The “J” Word


Interview with Wynton Marsalis (Part 1):  Detailed discussion with audio clips of Wynton’s major opus, Congo Square, a two-CD set combining the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra and Odadaa! (the West African drum ensemble led by Yacub Addy).

Interview with Wynton Marsalis (Part 2):  A casual blindfold test of classic trumpet solos including Wynton’s parsing of improvising procedures on “Knozz-Moe-King” from Live at Blues Alley.  This section also includes general thoughts on race and education from Wynton.

The “J” Word: My own opinions about some of the music and controversies connected to Wynton Marsalis.

[Update, 2016.] It’s been eight years since the two Wynton interviews and five long sidebar articles went up on old DTM. The best material from the old sidebars is now in this leaner single page. Topics include: Young Lion Jazz of the 80’s, Tain/Wynton, Jam sessions, AACM, Critics and race.

When I called Wynton to set up the interview, he told me his address. His apartment number ends in “J.” I choked back a laugh and asked him, “‘J’ as in ‘jazz’?”

He replied, very quietly, “No doubt.”

Towards the end of our interview, he said, “Jazz—for a name that nobody wants—there’s been a lot of contest around it. I started saying at the beginning—I like the name of it. I like the music. I don’t have any problems with it.”

I enjoyed reading Wynton’s book, Moving to Higher Ground: How Jazz Can Change Your Life. There is a basic truth to his message that is more convincing than most comparatively flaccid jazz education. He is like jazz aspirin: take two once in a while to remind yourself of the basics.

Minor tyrants who really know their subject and make their students learn it just so are important.

Almost everyone I can think of who is a real New York jazz player has some story about getting told off by an irritated older cat on the bandstand, something like, “Quit horsing around and play, motherfucker!” For some, those experiences were discouraging, but in most cases they helped the younger musician get more serious.

Aesthetics can’t be taught. Every serious artist has to find their own path; listening inside yourself is the only answer. After learning from minor tyrants or irritable legends, it is up to the artist to metaphorically kill them off and pursue their own aesthetics.

Young Lion Jazz of the 80’s

The term “Young Lions” was controversial with the practitioners. Probably it was more a buzzword for the record industry than anything else. (The poet of the era was Stanley Crouch, and “Young Lion” appears nowhere in Crouch’s writing.) But it was certainly a movement, distinct from other jazz in the 1980’s, and my peers have always informally called it such. Apologies to those who dislike the appellation.

The thrilling aspect about these early Young Lion albums is the youthful pursuit of rhythm as a life-or-death matter. Some critics complained that it was a throwback, but really it sounded just like 1985: there was no previous era in jazz that uniformly celebrated “aggressively swinging” in quite this way, especially when married to an advanced, oblique, post-modal harmonic language in the tradition of Herbie Hancock, McCoy Tyner, John Coltrane, Woody Shaw and Wayne Shorter.

Less thrilling was how little the best musicians of the Young Lion school (all of whom were black) seemed to care about the previous generation of black innovators connected to free or experimental jazz. Henry Threadgill, Julius Hemphill, Roscoe Mitchell, Sam Rivers, Dewey Redman, and Oliver Lake would suddenly have less work due to the attention given the Young Lions.

There also seemed to be a disregard for most older white innovators like Paul Bley, Keith Jarrett, Charlie Haden, Paul Motian, Lee Konitz, and Warne Marsh.

I am painting in very broad strokes here—surely, some of the Young Lions dug Bill Frisell, fer crissake—but the appearance was of a unified disdain for jazz music that wasn’t swinging, virtuosic, and informed only by the great black jazz musicians.

This attitude is easy to understand: these musicians all grew up feeling the sharp end of American racism. It surely felt empowering to declare a stance of “us versus them.” As is so often the case, that feeling of “us versus them” prompted serious work artistically.

In Moving to Higher Ground, Wynton says,

Dizzy Gillespie told me, “Bebop was about integration. He said that his and Charlie Parker’s objective was to be integrated. Dizzy told me this around 1980, when I wasn’t thinking about integration at all. “We’ll get to that time,” I thought. “We don’t need to be integrated.”

No one has paid heavier dues for being an angry young interviewee than Wynton Marsalis. He has since changed his mind about needing to be integrated. The white jazz or jazz-connected musicians Wynton praises (and, in some cases, apologizes to for having dissed in the past) in Moving to Higher Ground include Paul Desmond, Gene Krupa, Bill Evans, Jean Goldkette, Frankie Trumbauer, Bix Beiderbecke, Bill Challis, Mike Pellera, Ricky Sebastian, Alvin Young, Dave Brubeck, Benny Goodman, Jimmy McPartland, Dave Tough, Bud Freeman, Art Hodes, Woody Herman, Gil Evans, Zoot Sims, Gil Evans, George Gershwin, Stan Getz, Gerry Mulligan, and Phil Woods.

However, it is noticeable that whenever Ornette Coleman is mentioned, the name Charlie Haden is not included. Ornette is Wynton’s token “avant-garde” musician, since Ornette inarguably always sounds like the blues. But it is impossible to assess Ornette without Haden: indeed, the finest and most innovative interpreters of the Coleman style, Keith Jarrett and Pat Metheny, have never really done Coleman-inspired music without Haden present. The absence of Haden, Jarrett, and Metheny—all white, of course—from the Marsalis world-view is one of Wynton’s greatest weaknesses.

(Wynton does repeatedly credit Don Cherry as an influence, and reportedly can play along with Cherry solos from The Shape of Jazz to Come and Change of the Century. Those earliest Atlantic discs, along with Ornette!, comprise Wynton’s recommended list of Coleman in Moving to Higher Ground. I regret not playing Wynton a Don Cherry solo in our blindfold test to discuss this further.)

The best first-generation Young Lion albums might be underrated today.

Wynton Marsalis Black Codes (From the Underground) (1985), J Mood (1985), Marsalis Standard Time Volume One (1986), and Live at Blues Alley (1987) are discussed in detail below.

Branford MarsalisRoyal Garden Blues (1985), Trio Jeepy (1989). The first blues on Trio Jeepy is a fine introduction to the great strength of Branford Marsalis, which is a determination to take the general model of Sonny Rollins and push it into a whole new level of harmonic and rhythmic modernity. Another place to hear this is “Strike Up the Band” from Royal Garden Blues, which features out-of-key pentatonic playing with more of a Rollinsish, searching quality than most Coltrane-styled players. Branford would not peak in the Eighties, but would move on to make more abstract music in the Nineties.

Kenny Garrett Introducing Kenny Garrett (1984). This is really Woody Shaw’s band under Garrett’s leadership. But—probably due to its historical moment—it is more exciting than most of Shaw’s own albums with a similar line-up. Shaw was an elder, but he fervently embraced the Young Lions. Garrett’s next major label albums would be very fine, but the real place to hear Garrett is on a good night in the club, when he’s on fire and proving that he is absolutely in the lineage of greatest jazz altoists.

Mulgrew Miller – Wingspan (1987), with a similar cast (Garrett and Tony Reedus), is also considered essential in some circles.

Kenny Kirkland Kenny Kirkland (1990). Kirkland was a more powerful sideman than a leader, but this is still a truly burning record.

Marcus RobertsThe Truth Is Spoken Here (1988). Roberts was one of the most distinctive players of the whole era. His first album is a manifesto more stern than any Marsalis disc up until that point. Indeed, I think “J-Master” Roberts was a big influence on Wynton, helping the trumpet player to rethink and retool his presentation of jazz. In Moving to Higher Ground, Wynton discusses how schooled he felt by Charlie Rouse, whose relaxed threading is heard here for the last time (Rouse passed away before the end of the year). Elvin Jones nails the tricky phrases of Roberts’ “Country by Choice.”

Ralph Peterson Triangular (1988) and Volition (1989). It’s really all about Tain and Ralph Peterson. The rest of the Young Lion drummers could be good, too, but these were the pair who caused awe and consternation. Women wept; children hid; pianists fainted; horn players sweated. (Bass players were seen but not heard.) Tain had the advanced math, but Ralph had the Latino undulation and one of the most swinging ride cymbal beats. His piece “Seven of Swords” is a rare example of someone taking on the Max Roach 5 + 5 + 6 clave from Bud Powell’s “Un Poco Loco.”

These Peterson albums also document a marvelous interface with a young black musician who was not a Young Lion: Geri Allen does not tone down her inborn surreality on either disc, and more power to her for it.

