The Book Cooks
Excerpts from
Why Jazz?: a concise guide

by Kevin Whitehead
(Oxford University Press; New York, Oxford)

Why Why Jazz? Oxford had approached me about writing a short intro, in Q&A format, for curious listeners who find jazz daunting, and for those who know something but could use a quick refresher. People are busy, and we’re all used to reading compact blog posts on the go. And reviewing jazz for NPR’s Fresh Air has been a continuing education in concision. So why not?

At 40,000 words all in, the writing became a formal puzzle: how to pack a small bag for a long trip. It’s a challenge to briefly describe what improvisers are up to, in the various ways they interact. But brevity can be an asset, too: telling a nine-decade story in capsule form (while dealing with overlooked roots like quotation music) brings into sharp relief the audible processes behind all jazz styles: themes and variations, call-and-response, contrasting rhythms, and feedback loops.

The book also afforded an opportunity to freshly assess developments since 1970, around the time I started heeding it. Some historians looking at the period discuss diverse styles in isolation, but for me the story of the 1980s and ’90s is about confrontations among styles: not just between camps, but also within a single composition. The postmodern jumble is where Muhal, Wynton and Zorn meet up—looking ahead to the stylistic reconciliations of the 21st century.

– KW


From Chapter 5: Jazz after 1980: The Postmodern Period

What’s so important about Wynton Marsalis?

The New Orleans–born trumpeter’s bravura technique made him an instant sensation while he was still in his teens, and, like teenage prodigy Lee Morgan in the 1950s, he chose Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers over Juilliard. From the first, Marsalis was notoriously outspoken in interviews, and his harsh condemnations of electric and free jazz polarized fans and critics. Since the 1990s he has directed jazz programming at the Lincoln Center in New York, which added to the controversy over his opinions. (More about that in connection with the ’90s “jazz wars.”)

The impressive debut Wynton Marsalis, recorded in 1981, bespoke his admiration for Miles Davis’s 1960s quintet. He even performed the quintet’s “R.J.” with that band’s rhythm section. Unlike earlier players, who asserted their individuality, Marsalis and his tenor saxophonist, brother, and fellow Messenger, Branford Marsalis, paid frank homage to Davis and Wayne Shorter.

For young Wynton, going back to vintage Davis was the way forward. Like a 1940s dixieland revivalist, he denounced the jazz of the previous 20 years as a betrayal of old ideals. He excoriated Davis’s recent funk, denounced avant-gardists as charlatans, and championed the notion that swing and blues feeling were far more important than innovation. Similar to the president at the time, Ronald Reagan, he decried ’60s permissiveness and advocated traditional values.

Marsalis’s prime mentor was African American intellectual Albert Murray, whose 1976 book Stomping the Blues spelled out his views. Jazz tradition is a constant dialogue between the present and the past: “It is . . . far more a matter of imitation and variation and counterstatement than of originality.” For Murray, jazz train songs are about other train songs more than actual trains.

Still, some of Murray’s Kansas City heroes held originality in higher esteem than he did. “Originality is the thing,” Lester Young said. “You can have tone and technique and a lot of other things but without originality you ain’t really nowhere.” Or as Basie trumpeter Buck Clayton put it, “If you don’t do something new, then you might as well forget it.”

In 1986 Wynton Marsalis moved out of Davis’s shadow with a new quartet, with Marcus Roberts on piano and the explosive Jeff “Tain” Watts, a holdover, still on drums. Live at Blues Alley displayed a brand of showmanship that is all about masterful technique and avoids empty gestures. Later albums, including 1991’s Uptown Ruler for a new quintet with Roberts, were similarly dynamic. By then Marsalis had also been delving into New Orleans jazz, and had begun writing for a big band.

On that score his new idol was Duke Ellington, though his homages had an air of pastiche—like the comedic Rutles rearranging pilfered bits of Beatles songs. Marsalis’s theme to the 1990 film Tune in Tomorrow, “Big Trouble in the Easy,” combined the swaggering gait of Duke’s Anatomy of a Murder theme with birdlike clarinet à la Strayhorn’s “Bluebird of Delhi.” Albert Murray’s views on train songs aside, Marsalis’s 1998 “The Caboose” for big band is memorable not for evoking locomotive Ellingtonia but catching the sound of a train itself; a very specific slow-freight da-dum-ka-dum beat runs underneath.

Marsalis’s writing continues to reference jazz’s rich past. On 2003’s The Magic Hour for nimble quartet, “You and Me” suggests the Influence of hyperarranged little swing bands of the 1930s like John Kirby’s. There are interlocking handclap patterns, a kidworthy 2-beat tune, bowed bass throughout, and two trumpet solos in contrasting voices (muted and open horn). Marsalis’s compositions are most notable for their postmodern juxtapositions and rhythmic dexterity. His melodies don’t linger in your ear, as two songs for singers on the same album make plain.

As a player, the mature Wynton is a master of trumpet voices. He can whisper like Davis and shout like Armstrong. He can play soft veiled tones, low blues moans deflected by a derby mute, ghostly falsettos, chicken cackles, and throaty squeals squarely on pitch. He’s a show-off , but why hide all that?

