All About Jazz: The web's most comprehensive jazz resource

Serving jazz worldwide since 1995
All About Jazz: The web's most comprehensive jazz resource

Live Reviews

Reflections at the Newport 50th

By Published: August 25, 2004

Newport is virtually as synonymous with the modern jazz movement as New Orleans is with funeral marching bands, King Oliver, and the like.

Index:
Barry Harris Sextet
Ravi Coltrane Quartet
Mulgrew Miller
Branford Marsalis Quartet with Guest Miguel Zinon
Dave Brubeck Quartet
Renee Rosnes with Marian McPartland
Ron Carter Trio
Jamie Cullum
Conclusions: Wither Jazz?

As a member of the All About Jazz staff, I attended the Newport Jazz Festival Fiftieth Anniversary Celebration on Saturday, August 14, 2004. I had hoped to be there on Sunday as well, but other commitments and an impending rainstorm caused me to depart earlier than I had wanted. The second day promised to be filled with more star-studded performances honoring the past, present, and future of jazz.

During an exciting day of listening, and considering the historical importance of the Newport Festival, many thoughts ran through my mind about the evolution of jazz itself. I thus offer to you not only several reviews of particular performances, but also my reflections about jazz- past, present, and future- and the place of Newport in its development.

We often think of the past half century as but a brief subtext in the seemingly long history of jazz. The reality, however, is that as of now the fifty-year old Newport Jazz Festival has existed through nearly half the total lifetime of jazz itself! If we consider the birth of jazz to co-occur with cornetist Buddy Bolden's use of improvisation around 1895, then the advent of the Newport scene in 1954 roughly marks the midpoint of its current trajectory! The human mind generally registers historical origins more slowly than recent events, so it appears at first glance that so-called "modern jazz" and the by now common festivals began after jazz had already achieved a long ancestral legacy. The fact is that in the 1950's, jazz, only a few short decades in gestation, was just beginning to turn a corner, and Newport has been a part of it ever since, along with the newer forms of expression. Indeed, Newport is virtually as synonymous with the modern jazz movement as New Orleans is with funeral marching bands, King Oliver, and the like.
So it was with a mind reflecting on the whole of what is in reality a relatively new art form that I attended the first day of the Newport Jazz Festival Fiftieth Anniversary Celebration on August 14th, 2004. Throughout the day, as I was listening to some great music in rapid fire sequence, moving among the 9,000 in attendance between the mammoth JVC Jazz Stage, the intimate Sirius Piano Stage, and the Dunkin' Donuts Stage for small ensembles, I found myself contemplating where jazz had come from, where it is today, and where it may be going. The answer to these questions is so complex as to be almost overwhelming. But I kept looking for simplicity, and for some readers, my answers will seem too simple, but I offer them as beginning thoughts for a dialogue amongst us.

My first thoughts on arriving at the site were about the significance of the setting. The festival takes place in Fort Adams State Park, on a peninsula that is accessed from downtown Newport by a short drive down narrow streets and a two lane blacktop. On gaining entry- and of course security now is a serious matter, consisting even of ticket takers sniffing water bottles to make sure there is no explosive liquid (!)- you walk past crafts kiosks reminiscent of street fairs in Greenwich Village (where the Café Society, Café Bohemia, Village Vanguard, The Village Gate, The Blue Note, and Sweet Basil have at one time or another reigned supreme among jazz venues). Then, looking to the left, you see a wide open vista of Narragansett Bay and the harbor, with sailboats and yachts lazily moving along, a suspension bridge in the distance, and a small cache of boats gathering near lands edge to hear the music. My immediate association was to the impressionist paintings of the sea, whether around Brittany or the Mediterranean, portrayed by the likes of Manet, Monet, and van Gogh. In the movie "Round Midnight," Dexter Gordon, as the addled and alcoholic, but oh so gifted tenor saxophonist, utters the name "Debussy" as if referring to a Holy One. Yes, impressionism, whether as a portrayal of bourgeois leisure, as chord structure and tonalities, as light (or in the case of jazz, sound) being broken down into component parts, or as a way of being spontaneously alive in the here-and-now, has had a profound impact on jazz.

