The Book Cooks
Excerpts from
the jazz composer: moving music off the paper

by Graham Collier
(Northway Publications; London)

Chapter 10: IT AIN'T WHO YOU ARE
(IT'S THE WAY THAT YOU DO IT):
ON NOT BEING AN AMERICAN

dedicated to Jan Garbarek

I quite rapidly discovered that I was totally unable to play any of that clever shit that other people play, and I had to find something of my own . . . You look inside yourself and see what it is that you can do . . . . I’ve worked on those so that I can present my view of the world – rather than something that sounds a little bit like somebody else.1

Like John Surman, whose remarks head this chapter, I’m not an American. Nor, as would be obvious from pictures of us, is either of us African American, or black. The distinction at the end of the sentence is not included for semantic reasons, rather to point, briefly, towards another aspect of this discussion. Namely, do black non-American jazz musicians have an advantage over their white counterparts when it comes to playing jazz? A question that became relevant in England some years ago, and made me wonder at the time how the pecking order works, and how far down it you have to be before you’re beyond the pale, and would be better off taking up knitting.

I do have one advantage. I am male, although my being gay takes the edge off that for some observers.

These are serious issues, made more pointed by the increasingdiscussion in jazz magazines on American versus European jazz,women in jazz, black audiences for jazz and whether, as Stanley
Crouch implied, gay musicians like Cecil Taylor can even play jazz.

As we saw in INFINITE POSSIBILITIES, the opening up of the jazz language means that musicians are now free to be themselves. The widening of jazz to encompass all this individuality has its good and bad sides. Someone with the very personal approach of my dedicatee, Norwegian saxophonist Jan Garbarek, can become world-famous – helped, of course, by the backing of a strong record company and the international jazz press. The downside is that, without such support, no matter how good Garbarek’s contemporaries may be (take Jøkleba as an example) they will be very lucky if they have any real following outside their own country.

This problem is linked to some of the areas that were explored but, unsurprisingly, not resolved, in DEEPENING THE GAME. But what concerns us here are the aspects of belonging to one specific group or another, in a music which, whether all involved like it or not, know it or not, has moved on and, ideally at least, should be able to include anyone.

ON ‘NOT BEING EUROPEAN’

Writing about the rise of abstract expressionism in America at a time when art was seen as European, critic David Sylvester wrote, ‘In the search for the absolute and commitment to the new, it was advantageous not to be a European, not to be steeped in a tired culture.’ He quotes Barnett Newman, one of the great painters in that style, as saying, ‘I believe that here in America, some of us, free from the weight of European culture . . . are creating images whose reality is self-evident . . . . We are freeing ourselves of the impediments of memory, association, nostalgia, legend, myth . . . we are making [art] out of ourselves, out of our own feelings.’2

This point is nicely developed by Sylvester, who says that Newman was influenced by Europeans such as Matisse and Giacometti but ‘it was they who had to deal with “the weight of European culture” and that it was because Newman was free of that weight that he could deal with Matisse and Giacometti and go on from there.’3

There are connections here with other arts. Literature was seen by Americans as ‘European’ but was looked at afresh by writers such as Faulkner and Hemingway. Cinema was seen as American, but was approached in a different way by Europeans such as Buñuel, Fellini and Godard.

Jazz, too, was born in America, and, like cinema, has been looked at afresh for many decades by non-American musicians. However, unlike the example of cinema, there is a distressing trend among some to think that America, and, often, specifically ‘black’ America, still ‘owns’ jazz, and that what is played elsewhere is something different – and somehow not as good. Indeed, Branford Marsalis is on record as saying, in a phrase that reminds us of his brother’s convictions, that ‘only those who have internalized the culture and way of life of African Americans can become jazz musicians. A prerequisite for this is to live in the US.’ 4

I should perhaps make it clear that I am not attempting to deny the prejudice that, in the early days of jazz, crowned white musicians such as Paul Whiteman the ‘King of Jazz’, and Benny Goodman the ‘King of Swing’, nor the bad taste left in the mouth when the latest hip white singing sensation is lauded far beyond his or her talent. But we only have to look at the case of many of the neo-classicist acolytes of Wynton Marsalis to see that reverse prejudice can and does happen. And, if more evidence is needed, there is Marsalis’ odd answer when asked ‘What do you think about European jazz?’ His reply, ‘If it is swinging and has some blues in it, I love it,’ serves his agenda as he no doubt wished, but it implies that swing and the blues, those aspects of jazz vital to the music for Marsalis, are rarely found in European jazz. They’re there, Wynton – and much else besides.

