Monday, June 15, 2015

"Jazz Lives - An Afterword" by Gene Lees

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Afterword- Jazz Lives
By Gene Lees

The title of this piece alludes to a play on words since it is indeed the “Afterword” that Gene Lees wrote to a book which he co-authored with Canadian photographer John Reeves entitled Jazz Lives: 100 Portraits in Jazz.

While the book’s title is stated with the other pronunciation for the word - “lives” - both the book’s beautiful photographs of Jazz musicians, young and old, and the argument in Gene’s Afterword make the point that Jazz is very much alive.

I bought my copy of  Jazz Lives: 100 Portraits in Jazz [Buffalo, NY: Firefly Books, 1992] many years ago while coming upon it quite by accident at the Borders Bookstore that for many years occupied the corner of Post and Powell Streets just off Union Square in downtown San Francisco. It was a great place to browse for books while listening to the conductors hammering away at the bells on the City’s famous Cable Cars as the headed down to the turnaround at the bottom of Powell as it runs into Market Street.

All 100 of the John Reeves’s Jazz musician photographs are magnificent but the one he snapped of Dave Brubeck is a personal favorite of mine because John used an angle for Dave’s portrait that really brings out Dave’s American Indian genealogy.

In 1997, I took the book with me to a concert by Dave’s quartet and the Pacific Mozart Ensemble at the Calvary Presbyterian Church on Fillmore Street that premiered Dave’s extended work - The Gates of Justice.

I was hopeful that after the performance, I could talk Dave into autographing it for me.

As the program was about to begin, I looked up to see Iola Brubeck, Dave’s wife, taking the seat next to mine. I smiled, showed her the Reeves photograph of Dave and very spontaneously asked her if she would autograph it for me.

She graciously signed my book just above Dave’s photo.

When the concert finished, many friends came by our seats to greet Iola and comment on the music.

I used this as an opportunity to slip away without seeking Dave’s autograph, too.

I mean, how many Jazz fans have a photograph of Dave Brubeck signed by Iola?

Although it is not the Jazz of my “Ute” [apologies to Joe Pesci - youth], Jazz is still being played today by some wonderfully talented musicians. Here’s hoping that whoever writes a piece similar to the one that follows is able to say the same thing about the music 100 years from now.

“Almost from its earliest days, some of the admirers of jazz have been announcing its imminent demise. Each advance in the music has been denounced as a virus that would destroy it, the prognosis being issued with indignant ferocity. I know of no art that has inspired such partisan division.

When Louis Armstrong departed from the practices of New Orleans polyphony, admirers of that music lamented the sacrilege. After Armstrong came 1930s small group swing and the big band jazz explosion. This "modernism" was considered treasonous. Then in the 1940s came bebop: the schism it caused was bitter. Bebop was called "Chinese music" by the one faction, who in turn were abused as moldy figs by the advocates of bop.

And the cry "Bebop killed the big bands!" was heard in the land, although it was patently absurd: not all the bands took up the new music and the public was perfectly free to patronize those that did not and to ignore bebop if it preferred a harmonically and rhythmically simpler music. Some fundamentalists were still clinging to this tenet forty years after bebop arrived, ignoring the historical fact that it was just those bands that accepted and accommodated elements of it that survived, including those of Woody Herman and Count Basic. Duke Ellington had no trouble absorbing players with bebop proclivities, such as Clark Terry, into his own overall style. Later on, Ellington recorded with John Coltrane. Ellington survived as a bandleader into the 1970s, Basic and Herman into the eighties, and all three bands are still extant under other leaders. They may play on in the dawn of the twenty-first century; their music has become part of the living repertoire as surely as that of Mozart, Johann Strauss, and Debussy. Bebop didn't kill the big bands, various social forces did the job.

If successive groups of people wanted whatever form of jazz they favored to remain fixed forever, another group has continually peered, hand shading forehead, into the future, asking a question which became anathema to jazz musicians: "Where is jazz going?" Legend has it that Stan Kenton once replied, "Well, we're going to Kansas City."