Next, I turned my eyes towards the main stage, called the JVC Jazz Stage, loaded with the technological wizardry of impassive, huge loudspeakers looming like the statues on Easter Island, high power video equipment, and anonymous men in black tee-shirts testing the microphones. Somewhat disturbingly at first, I became aware that, for its backdrop, the entire production was taking place just outside the massive stone walls of Fort Adams, a military fortification going back to the Colonial Period and playing a significant role in guarding our shores during several wars since then. For some reason which I cannot fathom, the massive gray-brown walls echoed for me not militarism, but revolution, namely the storming of the Bastille. Jazz and the chaotic, impulse-driven origins of democracy. The two doubtless go together. So too does the French-American connection, whether as allies during the Revolution or in the French Creole traditions of New Orleans that gave birth to jazz. There was something surreal about the backdrop of an old fortress, then turning once again towards the beautiful harbor, as if the surroundings were reminding us that the mind, and the music it makes, evokes, at different times or even simultaneously, the nature of the human condition, spanning the spectrum from imprisonment in a kind of "blues" heartache to warlike invocations, honks, chants, and runs of the horns, to serenity and transcendence.

It is a tribute to JVC and their technical staff that once Barry Harris and his Sextet began to play their sequence called "Monk's Dream," the music totally captured my attention. Throughout the day, the sound systems functioned optimally, providing clean "living room" sound a thousand feet away from the stage. We are not talking about projecting loud, inundating rock music, but of capturing the subtle phrasing and timbres of a more artful and nuanced kind that deserves the name jazz. As one who is relatively naïve about technology, I was duly impressed. Only the initiated can know how such sound can be accomplished. The ability to really hear and "get into" the music in such a setting was doubtless due largely to the excellence of the audio systems. Thanks, JVC!

With my focus on the music now intact, Barry Harris' invocations of Monk immediately made me think again about the big picture: "Where had jazz come from, where is it now, and where is it going?" Monk was both steeped in tradition and radically revolutionary. One remembers (and it can also be seen on film and video footage of his performances), Thelonius occasionally rotating his body as he walked around the stage during others' solos, in fact a compulsion that was later attributed to Tourette's Syndrome. That was concrete evidence that Monk saw all directions, and the angularity of his syncopations attracted attention to every note, bring us back to the roots. So this- the roots, trunk, branches, and leaves of the jazz tree- is what I want to write about today, as I recall for you the several individuals and groups I heard perform on a summer's day in Newport in the year 50 A.N. (After Newport) in the history of the jazz art form. We'll start with Barry Harris' group, and then on to some of the others. Please note that there was no way I could get to hear everyone, and I made my choices on a momentary basis rather than any particular criteria, so this in no way is to downplay the groups I was unable to review. It was my loss that I missed so much!

Return to Index

Monk's Dream: Barry Harris Sextet

Pianist Barry Harris is known for his interpretations of Monk tunes, and with a group consisting of Virgil Jones, trumpet, Charles Davis, saxophone, Roni Ben-Hur, guitar, Earl May, bass, and Leroy Williams, drums, Harris started off the main stage events with some very easygoing, laid back versions of several Monk originals, including "Straight, No Chaser," "Eronel," "Evidence," and "Epistrophy." I liked the fact that this group did not try to outdo Monk regarding his angular style of playing and his particular configurations of notes. Instead, they played with an easygoing bebop style, with subtle shades of Monk. In fact, there were times when Virgil Jones' sound reminded me of Charlie Parker's sidekick, Red Rodney. This group didn't try to outdo itself (which, for me, was a plus), but rather gave very professional and enjoyable renditions which honored Monk, a modern innovator who, in the opinion of some, is up there in the ranks of the great song writers and composers. Certainly, "Round Midnight" rivals anything Cole Porter ever wrote in terms of depth of expression. Further, one could, with a bit of a stretch, compare Monk even to Beethoven in his invention of new rhythmic patterns, not to mention endings that don't seem to want to end! Monk was a musical genius who, unlike Ludwig von B, was too sincere and humble to ever think so.

