Saturday, January 10, 2015

Blue: The Murder of Jazz (1997)

In 1997 I started a website called The Hard Bop Homepage as a lark. I had been listening to classic jazz from the 1950s and 1960s for a dozen or so years and during a media course in college in which we were to create a website, I played around with the idea, posted the main page on Tripod, and received an A in the course. But the more I began to think about the idea, the more intrigued I became with going ahead and making the site something real and useful for other people. It took a while, but some ten years later I completed my list of the 100 greatest hard bop albums of all time and had a lot of positive feedback from novices and fans alike for my efforts. I even started a list of another hundred albums. But it’s been at least six years since I have done anything with the site. I began a blog, but even as diverse as the entries were, it soon bored me for one simple reason: jazz is dead.

What’s interesting is that the very same year I began my website, Eric Nisenson published his book Blue: The Murder of Jazz. Apparently, jazz had been it its first death throes back then, but while I was still in the process of discovering so much of its history through reissues, it didn’t seem that way to me. By the turn of the century, however, it was more than clear that there was no new jazz being created. And with the massive attrition through death of veteran musicians there was less teaching and touring going on as well. Schools all over the country have jazz programs, but the kids don’t know how to solo. And for those who do, once they leave school there is absolutely no infrastructure in place to allow them to make a living at it. Nisenson’s book is a look at the controversy back then--the same exact controversy that there has always been in jazz--between the traditionalist “moldy figs” and the avant-garde. For traditionalists the path is clear: there is no path. The music is a series of cul-de-sacs. You pick the kind you like to play and, along with the traditional repertoire of jazz compositions and Tin Pan Alley standards, you create music in your chosen style and record and gig and have a career. For the avant-garde, however, traditionalism is akin to playing classical music, with no inventiveness and no creativity. To them, if something isn’t new and different, it can’t be good.

Unfortunately, Nisenson falls into the later camp. He is a member of the cult of the new, a Miles Davis--John Coltrane--Sonny Rollins devote who looks at bebop and hard bop the way boppers of the 1940s looked at Dixieland jazz, something hopelessly outdated and preserved in amber. The thing is, just because someone plays in a bebop or hard bop style, doesn’t make them unoriginal. In fact, most of the real working jazz musicians that play in that style today have a wealth of original material in their books, and writing original compositions for their groups is one of the real joys of being a jazz musician. Nisenson begins his book by being incredibly disingenuous, taking attempts at defining jazz and acting like an idiot who doesn’t understand what the definers are talking about. This is the definition from critic Tom Piazza that Nisenson quotes in his book.

               Stanley Crouch has made a short but useful list of the essential musical elements that jazz musicians deal with:
               the blues, the romantic ballad, Afro-Hispanic rhythms, and the attitude toward the passage of time (at slow,
               medium, and fast tempos) that is called swing. To these I would add that jazz always demonstrates a call-and-
               response sensibility derived originally from the African-American church and which is present in the music’s
               most basic structures.

Beginning with his final point, here’s an example of Nisenson’s criticism about just one element of this tradition as articulated by Piazza:

               I have no idea what Piazza means when he says he hears “call and response” in most jazz performances. Does
               he mean that all soloing and accompaniment is essentially call and response? . . . Stating that call and response
               can--and therefore must--be heard in every “authentic” jazz performance is a great exaggeration, and again it
               limits rather than frees the musician: in order to create “authentic” jazz, according to Piazza, a musician has to
               make sure his music includes that quality that can be called call and response.

In the first place, Piazza never once uses the word “authentic” in his definition. Why Nisenson chooses to put quotes around it as though he does is highly misleading. Secondly, he also uses the word “must,” another word Piazza never uses. In fact, Piazza states very clearly that these are “elements that jazz musicians deal with,” which in no way comes close to implying exclusivity.

The only explanation for this rant is that Nisenson is being purposefully obtuse. While there are jazz composers like Horace Silver who deal explicitly with call and response—and whom Nisenson does mention--there are plenty of other examples in jazz that are less explicit. Trading fours, for example, is one use of call and response that is heard in many jazz performances. But expanding that idea further, the entire act of soloing can be seen as call and response as each player in turn takes the microphone to solo, some of them even repeating the last phrase of the soloist before them to star their own. And the solo sections in their entirety can be seen as a particular response to the melody, or head, of the number as well as the underlying chord progression. So for someone who claims to be a jazz aficionado to say he has “no idea what Piazza means” by call and response, is patently insulting to the reader and fatally undercuts his argument . . . if it can even be called that. He continues with his abstruse reasoning with another of Piazza’s elements of jazz, the blues. “Does the blues have to be part of a jazz performance? Of course not. There are even some undeniably great jazz performers who, although they could play within the blues form, nevertheless had little affinity for the blues.” But Piazza isn’t talking about playing “the blues,” and Nisenson knows this full well. Piazza is talking about blues tonalities being one element of a jazz performance, one that is nearly universally used by jazz musicians. Blue notes are a vital component of improvisation and composition for musicians on any instrument, even those who rarely play songs in the 12-bar blues form.