In general, while Peterson’s drumming was generally like Art Blakey on steroids, his overall musical conception allowed for more breadth than most of the other Young Lions. Both Reid Anderson and Dave King especially admire Meet the Fo’tet.

Donald BrownEarly Bird (1987). Brown is a great composer. Here, “Quiet Fire” is written in one of my least favorite styles: “Medium waltz – polychord/lydian harmony – sentimental melody.” Despite my prejudice, I find “Quiet Fire” compelling: naturalness is married to complexity in a way only a serious composer can achieve. “Basically Simple” is a unique version of rhythm changes, and “Dorothy” is a gorgeous ballad. Brown’s piano playing on this album is serious and virtuosic, and it’s interesting to listen to some prime Robert Hurst/Jeff Watts action away from the Marsalises.

There are surely other Young Lion albums from this era that are equally interesting; I hardly know them all, since it was just one of many styles on offer back when the discs were coming out. For example, I never owned an album by Out of the Blue, Blue Note’s answer to the Marsalis/Columbia juggernaut.

Likewise, the powerful Donald Harrison/Terence Blanchard combination is something I was aware of but didn’t really absorb. However, this 1987 Harrison/Blanchard video of “Endicott” is a quintessential documentation of the “Young Lion sound.” It is absolutely the sound of an era: again, contrary to what some critics have said, there are no albums from the 70’s, 60’s, or 50’s that sound like “Endicott.”

The Young Lions movement was generally portrayed as a reaction against two kinds of 70’s music: free jazz (which rarely swung) and fusion and funk (which rarely was acoustic).

Probably they didn’t like free jazz, but they did know Fusion and funk they did know, since they grew up with it. Indeed, almost every first-generation Lion has done a fusiony or funky album some time after 1990.

Back in the Eighties, though, the music of the Young Lions was a reacted against the influence of fusion and funk on straight-ahead music played during the Seventies.

Part of the problem was simply the way jazz was recorded in the 1970s. I don’t know why these are often the worst-sounding records in the music’s history, but they usually are. (It’s ironic that this decade also produced some of the greatest-sounding records ever in pop and rock.)

The instruments themselves were occasionally at fault, especially in the rhythm section, due to an injection of rock and fusion electricity that wasn’t really understood by straight-ahead jazz musicians. Even masters like Hank Jones, Ahmad Jamal, and Cedar Walton played the Rhodes and other keyboards, sometimes with questionable results.

At the drums, many players added extra toms and cymbals and got a much bigger bass drum. Tony Williams sounded fabulous behind this expanded set, but not everybody else could always pull it off.

But the offenses of the piano and drums in the Seventies were minor compared to the bass.

When looking for a Woody Shaw solo to play for Wynton in our interview, I decided on “Fenja,” from Dexter Gordon’s 1977 album Homecoming. It’s a beautiful trumpet solo with long lines on a standard chord progression, and Wynton was properly appreciative of Shaw’s genius. What I didn’t anticipate—although I should have—was Marsalis making gentle fun of Stafford James’s bass tone. It was a great reminder of part of Marsalis’s accomplishment.

James is a very good jazz bassist. I have no interest in putting him down. But the simple fact is that at least 80% of the swinging acoustic jazz records made between 1970 and the advent of Wynton Marsalis have a godawful bass sound. In performance, it was all amplified pick-up, and when recording the bass, the engineers usually put that pick-up directly to tape. To compound the problem, often the strings of the bass were far closer to the fingerboard than in the Sixties and Fifties, making for a walking line that was heard but not felt, a state of affairs that was acceptable for some but not for most.

This 70’s bass set-up did enable the player to “liberate the bass” and perform melodies and take long solos more like a guitarist. But the ultimate aesthetic value of this liberation—at least in the context of straight-ahead jazz—was questionable.

Even the greatest bass players like Ron Carter, Buster Williams, Sam Jones, Charles Mingus, and Percy Heath often had really strange sounds in the Seventies and Eighties. Many of those strange sounds went away after Wynton Marsalis led the charge into a new era of recording acoustic jazz well, where the amp was turned down and the strings were raised up. Delfeayo Marsalis produced a lot of those good-sounding records, and is famous for the pronouncement featured on several Young Lion records: “To obtain more wood sound from the bass, this album was recorded without usage of the dreaded bass direct.”

One of the few places to hear a well-recorded bass sound in the Seventies was on ECM: Gary Peacock, Dave Holland, Malachi Favors, Palle Danielson, and especially Charlie Haden. ECM’s output was the first and most important European coup against American jazz. They have consistently put out some of the best improvised music every year since 1970.

Unsurprisingly, the Young Lions’ relationship to any ECM music was non-existent.

In addition to ignoring ECM and Charlie Haden, the Young Lions also ignored the important musical proposal, put forward by Wilbur Ware, Ron Carter, Jimmy Garrison, Charles Mingus and others, to have the bass be an independent—even contrarian—voice in swinging jazz. (To be fair, most Seventies straight-ahead jazz had ignored Ware, Garrison, and Mingus, too.)

Another problem was that no matter how hard the bassists pulled, half the time you could hardly hear what they played next to Jeff Watts or Ralph Peterson live. Even on record, you usually can’t hear the bass at an optimum level. One of the rare exceptions is elder statesman Milt Hinton’s marvelous performance on Branford’s Trio Jeepy. It’s a great example of Hinton’s exposed playing as an improvisor, which, considering his vast output, is relatively hard to find. His bass sound here is fabulous! This is the real jazz bass. (Amusingly, when Young Lion Delbert Felix sits in for Hinton on a couple numbers, he is immediately turned down in the mix. This is a less impressive Delfeayo Marsalis decision.)

Still, what they did do was really important. Reid Anderson reminded me that they talked about it in print, too: stop “liberating the bass” and play the bass! This was very intriguing information to think about as a youngster.

A fun sentimental listen is Chick Corea’s Three Quartets with Michael Brecker, Eddie Gomez, and Steve Gadd. This record is from 1981: it’s just about the last gasp of the old guard from before the Young Lions exploded on the scene. The three pieces on the record are uniformly all-acoustic, all swing-feel pieces. Still, these quartets sound like electric fusion, not acoustic jazz. It has to do with the tones, the sound, and the attitude. Maybe it’s kind of a good record; these are surely four of the greatest instrumentalists in history, after all, and singly and together they participated in actual electric fusion masterpieces of the Seventies. But the problem with Three Quartets is that fusion’s icy machismo is neither glorified by electric amplification nor tempered by any earthiness. Instead, it lives in some half-life of badly recorded, too-slick instrumental virtuosity exhibiting a false sense of security.

It would be fascinating to hear exactly the same music played exactly the same way but produced by Delfeayo Marsalis. Perhaps it would have much more power. As it stands, how harsh to compare Three Quartets—a famous record in its day—to any Wynton Marsalis record from the 1980s! The Wynton records have the icy machismo, but also earthiness, and the result is a sound TKO.

“Icy machismo” is one of the reasons Eighties Young Lion music is so distinctive. It also, perhaps paradoxically, shows a seldom-discussed similarity of their music to fusion.

Wynton’s Black Codes (From the Underground) or the Blanchard/Harrison “Endicott” above showcase hard, clean, complex music with composed contrapuntal lines for two horns that is closer to the Brecker Brothers than Bird and Diz in spirit. Indeed, the ostentatious lone bar of 3/4 that interrupts the burning uptempo 4/4 blowing on “Delfeayo’s Dilemma” (on Black Codes and Live at Blues Alley) would not be out of place on a fusiony 70’s record—but certainly would be out of place on any classic jazz record of the Sixties.

Unquestionably, Jeff Watts owes something to the best fusion. This is, just to be clear, a good thing. Watts sounds like his era and his place in history, which all great artists must do. That immortal fill behind the trumpet break on “Black Codes”?  That is surely not just post-Elvin Jones, but post-Billy Cobham, too.

Something mildly fusion-esque about Watts’ playing is how his rhythms always fit on a grid, no matter how fast or complicated. This is not like Jack DeJohnette, Elvin Jones, or Tony Williams, all aggressive drummers far less concerned with landing every downbeat in exactly the right place.

Another musician who could hear those subdivisions like Tain is Marcus Roberts. On Roberts’s solo version of “Blue Monk” from The Truth Is Spoken Here, the pianist slices and dices the time in precise little bits. It is very beautiful, and sounds just like a post-fusion 1988.