Getting back to the theme of the evolution of jazz, one paradoxical way in which its development is furthered is by ever-renewed references to the masters. Jazz loves to repeat itself with variations, whether by taking a standard and doing it a million different ways, by paying homage to those who have gone before, or by more subtle innuendos and reflections of ideas and sounds within a totally new form. This constant reference to the immediate, intermediate, and/or distant past so characterizes jazz as to almost define it. Not that other music doesn't do this, but jazz especially prides itself on its agility in this respect. The Nobel Laureate poet Czeslaw Milosz refers to such reflection of past in present as "apokatastasis," citing St. Gregory of Nyssa with respect to the apocalyptic New Testament vision of the end of all time. Jazz takes time, turns it around, pushes it to its limits, and ultimately condenses it into one single extended, eternal moment. It is biblical and scriptural in that respect. John Coltrane, who played with Monk for a short time, knew this better than anyone. While Trane's music was to some extent self-consciously a reflection of gospel and prayer, Monk's was the idiosyncratic rhythmic expression of a temporal principle whose source even he could hardly fathom, although it has some roots in earlier piano styles.

With such a comparison of Monk and Trane on my mind, it seemed natural to hurry on over to catch part of John's son's Ravi and his group, down the road, at the Dunkin' Donuts Stage.

Return to Index

Ravi Coltrane Quartet

One of the disadvantages of trying to cover three stages at once, analogous to a three-ring circus, is that you're bound to miss something. I came in on Ravi Coltrane's set about half-way through, so I heard no facts about personnel or names of tunes. I just listened, and maybe this was just what I needed to do. What I heard was beautiful music with a spiritual edge. Ravi's group of young musicians weren't just playing notes- they were going deep into the music and making it meaningful. I know that Ravi stays away from comparisons with his father, John Coltrane, but I'm betting that he's listened to Trane's recordings for hours and days at a time, because the group possessed a rich sound that uncannily evoked echoes of the John Coltrane Quartet. But Ravi has to be given credit for being musically his own self with his own voice.

The spiritual edge became the spiritual center with the group's searching performance of a piece by Alice Coltrane. Beloved Alice, we know, has pursued a private and disciplined spiritual path, and Ravi announced she is now coming out with her first recording in twenty-five years. Alice was not only an inspiration for Trane. She has been an outstanding performer and composer in her own right. Her new recording will be heralded by the jazz community.

One of the interesting phenomena of jazz is that of the "jazz family," families where all or most of the members have become outstanding musicians, each in his or her own right. The Joneses (Thad, Elvin, Joe, Hank, and onwards), the Adderlys (Nat and Cannonball), the Marsalises (Wynton, Bradford, et al), and the Coltranes (John, Alice, and Ravi) come to mind. How much this is due to nature (the genetic code) versus nurture (the inspiration) is difficult to know, and ultimately not that important. What strikes me about the Coltranes is that they not only are gifted makers of jazz, with John, of course, reaching for the most rarefied atmospheres, but that John's equation of music and spirituality ("Music is my life") is manifest in all three of them in different ways. Ravi and his group manifested their spirituality in the utter coherence of their performance, almost seeming like movements of the same piece, and in their transcendence of individual egos to create a coordinated tapestry of sounds. Such coherence is something that is too often missing in contemporary jazz, partly because it is difficult to financially sustain a single working group for an extended period of time. Kudos to Ravi and his group.

Return to Index

Mulgrew Miller

After listening to Ravi Coltrane's group finish up, I hopped on over to a small tent a few yards away which housed the Sirius Piano Stage. I liked and was intrigued by the novel idea of a venue exclusively featuring solo piano, along with some duets with Marian McPartland, the emcee. Ms. McPartland is not only a fine pianist in her own right and one who advances the cause of jazz with her weekly radio program combining interviews and music. She is probably one of the loveliest human beings on the jazz scene and lends grace to any occasion. When she introduced Mulgrew Miller, the feeling of rapport and warmth between the two was palpable.

Mulgrew is a big, strapping guy who could easily pass for a defensive tackle. This gives him great power at the keyboard, yet his fingering is as precise and nimble as any concert pianist. Both his appearance and playing were reminiscent of Oscar Peterson, but Mulgrew has evolved his own style that is evocative of a number of piano greats, especially Wynton Kelly, while always suggesting the novel and the fresh approach. He has no need for a rhythm section: his left hand performs that function incredibly well. This was self-evident in his rendition of "Four" by Miles Davis, a piece that is meant to be swung as much as one can swing. Mulgrew also gave it a particular punch all his own.

