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. Topics include: Young Lion Jazz of the 80’s, Tain/Wynton, Jam sessions, AACM, Critics and race. (These were all written and posted simultaneously as separate pages with the original Marsalis interview in 2008. I condensed them into a single page in 2016, the most recent revision is July 2020.)

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.”

There is a basic truth to Wynton’s message in Moving to Higher Ground: How Jazz Can Change Your Life that is more convincing than most comparatively flaccid jazz education.

Wynton hammers home that blues and swing must be present for jazz to be jazz. Well, he’s gotta be right about that, at least most of the time.

When he started assembling an institution, Wynton was advocating for the primacy of the black aesthetic at a time when the white Stan Kenton-to-Gary Burton lineage dominated the academy. I like Kenton and Burton, but their institutional sway and undue influence in jazz education is part of this discussion. We needed less North Texas State and more Duke Ellington in the mix, and Wynton corrected our course.

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

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 a personal aesthetic.

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.

Some of 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 Wynton’s aesthetic concerns may slow him down when looking at the music from a contemporary and holistic perspective. It probably would have helped him to have studied more Henry Threadgill and Julius Hemphill as well.

The best first-generation Young Lion albums are 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 Marsalis Royal Garden Blues (1985), Trio Jeepy (1989).

The first blues on Trio Jeepy is a fine introduction to Branford’s determination to take the general model of Sonny Rollins and push it into a whole new level of harmonic and rhythmic modernity. “Strike Up the Band” from Royal Garden Blues features out-of-key pentatonic playing with more of a Rollinsish, searching quality than most Coltrane-styled players. Branford would not peak in the ’80s, but would move on to make more vital and at times strikingly abstract music in the ’90s.

Kenny Garrett Introducing Kenny Garrett (1984).

This is really Woody Shaw’s band under Garrett’s leadership. But in some ways 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. The Garrett records that have followed are excellent, 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 certain circles.

Kenny Kirkland Kenny Kirkland (1990).

Kirkland is better known as a sideman than as a leader, but the only disc under his own name is still a truly burning record. Various stunning trio bootlegs exist; at some point there should an official series.

Marcus Roberts The 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.

The great Charlie Rouse joins Wynton in the front line. In Moving to Higher Ground, Wynton discusses how schooled he felt by Rouse, whose relaxed phrasing is heard here for the last time. Elvin Jones nails the tricky phrases of Roberts’ “Country by Choice.”

Ralph Peterson V, (1988) 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 even more Latino undulation and one of the most swinging ride cymbal beats.

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, and her perspective has remained fresh and vastly influential.

Donald Brown Early Bird (1987).

Brown is a great composer. In “Quiet Fire,” naturalness is married to complexity in a way only a serious thinker 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’s much more to explore. A 1987 video of Donald Harrison and Terence Blanchard on “Endicott” is a quintessential documentation of the Young Lion approach. 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.”

During the ’70s, an injection of volume and electricity wasn’t always smoothly controlled by conventional jazzers. Pianists played the Rhodes and other keyboards. Drummers added extra toms and cymbals and got a much bigger bass drum.

And then there was 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. His teasing was a reminder of part of Marsalis’s accomplishment.

James is a very good jazz bassist, but the simple fact is that many of the swinging acoustic jazz records made between 1970 and the advent of Wynton Marsalis have a problematic 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.

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 — is a mixed bag.

Even the greatest bass players like Ron Carter, Buster Williams, Sam Jones, Charles Mingus, and Percy Heath could have really strange sounds on record in the ’70s and ’80s. (In many cases, it was engineer’s fault, not the bassist’s.) Many of those strange sounds went away after Wynton Marsalis led the charge into a new era of recording acoustic jazz well. 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 seemed to be 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.

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, the Young Lions’s reactionary viewpoint with the bass was important. Reid Anderson reminded me that they even talked about it in print: 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 acoustic swing, but the affect is wrong: these quartets sound like electric fusion, not acoustic jazz. It has to do with the tones, the sound, and the attitude. Icy machismo is neither glorified by electric amplification nor tempered by earthiness. Three Quartets 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 to any Wynton Marsalis record from the 1980s! The Wynton records have the icy machismo, but they also have earthiness, and the result is a sound TKO.

“Icy machismo” is one of the reasons ’80s Young Lion music is so distinctive. It also 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. It’s sort of like fusion — or, at least, it’s more like fusion than classic jazz.