On the same album, Roberts sounds great alongside ultra-greasy elder Elvin Jones, but I think he sounds even better when interfacing with fellow post-fusionist Jeff Watts in the Wynton Marsalis quartet. Watts himself may sound more comfortable with Charnett Moffett or Robert Hurst than with Milt Hinton. Peers know the same information, and part of what these peers know is the Brecker Brothers.

It’s important to remember that these distinctive musicians were inevitably a product of their environment, not grown in a “jazz-history test tube” somewhere. After all, wholly rejecting your environment seldom produces memorable results.

Four Early Wynton/Tain Records

I mourned the departure of Jeff “Tain” Watts from the Wynton Marsalis bands, because I thought it brought out the very best in both players. All great jazz has tension in it, and here was a showdown between a trumpet player who related fervently to Louis Armstrong and a drummer who executed the loudest, fastest, most complicated and innovative rhythms with postmodern surgical skill. The four classic albums documenting their profound chemistry together remain the best Young Lion records from the Eighties.

Black Codes (From the Underground). The first sentence of Stanley Crouch’s liner notes is telling:

As the cover tells you, it all comes down to knowing and wanting to know, to study and experience, to rebellion against the bondage of ignorance.

The first three albums, Wynton Marsalis, Think of One, and Hot House Flowers have their moments but are a little green. From the first moment of Black Codes, though, this music has real individuality and oomph. At a few points, Watts is hitting so hard that it seems like the drums are going to fall off their stands. It is rather humbling to contemplate the ages of the musicians playing: Wynton: 23, Branford: 24, Kirkland: 29, Watts: 24, Charnett Moffett: 17.

Every composition on Black Codes is strong. The title piece does something I have never heard before or since: Instead of the whole head being repeated after solos like usual, the opening rhythm section phrase is followed by a slow, drunken version of the first few bars of the horn theme… and that’s it. Brilliant.

Moffett is heard to good effect on “Wee Folks,” although he could be 20% louder in the mix the rest of the time. Wynton and Tain sound made for each other. Branford is in there too, although perhaps he’s stronger on tenor than on soprano. However, the best reason to have Black Codes is for the piano solos by Kenny Kirkland, which are rhythmically impeccable motivic fantasies, worked out at the highest level of virtuosity, that nevertheless retain the kind of funky casualness that all great jazz players have.

I have yet to hear a record that says “this is the real Kenny Kirkland” like Black Codes (from the Underground) does.

J Mood. Just after the recording of Black Codes, Branford and Kirkland left Wynton to tour with Sting. Apparently, this created a lot of bad feeling; in Moving to Higher Ground, Wynton says he contemplated quitting jazz over what he saw as a betrayal. His savior, he goes on to say, was Marcus Roberts, the “J-Master” referenced in the title piece of this album, which was recorded only eleven months after Black Codes.

I remember well getting J Mood at the record store when it had just come out, worried and disappointed that I hadn’t heard of the pianist or bassist. The first tune allayed my fears. To this day, I have heard few better examples of a medium-slow minor blues than “J Mood.” At one point, Wynton sustains a plaintive high note while Watts unleashes a death-defying catastrophe underneath.

Has any other ferocious technician in recent jazz history restrained their playing as much as Wynton Marsalis? He is admirably content to play a pretty melodic phase while letting the rhythm section burn. His tone—huge, burnished, clean—is a big asset, and probably the secret to how simply and memorably he can play on something like “J Mood.”

The other truly great piece on this disc  is Donald Brown’s “Insane Asylum,” which teeters several times into genuine madness. I recommend this track to anyone who still doesn’t think Marsalis’s music belongs in the canon of important jazz.

Another interesting piece is “Skain’s Domain.” Again, I must quote Stanley Crouch’s liner notes: “For those interested in the structure, the song is twenty-seven bars long, with a two/four measure at the nineteenth bar.” How many inexperienced musicians, after reading this description, played “Skain’s Domain” over and over, desperately trying to hear this mildly obtuse form?

Standard Time Volume One. Long-range planning is beginning to replace intuition in the rhythm section: Roberts and Watts are really getting into weird call and response patterns, with 4/4 always just next to a sped-up 6 or a slowed-down 3. The songs that have deliberate rhythmic complexity forcibly injected into them from the git-go—“Caravan,” “April In Paris,” “Cherokee,” “The Song Is You,” “Autumn Leaves”—are more exciting than the relatively “straight” versions of the rest of the material.

Kirkland’s genius lay in shifting around patterns and scales in the tradition of McCoy Tyner and Herbie Hancock, whereas Roberts’s heroes are clearly those who’s life work was voice-leading: Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, Ahmad Jamal. Despite his relative inexperience, Roberts plays with immense authority. In fact, at times his comping seems to be on top of the trumpet, a style Marsalis would encourage in all of his subsequent pianists.

Live at Blues Alley. This two-disc set is a summation of the accomplishments of the previous aIbums, with high-energy renditions of repertoire from each disc. (What a difference between versions of “Knozz-Moe-King” on Think of One and Live at Blues Alley!) I played the brilliant, virtuosic, abstract trumpet solo from “Knozz-Moe-King” for Wynton, and our discussion of this track is one of the highlights of the interview.

The first version of the blues “Juan” is also phenomenal. The trumpet solo is great, but then the piano solo is stratospheric, with Roberts repeating and liquifying a simple blues riff until it becomes transcendent. Seldom is straight-ahead jazz so exciting on record.

While Robert Hurst occasionally comes more to the foreground on Blues Alley—he influences Wynton’s blues choruses on “Much Later”—overall the rhythm section work on uptempo pieces like “Knozz-Moe-King,” “Chambers of Tain,” “Delfeayo’s Dilemma,” and “Skain’s Domain” is maniacal. This is Tain’s home. Roberts’s coy placing of the tune to “Cherokee” is impossible to count correctly.

Again, as I theorized earlier, this constant aggressive rhythmic displacement seems somehow connected to fusion, or if not fusion than some sort of odd-meter Bartokian folk dance or other non-jazz even-eighth music. It’s not really “swing”—I mean, of course, it is swinging, but it doesn’t have a constant celebration of what some older musicians call “spang-a-lang.”

My response is, “Who needs ‘spang-a-lang’ when you have all this happening shit?” It’s even arguable that when Watts is laying back and playing medium-tempo brushes on both Standard Time Volume One and Live at Blues Alley, the music is, weirdly, less swinging.

However, that’s not what Roberts and Marsalis seemed to think about it. In the liner notes to the next Marsalis record, The Majesty of the Blues, Wynton is quoted as saying:

I knew that when I did that album at Blues Alley that I wasn’t going to do another record in that type of style – all those really complex rhythms, playing fast, wild.

As far as I know, neither Marsalis nor Roberts has played music with heavy polyrhythmic drum-piano interaction in the last twenty years. Instead, each has preferred rhythm sections that never lose sight of “spang-a-lang.”

I didn’t tell Wynton I quit buying his records when Herlin Riley replaced Jeff Watts, because these days I am really trying to open up to Riley, too. (Riley is wonderful on a couple of tracks on Congo Square.) However, the fact that I chose to play “Knozz-Moe-King” for him in our interview was surely an indicator of my allegiance. About the Riley-powered septet, Wynton said to me:

People, at that time – they would always say, “That was much better than that other shit you was doing.” That was just the general vibe. Promoters, people would come back and they’d be like, “That shit there. Keep them. Don’t do that other shit.”

I admit I was blown away as a 17-year-old seeing that sextet live in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. It’s hard for me to imagine that I wouldn’t have been even more excited seeing Tain with him, though.

Can You Hang at the Jam Session?

The Young Lion era informs the sound of most of the best American jazz in our peer group. It was just so hip in the 1980ss, all those black guys in expensive suits playing hard music with serious attitude. It’s this simple: when those Marsalis albums started dropping in the mid-1980s, we all thought, “This is really cool!” and bought them.

In fact, the Young Lion movement may have been the last time jazz was really cool in a populist sense. There was even a Hollywood movie (Mo’ Better Blues) and a high-end project with a rock star (Dream of the Blue Turtles).

By this point, it’s obvious that I believe that the premier pianist—and possibly the premier instrumentalist, period—of that era was Kenny Kirkland. Kirkland’s best recorded playing is on Wynton and Branford Marsalis albums. In our chat about pianists, Jason Moran said, “He was the guy. The last innovator. He took the Herbie/McCoy thing to the next ship.”

