I'm chewing hard on Dave Douglas' recent post about rep and Kris Tiner's new blog, specifically this post. I've also been thinking about a story a friend told me recently (He was there, and I wasn't, and I don't really know any of the parties involved except by reputation, so I'll be intentionally vague)
A well-know NYC jazz club booked an odd evening, pairing a grizzled old veteran player (GOV), sideman on many a tour with Great and Important Swingin' Jazz Artists, followed by a Wild Young Turk (WYT), playing challenging, left of center, critically praised but "out" music. (Think along the lines of, say, a Charlie Persip/Taylor Ho Bynum pairing, though it wasn't either of them) After the gig, folks were hanging, including several attractive women talking to GOV. WYT tried to get their attention, to no avail. After they'd broken away, WYT asked GOV why he couldn't get any love, and why GOV didn't help him out. GOV nearly lost it. "You expect any of those fine women to talk to you after all that crazy, out there #$^t you played tonight? And you expect me to get you there? What do you think this is?" Etc, etc.
I think most of us who've lived around the jazz world have a few stories like this. Confrontations at jam sessions, people yelling at gigs, etc. To me, it points out a dichotomy that Dave and Kris are dealing with in their posts. There are two dominant ideas of what "jazz" means (gross oversimplification ahead, and there are certainly more than two. But these are two I bump into very often) One is jazz as a tradition, a canon, a language which encompasses both musical syntax and cultural traditions. For instance, "Giant Steps" is a sixteen bar form with a novel harmonic structure, but also a saxophonist's rite of passage. This idea of jazz is about ninth chords and nightclubs, a musical language and a way of presenting yourself on stage. (And, yes, often chasing skirts, sexist as that may be) Not that many folks in this head agree on what that language or presentation should exactly be, but most agree that it should be something specific. I think my mentor Michael Cain put it very well here.
The other is the, perhaps more utopian idea of improvisational music as pure expression. Dave says it better than I:
"To me it means the freedom to learn All That. To do the work on the basics but to never forget why one is learning all that and to never be afraid to try something off the page. In fact, to especially have the urge to always try something off the page. To be ultimately free to choose, with as little illusion as possible, to make the music one feels."
(Please read Dave's whole post- there's a whole lot more than that there)
In other words, jazz, or whatevery you want to call it, is primarily about expression, wherever that takes you. Functionally, there is a faction in our music that seems to say the weirder, the "outer", the better. That's when you get anecdotes like the above.
Certainly these two are not necessarily opposed- this idea of jazz that GOV represents in the story is built on brilliantly creative, risk-taking musicians, free in the truest sense of the word. And certainly, jazz has a particular, important, complicated place in the African-American community that musicians, who aren't black or don't really understand that community, often ignore or downplay at our own peril. (I count myself here) And, perhaps more importantly, the first informs how jazz is taught and communicated in mass culture much, much more than the second.
It's not my place to say that one or the other is more true, or better. I certainly think more in the second, freedom head. But my entire education in this music is heavily informed by the first view, the idea of jazz as the True American Music, of playing standards and going to jam sessions and impressing women with particularly moving ballads. (not that that really happens much) But in thinking about the music we make and hear and care about, it behooves us to examine this distinction more carefully, and what we think about it. Could it lead to a more informed, more enlightened discussion of what we do?
Okay, I meant to talk about repitiore via Dave, but that can wait 'til later...