Act Now

Recent passings include:

Steve Backer, a record executive responsible for documenting so much vital and thorny jazz. Steve Smith has a good post that includes contributions from Anthony Braxton and David Sokol.

Herb Wong, whose Palo Alto and Blackhawk record labels turned out several important mainstream discs at a time when that music didn’t have many worthy venues in America. There’s a photo of Wong with Duke Ellington and some stories from musicians in Gabe Meline’s memorial essay.

Fred Ho, the legendary activist and baritone saxophonist. Kyle Gann has an interesting take; Ben Ratliff’s obit is excellent.

Joe Wilder, sweet-toned trumpeter from jazz’s golden era. Mark Stryker pointed me in the direction of this fascinating interview by Keith Winking. I want to hear that Alec Wilder trumpet sonata played by Joe Wilder. It’s hard to find; from what I can tell, Milton Kaye is the pianist, who I once visited in his apartment next to Carnegie Hall. Kaye was then in his late 80’s and not playing much, but that didn’t stop him from running though Moszkowski’s “Guitarre” in marvelously high-handed fashion.


TBP just played the new SF JAZZ for the first time. It was extremely well run and a lot of fun all around; congratulations to Randall Kline and team for making the big building happen.

There’s no doubt that the future of American jazz is the patronage system. The latest financial bequests from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation include an astonishing collection of our best and brightest. Since it is so rough out there, these kinds of transfusions are becoming essential to keeping the music alive.

JALC and SF JAZZ are just the beginning; probably every major American city will have its dedicated non-profit jazz space eventually. (UPDATE: A few hours after posting, a Blog Supreme tweeted this article about the new space in St. Louis by Kevin C. Johnson. Of course I know the Jazz at St. Louis people, they are great.)

When enjoying the benefits of societal largesse, is up to the musicians themselves to keep the art form rooted in private folklore. 


Vijay Iyer has benefitted from the patronage system. I’m so impressed that he uses his ever-brightening platform to speak truth to power. In the speech to Yale’s Asian American alumni, “Our Complicity with Excess,” Vijay just goes in and dismantles it all beautifully:

And as we continue to consider, construct and develop our trajectories as Americans, I am also constantly mindful of what it means to be complicit with a system like this country, with all of its structural inequalities, its patterns of domination, and its ghastly histories of slavery and violence.

Many of us are here because we’ve become successful in that very context. That’s how we got into Yale, by being voted most likely to succeed; and that may be what emboldened some of us to show our faces here this weekend, because we actually have something to show for ourselves, that somehow in the years since we first dined at the Alternate Food Line we’ve managed to carve a place for ourselves in the landscape of America. Whether you attribute it to some mysterious triple package or to your own Horatio Alger story, to succeed in America is, somehow, to be complicit with the idea of America—which means that at some level you’ve made peace with its rather ugly past.

Bravo. If I am ever in a position of addressing a group of students at an Ivy League college, I hope I have this kind of courage.


Vijay’s quote from Martin Luther King is obviously admirable, and certainly a good thing to tell students:

“Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, what are you doing for others?”

But Vijay and I might see the place of activism in jazz a little differently. To me, even radical musicians like Monk, Coltrane, and Ornette – even Albert Ayler – seem essentially to be about about pitches, rhythms, tones, and private emotions. Yes, they all argue that we need to make a better world, but that is a subliminal transmission, not the overt argument.

There are great jazz activists, of course. The greatest was probably Charles Mingus, who wore contentious raiment with superb grandeur. Archie Shepp is another; indeed, when he settles down and plays bebop and standards it can seem like something is missing. My idol Mal Waldron says somewhere that jazz was always protest music, and that idea surely helped him ignore conventional piano influences like Hank Jones and Red Garland when creating his mature doom-and-drone style. Oliver Lake can place beautiful politically-themed punches: Oliver recently broke into spoken word at Smalls, which was was thrilling and chilling; some old white people got up and left the club instantaneously. Max Roach made some of the best overtly civil-rights era records, although in the 70’s he seemed to get stuck somewhere and have trouble broadening out into a more generous vision the way Mingus did with Let My Children Hear Music.