However, this opinion—which is shared by almost all American jazz musicians about my age—is, amazingly, far from a consensus worldwide. On the excellent bootleg free jazz blog Inconstant Sol, “Boromir” posted a rip of a Miroslav Vitous gig and commented:

I’d never heard of Kenny Kirkland, but apparently he played with Wynton and Branford Marsalis.

So… obviously, Boromir, who normally specializes in people like Alexander Von Schlippenbach, has never even heard a Marsalis record?

But I doubt Boromir is a musician. My jaw dropped when I saw this quote from British pianist Neil Cowley:

“I’m not a jazz purist,” Cowley says. “Sure, I learned the Kenny Kirkland piano solos off Sting’s Bring on the Night and stuff, but I hope I’m open to everything.”

I checked out Cowley and dig where his music is coming from. But, honestly, saying that the Kenny Kirkland you know is the work with Sting is like saying you love Sting but have never heard The Police. (Apologies to Cowley if he is misquoted here.)

Not that you need to know anything about straight-ahead American jazz to make great music. You don’t like it? Fine. Ignore straight-ahead American jazz with absolute impunity.

But a kind of critical trope displayed in a 2004 article by Nathan Holaway is essentially blasphemy.

We are in one of the most conservative musical times in the history of jazz, at least in the US, where most of this wonderful, genius music was created. With the return of Dexter Gordon from Europe and arrival of Wynton Marsalis, jazz was ushered into its first real Neo-Classic Era. Now multitudes of Jazz Orchestras, such as Lincoln Center, re-hash old standards almost note for note. Wynton and Branford Marsalis, Marcus Roberts, James Carter and Nicholas Payton are all extremely talented musicians, but they’re not being “innovative.” And “innovation” is what has propelled jazz into the creative music that we know.

The writer goes on to cite great albums of innovative music coming out of Europe at the moment, like Erik Truffaz’s Revisite, which he describes as

The true essence of leading the way, with Truffaz improvising over techno beats and other sonic percussive layouts. It’s been said that if Miles were still alive, he would be doing what Truffaz is currently undertaking.

I have no interest in criticizing Truffaz, who’s a very nice guy in person and an intriguing musician. Nor do I have any automatic American chauvinism against European jazz music: I wrote an article for DownBeat about Django Bates, have promoted Benoît Delbecq, and believe my obit for Esbjörn Svensson was the only detailed commentary on E.S.T. by an American musician. I’m even looking forward to hearing Neil Cowley live.

The word “virtuosity” is probably important here. The Marsalises, Kenny Kirkland, Jeff Watts – these are players that dialogue with the past in a sincere, virtuosic way. Musicians like Truffaz consciously dial down “jazz virtuosity” and with good reason, since meaningless virtuosity is boring. But virtuosic jazz is really hard to play, and, frankly, is tied up with social and racial issues of American history.

The more you know about jazz, the more you respect it. Too often, there is lack of knowledge (and respect) when these comparisons are made.

Consider that archaic forum for jazz expression, the jam session. This is one of the best places to hear a Young Lion-type player. Stories abound about every black virtuoso on Holaway’s list getting up sometime to sit in somewhere and shocking everyone else present with their heat and command of the jazz language. Trust me, this is not easy to do. Real jazz is hard to play! To deal it out unworriedly at a jam session – with a band you don’t know, in front of an audience looking on with a mixture of expectation, skepticism and indifference – requires real dedication to the craft.

This skill is not the greatest skill in music; conceptual and aesthetic issues are more important in the end. Many of my all-time favorite musicians are not guaranteed “jam-session domination” the way, say, James Carter is. Still, respect for that ability must be given.

In Ben Ratliff’s Coltrane: The Story of a Sound, he writes about Mulgrew Miller and gives us an important Miller quote:

…Miller is widely seen by jazz musicians as a master, and outside of musicians, as a bit of a bore. There is no identifiable element of extramusical transgression inside or outside his playing; he is not combining languages; he is not giving bourgeois culture the finger; he is not straining credulity. He is not asking you to alter your life. He plays jazz as black music, and there is a deep sense of propriety to it, but it’s not also history and politics and musicology and philosophy: it is music alone.

In an interview for Down Beat in 2005, he talked about moderation and refinement, about a standard of language for jazz piano, about jazz as folk music, and the idea that “folk music is not concerned with evolving.

”A lot of people do what a friend of mine calls “interview music,” [Miller said]. You do something that’s obviously different, and you get the interviews and a certain amount of attention. Jazz is part progressive art and part folk art, and I’ve observed it to be heavily critiqued who attribute progressivity to music that lacks a folk element. When Charlie Parker developed his great conception, the folk element was the same as Lester Young and the blues shouters before him. Even when Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane played their conceptions, the folk element was intact. But now, people almost get applauded if they don’t include that in their expression. If I reflected a heavy involvement in Arnold Schoenberg or some other ultra-modern composers, then I would be viewed differently than I am. Guys who do what I am doing are viewed as passé.

Like any other professional jazz musician, I have serious respect and love for Mulgrew Miller. However, although I don’t think this myself, I can understand why Miller might be considered “a bit of a bore” outside of a circle of fellow professionals and jazz insiders.

Perhaps the problem isn’t Miller but the environment at large, which Miller rightly thinks is generally unreceptive to his perspective. If there were enough clear-eyed, intelligent supporters of his artistry, perhaps his communicative powers as a player would really begin to soar. (That moment almost happened for him in the 1980s, when there was a lot of energy surrounding the Young Lion movement.)

The natural, correct balance of folklore and progressivity has never been so awkward to manage in jazz as it is now. I hope the next generation(s) of players will have an easier time of navigating these troubled waters than mine has. It’s a schism that shouldn’t even be a schism, and it’s bad for everybody.

One thing that could help the schism is if the centrist players swallowed their understandable pride in achieving straight-ahead mastery and encouraged the experimentalists. (This almost never happens.)

On the AACM

When preparing to meet with Wynton, I read George E. Lewis’s then-new history A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music.

I recommend this fantastic book unreservedly. However, Lewis makes no judgments and offers very few listening notes, a high-minded approach that doesn’t help make all this experimental music less forbidding. A critical guide to all the AACM music is needed as a companion volume. I can’t take that on myself, but I’ve found several tracks of superb music that fit comfortably in the canon of great jazz and improvised music. These slender and admittedly novice annotations will hopefully spur others to investigate further and draw their own conclusions. Sincere apologies to all the younger AACM musicians not represented here: I’m working up to checking out the latest developments.

Anthony Braxton, Leo Smith, Leroy Jenkins, Steve McCall, “Simple Like” fromAnthony Braxton (1969) Written by Leroy Jenkins, “Simple Like” is in jazz’s tradition of prolonged exploration of a minor mode. If you think of  “So What,” then “Impressions,” then “Ogunde,” the trajectory of getting to “Simple Like” is obvious. At one point, Smith’s trumpet over organ even sounds like Miles Davis.

In the late Sixties, this quartet was right alongside the Art Ensemble of Chicago, and later billed as the “Creative Construction Company.” Some of the procedures are identical, like how everyone loved to double on “little instruments.” This record documents how exciting and transgressive it was to keep reaching for unlikely finds in order to create a mini-galaxy of new sound.

Jenkins’s melody is a genuine-sounding folkloric chant with flute. It is wildly out of tune, and unquestionably intentionally so: it is not parodic. Each musician gets a solo, but in contrast to conventional jazz, there is more room for the others to comment obtrusively behind the lead.

Air, “Keep on Playing Through the Water” from Air Time (1974) Steve McCall tuned his drums in the jazz tradition. His opening solo reminds me of Andrew Cyrille. However, once the band is going strong, McCall uses idiosyncratic surges, going from almost too soft to almost too loud very quickly. It ensures that McCall is present in the dialogue, not just maintaining a texture, and seems to me something quintessentially “AACM” and not at all “New York” in approach.

Henry Threadgill plays tenor here, and while he does open up a little bit toward the end, the piece is really a feature for McCall and (especially) Fred Hopkins. Threadgill holds down a chorale-type tune while Hopkins essentially goes nuts. It will scare you to death.