Prior to that, he jumped in with a lively version of "It Could Happen to You," and then did two superb renditions of ballads: "Con Alma," by Dizzy Gillespie, and "Summertime." His virtuosity worked wonders with the many subtle changes and variations he evoked in each tune. I particularly appreciated the way Mulgrew balanced all the registers of the keyboard. Some pianists unfortunately tend to congregate around the middle octaves, throwing in an occasional bass throttle or high end bit of color. Mulgrew has the whole keyboard under his wing and does lovely things with it, increasing the listener's appreciation of the instrument as such. He was also blessed with a well-tuned piano. That morning, I had spotted a hunch-backed guy with a gray beard tuning the two on-stage pianos. Whoever that anonymous piano tuner may be, thank you! Would that other jazz venues take such good care of these instruments, which have far more sensitive mechanisms than their size suggests.

The wonderful energy generated by Mulgrew Miller made me look forward to hearing him perform with Ron Carter and Russell Malone a little later in the day. But I wanted to head back to the main stage to catch Branford Marsalis. How was this bastion of a band leader and studio musician going to fare at Newport?

Return to Index

Branford Marsalis Quartet With Guest Miguel Zinon

Branford Marsalis is a member of the phenomenal musical family that also includes Wynton, Ellis, and Jason.. In this performance, with a group consisting of Joey Calderazzo, piano, Eric Revis, bass, and Jeff "Tain" Watts, drums- the same personnel as on their recent CD- Branford showed what a consummate tenor and soprano saxophonist he can be. His "straight-ahead" playing reminded me of John Coltrane's "sheets of sound" during his electrifying time with the Tyner/Garrison/Jones quartet. Branford and his group played with coordination, bright sound, and virtuosity that could well represent a standard of excellence for performance. I was particularly struck by an original composition of Jeff Watts, called "Mr. J.J." (was this in memory of J.J. Johnson?), a piece that proved sophisticated and subtle in its emotionality.

For me, what seemed missing in this group was- at least on this occasion- was experimentation. When you are as good as Branford Marsalis, you ought to be pushing the envelope towards your own sound, your own voice, your own unique ideas. One can only encourage him to take these creative risks as he continues to grow musically. For me, the risk takers stretch the listening capabilities of the audience and give jazz its highly charged quality and sense of wonder. Dave Brubeck certainly deserves the term "innovator," and, as I munched on a gyro sandwich from one of the kiosks, I waited and wondered what he'd be up to.

Return to Index

Dave Brubeck Quartet (JVC Jazz Stage)

For me, on a personal and cultural level, Dave Brubeck is symbolic of my college days in the late fifties and early sixties. His quintessential quartet, with Paul Desmond, Gene Wright, and Joe Morello, represented youthful excitement combined with brilliant, philosophical intellect. "Take Five" isn't just about its five/four time signature. It's about taking an "out of the box" idea and making it work. At that time, Brubeck, for many young people coming of age, was a combination of Thomas Alva Edison (inventor), Adlai Stevenson (die-hard liberal), and Woody Allen (nerd-turned-winner). Paul Desmond was the personification of unruffled "cool." Joe Morello was Isaac Newton (inspired master of objects in motion) and Bertrand Russell (mathematical philosopher). And Gene Wright was an upright (bass) African American, who minded the "ethics" of the group. (Racial politics was implicit in Brubeck's ensembles over the years- he made the case for integrated jazz groups, but in some circles his music was considered too Caucasian, so to speak.)

I frankly lost touch with Brubeck's music after the sixties. He has, of course remained a jazz icon and exciting performer who has performed at Newport most years since its inception. I was thrilled at the chance to hear Dave play after so many years. What was he going to do, a man in his eighties by now? Was he the same Dave Brubeck I heard so long ago, and whose early recordings I listened to as I drove up to Rhode Island from Philadelphia?

