A much heralded new book has arrived in the last mail drop of 2007. Its title Modernism: The Lure of Heresy From Baudelaire To Beckett And Beyond
is a good indication of the scope which writer Peter Gay (National Book Award winner and author of some twenty-five books; Professor Emeritus at Yale) has undertaken. He includes poets, composers, painters, architects, choreographers and film-makers who fall under the label "Modernist." The term has long been associated with creative rebels and, for Gay, this is one of two principal ingredients necessary for inclusion in his book which covers the last one hundred and fifty years or so. The other essential quality is "a commitment to a principled self-scrutiny." Thus a dedication to rebellion, which Gay dubs "the lure of heresy," and a rigorous adherence to new aesthetic ideas qualify artists as "Modernists." Fair enoughsuch characteristics have long been in use and there is substantial support for Gay's thesis.
Painters such as Picasso, Duchamp, Warhol and Lichtenstein, composers such as Stravinsky and Ives, architects such as Gropius and Gehry, writers such as Eliot, Joyce, Kafka and Woolf, choreographers such as Balanchine and Diaghilev, film-makers such as Griffith and Riefenstahl are all prominent names in Gay's book. He also includes figures from the world of PhotographyMaxime du Camp, Mathew Brady, and Julia Cameronno doubt seminal names in the new creativity which, together with film, Gay hails as the "only all-modern art."
Impressed with the breadth of this attractive book replete with beautiful color reproductions of paintings, numerous photographs and illustrations and encyclopedic information, I thumbed through the pages looking for names such as Ellington, Joplin, Armstrong, Tatum and Parker. I couldn't find them. Then, somewhat incredulously, I went to the index and looked under "Jazz" and found only a reference to the movie "The Jazz Singer" which, incidentally, Gay finds "shallow" because it lacked the "attentive search of the inner domain." This phrase, he indicates, is synonymous with his earlier description of the second requirement for Modernism"a commitment to a principled self-scrutiny."
To discover that jazzat present a world art movementwasn't even mentioned in such a notable publication was, to say the least, disturbing. What other aesthetic form can compare with it that contains greater rebellious "heresy" and "attentive search of the inner domain?" As I licked my wounds, I realized that even at this late date, jazz must still struggle with other arts for dignity and identity even in the revisionist thinking of the intellectual establishment.
In addition to this continuing struggle, add the important developments in international jazz, new repertorial centers at Lincoln Center and San Francisco, countless new artists and styles all commanding attention from critics, and a realization comes to mind that perhaps the time is ripe for some retrospection.
Obviously, the "state of the art" of jazz is such a huge subject with endless elements, any such retrospective must be protracted. Hence, throughout 2008 in some of the monthly installments of this column, I will endeavor to examine the aforementioned elements in recent jazz history and attempt to educate readers and offer them a perspective similar to that of a reviewer who hears about all the latest CD's, artistic personnel, and stylistic innovations. In addition, here in New York we are able to see and hear countless performers who arrive from all over to record, network and otherwise help their careers. I will also try to add meaningful commentary to the revisionist ideas which must always try to amplify the enjoyment and understanding of the music.