Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Bobby Broom - "Who took the Soul out of Jazz"

Chicago based guitarist Bobby Broom has an interesting article up on his blog (originally written for Chicago Jazz Magazine) about "soul jazz". He points out that the term itself is redundant, and has a lot of extra baggage:
So why, then, do we accept the use of the redundant categorization of soul-jazz? I understand that as merchants and consumers we need labels for shelves and aisles, but I believe that the definition currently implies so much more than simply a musical style—especially within the inner circles of the jazz field. There is condescension and misrepresentation that occurs when the soul-jazz description is used (or misused) as a marketing and categorizing tool. It has been the case since the 1970s that the blues element has been progressively “factored out” of what is considered the most sophisticated, intellectual and modern forms of jazz; it has been marginalized and codified to represent a commercial category that is more simple than the rest. So what effect does this kind of blues stereotyping have on the perception of the great jazz musicians, past and present (but especially the originators of jazz), who have utilized the blues as the basis for their creativity?
I think it's a very good point. Especially as I see a lot less emphasis on the blues in jazz today, (at least in the material that crosses my desk every week). Much like many jazz musicians today who think they're took sophisticated to play "A Foggy Day" or some other standard (which is really quite sophisticated! - and please note, I'm not saying that everyone should only play standards, but that they shouldn't look down on those who choose to). I think a lot of jazz musicians today aren't thfamiliarlar with the blues. It's the kind of think they might THINK that they know, but actually doing it, and playing with SOUL is another matter. One theory is that the "jazz education" establishment is more interested in playing large orchestral material. Rarely do I hear a high school or college jazz ensemble play a blues. Maybe a combo occasionion, but I feel that this is a significant issue. Kids today don't come up playing in juke joints or on the "chitlins circut" where you HAD to know how to play the blues. The jazz education establishment is where kids play these days, and that's how they learn, even jam sessions aren't what they used to be (or so I'm told, I wasn't around for the glory days), and if they aren't challenged to do it in that setting, where will they be?

Another thing - musicians will practice hours upon hours to work on their chops playing over Coltrane changes, playing Giant Steps in all 12 keys so that they can impress their musician friends. But they forget that Coltrane, in essence, was a blues player, same for Bird, etc. Perhaps a 12 bar blues seems simple to them, so simple they don't need to work on it? Just a thought. Read Bobby's complete post here.

Interview with Joey DeFrancesco

Joey's got a really nice new cd out called "Organic Vibes" which features Bobby Hutcherson, George Coleman, and Ron Blake, plus Joey's regular band. At times it reminds me of Grant Green's album "Street of Dreams" (which also featured Hutcherson, with Grant, Elvin Jones and organist Larry Young). I got a chance last week to interview Joey on the phone, you can listen to it in Real Audio format here.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Hostility to the genre's past

Jazz is such a trendy music. No, I don't mean it like that, not trendy as in "what shoes did Paris Hilton wear" trendy, but trendy is in everyone gets on the bandwagon and thinks at the same time they're being quite the rugged individuals. I'm specifically talking about musicians, but listeners aren't exempt. Jazz is also very reactionary, even in the most "progressive" of circles. In the late 1980's and early 1990's neo-classicism reigned. "Young lions" was the phrase, dusted off from some 30 years earlier, and attached to photos of talented, stylish and usually handsome young men wearing suits, often playing standards, or originals in a hard bop vein, with "reverence" for the past. Fast forward ten years, now many musicians are out of their attempts to reinvent the music of the 60's and are now doing the same for the music of the 70's. The sunglasses are different, the instruments are plugged in, and the coat and tie is gone. I also sense a certain hostility to the past in many of today's musicians, in talking to them and hearing what they have to say.

