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Book Reviews

Blues Up and Down: Jazz in Our Time & Blue: The Murder of Jazz

By Published: March 8, 2004
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 jazz—lauding 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.

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