The ostentatious lone bar of 3/4 that interrupts the burning uptempo 4/4 blowing on Wynton’s “Delfeayo’s Dilemma” (heard on Black Codes and Live at Blues Alley) would fit right in on a fusiony 70’s record.

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

Watts’s rhythms usually 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 Mahavishnu Orchestra and 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

When Jeff “Tain” Watts was drumming for Wynton Marsalis it brought out the 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. Their final four albums together might be the best Young Lion music from the ’80s.

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

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 seems to be the birthright of all truly great jazz players.

I have yet to hear another record that says, “This is the real Kenny Kirkland” quite 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? The maestro 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.”

Donald Brown’s “Insane Asylum” 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 track is “Skain’s Domain.” From 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, like “Caravan,” “April In Paris,” “Cherokee,” “The Song Is You,” and “Autumn Leaves,” are more impressive than the relatively straight versions of the other standards.

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 old-school 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.

The rhythm section work on uptempo pieces like “Knozz-Moe-King,” “Chambers of Tain,” “Delfeayo’s Dilemma,” and “Skain’s Domain” is dense to the point of being maniacal. This is Tain’s home. Roberts’s coy placing of the tune to “Cherokee” is impossible to count correctly. Robert Hurst only occasionally comes more to the foreground, he manages to influence Wynton’s blues choruses on “Much Later.”

Again, this constant aggressive rhythmic displacement seems somehow connected to fusion — or if not fusion than some sort of odd-meter Balkan folk dance or other non-jazz even-eighth music. It’s not really “swing,” it doesn’t have a constant celebration of what some older musicians call “spang-a-lang.” It still feels good, though. One could even argue that when Watts is lays back and plays medium-tempo brushes, the music is 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.

Neither Marsalis nor Roberts has played music with heavy polyrhythmic drum-piano interaction since. Tain’s replacement, Herlin Riley, was a great drummer, but the insane ferocity of the early years would be gone for good.

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. The whole audience seemed to love it, too.

Still, I’ll always have a basic allegiance to Tain.

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 1980s, 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).

People who don’t see any good in any of this truly miss the forest for the trees. 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.

The word “virtuosity” is important. 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 necessarily the greatest skill in music; Many of my all-time favorite musicians have little to do with the idea of “jam-session domination.” 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. (Update: Sadly, Mulgrew Miller died far too young in 2013; I transcribed a few solos as a DTM memorial.)

Since the death of John Coltrane, the natural, correct balance of folklore and progressivity has been hard to navigate. At times there is a rift between groups who uphold one set of values more than the other.

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.

The book is excellent. 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.

Here are eleven 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.

Anthony Braxton, Leo Smith, Leroy Jenkins, Steve McCall, “Simple Like” from Anthony Braxton (1969) 

Written by Leroy Jenkins, “Simple Like” is in jazz’s tradition of prolonged exploration of a minor mode.

In the late Sixties, this quartet was right alongside the Art Ensemble of Chicago, and later billed as the “Creative Construction Company.” Everyone in this genre doubles on “little instruments,” percussion, flutes, and the like. There is a transgressive aspect in the dismissal of conventional professional values, something not far from punk rock.

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. At one point, Smith’s trumpet over organ sounds like Miles Davis.

Air, “Keep on Playing Through the Water” from Air Time (1974) 

Steve McCall tuned his kit like a jazz drummer, but 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 which seems to be 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” on The Solo Trombone Record 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) 

Our field is not overcrowded with truly inspired violinists. Leroy Jenkins is one of the most fabulous, an artist who blends something really soulful and something really esoteric.

This suite has great playing by avant all-stars including Jenkins, Cyrille, Teitelbaum, Anthony Davis, and George Lewis. However, the real point of the track is the compositional intensity and ingenuity. A powerful first blues tune is enhanced by Teitelbaum’s synthesizer; later episodes feature a hocketing rhythmic matrix, a melancholy drone, and other diverse ostinati. At the end, marching C major thuds forth from the band as Jenkins fervently disagrees.

Anthony Braxton, “Opus 77A” from Alto Saxophone Improvisations 1979 .

The opening track is unbelievably virtuosic in its control of dynamics and articulation. 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)

Humor was important to the AACM. Very important. When the Art Ensemble of Chicago decided to be funny, they were hilarious.

