Book Report

The Jazz Bubble: Neoclassical Jazz in Neoliberal Culture by Dale Chapman has a lovely Jason Moran art exhibit on the cover but Moran is not in the text. Instead there are a half a dozen disparate chapters looking at certain moments in jazz history through a sociological/political lens.

There’s a lot of valuable material, especially the chapter on Dexter Gordon in the 70s and an overview of Verve songbook recordings. Any book like this gets me thinking, and kudos to Chapman for effort and entertainment. In the end, however, Chapman is talking to an academic audience, and academic approaches to jazz remain stubbornly in a key I cannot quite hear.

The phrase “Neoclassical Jazz” is not common currency, at least as far as I know. Apparently the phrase comes from Gary Giddins. It’s hard for me to imagine writing a swinging blues, showing up to the gig, handing the chart around, and telling the other musicians, “This is neoclassical.”  Still, I guess calling Dexter’s album Homecoming “neoclassical” makes some kind of sense, at least in the context of contemporaneous work by Weather Report and the AACM.

I’m not grounded in economic theory enough to follow Chapman’s deep dive into West Coast jazz venues. For the right reader these chapters might prove to the most intriguing.

I’m certainly against Neoliberalism; Chapman is too. Applying that concept to culture makes sense but a mixture of specific detail and smooth overview is elusive. I yearn for a sterner ruling on Joe Henderson’s Lush Life: The Music of Billy Strayhorn. It was a hit with the general populace but is it standing the test of time? While Chapman seems to really like the disc, some might argue that Lush Life is a devastating argument against the forces of the free market. (Although I love Joe Henderson, there’s no doubt in my own mind that Mal Waldron and Steve Lacy’s Ellington/Strayhorn tribute Sempre Amore from the same era is hipper in almost every way.) As usual, certain excellent quotes by musicians like Christian McBride carry more weight than quotes from other academics or critics.

In books like these, Wynton Marsalis gets regularly placed in opposition to Matthew Shipp.  That juxtaposition might work in a critic’s notebook but I don’t think I’ve ever heard a musician treat Wynton and Shipp as opposing poles. The difference between Wynton and Branford or the difference between Wynton and Roy Hargrove? I’ve heard those conversations. The difference between Shipp and David Ware or the difference between Shipp and Marilyn Crispell? I’ve heard those conversations too. Wynton and Shipp, though…what are we even talking about?

Wynton should be juxtaposed with Leonard Bernstein, Yo-Yo Ma, or Pierre Boulez. Those comparisons might be enlightening. In what ways have they all successfully served Music, and in what ways have they failed to rise above selling the idea of liberated individualism for greater corporate profit?

We could even get closer to home. He was a pioneer, but enough years have passed that Wynton is just one of many musicians in control of curating jazz in institutions. McBride is a radio personality. Jason Moran is at the Kennedy Center, Vijay Iyer is at Harvard. When I’m at NEC I am quite aware of the late Gunther Schuller and the living Ran Blake and Bob Moses. Josh Redman worked with SF JAZZ but bowed out. If I were writing a book about jazz and economics, all this seems to be a fertile field.

Enough carping. I read The Jazz Bubble with interest and will keep it on my shelf to return to in the future.