What’s absolutely laughable, though, is that Nisenson denigrates Piazza’s contention that swing, “an attitude toward the passage of time” at various tempos, is a major element of jazz. This is his criticism: “The concept of swing is very confusing to say the least; the first three items in the list are musical forms that are, according to Crouch/Piazza, used by jazz musicians, but the fourth, the element of swing, is not a musical form at all but refers to the supposed rhythmic attack of all ‘true’ jazz performances.” Where do we begin? Piazza never uses the word “true” any more than he used the word “authentic.” Nisenson had previously stated in his own definition of jazz that it must be based on “individual expression,” but then goes on later to support his criticism of Piazza by citing Andre Hodeir’s belief “that jazz does not even have to involve improvisation.” Not only that, but in his defense of through-written works as jazz he states, “However, I do believe that both the feeling of improvisation, which is essential for the creation of jazz, and the musical philosophy that lies behind improvisation are essential factors that make jazz both unique and relevant to our time.” So, swing, as a “supposed rhythmic attack” is apparently “very confusing to say the least, “ for poor Mr. Nisenson, and yet the feeling of improvisation even where there is none is an “essential factor” in the relevance of the music. I believe the relevant idiom at work here is talking out both sides of your mouth.

It’s bad enough when Nisenson pretends he doesn’t know what Piazza is talking about, but it gets even worse when he puts words in the other author’s mouth. In continuing his criticism of the concept of swing, Nisenson says, “The neos are always insisting on the primacy of swing in a jazz performance—‘It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing’; to them, music without swing simply is not jazz. But what is swing? I usually take swing to mean music played in the straight-ahead 4/4 meter that conveys a sense of linear movement forward. Most jazz performances do swing in this fashion, but what about other meters, such as 3/4 or 6/8 or 5/4? Are pieces played in these meters not jazz? This would mean that Coltrane’s version of “My Favorite Things,” Miles Davis’s “All Blues,” Sonny Rollins’s “Valse Hot,” and Paul Desmond’s “Take Five” are not jazz, an absurd premise.” What is actually absurd is Nisenson’s argument. The only one who said anything about 4/4 time was Nisenson himself. But he doesn’t even realize what he’s done. By naming famous jazz tunes in other meters, and feigning indignance that they are excluded from being called jazz, what he is actually saying is that he believes those very songs don’t actually swing. Shame on him.

The real fatal flaw in Nisenson’s entire argument is that the Free Jazz or avant-garde movement that began in the late fifties is what essentially ended jazz in the way he defines it. Nisenson states, “the truth is, the only real tradition in jazz has been no tradition at all, or rather, the tradition of individual expression and constant change and growth . . . that not only is there no real jazz tradition (except the continual breaking down of the perimeters of that supposed tradition), but that jazz itself is almost impossible to define in any narrow, dogmatic fashion.” What Nisenson doesn’t realize is that his definition is every bit as dogmatic as Piazza’s, and yet goes nowhere. Free Jazz actually succeeded in breaking down all of the perimeters there were in music, not just jazz, and thereby ended the very experimentation that he espouses. Free Jazz took jazz to its logical conclusion, just as atonal music did in the classical sphere, leaving musicians nowhere else to go but backward. Though that’s not entirely true. Atonal music didn’t kill new classical composition any more than avant-garde novelists like James Joyce or Henry Miller destroyed literature. For creators innovation may be an admirable goal, but for the audience it never was. Like all art, that which is created must be appreciated in order to obtain any kind of validity. Art doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Therefore the real creative process takes place within boundaries, not outside of them. All one has to do is look at a Jackson Pollock painting to realize that.

But I’m no fan of Wynton Marsalis either, the poster-boy for Nisenson’s ire, and the leader of what he calls neo-classicists. This is a situation he blames on record labels. “Most of them have gotten on the neo bandwagon, signing young players to large contracts despite the fact that most of these youngsters have not found an individual voice or discovered an innovative way to express their own lives in music based in the here and now.” This certainly fits Marsalis, who has never had an individual voice. But at the time there were plenty of other young musicians who did have a voice, people like tenor saxophonist Ralph Moore and Trumpeter Brian Lynch who played with Horace Silver and Art Blakey, and Benny Green, who played with Ray Brown. Where the record labels failed, is in their insistence on sales beyond what an average jazz record normally earns. Thus musicians were urged to bring in electronic instruments and pander to the Hip-Hop market in order to boost sales. This is the same situation that plagued jazz in the late sixties when young musicians began taking up guitars and playing soul music rather than band instruments and playing jazz. So, without any kind of system in place for young musicians to put a band together, have a recording career, and become an elder teacher themselves, jazz as a viable musical form in this country ceased to exist.

So while Nisenson bemoans the end of the kind of boundary pushing jazz that he favors--something that he calls “white noise” when trying to put words in the mouth of critics of the style, but is more apt than he realizes--the issue is far more overarching than that. Jazz venues, jazz record labels, jazz clubs, and jazz audiences have all completely dried up, and with absolutely no way for jazz musicians to make a living, there is absolutely no reason for musicians to go into jazz in any meaningful way. Throughout the history of jazz there has always been an infrastructure in place for working musicians, even in the seventies. But those days are completely gone and thus jazz itself is at an end. To be fair, Nisenson’s book is now dated, but he makes some incredibly specious arguments, and doesn’t even make those very well. He is the emperor with no clothes, and he believes in the kind of squeaking and squawking that passes for “individual expression,” when in fact it is just noise. He loves the supposed “innovations” of Miles Davis who, in reality, changed styles so often because he couldn’t actually play bebop, or hard bop, or anything else except tepid cool jazz. The first time Davis ever played with Tony Williams, the eighteen-year-old drummer said to him, “Man, don’t you ever practice?” Not only is jazz dead, but so are the arguments made in Nisenson’s book.

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