Back in 1934, in a book entitled Music Ho!, the British conductor, composer, and writer Constant Lambert examined what had happened to European concert music. It seemed to have advanced as far as it could go, he thought, certainly as far as the audience could follow, and some composers were resorting to what he called "time traveling," moving back and forth in historical periods. Jazz critics would lay the same charge on alto saxophonist Julian (Cannonball) Adderley, among others, and started using terms such as "neo-conservatism," "neo-bop," "bebop revival movement."

When jazz began to be taken seriously as art, many of its chroniclers and commentators, it seems to me, looked to classical-music critics for their models, and in the process made a fundamental mistake. Classical music is largely a written tradition. Jazz is an oral tradition, based on the precedents of other players, the study of their records, and, when possible, the absorption of personal lessons from those who, like Dizzy Gillespie, Phil Woods, Clark Terry, and more, were willing to pass their knowledge along in clinics or just private conversation. In that sense, I suppose, you can make a somewhat tenuous claim that jazz is a folk art. But then so is the use of personal computers, since the manuals are incomprehensible and we teach each other to use the equipment.

Though jazz is now taught in thousands of schools, its tradition still is primarily communicated through listening to records and emulating its masters. Thus it is not only an oral tradition, it is an aural one. Though most jazz musicians read music well, jazz is not about reading, it is about playing, and above all about improvising in (as Jane Ira Bloom emphasizes) a personal voice.

When jazz became respectable — and legend to the contrary, many American intellectuals proclaimed its importance from its early days — a number of writers arose to argue its case. Few among them had any real technical or historical background in music — which is strange, in that the musicians usually have a considerable knowledge of classical music, as indeed do many members of the lay jazz audience. These critics were mostly fans with typewriters; one of them was an electrical engineer. I have often thought that one of the most unfortunate things that happened to jazz was to be proclaimed an art form, for that made it self-conscious and some of it became pretentious. But worst of all, those eager writers who cried out for its respectability adopted the model of classical-music criticism. And classical-music criticism was itself fundamentally flawed, since it looked on music as exploration rather than expression. That is to say, to be considered important, the composer was expected to revise and "expand" the musical language, not merely use it. If he did not do so, he was not "original."

This view, which developed in the nineteenth century, was, I think, the misapplication to art of the experience of science. Why, you could see it for yourself. In the branches of science, new discoveries constantly caused the revision or superannuation of previous models of reality. New "truths" replaced old and then in turn were themselves superseded, which of course they could not have been if they had ever been truths in the first place. The scientists of our own time have at last attained what may be the one sensible scientific truth: that we cannot know reality, we can only design models of it, subject to revision as we get more "information."

The nineteenth century began with Beethoven, a young piano virtuoso of thirty-one. Mozart had been considered the finest improviser of his age, and according to contemporary accounts, Beethoven surpassed him. In 1800 he gave a concert in which his First Symphony was performed. After that the vocabulary of music expands rapidly, with Beethoven's late quartets sometimes seeming to anticipate jazz in their harmonic usage and coloration. It was inevitable that music would seem to be "progressing." So it was in science; so it must also be in art.

But, matters of formal structure aside, the "progress" consisted to a large extent of exploring harmony. By the time of Arnold Schoenberg's maturity, the methodology seemed to have become so complicated that he rejected it and developed a system of twelve-tone or serial composition, in effect declaring all tones equal, none being more important than the other, and he created a kind of music that almost a century later remains bafflingly impenetrable to the layman.The idea that art is an unending exercise in revolution is a doubtful one even for classical music, and it is utterly inapplicable to jazz, if only because jazz is primarily an oral rather than a written tradition. There is one other way in which it differs, perhaps even more important. We have noted that the master composers in and before Beethoven's time were also master performers and improvisers. As the nineteenth century progressed, music became a matter of master composers and their minions, the orchestra players who lived only to reproduce the music of other men. A great division opened between the creation of music and its re-creation. A performer was judged by how well he played someone else's work, a standard that in classical music still prevails.