In truth, many of my jazz heroes were and are essentially free-spirited gangsters, even Max and Mingus. (Perhaps even especially Max and Mingus.) I’d reject any suggestion that most great jazz musicians lived to the Yo-Yo Ma code Vijay cites, “A life in the arts is a life of service.”

Service was optional. Service was up to you, the listener.

I’ve complained about the New York Times obit for Cedar Walton by William Yardley before in the “Critic’s Blues” section of “Cedar’s Blues”.

Fred Ho’s New York Times obit was twice as long as Walton’s. Probably the main reason is simply that Ratliff commands the material in a way Yardley doesn’t. But another reason may be that Ho’s lectures about the oppression of Afro-Asian culture smoothly translate to a newspaper column, while only jazz insiders will ever really know how great Cedar Walton was.

Vijay namechecks Fred Ho in his speech but doesn’t mention any uncontroversial straight-ahead masters like Cedar Walton. That’s easy to understand; Vijay is talking to a specific audience in a special circumstance. Since he’s a jazz pianist who knows his onions, I can’t imagine that Vijay would be any happier than I am with the implication of the two NY Times obituaries: “Cedar Walton is a lesser musician than Fred Ho because social justice wasn’t Cedar’s overt message.”

Much of what Vijay says is simply true: racism exists. Activism is required. Racism exists. If you love jazz, you should fight for racial equality.

I was rather stunned to read Willard Jenkins’s article about William Shadd, “The First African-American Piano Manufacturer.” It never occurred to me, in all these years of playing the piano and listening to all the great black pianists, that there wouldn’t have been some black-made pianos somewhere. I can’t wait to put my hands on a Shadd and try it out. 

UPDATE: Vijay tweeted, “thanks for linking my speech. you might try checking out my music before talking about the role of activism or service in it.” Whoops! It’s true, I might have mentioned the man’s music. I’m very out of the habit of reviewing peers (other than buddies) on DTM, I get so many press requests already. Vijay let me off the hook with second tweet, “‘I admit I don’t know all of Vijay’s work as well as I should, mainly because I don’t want to be influenced by it.’ – @ethan_iverson,” quoting me from an earlier DTM post. I could then respond, truthfully, “[laughter] I’m worried I sound too much like you already! I admit I listened to MUTATIONS and really dug it.” Vijay: “thanks. so do you hear the “place” of activism in that music as “subliminal” or “overt”? or neither?” Me: “I liked that the first solo piece was clearly the Monk-Randy Weston-Muhal axis, a nod to Afro before ‘ECM classical’ began. kudos.”

SECOND UPDATE: There was more back and forth between us on Twitter, including Vijay calling me out on an embarrassing grammar mistake that is now fixed. A memorable tweet of his was, “anyway I find it difficult to make assumptions about what the dead were thinking, especially those who weren’t often asked.”

Which is of course a very good point. They almost never were asked. The one place I can think of offhand where they were is Arthur Taylor’s Notes and Tones. I’ve been looking through it right now and A.T. brings up politics and protest to almost every single musician. It seems to me that most of them want to keep it separate, even in the wake of the Civil Rights era (some praise the Black Panthers). 

Art Taylor: What do you think about musicians putting political aspects in their music?

Elvin Jones: There’s so much politics, and politics can be such a subtle sort of subject. The musicians who do that think there will be some advantage in it for themselves. Either you’re going to be a musician or a politician. 

Not everyone agrees:

Art Taylor: Have you felt any kind of protest in your music?

Don Byas: I’m protesting now. If you listen you will notice I’m always trying to make my sound stronger and more brutal than ever. I shake the walls of the joints I play in. I’m always trying to sound brutal without losing the beauty, in order to impress people and wake them up. That’s protest, of course it is.

There’s lots more in Notes in Tones – if you are interested in this topic, it’s a must read. Just one more from Ron Carter:

All of a sudden black-studies programs have been getting hot. Everybody is a black music authority. A lot of them are not, as you know.