Threadgill is one of the great jazz composers, and his outstanding Sextett from the 1980’s (which doesn’t seem to fit in the AACM camp the way Air does) was exactly the kind of band the Young Lions might have benefited from considering seriously.

George Lewis, “Toneburst (Piece for Three Trombones Simultaneously)” from The Solo Trombone Record (1976) Lewis’s own recordings reflect vast knowledge of detailed, abstract music, ranging from early jazz to the latest classical modernists. There is often a major electronic element. The Solo Trombone Record is the most direct statement of his that I’ve heard. “Toneburst” is a major work, a twenty-minute overdubbed exposition of both notated and improvised languages. There is some extended technique, especially during a sarcastic “laughing” section, but mostly the piece uses “normal” writing and improvising. Towards the end, one trombone improvises for a while: perhaps it is a cadenza. When the two other bones return they are far back in the mix, as if they are exhibiting sympathetic concern for the dimensions of this undertaking. (The first trombone even arpeggiates a lonely B-flat minor triad.)

Lewis is one of the most conventionally skilled of all the AACM musicians: he’s one of the most technically advanced trombonists in history, and “Phenomenology” here swings.

Roscoe Mitchell, “Nonaah” (for four saxophones) from Nonaah (1977) Hardcore! The four saxophones play a rich, short, atonal phrase over and over again for five minutes. It isn’t boring, though, since the emotion somehow kaleidoscopes around the spectrum. (It helps that you hear the saxophonists gasping for air.) The initial assault is replaced by a beautiful notated adagio section closing on a pure major triad. Staccato group improvising in the style of the first section follows. On cue, the gates open and everyone is finally allowed to play faster runs, too. This masterpiece seems shorter than its eighteen minutes.

Leroy Jenkins, “Space Minds, New Worlds, Survival of America” from Space Minds, New Worlds, Survival of America (1978) This record should be far better known. All the songs are great, but the 21-minute title track is something more. The title “Space Minds, New Worlds, Survival of America” seems worryingly grandiose, but the intensity of the music delivers. The powerful first blues tune is enhanced by Richard Teitelbaum’s synthesizer. After a drum solo, a punching, hocketing rhythmic matrix forms the basis of improvising. The next section is grounded in a blues drone and a new ostinato for improvising. In the closing fade, Jenkins repeats a doleful chromatic line while Andrew Cyrille plays a march.

Anthony Braxton, “Opus 77A” from Alto Saxophone Improvisations 1979 This two-record set is currently hard to get except as part of the recent Arista Mosaic box. I’m lucky enough to have the original, which has stayed on my shelves since I first got it as a teenager. The first piece, “Opus 77A,”  is still my favorite. First of all, it is unbelievably virtuosic in its control of dynamics and articulation. Second, it eventually sounds like Braxton is waging war with a science fiction monster. I know Braxton likes monsters and all that same lo-fi sci-fi stuff that I do, so I’m sure that he would appreciate me describing this scalding performance as “the saxophone eats him.”

The Art Ensemble of Chicago, “Walking in the Moonlight” from The Third Decade(1984) Lester Bowie had great tone, time, blues feeling, gangster attitude, and inborn surrealism. He leads Roscoe Mitchell and Joseph Jarman superbly in this Mitchell original—Mitchell and Jarman couldn’t have done it without him. “Walking in the Moonlight” is a humorous parody of early jazz, with the Mitchell tenor solo probably being the single funniest thing ever recorded for ECM. The fact that Bowie isn’t merely a parodist, but just plays this style so good makes the whole piece successful —and, indeed, immortal.

Muhal Richard Abrams, “Introspection”  from Colors in Thirty-Third(1986) Abrams has taught and composed with the Joseph Schillinger system since the 1950’s. As far as I can tell, that system can be directed at any kind of music, not just material that sounds “classical.” However, Abrams does write “classical” music that is surely informed by Schilinger. There’s an example of it on this record called “Piano-Cello Song.” Neither Dave Holland nor Abrams seems to improvise here, and I find it a bit dry. (All seven pieces were recorded in one day! That’s not much time for hard music. I wonder how  “Piano-Cello Song” would have fared under a more luxurious, classical music-friendly environment.)

But “Introspection,” while beginning with solemn counterpoint in octaves like Hindemith, is thankfully taken over by an improvisatory ethos. In particular, the “development section” is clearly a group improvisation in the style of the composition. This is extraordinarily hard to do, and “Introspection” has to be one of the best examples extant. It helps that the groupings seem organized into trios, duos, and ending with solo piano before the return of written material. “Introspection” is “classical-sounding” AACM music that really works.

Anthony Davis, “Wayang No. 5” from The Ghost Factory (1988) A fair number of jazz musicians have tried to make music with symphonic forces over the years, but it remains a troublesome mix. The Ghost Factory offers two solid concertos: “Maps,” featuring dynamic violinist Shem Guibbory (with a crucial role given to percussionist Gerry Hemingway) and “Wayang No. 5,” for Davis himself. Davis is interested in gamelan music, and there’s no qualitative reason why “Wayang No. 5” shouldn’t be paired with other piano-gamelan intersections, like the Lou HarrisonPiano Concerto and Colin McPhee’s Tabuh-Tabuhan. A major factor in the success of “Wayang No. 5” is the participation of  a non-classical drummer, Pheeroan AkLaff, who has his hands full dealing with the orchestral mallets and string section in the “Opening Dance.” To AkLaff’s credit, it works out pretty well. (Many of today’s orchestras are already much better at this kind of stuff than they were twenty years ago.)

During intense improvisations in the slow movement, “Wet Dreams,” Davis shows off an inspired and brilliant two-handed technique. The “March” is very much in the AACM tradition, with some good piccolo trumpet. The final “Keçak” has rousing grit. I believe Davis was shortlisted for a Pulitzer for this piece. I wonder what won.

Muhal Richard Abrams, Vision Towards Essence (1998) For the first 20 minutes of this hour-long improvisation, much of the material is contextualized by a droning insistence on the lowest note on the piano. It’s distantly related to how Giacinto Scelsi creates music out of one pitch. Finally, the textures break up: there’s walking bass, stride, and other more jazzy textures, all naturally rendered with an experimental twist. Abrams’ sound is deep inside the piano, and it’s really nice to hear him on a good instrument in front of an enthusiastic audience. In the liner notes, Abrams himself says that “The extemporaneous solo performance, which draws on his full wellspring of experience and intuition, is the pinnacle of his art.”

The Art Ensemble of Chicago, “As Clear as the Sun” from Tribute to Lester (2001)  I’ve known this for about five years and I keep returning to it in amazement. I think Roscoe Mitchell is playing sopranino saxophone, but maybe it’s soprano. At any rate, he is somewhere next to late-period John Coltrane here, with endless circular breathing put into the service of heat and fury. Harmonically, its soulful atonality is unimpeachable. It’s not just Mitchell’s success, for both Malachi Favors and Don Moye play the free burn with the same level of authenticity.

The Art Ensemble of Chicago left a huge body of work that is somewhat daunting to find your way around in; I’m looking forward to reading the right book that details their history and discography. You can find essential context for their early years on the 5-CD box The Art Ensemble (1967/68), which includes the first recordings of Mitchell, Bowie, Favors, Phillip Wilson, Jarman, Charles Clark, Thurman Barker, and Robert Crowder. The box was produced in 1993 by Chuck Nessa, and is now out of print. It will only increase in value as a collectible: apart from the considerable beauty of the music, it’s packed with great photos and notes by Nessa and Terry Martin (who recorded most of the music in various basements and apartments). Those who missed the box will still be able to get the music, however. Nessa is currently in the process of reissuing all the material in better, remastered sound. 

There is no Nessa website, just Chuck in Whitehall, Michigan with some of the coolest records around; nessarecords(at)  His reputation with musicians is excellent. Nonaah is in stock.

To understand the music on the ‘67/68 box, it is crucial to understand its historical context. Remember what else was going on in jazz in 1967:

Miles Davis Nefertiti: state of the art modernism — Ornette Coleman The Empty Foxhole: O.C., in search of pure feeling, thinks he has it with 10-year old Denardo  — Cannonball Adderley Mercy, Mercy, Mercy!: crossover jazz—funk/fusion precursor — Thelonious Monk Underground: the last Monk record with new tunes — Sonny Rollins East Broadway Run Down: Rollins’ most convincing interaction with free jazz, and arguably the last great Rollins studio record — McCoy Tyner The Real McCoy: state of the art post-Coltrane modality — Cecil Taylor Conquistador!: wonderful sloppy but detailed heads with Cyrille’s quasi-latin beat beneath — Albert Ayler In Greenwich Village: some of the most powerful Ayler recordings, especially “The Truth Is Marching In” and “Light in Darkness” — During ’66-’68 Charles Mingus didn’t have a record label, and John Coltrane’s last studio record, Expressions, was recorded in spring ’67, just weeks away from the first date on the Art Ensemble box.