But jazz restored the oneness of creation and performance, the tradition of masterful improvisation. And it expanded the art in that it developed a system of group improvisation. It thereby created a perfect paradigm of democracy, with the voice and message and emotions of each participant held in due respect. This doubtless is one of the reasons dictators in recent decades have hated and proscribed it. It is also a reason, we might note in passing, that musicians living under tyrannies like that of (until recently) Poland or even highly structured societies like that of Japan — for example, Adam Makowicz and Kei Akagi, respectively — should have perceived in jazz an escape into freedom.

What jazz did in the first half of its life was to follow the pattern of European harmonic evolution, exploring the implications of the overtone series. But there are evident limits to what an audience can hear. And it was all too easily forgotten that serialism had not found much of a following a half century after its development; it still hasn't, after the better part of a century. Much twentieth-century classical music has been interesting primarily to a small group of specialists. For the most part it has survived in a greenhouse atmosphere of grants, endowments, and patronage, sequestered from the withering winds of reality.

Jazz has enjoyed no such indulgence. While it is true that the music has been admired and praised by leading intellectuals and thoughtful musicians since its early days, it is also true that some of the members of the cultural establishment have been frightened by its energy, immediacy, and emotion. Now, to be sure, thousands of courses on playing jazz are taught throughout North America, but there has been no such expansion of courses in its appreciation, comparable to, say, English literature courses. The jazz musician still must attract an audience.

And it is, I think, out of the tension of serving two masters, the artist's own inner sense of what is the best and highest in his work on the one hand and the limitations of a lay though willing audience on the other, that jazz has kept its head when all the musics about it were losing theirs, whether the coarsest and most ignorant of current pop music or the most arcane and uncompromising of intellectualized "classical" music.

Jazz is best appreciated by those who couple a measure of intellectual understanding with a desire and capacity to feel. This is its greatness. It is to me the music that speaks best to and for our time, this remarkable art that began to formulate itself in the Louisiana delta as the century began and by century's end has become first a special and highly intelligent musical language for America and finally an idiom for all the world.

I pay no attention to those who coin terms like "neo-traditionalist" and "bebop revivalist." The jazz composer-player — for in jazz the two have again become one — can and does borrow on the whole rich tradition of this music in a way that the classical composer is enjoined from doing.

I am reminded of a comment by John Clayton, who has had success in both the classical and jazz worlds: "The influences in jazz are enormous. The things that we have to draw from, I think, are what makes it so expansive, especially when you compare it to classical music. In classical music there are more rules that allow you to accept or reject the music. If you don't play Mozart and composers of that period in that style, then it's quote 'wrong.' In jazz we invite your contributions to stride or bebop or whatever it is. If you want to throw some different stuff in there, it's welcome. It's wanted, in fact."

This is a difference of great magnitude.

Jazz is not "going" anywhere. It is there. It has explored and consolidated its conventions and vocabulary. If you consider the work of only the pianists in this book — Oscar Peterson, Cedar Walton, Horace Silver, McCoy Tyner, Roger Kellaway, Warren Bern-hardt, Lou Levy, Alan Broadbent, Geri Allen, Renee Rosnes among them — you will realize that they achieve highly personal and deeply moving music out of the same vocabulary on the same instrument. This is a far greater creativity, to my mind, than a constant anxious search for originality through altering the vocabulary of the art. In the sense of the artist's improvising original expression out of known vocabulary and a strong tradition, jazz has gone back to Bach.

If our species survives, and as an American folk expression has it, "the Good Lord willing and the creek don't rise," Roy Hargrove and Chris Potter will be making jazz fifty years from now, and Renee Rosnes and Geri Allen will be something like Myra Hess and Nadia Boulanger when the twenty-first century is fifty years old.

With Spiegle Willcox and Benny Carter still out there and young Kenny Washington, bebop revivalist or not, studying and assimilating the music's tradition, it is ludicrous for anyone to say that jazz is dying.

Quite to the contrary. Jazz lives.

Gene Lees

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