It's as if finally, musicians got the message that jazz is lacking in "innovation" and everyone is now scrambling (and overcompensating) to make sure they don't appear to be in that "non-innovation" camp, even if what they're doing is just as derivative as anything the neo-boppers ever did. I hear people say, I don't want to play standards, those tunes aren't sophisticated enough for me, etc. Perhaps they're so tired of hearing someone preach to them how they need to "respect the tradition" that they've had it. It's the backlash & unintended consequence of the institutionalization of jazz, in large part. Remember, the neo-bop movement was reactionary as well, shunning the commercialization of fusion, etc. We're simply witnessing the other side of the same coin.

But the question we need to ask is this - Is ignoring the "tradition" worse than what the neo-boppers did in ignoring "progressive" jazz forms such as fusion and the avant garde? I'm not sure I have the answer, but right now I'm leaning towards saying yes. This whole post was insipred by a post and subsequent conversation I had with pianist and composer Armen Nalbandian, about how young jazz musicians don't appreicate guys like Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker.

From Armen's blog:
I have never ever in my life had a musician from my generation talk to me about a Charlie Parker or Dizzy Gillespie recording unless I brought it up first. Doesn’t that seem odd to you? That Jazz musicians don’t discuss not only great musicians but the inventors of a style. Very odd indeed.

I think that as a society, we are afraid to confront and realize genius.
I agree, Bird and Diz are not appreciated by many young musicians, as one might expect. Perhaps that's a failure of our jazz educational system, perhaps youthful ignorance, or what have you. But I think it's an issue that should be looked at through the larger prisim of the bandwagon mentality of jazz musicians. True, there are some true iconoclasts who do their own thing and don't follow trends, and they can be found in both "sides" of the jazz world, say Bill Charlap and Dave Douglas, or Joe Lovano or Keith Jarrett. But I think right now, especially amongst young players, it's NOT COOL to be into Bird or Dizzy, to really study their music (on one's own time - not in class) because that's going to label you in the current out of fashion group of the neo-boppers. It's not that I don't want to see musicians moving beyond bop, but there's both an ignorance and an arrogance that is just as troubling to me as anything controversial Wynton Marsalis ever said. Another side of this is the contrived "innovation for the sake of innovation" that is quite prevalent today. Put all of this together and it makes for quite a disfunctional jazz scene. Thus, we shouldn't be surprised if we continue to see artistic stagnation. I don't think jazz is really going to move forward until it gets out of reactionary mode, and puts the music, rather than the image or agenda first. If you care to disagree, please respond accordingly.

What if it actually ISN'T jazz? That's ok.

I've been listening to Cassandra Wilson's new cd Thunderbird, which I think is as big of a change in sound for her, as Blue Light Till Dawn was about a decade ago. Lots of programming, loops, electronics, etc. It's a bold record, and a very good one. Cassandra sounds the same as always, the setting is what's new, and it's what made Blue Light Till Dawn and New Moon Daughter so fresh in the mid 90's.

Now I'm not here to argue the merits of whether this is a jazz cd or not. I don't have the time or interest in such arcane issues of musicology. In the broadest of terms, let me say, it certainly is jazz informed, but I think it's just as, if not more informed by the blues, folk, and other contemporary music. Which brings me to think, do those people in these other genres, get upset if you say, "you know Cassandra's new record is really more of a pop record than a blues album?" What I'm trying to say, is that in jazz, we have this paradigm that we work under that says if you say that something a jazz musician does "isn't jazz" it's somehow taken as an insult to the artist and the music. Why is that? I don't think Cassandra's new record is a jazz album, but I don't mean that in a negative way at all!

So why is it that jazz has this "ownership" issue and other music genres don't? I'd say it has something to do with the typical "jazz snob" attitude of there being two kinds of music 1) Jazz and 2) the bad kind. To put something outside the "jazz" world to a person of this mindset, and suddenly it's taken the music down a notch. It's suddenly not as important because of the value we have instilled in the word "jazz". The music is the same, but somehow the label gives it value. So I ask, is there anything wrong with labeling something such as this "not" jazz?