The Art Ensemble didn’t imitate any of the styles on the above roster, but were determined to advance the music further with their own approach. Famously, it was Chicago music. New York City—where all those other records were made—was far away, with its own hectic pace. When compared to any New York band playing free, The Art Ensemble was spacious, delicate, and thoughtful.

They were also among the first post-modern improvisers. Right away on disc one of the set, there is a twelve-bar blues with a backroom beat called “Old” and a funky number called “Tatas-matoes.” These pop references sit comfortably next to 20-30 minute free pieces. Even on Roscoe Mitchell’s unaccompanied “Solo” the post-modernist grab-bag is evident: Mitchell arpeggiates a Bb triad over and over again on his horn as unapologetically as a pre-bopper—of course, he also uses squeaky extended techniques, bells, harmonica, and atonal lines.

The AACM and the Young Lions started off on the wrong foot with each other in the 1980s, and by the Nineties, they were enemies. One of the most riveting passages in A Power Stronger Than Itself is Lewis’s perspective on the rise of the Young Lions. Lewis is scrupulously fair—he even quotes Muhal Richard Abrams praising Stanley Crouch’s piano playing (?!?)—but the resentment is clear.

Many of the AACM’s followers are less even-handed, even to this day. A great black American drummer told me at a festival this past summer that he wanted to kill Wynton and Crouch.

However, there is a rarely-made argument for the Young Lions’ side, too. In A Power Stronger Than Itself, George Lewis uses this offhanded quote by superb AACM drummer Steve McCall twice:

The standard music, we’ve all played it.

The AACM story is about musicians resolutely seeking the new. They were, to a person, representatives of the African Diaspora. (They voted out the one early white member, Emmanuel Cranshaw. Cranshaw’s lonely picture in A Power Stronger Than Itself is the height of pathos.) Probably as a result of its connection to the black community, all the best AACM music has a funkiness, earthiness, and general humanness that makes it obviously better than a lot of classical music with the same affect and effect. (This is the part the Young Lions just didn’t seem to get.)

McCall shows his own version of earthiness-meets-experimentalism at his best on the albums Anthony Braxton and Air Time, discussed above. His quote “The standard music, we’ve all played it,” makes a lot of sense here, as in: “It’s time to play something brand new.”

But Lewis also uses “The standard music, we’ve all played it,” as ammunition against the rise of the Young Lions when he parses the Eighties. This is less impressive.

Air remains best known not for Air Time, but for their 1979 “hit record” Air Lore, a collection of early jazz like Jelly Roll Morton and Scott Joplin. This move towards the old was universally praised by jazz critics at the time, and more recently some have pointed towards Air Lore as “What Wynton tried to do, but earlier and better.” (It is interesting to note how well the band dresses for the photo on Air Lore, even down to listing wardrobe and shoes by designer. This, more than the actual music, is what foreshadows the Young Lions!)

I want to love Air Lore, too. But I’m just not sure. If Air Lore really works,  it works as a “directly channeled from the masters” palimpsest, not as an accurate, learned tribute.

George E. Lewis himself as a trombonist has great time and an authentic jazz beat, but that is just not really true of a lot of classic AACM members. He doesn’t illuminate this basic fact in A Power Stronger Than Itself, and maybe it doesn’t matter: the best music of the AACM relates to the jazz beat only rarely.

(It’s telling that the most swinging late-Fifties Chicago rhythm, Ahmad Jamal, Israel Crosby, and Vernel Fournier, is not addressed in A Power Stronger Than Itself,even though the first batch of AACM musicians must have known about them. Perhaps the Pershing Lounge was considered inaccessible from the South Side?)

To his credit, Lewis does quote Amiri Baraka as saying, “I want to be completely honest here—I would rather hear Wynton Marsalis in an Ellington concert than what Bowie or Threadgill do. Even when I value them for certain things they have brought into being.” I’m with Baraka on this one. In this postmodern era, the jazz beat seems like something the young improviser should at least know about before discarding it.

Admittedly, it’s dangerous to compare Wynton’s musical universe to that of the AACM. Each camp pursues such different goals—eventually, the commentator can only stub his toe. The reason for attempting a dialogue is to encourage considerations that most musicians understand instinctively, but which somehow get left out of so much discussion in print.

Jazz critics have not helped this issue over the years by writing things like, “Anthony Braxton and Muhal Richard Abrams know and can play the whole history of the music, from ragtime to bebop and beyond.” As far as I can tell, this is just not true. I still haven’t gotten over my initial shock when confronted with the recording of Braxton and Abrams sight-reading through “Maple Leaf Rag.” They repeatedly play several wrong notes together, notably making B-flat minor B-flat major (!) three bars before the end of the second strain. (They do this both times through.) Joplin’s important chiaroscuro effect—he goes to major in the next bar—is absent.

Maple_Leaf_Rag ex

This may be some punk rock ethos that they are going for, I suppose, but I’m deeply suspicious.

Mike Heffley’s notes to the Mosaic box are the most helpful information on this controversial topic that I’ve seen: “One can read Braxton’s perceived deficiencies of musicianship as his indeed—but one might also hear them as reflections of the inadequacy of the conventional jazz gameplan and platform.” Fair enough. And “Maple Leaf Rag?” Heffley says it “has the hasty, half-muffed feel of an old gramophone recording of Scott Joplin himself knocking it off casually (much more interesting than the usual polished academic renditions).”

Well, not more interesting to me! Like Baraka, I’d much rather hear Wynton play his transcription of Louis Armstrong’s “Cornet Chop Suey” with “academic polish” than Braxton’s Joplin. Absolutely.

But there are those who love and collect Braxton’s jazz records, even the ones with him on piano (don’t get me started on that topic) and to them I say, “God bless.” Certainly, Braxton’s life’s work deserves serious consideration. I recently re-read Graham Lock’s Braxton celebration, Forces in Motion, and found it just as exciting as ever.

Getting back to Lewis’s book, I think the AACM’s resentment of Jazz at Lincoln Center is appropriate. Surely Lewis is on point in this paragraph from A Power Stronger Than Itself:

In contrast to the ideologically charged atmosphere on Lincoln Center’s jazz side, its classical side tended to avoid extensive public critiques of experimental music in its chosen, European-based tradition. In fact, composers seen as “fringe” elements were quietly supported, even as it was acknowledged that the public was not necessarily excited about hearing their music.

In his mission to garner respect for the pure jazz tradition, Wynton has rarely tossed experimental music a bone.

(I laughed out loud when I read the JALC print advertisement for the ballyhooed John Zorn/Cecil Taylor gig at the Rose Room a few years ago: “Musical wanderlust will be satisfied.” Has there been a more backhanded blurb in history?)

Surely any serious creative player regardless of ideology will agree with the essential truth of Roscoe Mitchell’s statement in A Power Stronger Than Itself:

The tradition will never be re-created as strongly as it was by those who invented it.

Wynton’s standing as innovator, auteur, curator, and gatekeeper could only be enhanced by some small but significant experimental wing of JALC.

At our interview, I brought Wynton a copy of Roscoe Mitchell’s recently reissuedNonaah and told him to check out the track I cite above. He thanked me and put the CD on his coffee table. Hey, I tried.

Reading the Black Jazz Writers

Albert Murray’s Stomping the Blues (1976) is crucial to understanding most of Wynton Marsalis’s recordings since The Majesty of the Blues.

Stomping the Blues provides a rare example of credible intellectual engagement with folklore. The first three chapters are rather heavy going, but then Murray lifts off at the start of “The Blues as Music”:

The blues as such are synonymous with low spirits. Blues music is not. With all its so called blue notes and overtones of sadness, blues music of its very nature and function is nothing if not a form of diversion. With all its preoccupation with the most disturbing aspects of life, it is something contrived specifically to be performed as entertainment. Not only is its express purpose to make people feel good, which is to say high spirits, but in the process of doing so it is actually expected to generate a disposition that is both elegantly playful and heroic in its nonchalance.

