Friday, June 23, 2006

degeneration X part 2, or the hole in my record collection

Continued from above (I hope...)

I like my records collection, and am some proud of it. I think most musicians are. While it’s not comprehensive, I think I own a lot of great music from most periods of “jazz”, whatever that is. And I think I own a lot of the records that teachers and peers tell you that you’re “supposed to” own as you grow in this music- Kind of Blue, the Okeh Ellington, Shape of Jazz to Come, Hot Fives and Sevens, etc. So in considering this question of post-Vietnam jazz, I looked at my collection to see what jazz records I have from ’74-’79, and which ones I actually still listen to and like? What I came up with- Pat Metheny’s “Bright Size Life”, Ebenhart Weber’s “Later That Evening”, the Joni-Jaco recordings (jazz in my book), “Conference of the Birds”, and a few Keith Jarrett recordings, particularly the European and American quartet records. It took me a good couple of hours to compile that short list. (What’s the date on Vanguard Band’s “Music of Bob Brookmeyer” and the Haden Liberation Music records? They’d be there.) My “still have to buy” list from that period- Hempill’s “Dogon AD”, Braxton’s ’74 solo saxophone record, Oregon, “Air Lore”, and Lacy’s “Evidence”. (What’s the date on Gil Evans’ “Svengali” and “Hendrix” records? If they fit the time frame, they’re there too.)

Part of this is due to personal taste, certainly- I just don’t like Return to Forever, and am not as big a Weather Report, Brecker, or Chet Baker fan as many of my peers. I’m not dogging them; just not my thing. And you could (and I hope you do) bombard me with omissions. But even so, I can’t think of another seven-year period in the history of jazz where my list is that short. My list of “still have to buy” from ’67 to ’74, or ’36 to ’43, hell, even ’87 to ‘94 is longer than that favorites list.

My point- we have to at least acknowledge the real possibility that, especially in the jazz’ mainstream, where culture at large is most likely to see, hear and buy the music, the period following Miles retirement was at least somewhat fallow. Dave’s list of important artists, a great list is sorely lacking musicians working American musicians who could safely be described as in the mainstream. (By contrast, great jazz artists who I adore working from ’74 to ’81 who are missing, rightly, IMHO, from that list- Stan Getz, Sonny Rollins, Elvin Jones, Horace Silver, Gerry Mulligan, Bill Evans, Freddie Hubbard, Ornette Coleman, Art Farmer, J.J. Johnson, Art Blakey. I could add a dozen more easily, but there is a bloody jazz hall of fame, and I can’t think of a single memorable record from any of them in that period. And I think at least five of them made great records in the seven years following this stretch.) That hole allowed Wynton, an very accomplished technical player with a style that falls clearly in the jazz mainstream, to walk in as the great black hope.

Which of course begs the question, if this is the case, why were the late ‘70s so bad for jazz. Again, I wasn’t there, but hindsight being 20/20, these are a few of the factors I’d consider:

Recording technology and trends did not favor the sound of jazz, especially of acoustic music. When I think of jazz records in the 70s, especially “straight-ahead” albums (VSOP, Hubbard, and Henderson solo records, etc.) I think of over-separation, overly wet post-production, acoustic instruments that don’t sound the least bit acoustic, and hyper-separation that bares no resemblance how you’d hear this music live. And personally, I hate it. This sound may serve Queen and Kiss well, but I don’t think it does good things for acoustic music. (The shining exception of this era is ECM records, which either get better sounds or make these techniques work in the music’s favor. But I’ll get there.)

Wynton and his ilk went out of their way to put in their album notes “recorded without the dreaded bass direct”. I don’t blame them; from a pure sound point of view, I’ll take “Black Codes” or “Royal Garden Blues” over a VSOP record any day, though the playing on the latter may be more interesting. And don’t underestimate the impact of the sound of a given recording; I think there are some Blue Note recordings in the ‘60s that would be much more obscure than they are if they didn’t have that classic “Blue Note Sound”. Recording quality and style matters. A lot.

The aforementioned loss of Miles, Duke and Louis Armstrong. Bears repeating.

Drugs. An unpleasant topic, certainly, but I think it’s safe to say that many prominent musicians, who were still fairly young, lost productivity and quality of work to serious drug addictions in the 70s. Miles was the most obvious, and Woody Shaw the most tragic, but I can think of several others offhand. I think we all can. (I’d rather not name names, if it’s all the same to everyone. But I could.) This isn’t the only time it’s happened in the music, but imagine a clean ___________, _________, and _________ making records in 1976, and we at least have a different discography of the ‘70s.