Drummer John Marshall, who has played in my various bands for many decades, made this interesting comment about the music that we were making in Britain in the sixties and seventies: ‘although in many ways free jazz and rock music are diametrically opposed, they had a common point which allowed us, the Europeans, to get on with our own music.’ And Stan Sulzmann, also involved in the scene at the time, said, after citing various influences, ‘You didn’t feel you were making a bad copy of an American record.’5

Some American musicians are aware that things have changed, both in the kinds of jazz that are played, and the attitudes to the music that are found elsewhere. As Quincy Jones says: ‘The
Europeans at this point are ready to say, “Hey guys, we’ll just take jazz from here. You don’t know what the hell to do with it.” That’s the way Europeans feel now. And I remember when they were just drooling over Bird and Diz and everybody. And now they have some amazing musicians over there.’6

In looking at what music is produced in the name of jazz, we can apply David Sylvester’s point that the descendants of the creators of an art form may be carrying too much baggage from the past. And that those coming to an art form from a different direction, may be able to dispense with all or most of that baggage, and, in so doing, shed new light on the subject.

The baggage carried by American jazz has been dealt with by Miles and Ornette. As Kirk Varnedoe said about Jackson Pollock and Picasso ‘each, in different ways and degrees altered the international languages of modern art.’7 (Italics in the original.) They challenged the view that bebop was the language of jazz, all that could be used, all that should be taught. Much American jazz missed this epiphany and continued – and continues – to create music that could perhaps best be described as ‘hard bop moderne’.

American musicians generally are aware of the great weight of jazz history behind them, and feel that they need to deal with it, to get it out of their system or, often, pun intended, to include it in their system.

It is, I believe, no coincidence that many non-American players, Garbarek for one, have taken much greater advantage of the newly exposed potential of jazz, than many Americans have. As pianist Bobo Stenson, a fellow Scandinavian, said, ‘the American jazz tradition is not so rigid for us as it is for American musicians . . . and we can be freer in our approach.’8

When referring to non-Americans the jazz world usually means Europeans, although, of course, there is good jazz being created everywhere around the world. Jazz from these places sometimes takes in local influences that would not occur – and would not be appropriate – in much of American jazz. And, dangerous ground here, it can be more personal. Echoing painter Barnett Newman’s stance, British saxophonist John Surman, in typical self-deprecating fashion, made the remarks that head this chapter. His work is open and fresh and original and develops from the tradition rather than staying locked inside it. As he says, ‘I had to find something of my own . . . I’ve worked on [this] so that I can present my view of the world.’

In the same way, although almost all jazz composers readily acknowledge, and show, the influence of Ellington, Gil Evans and Mingus, it is usually the non-Americans who feel no need to carry the baggage of the big band tradition. Composers such as the Australian Paul Grabowsky and Austrian Christian Mühlbacher, to be discussed below, demonstrate their respect for jazz traditions and for the ‘big three’ jazz composers mentioned above. But their work shows a great deal of freshness and originality, and is a long way removed from the greyness of much, but by no means all, of the contemporary big band writing on display in America.

In trying to get away from the American big band tradition they want to express themselves as what they are, Australian and Austrian respectively, each with their own different palettes as composers. In a similar way, during my time at Berklee, I wanted to express myself as a European, and, importantly, as a European jazz musician not influenced by the European classical tradition. There is an odd dichotomy that, particularly in America, the European classical tradition comes into many aspects of jazz: classical training, classical influences, the creation of an approved canon, and so on. There are sometimes good reasons for this, but I have more than a sneaking suspicion that much of it has to do with a misplaced inferiority complex among some jazz musicians and teachers.

That inferiority concept gets turned on its head when Americans are protecting their own view of jazz, as can be seen in the comment above by Branford Marsalis, as well as in many articles in jazz magazines and discussions on the internet. The consensus seems to be that Americans invented jazz, and all that musicians from other countries can do is to try – and by definition fail – to copy what has been achieved. To accept this, depends, of course, on how jazz is itself defined. For some, as Wynton Marsalis implies in his comment about European jazz, it has to swing and have the blues in it. Others, many outside America, accept these elements as being important ingredients for some jazz, but are less prescriptive when it comes to the whole.

Jazz may be seen as a broader church outside of America, but some of those involved have also been defensive about their approach to the music. Although their roots were in jazz, free improvisers such as Derek Bailey eschewed the style, and the word. Others tried to erect artificial barriers, proposing that American jazz is primarily note oriented, and European jazz is more interested in concepts of space, with Michael Brecker and Jan Garbarek presented as opposing examples. There is some truth in this, but if we look at John McLaughlin, European but very notey, and Bill Frisell, American but super-spacey, we soon realise that there are too many exceptions to posit any cast-iron rule.

Notes
1 John Surman, unsourced.
2 David Sylvester, About Modern Art, 322.
3 ibid, 324.
4 Der Speigel, 17 November 2006, quoted by Stuart Nicholson in JazzTimes May 2007.
5 Both from Alyn Shipton’s liner notes to a repackaging by BGO in
2007 of Down Another Road, Songs for my Father andMosaics as a double CD.
6 Jazz Times, undated.
7 Kirk Varnedoe et al, Jackson Pollock, 76
8 Jazzwise, September 2005.

Graham Collier - The Jazz Composer (Moving Music Off The Paper)

> back to The Book Cooks

> back to contents