvisers, especially—and not surprisingly—those using electric instruments. Perhaps we need to look at the revolution going on in rock & roll at that juncture, and consider that phenomenon as having occurred across all lines of genre and style, rather than treating fusion as some separate form, developing in a vacuum.

Fusion produced some genuinely original players, players like Jeff Beck, who would have fit in neatly as one of those utterly original 1940’s improvisers stuck between swing and bebop, but each having their own distinctly personal and recognizable style. Beck may not have improvised with the complexity of  the best jazz musicians of his era, or even with that of some of his fusion contemporaries like John McLaughlin, but we can’t think of more perfectly self-packaged solos, performed by a genuinely complete player. Unfortunately, that era also saw the rise of a mostly-instrumental pop music that became known later as “smooth jazz”, a technically sound, but utterly soulless combination of rhythm & blues and jazz. Given the parent forms’ unimpeachable pedigrees, the child in this case is certainly an argument against inbreeding.

The glories and sins of both fusion and pop jazz will be discussed at length here in the future, but the former genre has completely disappeared, and the latter genre, like some persistent memory of a bad, 1970’s elevator ride, lives on in an embalmed state. Regardless of their fate, our contention here is that real jazz is dead, and has been since the 1970’s. Perhaps the eerily prescient folks at the Smithsonian back in 1973 knew that it was on life-support, and issued their collection just in the nick of time. We’ll call this Exhibit A, with more to be submitted for your approval as we go forward.

You can buy used copies of the Smithsonian Collection by clicking on the image below. Avoid at all costs the similarly named “Jazz, The Smithsonian Anthology”. While the music on this latter collection is fine, it’s simply a mish-mash of things for which they own the rights, and it’s poorly annotated. Very much like a budget CD collection you find on sale at a neighborhood drugstore or something.

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