Friday, June 23, 2006

degeneration X

As promised, I have been chewing on Dave Douglas' post about a recent history of post-war jazz/improvisational music/creative improvised music/whatever. (For simplicity, I'll say "jazz" in quotes. Duke didn't like the word much,yet another way he was ahead of his time.) Here goes...

First, thanks to Dave for putting this question on the table. I think this is a question that confronts a lot of us in my generation, those jazz musicians who were growing up while the “young lions” were the rage in jazz, and since moved beyond that paradigm (or at least tried to). This is probably going to be several posts, and I’m not going to pretend to be thorough. I don’t know if one unbiased history of anything is ever possible, but many people attacking a history from many angles often produces an fairly accurate mosaic.

To that end, I think it’s important to ask this question of as many people who were actually there as we can, players and fans, critics and thinkers, especially as too active at that time pass on.

Dave asks a huge question, the question of post-war "jazz", and why it went down the way it did. Inside are a hundred smaller questions, that perhaps can add up to a whole. And at the outset, let me say that I’m somewhat hamstrung by the simple fact that I wasn’t there. I was five when the seventies ended, and my most sophisticated listening experience in 1980 was with a Sesame Street LP on a toy record player. There was certainly music around the house; my parents first date was at the Boston Symphony (they’ve been subscribers ever since) my dad has been a jazz buff since high school, and I remember going to young people’s concerts and the like. I think these factors did influence my future life as a “jazz” musician and composer, but I wasn’t really paying any attention then.

(Aside: I’ve heard that there is at least one history of the loft scene in the works- anyone know anything. Also, Allan Chase has started teaching a great course at NEC called “Jazz Styles: The Avent-Garde”, which I’m told is great, and covers the loft scene especially well. Of course, he started teaching it the year after I finished.)

The bit in Dave’s post that immediately speaks to me is here:

“The wild experimentation of "the sixties" (idealized version circa 2006) caused a backlash and a retreat to "safer" territory that threatens to completely obliterate memory of the wonderful music that happened.”

If we can agree on that statement (and I certainly do), then: What caused the backlash? What was it in the culture of jazz that allowed Wynton Marsalis, Stanley Crouch, Martin Williams et al to define (or redefine) the music in a much more conservative direction in the 1980s? (that’s an overstatement, I know, but not a wild overstatement) I’m particularly interested in the period from 1974 (which Dave christens, fairly enough, the end of sixties jazz) until 1981, when Wynton begins to record as a solo artist.

(Side note 2- I’m curious about Stanley Crouch’s transformation from loft scene drummer to an intellectual pillar for musical neocons. How did that come to be- did he have a sort of Bizarro Road to Damascus moment? Did the fact that his own career as a player never took off play into it? Or is there something else? I’ve often wondered.)

First, let’s look at the big picture. I think you can look at in the late 70’s as a best of times, worst of times moment for jazz.

Worst of times: A lot of popular music in the ‘60s as Dave defines them (’65-’74)- Hendrix, Cream, the Dead, Sly and the Family Stone, The Doors, Jefferson Airplane, the Beatles, etc. etc.- was music that was on some level experimental and improvisational. That dovetails well with a jazz sensibility; it’s not a giant leap for a casual listener from “Sunshine of Your Love” or “Stand” to, say “Jack Johnson” or “Science Fiction”. And the amorphous, unscripted nature of early FM radio facilitated this kind of crossover.

Fast forward to 1978. Disco and glam rock are kings. FM radio has been reigned in, not to the Clear Channel levels of today, but it has been formatted and tamed. (For a great account of the history of pop radio, especially in relation to disco, see Fredric Dannen’s great book Hit Men) It’s a lot bigger leap for the casual listener from Kiss to Air than it was from Cream to Miles. The winds of popular culture were blowing in a way that wasn’t as friendly to the vanguard in 1978 as they were in 1972. And it’s not just in music. Think about important, at least somewhat popular films of the early ‘70s- MASH, Godfather, Clockwork Orange, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, 2001. Late 70’s- Star Wars, Jaws, Animal House. See a little difference? (Overstatement, certainly. But work with me)

Second, as Dave mentioned, Miles retired, and Ellington and Armstrong died. There was no one present in jazz who could replace them in the public imagination. There were many, many great leaders present in the music, but none who combined musical talent and personal aura to carry them into the public sphere at anything close to the level of any of the three we lost. That’s not anybody’s fault, certainly, but it can’t be overlooked. And who’s the next person to come along able to command the public eye in that way? Wynton. But I’m getting way ahead of myself.

On the other hand, the best of times. Some of the great names in jazz were making fantastic music- on “pop” projects. Think about the lineups both live and in studio in the ‘70s. Steely Dan- Wayne Shorter, Steve Gadd, the Breckers, Steve Erskine, etc. Joni Mitchell- Wayne, Jaco, Erskine, Brecker, Don Alias, et al, and also the LA Express band. Herbie with Stevie Wonder. Brecker’s amazing solo on Paul Simon’s “Still Crazy”. Phil Woods with Billy Joel. The original SNL house band. Joe Henderson tours with Blood, Sweat and Tears. And on, and on.

Neither of these two developments- narrow tastes and radio play, and big money commercial work- is particularly friendly to creating the kind of audience for creative music that existed five years before. So there’s one possible answer, or part of it.

However, I think there were some more local issues that also affected “jazz” in the late 70’s in such a way as to allow the musical neoconservative thrust ascent we saw in the ‘80s. But that’s my next post- stay tuned.

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