I didn’t notice that Murray’s book is slightly, offhandedly racist (in passing, he dismissively calls white musicians “the third-line” and absurdly rejects Bix Beiderbecke out of hand) until later reading Terry Teachout’s article “The Color of Jazz.” Teachout is right. But I just don’t care. The level of poetry Murray achieves in Stomping the Blues enables me to give him a free pass, just like I give a free pass to all those black musicians who have mouthed off about whites some time or another. I mean, if I didn’t, I’d have to give away 75% of my jazz record collection!

Teachout’s essay is a relatively even-handed example of conventional-wisdom criticisms of Wynton Marsalis, Albert Murray, and Stanley Crouch. I don’t agree with Teachout’s perspective, but his angle is fair although naturally dated (it’s from 1995, the height of the firestorm raging around possible reverse-racism at JALC). It’s hardly a blanket condemnation. Teachout writes:

As an educator and a presenter of Bernstein-style “young people’s concerts” intended to introduce children to jazz, Marsalis is widely recognized as having done admirable work. Indeed, I would venture to say that in the long run, he will be best remembered as a middlebrow popularizer – one who in particular has done more than any other figure of his generation to revive interest in jazz among young black listeners.

I come face to face with something like a weird ignorant entitlement sometimes. To elaborate on a story I told Wynton:

When teaching at Banff this past summer, ten out of ten young jazz pianists were working on their post-Brad Mehldau/post-Keith Jarrett conception. That’s cool – I am full-on post-Jarrett myself, and in fact I’m influenced by Brad, too – but the same ten pianists then didn’t recognize James P.  Johnson’s “Carolina Shout” when I played it for them in a master class.

James P.

(James P. Johnson in the Google/Life photo archive. Sadly, this remarkable portrait – one of the best of him I’ve seen – does not have Johnson’s name on it; I found it under “jazz,” described merely as “personalities F-J.”)

Now, jazz piano wouldn’t exist in its current state without James P. Johnson. That piece in particular, “Carolina Shout,” taught Duke Ellington and Fats Waller how to play.

It is interesting to contrast James P. with his contemporary, George Gershwin.


(George Gershwin in the Google/Life photo archive.)

While there is no doubt that Gershwin is one of the greatest composers of melody in history, James P. was also a deep genius. His academy was not melody, but rhythm.

He showcased his academy most when playing the piano, but his reach was far greater than just the keyboard: the most famous dance of the 1920’s, “The Charleston,” was penned by Johnson. In most American pop music of the 20th century, the academy of rhythm has been just as important – if not more – than the academy of melody, and James P. is one of its most important architects.

As a pianist, Gershwin had good rhythm, too, but it wasn’t like James P. Johnson’s.

The distance—let’s call it a yawning chasm —between George Gershwin’s general opportunity, fame, and funded support and James P. Johnson’s is due to institutionalized American racism.

Hey, it’s really no big deal if any given young jazz pianist isn’t interested in James P. Johnson. One’s muses needn’t include early jazz if one wants to make good improvised music. But ten out of ten pianists not recognizing “Carolina Shout” really bothered me.

Those so critical of Wynton should remember that this is the battle he’s fighting: to get respect for people like James P. Johnson. Not just respect as a fine pianist of the Jazz Era, but respect for James P. Johnson as an intellectual property vital to the American identity.

In 2008, the musical content of jazz is more accessible then ever before. The whole canon of swing, blues, improvisation, and everything else is available somewhere on the internet.

Now that the musical content is so easy to get, perhaps it’s time to pay more attention to the social issues. Understanding some of this history can only enhance the music.

The small but significant bibliography on jazz by black writers is crucial. !gnore them at your peril.

Non-musician critics

Ralph Ellison Living With Music  (Robert O. Meally, the editor of this collection, has also edited The Jazz Cadence of American Culture, which includes pieces by many of the authors below.)

Amiri Baraka Blues People,Black Music and The Music (includes poetry by Amina Baraka)
A.B. Spellman Four Lives in the Bebop Business
Albert Murray Stompin’ the Blues
Gerald Early Tuxedo Junction  (Unfortunately, Early addresses jazz only occasionally, but the jazz-related pieces here are very strong, indeed.)
Stanley Crouch Considering Genius
Eileen Southern The Music of Black Americans (There actually isn’t that much about jazz in this book, but it obviously can’t be left off this list.)

Musicians as critics

Rex Stewart Jazz Masters of the Thirties
Art Taylor Notes and Tones: Musician to Musician Interviews
David N. Baker The Black Composer Speaks (Contains the best interview with Herbie Hancock, who is less politically correct than usual.)
Dempsey J. Travis An Autobiography of Black Jazz (Although prefaced by Studs Terkel and blurbed by George Wein, this 1983 book is virtually unknown. It’s too bad, since this story of a Chicago jazz family and the venues where they played is fascinating – if admittedly non-scholarly (if not downright inaccurate) at times. The book also contains interviews with prominent musicians that are often race-focused – even the interviews with white musicians Art Hodes and Bud Freeman.)
Wynton Marsalis (with Geoffrey Ward) Moving to Higher Ground: How Jazz Can Change Your Life
George E. Lewis A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music


Duke Ellington Music is My Mistress
Louis Armstrong Satchmo: My Life In New Orleans (Even better is the collection In His Own Words.)
Dizzy Gillespie (with Al Fraser) To Be or Not to Bop
Hampton Hawes (with Don Asher) Raise Up Off of Me (Surely one of the greatest books on jazz ever.)
Charles Mingus Beneath the Underdog
Count Basie (with Albert Murray) Good Morning Blues
Pops Foster (with Tom Stoddard) Autobiography of a New Orleans Jazzman
Sidney Bechet Treat It Gentle
Milt Hinton (with David Berger) Bass Lines
Miles Davis (with Quincy Troupe) The Autobiography
W.O. Smith Sideman (Smith was the bassist on Coleman Hawkins’s “Body and Soul.” Great book with a lot on race.)

A look at the history of white jazz critics and race perception is beyond the scope of this page. However, the 800-pound gorilla is surely Richard M. Sudhalter‘s vast Lost Chords: White Musicians and Their Contributions to Jazz, 1915-45. It’s an obviously valuable book, and often more accurate technically than the comparable canonical Gunther Schuller books Early Jazz and The Swing Era.

However, as a white musician who plays jazz piano, I presume Sudhalter would want his book to make me feel empowered. Instead, Sudhalter makes me feel ashamed.

Sudhalter is never obviously racist; that’s not the problem. The problem is that Sudhalter’s misty, sentimental reveries about his favorite musicians (like a two-page dream sequence starring Bud Freeman) are never balanced by a correspondingly passionate rage against the basic inequities of the era.

This is Sudhalter on the word “dixieland”:

The war [WWI] once over, Tin Pan Alley returned its attention to that staple of popular mythology, the antebellum American South: it was Paradise Lost, a time of simpler, clearer values, when man was better able to perceive the gentler side of his nature. A time of community, when life seemed more in balance.

…After the anxiety and jingoism of the “Great War”… here was the backlash – a desire, a need, to turn away.

What better anodyne than a resurgent preoccupation with pre-Civil War Dixie, reinvented as a time of lazy, magnolia-scented days and soft, moonlight nights, the melodious (if safely distant) singing of contented “darkies” floating on the velvet air?


The terms “Dixie” and “Dixieland,” of course, had been long understood as synonyms for the South. The idea of “Dixieland”-as-paradise was central to the songs of James Bland and Stephen Collins Foster…

The enormous and ubiquitous success of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band only reinforced word and concept in public consciousness… “Dixieland,” in this context, was a handy shorthand for Utopia.

I’m sure all this is technically correct, and I’m equally positive that something is missing. Compare Wynton Marsalis’s analysis of the same word in Moving to Higher Ground:

There were less obvious, cruelly humorous assaults on it [jazz], too, like calling New Orleans music “Dixieland,” which managed to identify it with the Confederacy’s battle hymn: “You play about freedom, but we’ll make it an homage to your enslavement.”

I try to see the positive in all sides: Sudhalter is extremely well-informed, and his magnum opus will endure. But if battle lines do need to be drawn, I will fight on Wynton Marsalis’s team, not Richard M. Sudhalter’s.

Can White Cats Play Jazz?