The answer is, "Well, yes, it's the same darned Dave!" That sameness has both positive and negative connotations. On the positive side, he still plays up a storm. On the negative side, there has been- at least judging from this one performance- very little musical evolution on Brubeck's part- more of an extension of what he had done in the past into every nook and cranny that he can find.

For this gig, Dave assembled a gaggle of white-haired virtuosi, including Bobby Militello on alto sax, Michael Moore on bass, and Randy Jones on drums, making for an astonishing set of improvisational agility. They did wonderful things with "Take Five," as well as a new Brubeck tune "London Flat, London Sharp," and "Newport," the latter of which Brubeck apparently improvised at the very same festival forty years ago! I was particularly amazed at the technique of the bassist, Michael Moore, whose fingers negotiated the strings as if the neck were a keyboard. His solo on "Love for Sale" was a marvel of craftsmanship, and rich with ideas. Brubeck himself played with marvelous resilience and power. His chord structures have grown more complex and dense with the years. He continues to "invent" concepts and ideas as he performs, utilizing one of his fortes, namely, superimposing one time structure over another, generating a tension and energy which takes him, the group, and the audience to the next segment, which gives each reprise a fresh perspective.

In addition to their white hair and impish smiles, a comparison between Brubeck and the immortal physicist and twentieth century icon, Albert Einstein is, if not inevitable, quite interesting. First, both Einstein and Brubeck discovered in different ways that time is not a fixed point, but a variable that depends on the position and acceleration of the observer. Brubeck brilliantly improvised around time as a medium of expression as well as, more traditionally, within musical scales and modes. Second, Einstein made his major discoveries early in his career, then attempted the daunting task of integrating gravitational and electromagnetic forces into a single equation, a goal that, unfortunately, always eluded his grasp. As a result, he took a back seat in physics during the last years of his life. (Some physicists say his later work will ultimately be followed up and vindicated.) Brubeck conceived a new jazz approach from which others have widely benefited but never adopted as an overall perspective. After the original quartet dissolved, he continued to be a creative force in music, but did not achieve a new transformation. The question, "What is Dave Brubeck all about?" was never resolved by him, Darius Milhaud notwithstanding.

Nevertheless, Dave's remarkable performance, at the age of 86, is a testament to the generativity of jazz syntax. It is capable of infinite variations, changes, and expressions, and Dave is still in touch with infinity. He always will be.

Return to Index

Renee Rosnes With Marian McPartland (Sirius Piano Stage)

Renee Rosnes has been one of my favorite jazz pianists ever since I heard her with J.J. Johnson's quintet at the Blue Note in New York about six years ago. With J.J., she was a powerhouse of virtuosity and riffs that went out of the universe, yet- and what is so hard to achieve- maintaining the ensemble effect and pushing J.J., Dan Faulk, Rufus Reid, and Victor Lewis to new heights of expression. Her work on J.J.'s CDs "The Brass Orchestra" and "Heroes" is masterful. I was interested to see what kind of solo work she would cook up for this occasion.

Marian McPartland's conversational rapport with Renee apparently derived from the fact that they have worked together, and indeed made a recording that may well have faded into oblivion! On the Sirius stage here, they did a couple of duets, where Ms. Rosnes took a relatively "low key" role, in probable deference to Ms. McPartland. A mild sort of dynamic went on between them that reminded me of two female cats. Their duets were professionally done, and would be great at a piano bar (what an idea- a piano bar with dual pianists!) However, I didn't have the impression they were stimulating each other musically.

Renee redeemed herself with a piano solo consisting of two Duke Ellington tunes extended into one long piece: "Melancholia," and "Single Petal of a Rose." The latter, Renee indicated, is from Ellington's "Queen Suite" which he composed with gratitude to Queen Elizabeth II, for whom he performed at Buckingham Palace. This was a different Renee Rosnes from the one who worked with J.J. Here, she offered an understated, subtle, and quietly brilliant execution of an impressionist style reminiscent of Debussy or Erik Satie. If her improvisations on Ellington were transcribed, they would make a marvelous composition blurring the edge between jazz and French impressionist chamber music. Rosnes totally honored the spirit of Duke Ellington, and even at times had resonances with the Duke's own unmistakable keyboard style.