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Why did so many musicians look to the past in the 1980s?

It wasn’t just Wynton Marsalis. Even progressive composers either reconsidered aspects of early jazz or unwittingly recapitulated them. The bumper crop of new saxophone quartets had a precedent in the vaudeville sax choirs like the Six Brown Brothers. After 60 years on record, jazz had covered so much ground and come so far, it could be hard for musicians to see where to go next—how to extend the tradition as their idols had. But now-neglected arranging practices from the ’20s and ’30s offered alternatives to hard bop’s strings of consecutive solos.

Looking back was easier than it had been. In the ’70s, record labels that shied away from new jazz began reissuing their massive back catalogs on LP. And that was nothing compared to the flood of ’80s reissues on compact discs. Sooner or later, it all came out on CD: Ellington classics, Armstrong’s ’50s pop sides, organ groups, fusion jams, folk jazz, swinging advertising jingles.

As soon as Thelonious Monk died in 1982, he was universally recognized as a genius, and many musicians started playing his largely ignored tunes, now found to be full of fresh challenges. This is when Monk’s clotted piano harmonies and playfully stumbling gait really entered the jazz vocabulary. Even his stylistic cousin Herbie Nichols’ tunes and Blue Note albums got belated attention.

All these past masterpieces and arcana were an incredible resource, but there was a catch. Younger musicians could draw on decades of accumulated wisdom, but their own CDs had to compete in the marketplace with the giants who inspired them. Diana Krall found great songs on Nat King Cole and Anita O’Day records, but she had his reputation as a piano-playing combo leader and hers as a sultry singer to live up to.

What is postmodern jazz?

In the 1980s jazz faced the classic postmodern question—Where next?—and answered it in a classic postmodern way: take everything apart and reassemble it in a new order. Juxtapose and recontextualize. It could make for some bizarre half-man, half-fly mash-ups. Harry Connick Jr. came along singing kind of like Frank Sinatra and playing piano kind of like Monk.

Other borrowers better integrated diverse strains. Tenor saxophonist David Murray, like Albert Ayler, had played in church as a boy. On Murray’s first mid-’70s recordings Ayler’s influence was plain on his wide vibrato and simple, catchy melodies such as “Flowers for Albert.” But soon other influences submerged that one: swing tenor Ben Webster’s big bearish tone, rhythmic swagger, and stage-whispering on ballads; Eric Dolphy’s way of careening from the bottom to the top of a horn’s range, in big staccato leaps. Murray was jazz’s most notable bass clarinetist after Dolphy, with a sweetly woody, almost bubbly sound; he’d pop notes from the mouthpiece like a vaudeville novelty clarinetist. And he synthesized it all into a personal style.

Murray played in the World Saxophone Quartet, and led numerous groups including a way-too-loose big band and a fine octet. Versatile midsize bands like that one were an ’80s trend. Composer Henry Threadgill had his Sextett, in fact consisting of seven players. (He counted its two drummers as one.) With cornet or trumpet, trombone, Threadgill’s reeds, cello and bass, the group could play the role of a small jazz combo, a blues band (with Diedre Murray’s spiky plucked cello as guitar), cross-riffing big band or marching unit. Threadgill had served in the Army and, like fellow vets Ayler and Anthony Braxton, had a lingering affection for parade music.

The Threadgill Sextett’s “Spotted Dick Is Pudding” (1987) is retro with a twist. The catchy barnyard melody Frank Lacy growls and blares on slide trombone over simple chords could predate the Civil War. It’s all very unlike bop—Lacy’s solo sticks close to the tune—but the tune frequently changes key by giant steps of a major third, an odd disruption that erases a sense of a home key. Hinting at ragtime’s multiple themes, there’s a prearranged double-time section, with horns playing preset riff s behind Threadgill’s scalding alto.

Clarinetist John Carter’s octets, heard on five albums in his undervalued series Roots and Folklore: Episodes in the Development of American Folk Music, sketches a people’s diaspora from Africa through the Middle Passage to the Great Migration in a musical parallel to Alex Haley’s book (and the TV miniseries) Roots. Carter came from Fort Worth—he was Ornette Coleman’s schoolmate and Julius Hemphill’s teacher— and takes venerable call-and-response traditions as a jumping-off point. His melodies smack of field hollers and country blues. But like Ellington he reimagines musical particulars: Roots and Folklore is his Black, Brown, and Beige.

Carter uses early jazz instruments—cornet, clarinet, trombone, violin, bass, and drums—but adds synthesizer, sometimes in a character role as piano or vibes. The band’s woody timbres, extreme high notes, rough but transparent textures and unresolved dissonances extend the sound of Carter’s clarinet. He expanded the instrument’s upward range almost an octave by studying his own accidental squeaks. Roots and Folklore awaits a definitive edition, but a few clarinetists carry on playing his music.

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Is there still an avant-garde in jazz?