(From 2011, originally not part of the Marsalis articles)

Randall Sandke, a good musician, showa that he plays on Richard Sudhalter’s team in his book: Where the Dark and Light Folks Meet: Race and the Mythology, Politics, and Business of Jazz.

Much of the book is undocumented blather seemingly inspired by a hatred of Wynton Marsalis. At the least, His climatic chapter “Radical Ideas and Retro Music” is an attempted takedown of Marsalis and JALC.

Naturally Sandke goes after Albert Murray as well, who either committed a spectacular tactical error or got away with an astonishingly successful case of playing the dozens in 1976’s Stomping the Blueswhen he wrote in a footnote:

In recent years, certain self-styled liberal jazz critics have made a special point of registering their disapproval of the use of the term “race records” as an advertising category for blues music in the catalogs of such companies as Columbia, Victor, Decca, Okeh, etc.  But since these same writers not only forever intrude the name of Bix Beiderbecke into discussions about such seminal blues-idiom trumpet players as Buddy Bolden, Bunk Johnson, Freddie Keppard, King Oliver, and Louis Armstrong, but also make no outcry whatsoever about the numberless articles that describe Benny Goodman as the King of Swing or the polls which rate Woody Herman and Stan Kenton over Duke Ellington and Count Basie, their motives are open to some question.  Are they truly concerned about the symbolic segregation expressed by the term “race records,” or are they aiming at a redefinition of blues music that will legitimatize the idiomatic authenticity of certain white musicians, whose very accents indicate that they are not native to the idiom but who nonetheless enjoy reputations (and earnings) as great performers?

It’s frustrating that Murray got racist in a footnote and put down Beiderbecke.  It was an act that became far more than a footnote for those eager to have an example of Murray’s racism.  Sandke is the latest in a long line to trot out this example with something akin to glee:  What a relief to have hard evidence that occasionally a black man has been skeptical of white jazz musicians! In other news, the earth goes around the sun.

In all the years since Stomping the Blues came out, one of Murray’s critics should have gone after him and gotten a bit more context for the Beiderbecke footnote. Maybe Murray would say that he’s reconsidered. Or that he likes Beiderbecke less than ever. Or maybe he would laugh and say, “I got you on that one! You boys were so worried! Of course Beiderbecke can play, who doesn’t know that?  To stay in the game, you need to be a little more confident!”

On page 11, Sandke declares that he is an integrationist.   “If that makes me an old fashioned fuddy-duddy, or even a racist in the jaundiced eyes of some, so be it.  Deep in my heart of hearts I am secure in knowledge I am not.”

Who cares? Does it help the music to go around asking who is racist or not?

Sandke has hung out with jazz musicians his whole life, and that earthy community occasionally pokes through in the best parts of Where the Dark and the Light Folks Meet.  In the chapter “The Activist Jazz Writers,” Sandke reports: “Whereas [John] Hammond was called ‘the big bringdown,’ [Leonard] Feather was known in some circles as ‘the empty suit.’”  That’s a nice and salty image:  a group of older working class jazz players drinking, smoking, and dissing the critics.

Those good parts of Where the Dark and the Light Folks Meet are far outnumbered by sections with slipshod research and out-of-context quotations. An obvious problem is the treatment of John Gennari’s massive history, Blowin’ Hot and Cool: Jazz and Its Critics. Sandke both steals from Gennari’s unprecedented work without attribution or twists quotes from Gennari to obfuscate meaning.

Sandke presents his grand theory of activist jazz writers as new information.  But “Popular Front” shows up in the index of Gennari no less than seven times.  Sandke’s and Gennari’s reading of Hammond and Feather is very similar — I believe “the big bringdown” and “the empty suit” are the only interesting new details from Sandke — except that Gennari’s is longer, more detailed, better attributed, and he did it first, five years ago.

At one point diverse quotations by Martin Williams and Nat Hentoff are footnoted to Gennari five times in a row.  Sandke must have really exhausted himself in his research, the way he had to open up Blowing Hot and Cold over and over again!

Sandke’s use of Gennari’s quotes about Nat Hentoff reveal a shocking lack of consideration for Hentoff.  Here is Sandke (pg. 26):

…Hentoff has championed many white players and spoken out against Crow Jim — a term writer Barry Ulanov introduced to describe reverse racism in the jazz world. Nevertheless, such characteristic magnanimity has not prevented Hentoff from occasionally veering off into divisive and controversial territory. He was the first jazz writer to suggest that black “soul jazz” was a reaction against the primarily white West Coast school, which he described as “low in soul and high in pretensions.” Hentoff’s eastern chauvinism met up with his racial activism when he wrote, “Here were these white guys [in California] appropriating black music, stripping of its soul, and making much more money than the deep swingers in the jazz capital of the world [New York].” Pitting groups of musicians against each other, especially along racial lines, would remain a favorite pastime of the new jazz intelligentsia.

Both quotes are referenced to Gennari. The whole Gennari paragraph is (p.175):

Nat Hentoff has also stressed an economic motive in soul jazz: a reaction by black musicians against the popular vogue of West Coast jazz played by white musicians such as Chet Baker, Shorty Rogers, Dave Brubeck, and Shelly Manne. Writing in 1997, Hentoff described West Coast jazz as “well-mannered technically skilled music” that was “low in soul and high in pretensions,” and rued that because of the popularity of this music among mainstream white listeners, these musicians “appeared in ads for colognes and other genteel merchandise in the fashion magazines.” These advertisements, Hentoff noted, didn’t include a single black face. “Cannonball and other [black] musicians were furious,” Hentoff remembered. “Here were these white guys appropriating black music, stripping it of its soul, and making more money than the deep swingers in the jazz capital of the world.”

Gennari tells us on the page that this material comes from 1997 (the footnote reveals that it’s found in Hentoff’s Speaking Freely). Gennari knows that is important to clear up right away because those of us who have read classic Hentoff will be surprised at this outburst.  Even more important, it’s clearly an old man reminiscing about conversations he had 50 years earlier with musicians he knew. He’s not engaging in a “pastime of the new jazz intelligentsia” to pit “groups of musicians against each other, especially along racial lines.” The charge is ludicrous. Gennari gives us nuance, Sandke gives us Fox News.

Almost all the quotes in Where the Dark and the Light Folks Meet are given out-of-context.  How am supposed to believe any of these little quotes when I see how he chops up Nat Hentoff?  Or Gennari himself, for that matter?  Sandke, pg. 34:

John Gennari, assistant professor of English at the University of Vermont and author of Blowing Hot and Cool: Jazz and Its Critics, writes that jazz is a music “born of slavery and segregation” and refers to the “jazz world’s overt racism.” In addition he detects the ongoing “power of systematic, institutional racism in a culture founded on white supremacy.”

It looks like Gennari is being quoted from a single paragraph somewhere, doesn’t it?  Actually, the three phrases are pulled from pages 22, 129, and 384.  In the first quote, he is describing John Hammond and Leonard Feather:  “Two men…who set out to convince the world that a music born of slavery and segregation was the true American art.”  In the second, he references a famous 1939 discussion of Jack Teagarden: “Jazzmen was replete with similar examples of powerful cross-racial cultural exchanges and affinities, even as in its most politically progressive moments it reckoned honestly with the jazz world’s own racism.”

Sandke is either intellectually dishonest or pathologically clumsy with the citation of the first two quotes:  Gennari is reporting his interpretation of others from the 1930’s, not what Gennari thinks himself of anything today.

As far as the third quote goes, Gennari worries that when Gene Lees brags endlessly of being friendly with blacks, Lees does not always take into consideration the bigger picture of race relations.  In this I can only agree.

How disappointing that  Sandke waspishly cranked out this faux-treatise on race rather than writing a frank, humorous, and celebratory tome profiling friends and associates.

Indeed, Sandke could have made all the points he’s trying to make here much more smoothly. I see a scene with Ken Peplowski and John Bunch and whoever else sitting around, drinking coffee and brainstorming hateful names for the press.  Or them bitching about how the JALC cats were un-excitedly reading down arrangements of “Muskrat Ramble” for big bucks and accolades when they could all sing the Hot Five solos since they were teenagers. Or wondering if this was black music at all anymore, since they and their audience were all white and had been for years. Or working out the problem of playing yourself vs. playing in historical styles.

A memoir would let us draw our own conclusions.  Instead Sandke treats his personal history as critical/historical truth, which does a disservice to both his community and himself.