Moving into a delightful cloudy dream-like state as Renee concluded this number, I mused that one of Ellington's chief contributions to jazz was to define a standard of beauty. Armstrong had developed the expressive power of improvisation. Parker and Gillespie opened up improvisation to infinite possibilities. And Ellington, almost single-handedly at first, defined jazz as art. Along with his alter ego, Billy Strayhorn, Ellington wrote not songs, but poems. His orchestrations, musicians, and performances were subtle yet entertaining, avoided all excess, and stood in stark contrast to the blaring horns of the swing era. And his extended orchestral and other works opened the door to highly disciplined, complex composing and performance in concert venues. Renee Rosnes captured this understated creative quality of Ellington in its essence. I would love for her to make a solo recording of these and other Ellington/Strayhorn songs, if she hasn't already done so.

Return to Index

Ron Carter Trio With Mulgrew Miller And Russell Malone

Were I to choose the highlight of the day, for me it would be the astonishing musicality shown by the Ron Carter Trio. The enthusiasm shown by the overflow audience in and around the Dunkin' Donuts tent would support this judgment. Three men dressed in business suits, Ron on bass flanked by pianist Mulgrew Miller and guitarist Russell Malone, signaled that we were in for some "serious" music-making, some jazz chamber music, as it were. And this is exactly what we got- beautiful, brilliantly executed, infinitely creative playing in the best tradition of jazz as a performing art. For this purpose, I suspect, Ron omitted drums, which in this particular instance would have proved a distraction.

The whole set is exemplified by what the trio did with "My Funny Valentine." For some reason, this tune has become a setting for musicians to strive for in-depth expression. Miles Davis' version is by now classic. J.J. Johnson almost outdid Miles two decades later in a Village Vanguard record date called "Standards." I think it must be the way in which the melody stays consistently within its warm melancholic mode, with a parabolic trajectory that slowly ascends and descends, always leading back to its center, which has inspired such fine and elaborate renditions of this ballad.

Here, each man soloed with great finesse, while intently listening to each other and echoing each others' ideas. On "Valentine," Mulgrew Miller's extended solo was extradordinarily rich, evoking deep and tender emotions. Characteristic of the entire set was the way Mulgrew and Ron engaged in counterpoint with one another. Somehow, J.S. Bach must have been hovering in the background, because the counterpoint had a distinctly baroque feel about it, working around the chord changes, and shading over into variations with inventiveness and subtle connections between one idea and the next. Russell Malone, sensing the perfect rapport between Ron and Mulgrew, created haunting guitar solos. Russell is someone to watch. He has Pat Martino's power and assertiveness combined with Kenny Burrell's lyricism and spontaneity. Technically, each man had the discipline and tone of fine chamber musicians.

Jazz counterpoint, of course, goes all the way back to Dixieland, but it seemed to fade into the background in the big band era and the advent of bebop, the latter of which required a wide open space for the soloist. Gerry Mulligan had a penchant for contrapuntal riffs, most notably with Bob Brookmeyer. The recording, "Stan Getz and J.J. Johnson, at the Opera House" has electrifying extended counterpoint between Stan and J.J. While primarily soloists, Coltrane and Miles Davis, separately and together, cultivated a genuine sense of ensemble playing with their groups. Coltrane's "Meditations" took counterpoint into the rarefied atmosphere of free jazz improvisation.

In this gradually evolving tradition of simultaneous improvisation, Carter and Miller's delicate and sensitive counterpoints and exchanges drove the audience wild! It provided a vivid example of how controlled logic can generate ecstatic emotion. We live in an age of noise, clatter, and with one voice striving to be louder than the other. That is not the true voice of jazz. The true voice of jazz is ultimately the "still small voice" that echoes somewhere in the hearts of men and women everywhere. While the Ron Carter trio could certainly "boogie," as the saying goes, it was really their ingenuity, their following every idea to a logical conclusion, and their quiet insistence on artful form that "grabbed" everyone present.