As previously mentioned, the pop sensibility of 1978 was a lot less friendly to a lot of the inherent aesthetics of jazz- subtlety, group interplay, spontaneity in performance, etc.- than the pop sensibility of 1972. Think about the jazz that succeeds commercially in the late 70’s- it tends to lean more toward the anthemic (Metheny, RTF, Headhunters) than music of five years prior would. And these artists, intentionally or not, usher in “smooth jazz”, which is easy to have a backlash against. Again, enter the young lions.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying that commercial considerations should be the only, or a primary means of evaluating any music. That’s artistic suicide. But I don’t want to pretend that sales don’t matter. The last forty years have seen the market share defined as “jazz” dwindle from something like 10% of domestic record sales to something like 2%. We can’t let that dictate how we define great art, but we can’t pretend that it’s unimportant. (My dad, who teaches two dead languages, another niche field, likes to say that academic fights are some of the fiercest you’ll ever see, because the stakes are so tremendously low.) Speaking of which…

The rise of jazz education. What it now the IAJE was founded as the NAJE in 1968, and by the mid-‘70s you had several established, big-name jazz programs in major universities- North Texas, Indiana, Berklee, Eastman, etc- influencing the music on some level, and certainly the musicians who made it. The Notre Dame Jazz Festival was firmly entrenched as something of a kingmaker for major college programs. (To wit, trumpeter Allan Vizzutti still mentions his awards there on the cover of his method books) In the mid-’70s Jamie Abersold starts publishing his “How to Improvise” series. In many ways, this was the era of the One O’Clock Band, a model of jazz education built around a big band playing a core repitiore of late Basie, Kenton, Herman, and Buddy Rich charts, often but not always at a very high technical level, with an aesthetic of “higher, faster, louder”. This education tended to shortchange pre-bop styles of jazz (notably Ellington) in favor of a bebop and post-bop language, especially Bird and Trane. The better of the players in these programs then graduated into the touring bands- Fergeson, Rich, Herman, etc.- and then eventually landed teaching gigs in academia themselves. Oh, and they were overwhelmingly white, in a music that has been historically predominantly African-American. At this time in American history, the barely post-Civil Rights era, race is a very open wound. (I know this is a gross overgeneralization- Max Roach, Bunky Green and Yuseff Lateef and other prominent black musicians were involved in jazz ed very early on, but they weren’t the majority by a long shot. Still aren’t, for better or worse.)

This is a huge topic, which I can’t do justice here. But in this context, can you see how the building of a (disproportionately white) jazz education establishment would enable the emergence of a strong (predominantly black) conservative movement in the music? The music has lost its way, the cry goes, fusion corrupting some of the great ones on one hand (Wynton often called Miles a “great general who turned to the other side”), and a new, mostly white institution teaching a corrupted, impure version of jazz on the other. And, this movement has an automatic audience of eager, committed, talented, young people looking for direction- the students (and often the teachers) at these schools!

This dovetails into the thorny issue of race. My favorites of the ‘70s list up there- most of those records have two things in common- most are on ECM, a European label- the American quartet is the exception- and most of the leaders, and musicians in fact, are white. (obvious exceptions- Braxton, Dewey Redman w/Keith, Air) I can’t say that about any other era in jazz, at least in my collection.

I don’t want to overstate anything here, since it’s such volcanic ground, but I think I can say that ECM is the first time in the history of jazz where a non-American voice has had such a huge impact, both commercially and aesthetically, on jazz, always considered an American music. (And as has been documented, the amount of influence ECM producer Mannfred Eicher had and has over the recordings ECM releases is substantial, at least on par with Teo Macero and Ahmed Ertigun in their heydays.) And the recognizable faces of ECM at its’ heyday were the Pat Metheny Group and Keith Jarrett, both white musicians who Caucasian influences- Jarrett the classical piano tradition, Metheny American folk music- are obvious.

Here’s where Wynton comes in. He’s handsome, he’s clean, he’s black, he’s photogenic, he’s articulate. He presents jazz with an intellectual underpinning that links what he’s doing to a recognizable, very teachable, and very American musical lineage, and advocates a jazz canon that dovetails with the curricular needs of jazz educators. He puts Ellington and Armstong, the two fallen giants, at the forefront of what he’s doing, and goes head to head with Miles, the third, in very public controversies. He has a great press machine, thanks in no small part to his huge record label. Oh, and like him or not (and in case you can’t tell, I fall closer to the “nots”), he plays his ass off.