Musicians still come up with new ideas, but listeners aren’t as easy to shock as they once were. Free jazz has continued to thrive, and though some fans insist it’s still avant-garde or “cutting edge,” in reality it’s one more historical style musicians play in updated form, whose basic parameters were laid out decades ago, like dixieland or hard bop.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. The true test of musicians in any style is how well they play it. Free jazz tenor saxophonist Charles Gayle’s ’90s work wouldn’t have sounded out of place in 1966, but he could really play.

In 2002, tenor saxophonist David S. Ware recorded a version of Sonny Rollins’s 1958 Freedom Suite—as did Branford Marsalis the year before, alongside a version of John Coltrane’s 1964 album-length suite A Love Supreme. Branford had been leading his own bands from the mid-’80s and had grown into a formidable tenor saxophonist. In his playing, one hears traces of Coltrane’s rippling scales and soaring high notes, but they’ve become part of his own expressive arsenal. Jazz musicians revisit such classics much the way classical musicians play Bach on modern instruments, honoring the masterworks in the terms of one’s own time. Practitioners of any historical jazz style usually incorporate later refinements, by design or through inadvertent anachronisms. They play living music, not museum pieces.

One great free jazz group in the new century was bassist William Parker’s quartet with Rob Brown on alto and Lewis Barnes on trumpet. Parker had already partnered in other bands with its powerhouse drummer Hamid Drake, who brought a wealth of experience playing reggae and other global musics as well as free jazz. Parker and Drake juggle multiple rhythms without throwing each other. Their deep grooves when they pull together smack of Jamaican dub music or North African frame-drum beats more than the Albert Ayler trio’s free timing.

What were new developments in bop? Did free improvisation finally become mainstream?

Some younger bop musicians in the ’90s and 2000s looked at old schools from new perspectives, investigating musicians who didn’t get their due in their own time. Tenor saxophonist Mark Turner drew on the legacy of the ultra-cool Warne Marsh. Pianists Frank Kimbrough, Geri Allen, Ethan Iverson, and Ted Rosenthal played music of ’50s composer Herbie Nichols, as had Roswell Rudd, Misha Mengelberg, and bassist Buell Neidlinger before them. Allen and Dave Douglas played music by Mary Lou Williams.

By the early twenty-first century, old stylistic divisions had broken down. Young lions had gone electric, and free improvisation had been absorbed into the poly-stylism of jazz at large, part of a well-rounded player’s menu of strategies.

Nobody was as effortlessly polyglot as alto saxophonist Lee Konitz. A half century after his debut with Claude Thornhill, he had a tone as pliant and plaintive and a mind as fertile as ever. Konitz sounded at home fronting bop rhythm sections all over the world (finding fresh routes through tunes he’d played forever), sitting in and recording with the quirky Paul Motian–Bill Frisell–Joe Lovano trio, and free improvising with Derek Bailey and company in England. But then he’d been playing bop, free music, and the long game since he was with Lennie Tristano in the 1940s.

In the ’80s, pianist Keith Jarrett formed a long-running trio with bassist Gary Peacock—now as lyrical as he was manic with Albert Ayler—and polyrhythmic drummer Jack DeJohnette, a Jarrett ally since the ’60s. The trio played only standards or free improvisations; the free stuff might recall Ornette Coleman’s friskiness or the slow, rubato, droning quality of North Indian classical music. Trumpeter Dave Ballou’s 2000 album On This Day was free improvised, but his quintet played melodies, harmonized, took solos in order, changed up the rhythms, traded phrases, and ended together as if it had been scripted, all with a fine sense of balance and proportion.

On the duo recital Freefall (2000), bop pianist Kenny Barron and postmodern violinist Regina Carter played standards, including an ingeniously intricate recasting of Thelonious Monk’s blues “Misterioso” in which they bounced the skeletal melody back and forth in various pre-plotted ways, their syncopations updating ragtime. The title track was an improvisation where they riffled through a lexicon of free players’ pet devices: mirrorlike imitation, leapfrogging trades and cat-and- mouse chases, fast transitions, staccato notes scattered around for a little musical pointillism, and moments when they pretend to ignore each other.

In our time, leaders such as Dave Douglas, Don Byron, and John Zorn lead multiple acoustic or electric bands to scratch different itches. Musicians’ options are wider nowadays partly because their training is.

In 1999, the jazz, classical, klezmer, Latin, and gospel pianist Uri Caine revamped J. S. Bach’s 1742 Goldberg Variations. Bach had spun his 30 variations off a basic form and chord sequence. Caine arranged all of those and added 40 more, approaching the material from all over the Western musical map. There were Colombian, techno, and gospel variations; settings for modern and period string quartets; weird mixes of baroque and free players; Bach in the styles of Mozart, Alban Berg, dixieland, modern bop, and Wendy Carlos on Moog synthesizer. It was spectacularly wide-ranging, with the supple jazz variations part of a larger whole.

Reprinted from Why Jazz?: A Concise Guide, by Kevin Whitehead, published by Oxford University Press. © Oxford University Press, Inc. 2011.

Why Jazz - A Concise Guide - Oxford Press

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