Return to Index

Jamie Cullum

Still reeling from the thrilling performance by the Ron Carter Trio, I wandered back to the main stage and caught the latter half of a performance by an apparently upcoming star named Jamie Cullum, a youngish guy with a British accent, belting out tunes frankly more like a crooner than a bona fide jazz singer. I'm sure Mr. Cullum has a coterie of fans, and to them I offer apologies for my critical attitude, but I found him to be too much of a showman to allow me to focus on his music. I did listen sufficiently to his singing and piano playing to sense that he has the potential to be a formidable talent. While his somewhat raspy voice left something to be desired, his keyboard execution was excellent, and he knows how to phrase a song and bring out its meaning. But when he destroyed Cole Porter's "I Get a Kick Out of You" by running around the stage and twice leaping on the piano keys on the word "kick," I really had about enough.

Jazz, like all the performing arts, has always been linked to the wider world of entertainment. There is intimate entertainment, as when one goes to a small club to hear a Coltrane, a Parker, a Billie Holiday, a Blossom Dearie. Jazz, however, needs its wider, popular audience, and it needs to reach that audience through the senses and the pleasure principle. Lightness and humor are part of even the most dedicated jazz performances. On the other hand, the "money and fame principle" (Sigmund Freud, where are you now?) states that the more stimulating and more rabble rousing the audience impact, the more money and notoriety there is to be acquired. A successful film, a million-selling recording, a packed house at a concert, and the musician is on his way to riches, perhaps leaving behind his fellows who continue to struggle to earn a living at local bistros.

Now, I have absolutely no objection to a jazz musician getting rich in a capitalist society. Indeed, some, like Frank Sinatra (whom I do consider- when at his best- to have been a great jazz vocalist), Louis Armstrong, Nat King Cole, Peggy Lee, and others continued to produce good music even at the height of their popularity. But others jumped ship. Jamie Cullum, unfortunately, gave ample evidence that he is jumping off the jazz boat to become a popular entertainer who is putting fame and fortune entirely above the music. Guys like him belong at the Tweeter Center, not at Newport. Unless, Jamie, you garner a bit of humility and stop hamming it up so much (hint, hint).

Return to Index

Conclusions: Wither Jazz?

For me, the day at Newport 2004, the celebration of 50 years of jazz there, became a kind of meditation on the past, present, progress, and future of this unique form of music which is yet part of the panoply and tradition of music, around the world and over the eons. There are some who say that jazz has reached its apex, that it can't go any further, even that current jazz represents pale imitations and elaborations of the past masters. Newport this year gave reason both to support and dispute that view.

While I didn't hear anything really new or original, nothing like the excitement of hearing Miles or Trane or Monk for the first time, I did hear a world of beautiful, sometimes swinging playing, some distinct emerging styles, a plethora of ideas and concepts, extraordinarily gifted musicians, and powerful creative impulses of both older and young players. Regrettably, I was unable to hear such true innovators as Ornette Coleman and Uri Caine, who appeared on the Sunday program, but in general, on account of its purpose of celebrating a tradition, many of the most creatively innovative musicians did not appear on this program. I think of guys like Jim Ridl and Dave Liebman, for example, who are profoundly stretching the limits of expression. I'm sure that you, the reader, will think of others in the vanguard of jazz music.

In a certain respect, jazz is going through a period of darkness, as it has before in its young lifetime. But I am naïve enough to believe that it is in the darkness that the light shines the brightest. Somewhere in the near or distant future, a few guys and gals will be woodshedding and jamming, and something genuinely new will pop into their consciousness that will create a new direction. Jazz is constantly expanding its scope, incorporating new forms and dimensions, finding new ideas. What it needs is redintegration into a coherent whole. This will come. In the meantime, the music makers, in the tradition of the gospel singers, can follow the urgings of Psalm 98 of the Old Testament:

Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth
break forth into joyous song and sing praises.
Sing praises to the Lord
with the lyre,
with the lyre and the sound of melody.
With the trumpets and the sound of the horn
make a joyful noise before the King,
the Lord.


Attend the 50th Newport Jazz Festival? Post your comments here .

Visit the Newport Jazz Festival website .

Photo Credit
Ravi Coltrane and Dave Brubeck by Lee Paxton
Monk's Dream, Branford Marsalis and Jamie Cullum by Hartfordjazz.net



comments powered by Disqus