Wynton achieved an enormous amount in redirecting the course of jazz in the ‘80s in a more conservative direction. A lot of it was certainly due to his own enormous personal energy, talent and stamina, no doubt. But he also walked into a moment that favored him for reasons he had little to do with. The right person at the right time, I’m equally convinced. So there’s one answer, or at least a part of one. Fire away.


dja said...

Some thoughts:

Dogon AD was available for a minute as a free MP3 download from Screwgun -- but I checked back and it isn't there anymore. I don't think it's ever been issued on CD. (The Screwgun download was just a straight rip from vinyl.) But the followup, Coon Bid'ness, actually has the best track recorded at the Dogon sessions (and one of Hemphill's best tunes), "The Hard Blues," and that one is more easily found.

You also neglected to mention those incredible, hugely influential 1970's Kenny Wheeler records: Gnu High, Deer Wan, and Around 6.

There's also Old and New Dreams, Gateway, Mingus's Changes One and Two, Dexter's Homecoming, Herbie's Thrust, Man-Child, etc, VSOP, Wayne's Native Dancer, McCoy's Supertrios, Woody Shaw's Little Red's Fantasy, Rosewood, and The Iron Men, Thad and Mel's Potpourri, Greetings and Salutations, and New Life, Gil's There Comes A Time and Priestess (in addition to the Hendrix record you mentioned), Dave Holland's Emerald Tears, Gary Burton's stuff with Pat and Mick Goodrick, Paul Bley's Alone, Again and Axis, Carla Bley's Dinner Music and Social Studies... this is all just off the top of my head, and I'm not even getting into the loft/avant scene (of which I am largely still unfamiliar).

The point is, the mid-to-late 1970's were actually a very diverse, fertile, and creative period for jazz, and the music of that period resonates very strongly with me -- probably more strongly than the jazz of any other era.

I also feel much of it shares certain fundamental similarities with the punk/New Wave stuff from the same timeframe -- The Clash, Talking Heads, Elvis Costello, The Police, Television, and, of course, Prince -- as well as the minimalist revolution going in in classical music.

dja said...


(By contrast, great jazz artists who I adore working from ’74 to ’81 who are missing, rightly, IMHO, from that list- Stan Getz, Sonny Rollins, Elvin Jones, Horace Silver, Gerry Mulligan, Bill Evans, Freddie Hubbard, Ornette Coleman, Art Farmer, J.J. Johnson, Art Blakey. I could add a dozen more easily, but there is a bloody jazz hall of fame, and I can’t think of a single memorable record from any of them in that period.

Stan Getz: The Dolphin

Sonny: dunno, I don't own any from this period.

Elvin: lots of great reocrds -- Love & Peace, Summit Meeting (with Clark Terry), Rememberance...

Horace: he was prolific and ambitious, many large-scale works. Availability is dodgy so I've not heard them,

Jeru: I dunno. He made a record with Piazzolla (haven't heard it). Idol Gossip is reported to be very good.

Bill Evans -- not a huge fan of the Eddie Gomez years, or (worse) the skiing years, but I Will Say Goodbye, Affinity and We Will Meet Again are all worthwhile. Bill was still growing and pushing himself an artist, and in his later years began to get into some fascinating and innovative rhythmic ideas, especially if you can listen past the coke-fueled rushing.

Freddie: say what you will about the recorded sound, his playing with VSOP is phenomenal.

Ornette: you're kidding, right? Body Meta! And even if you're not into Prime Time, frickin' Soapsuds, Soapsuds! (duets with Charlie Haden). Undeniably great.

Art Farmer: again, not familiar with this period, but To Duke With Love is reportedly very good.

J.J. Johnson: on hiatus.

Art Blakey: journeyman work all through the 1970s. Nothing too remarkable (to my knowledge), but certainly nothing awful either. (He went through similar periods in the 1950's and 1960's) And of course, 1980's Live at Montreux and Northsea is the record that launched both Wynton and Branford.

pat said...

Touche- I also left the loft scene on purpose.

My defense- for some reason I thought the dates on those Kenny records were later, my bad. Ditto on Native Dancer. Elvin, plead ignorance. And I like VSOP, but I can't put it in the same boat as "Hub of Hubbard" or the stuff with Blakey. Ditto for the Blakey stuff, Marsalis or no. (This is what makes horse races, right here...)

You flat out got me on Ornette. My goof.

Anonymous said...

enjoy reading yer stuff. liked guy who talked to his food. don't really care about trends in jazz, but liked reading what you had to say in any case.

if you're being a stickler for correct usage, don't say "begs the question" to mean "raises the question" or something; begging the question is circular (tautological) reasoning. but that's old-school fussiness, much like chastising someone for saying "uniquely unique" or "general consensus". more kudos. keep writing, and i'll keep reading.