Blues Up and Down: Jazz in Our Time & Blue: The Murder of Jazz
by Eric Nisenson
St. Martin's Press
by Tom Piazza
St. Martin's Press
St. Martin's Press was clever to issue these books simultaneously. The authors have widely divergent opinions about the state of jazz today, and reading their books one after the other makes for a fascinating study in contrasts.
Which book you choose to read first may depend on your own allegiances in the "jazz war" both books detail.
Jazz war? If you're confused by the phrase, you've either overlooked a lot of the critical hubbub that's gone down in the jazz press over the past decade, or you're too high-minded or sensible to have bothered with it. At any rate, the conflict centers on this question: "What is jazz, and which of today's musicians best exemplify it?"
On one side you have the traditionalist/purist faction led by trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and his ideological role models, the writers Stanley Crouch and Albert Murray. Jazz critics have labeled them "neoconservatives." The opposition, which hasn't got a label that I'm aware of, essentially includes anyone who plays or enjoys sounds that, according to Marsalis, et. al., aren't "real jazz."
The "not jazz" category covers a lot of territoryeverything from the late 1960s and 70s electric explorations of Miles Davis, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Weather Report, etc., to avant-gardists such as Anthony Braxton, the AACMers, John Zorn and David Murray, to commercial-minded, "jazz lite" players such as Kenny G., George Benson and David Sanborn.
Nisenson comes to the defense of these strange bedfellows in "Blue: The Murder of Jazz," making a compelling claim that the neoconservatives' dogma has not only drowned out the music of more experimental and forward-thinking musicians, but has also stifled the creativity of younger players who are so hung up on all-important tradition that they never find their own voices or styles.
He worries that jazz may not even make it into the next century as a living, growing art form if today's young musicians continue playing with the pieces of the past. He notes that the most influential jazz musician today is Marsalis, who came on the scene as a Miles Davis imitator in the early 1980s and who now aspires to be a modern-day Duke Ellington with long-form pieces such as his Pulitzer Prize-winning "Blood on the Fields." The successful young jazz musicians in Wynton's wake are caught up in the same derivative drift.
Despite their idolization of such greats as Davis, Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane, Marsalis and his disciples "Don't seem to get the main lesson to be learned from them," Nisenson says, "That to create jazz that is truly authentic, the music you make must be an expression from and for yourself and the times in which you live: that you must make music with your own sound, one different from anybody else's."
Piazza, meanwhile, credits Marsalis with sparking a jazz renaissance and with setting a new standard for young players. Young musicians today are practically expected to demonstrate a thorough knowledge of jazz tradition and technical proficiency on their instruments before they get signed to a record label. Piazza sees this as a far cry from the late 1960s and 1970s when, under the spell of rock'n'roll, players were able to coast their way to success by incorporating simple rock and funk riffs into their music.
While critics such as Nisenson complain that there are no groundbreakers along the lines of Ellington, Monk or Coltrane among the Marsalis generation, Piazza says truly great innovators must have both a strong sense of tradition and a mastery of their instruments.
"Genius is important, but you can't will yourself into being a genius," Piazza says. "All the sneering over the supposed lack of new innovators is a lot less likely to prepare the ground for innovation than the dissemination of the widespread belief that it is important to know what you are doing when you play an instrument."
Elsewhere in "Blues Up and Down," he writes: "The performance of jazz music, like any other kind of musicBluegrass, African drummingor any kind of choreography, or any form of cooking, depends on the ability to gauge time accurately and deploy materials in proper measure in order to achieve a desired effect. The ability to do that demands a certain amount of mechanical skillno way around itand not only that but a working knowledge of canons of taste and deployment in the field in which you're working, without which any technical mastery is, indeed, empty."
So, there you have your jazz war. On the surface it looks simply like any critical pissing match: writers and artists bickering over definitions and styles. But, as Nisenson convincingly argues in his book, the stakes are far greater than that.
This is a war that's essentially already been won. Marsalis and his followers dominate the jazz scene. They are the best-paid, best-known players in the field. The giant marketing machine that put them in that position has steamrolled over musicians who are working on the more experimental, innovative fringes of the genre. Players as young as 18 continue to be rewarded with major label contracts, while musicians in their 30s, 40s, 50s and older struggle to get their music heard.
The late pianist Don Pullen once told me in an interview that he felt as if he was a member of a "lost generation" of jazz musicians, whose music was overshadowed by that of the "young lions" despite its being more adventurous and original than their endless retreads of hoary standards.
Nisenson is pessimistic, nearly admitting defeat in the jazz war. But he is the winner when it comes to these two books on the subject. Despite some excellent writing, Piazza's argument is weakened by omission and caricature.
While he paints Marsalis and the rest as saviors of jazz, Piazza never clearly identifies those who have tarnished the genre's reputation. One assumes he means avant-garde and fusion players. But if that's the case, his complaints about players who shrug off the importance of tradition and technical proficiency don't make sense. Musicians such as David Murray, Lester Bowie or John McLaughlin are certainly neither ignorant of jazz tradition nor slouches when it comes to playing their respective instruments. They just choose to build on tradition, rather than dwell in it.
More ridiculous, Piazza states that the critics and fans who enjoy avant-garde and fusion music like it because of a "myth of bogus primitivism." In other words, these admirers are drawn to the music because of a stereotypical notion that jazz is supposed to be primitive, irrational, savage. Because jazz is a music created and dominated by blacks, Piazza is essentially portraying those who enjoy this type of music for its expressionism and adventure as being racist. That's not only offensive but ludicrous. I doubt you could find a jazz fan who enjoys the music because it's "primitive." On the contrary, fans are more likely to mention the music's sophistication and complexity as key reasons for its appeal. Piazza, like Marsalis and the rest, has a very narrow view of jazzlauding its technical and traditional aspects while writing off its expressive and explorative qualities as mere flash and gimmickry.
And, finally, Piazza ultimately contradicts himself. Writing about a critic who once chastised Fats Waller for relying on familiar popular songs for his material, Piazza says "He missed the point, of course; jazz isn't where you start from, it's about where you can go." Amen.