Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Pass the jingoism

Not long before I moved away from New York City, my friend Tim Kiah invited me to a barbeque/party/jam session deep in Bed-Sty. When I got there, I realized two things- one, I only knew two people, Tim and Curtis Fowlkes, the great trombonist and Jazz Passenger. Since I’m not the world’s most outgoing person, this creates an obvious social challenge for me. Two, Tim and I were the only white people within a five block radius of this party. That said, I had a great time; lots of good food, and both the hosts and the guest were very warm and welcoming.

The jam session part was really interesting. There were several good players, older guys, pros and former pros, everyone knew tunes, etc. But the language of the music was very specific, a la Coltrane’s quartet circa “Crescent”- lots of pedals, very forceful playing, and a very pentatonic language. Curtis and I were talking about this at one point, and he said something to the effect that most of these players were guys he grew up with, who were very serious about music, but at one point got married, and/or had kids, or something that made them put playing off to the side. Common story, But then he said “the thing is, when they stopped playing, they stopped moving too. You and I have all these other references that these guys never really paid any mind to. That’s why it sounds this way here.”

On some level too, the party was about black pride, in the best possible use of the term. This party was clearly a celebration of that community, a vibrant, loving group people who are all African-Americans, who grew up during or just after the Civil Rights era, and are proud of it and want to pass the best of that experience on. And this particular music was a big part of that identity for these folks, just as hip-hop is for African-Americans in my generation.

I bring this up in the context of the current postings bouncing through cyberjazzland about “European jazz”, whatever that means. Among Americans musicians, critics and scholars, there is a sometimes knee-jerk reaction to European players, bands or movements- they don’t swing, they can’t swing, it isn’t jazz, etc.

Ryshpein and Mwanji have both done a good number refuting these points recently, and I agree. And no doubt some of what informs the branch of American criticism that dismisses a lot of Europeans is myopia and/or politics, the same people that try to define the jazz canon in a way that leaves out fusion and most of the avant-garde.

But the dis-ease with Euro-jazz is on some level the flip side of what made that party so much fun. Americans, especially black Americans feel a justified feeling of ownership of jazz, and I can see how seeing E.S.T get press in the New York Times ahead of Marcus Strickland or whoever can hurt. It’s not necessarily a rational emotion, but it’s a pretty understandable one.

Second, the roots of jazz are, above all else, African rhythm. Traditionally, jazz has been what one of my teachers calls “gut music”, connected to a groove that you feel in your loins. Groove is the main connecting line in all American black music, from Louis Armstrong to Bessie Smith to Ornette to Fats Domino to Prince. (Yet another reason the JALC crowds’ rejection of fusion is so absurd, but I digress…) And for all of the many things that European musicians bring to jazz, the perception is that this is the thing they’re most likely to miss. (This is, of course, not always the case, but that’s the perception. For my money- and off the top of my head- E.S.T., last year’s European critics darlings, couldn’t find a pocket on a pair of extra-large overalls, but there are prominent American bands I would say that about as well. One the other side I think Misha Mengleberg can swing his ass off, for one.) When I think about the “Euro-jazz” albums I go back and listen to a lot, groove is not the main reason I listen to them.

So in a way, this is an argument about cultural ownership and nomenclature more than it is about music. If European musician Q, or American musician T, doesn’t swing in a conventional sense, does that mean it’s bad music. No, it means it’s “bad jazz”. I am so over that word; we need a new one.

(There's about a million different tangents to be picked up here, later.)

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