Lester Bowie had great tone, time, blues feeling, gangster attitude, and inborn surrealism. He leads Roscoe Mitchell and Joseph Jarman superbly in this conventional song penned by Mitchell’s father. “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 piece 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. “Introspection,” begins with solemn counterpoint in octaves like Hindemith before being taken over by an improvisatory ethos. 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 around. 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 Harrison Piano 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 or thirty 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.

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.

The Art Ensemble of Chicago, “As Clear as the Sun” from Tribute to Lester (2001) 

Roscoe Mitchell 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.

In the ’70s and early ’80s, the critics generally preferred the AACM and other experimental offshoots to fusion or amped-up straight ahead jazz. However, that critical attention lessened as Wynton Marsalis spearheaded the Young Lions movement.

It was a difficult time. Some decided that the new swinging bloods represented a return to sincere values and that the experimentalists were of interest only to college students; others claimed that the avant-gardists embodied the lived wisdom of the blues and dismissed the new swingers as conservative drones. A flamboyant personage of this era was critic Stanley Crouch, originally a friend and supporter of avant musicians like David Murray, who then “switched sides” to become the biggest champion of Marsalis.

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. In a nutshell, the Young Lions took food off the table from Lewis’s team.

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. Traditionally, jazz won over an audience with swing. Swing is not outdated information. When the Lions showed up swinging, they won a new vast audience for this music.

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.

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.

Admittedly, it’s dangerous to compare Wynton’s musical universe to that of the AACM. Each camp pursues such different goals. Still, these are the kinds of 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 knows 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.” The feel is herky jerky, and 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.

To be fair, we are now in the wilds of conceptual art. “Maple Leaf Rag” is included on the Mosaic Braxton Arista set, where Mike Heffley’s excellent liner notes offer the kind of discourse found at an Andy Warhol or Joseph Beuys exhibit: “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.”

Heffley goes even farther with “Maple Leaf Rag,” which, “…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 muffled Joplin. Absolutely.

Not that Wynton’s “play the right notes” approach is always successful. At the JALC Albert Murray memorial, a quartet reading down a note-for-note transcription of John Coltrane’s “Alabama” seemed stiff and unmusical. But in a more casual, workshop kind of context, this act of transcription has meaning. In the time of the 2020 pandemic, a “West End Blues” challenge went around, where various trumpeters all played Louis Armstrong’s famous opening cadenza on their social media channels. For Facebook, Wynton sat in a chair in an unbuttoned shirt and knocked it out of the park. It was a beautiful moment, and not just from Wynton: the thought of trumpeters from all over practicing Pops conjures a warm feeling.

In terms of winning over new audiences and gaining basic institutional respect for jazz, Wynton has the upper hand. Braxton’s work is aimed at elites who enjoy looking at conceptual art in galleries. Wynton’s work is meant for anyone who enjoys a basic motiving beat.

Nonetheless, the AACM is right to feel resentment of Jazz at Lincoln Center. 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 Nonaah 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 many of Wynton Marsalis pronouncements and recordings, especially Marsalis’s work in the era of The Majesty of the Blues. It is rare for a philosopher/critic to have so much impact on a famous jazz musician.

A great paragraph from Stomping the Blues:

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.

As an educator, I occasionally come face to face with ignorant entitlement from my charges. (Of course, this is something that happens to all teachers everywhere). To elaborate on a story I told Wynton:

When teaching at the Banff workshop one summer, ten out of ten young jazz pianists were working on their post-Brad Mehldau/post-Keith Jarrett conception. There’s nothing wrong with that, 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.”)

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 American composers, 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 as 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.

There are many books on jazz, but few of them were by black authors. This basic statistic may be one reason Albert Murray and Stanley Crouch had sway over Marsalis. Some believe Murray/Crouch/Marsalis is a obdurate monolith of reactionary thought, but that’s simply not true. A casual study of all three reveals that each think for themselves.

In general, the significant bibliography on jazz by black writers is very important. The following list is not complete; I’ve added in a couple since the original 2008 post, but new books come out every day.

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
A.B. Spellman Four Lives in the Bebop Business
Albert Murray Stompin’ the Blues
Gerald Early Tuxedo Junction  (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 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 (Essential!)
David N. Baker The Black Composer Speaks (Contains an unusually frank interview with Herbie Hancock.)
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. 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
John Coltrane Coltrane on Coltrane
Hampton Hawes (with Don Asher) Raise Up Off of Me 
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.)
Randy Weston (with Willard Jenkins) African Rhythms
Robin D.G. Kelley Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original

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 Early Jazz and The Swing Era by Gunther Schuller.

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.