In the Moment: May-June 2004
“ By acknowledging that James Brown, Jimi Hendrix and Sly were a legitimate part of black culture, Miles Davis had, in one stroke, renewed jazz, attracted a new generation of listeners and produced some of the most interesting and challenging music of his career. ”
Submitted on behalf of Butch Nordal
A couple of times a year, when I need a shot of urban energy, I drive to the top of Queen Anne Hill and visit that little park on Highland Drive that looks south out over the city.
At night, you can take in the amazing sight of all the lights of Seattle Center, the downtown skyscrapers and even the ferryboats as they pass by the Alki Point lighthouse. There’s also the diversity and sophistication of the Queen Anne population too. Modest brick apartment buildings coexist alongside elegant, turn of the century mansions.
I’ve always been drawn to and lived in places like this where lots of different cultural elements rub together and create dynamic and unsettled situations. Earthiness and funk can mingle with elegance and urbanity.
I find it impossible to believe that anyone living in this area wouldn’t be interesting. To me, a humble barista from Queen Anne would probably be more fascinating than a CEO from Bellevue merely because the barista chose to live in the city. This then, is my personal, private place to feel the beat of Seattle. But, what kind of beat?
I’m sure that most of us have a personal, music soundtrack that accompanies us through our lives. As years pass, it probably changes as we grow older and our perspective and emotional circumstances evolve. If it didn’t, we might all come to resemble poor Bill Murray in the movie “Groundhog Day.” You might recall its premise, where Murray’s character is doomed to relive a single day, for eternity, after being awakened by the sounds of Sonny and Cher singing “I Got You Babe” on his clock radio each morning.
Sadly enough, that is a metaphor for what is happening in much of the jazz world today. After taking in that urban energy from Queen Anne Hill or, perhaps, visiting my seven year old daughter’s hip hop class, I’m reminded that there is a different kind of young person walking the planet today. As an example, this year’s high school graduating class entered middle school six years ago and, presumably, acquired a worldview, all since 1998! With this in mind, it’s always a little strange to turn on a jazz radio station and hear Mose Allison or Chet Baker doing tired, fifty-year-old music that dates from the early Atomic Age. It’s always a revelation when I occasionally try listening to a smooth jazz station and find that someone like guitarist Chuck Loeb is truly nailing an urban moment while cam-pus stations supposedly playing “real” jazz are playing some ludicrously dated clarinet/banjo duo doing “Sweet Georgia Brown.”
The problem is that early jazz, and three centuries of classical music too, used to be based on popular dance rhythms of the day. Now, jazz is in danger of becoming extinct, because there is a disconnect between it and the way young people like to move to music. Considering that African-American dance movements have been evolving, unabated, in the streets for over a hundred years, it is one of the absurdities of music history that jazz was part of the dance floor for only 25 years before abandoning it in 1945.
Even if you include early rock and roll, America danced to a loose, flowing, swing beat from the 1920s only through the 1950s. This rhythmic approach was consistently popular enough to attract and provide work for great talents like Coleman Hawkins, Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, Earl Hines and many others. It was a brief time when art and function melded together in the form of popular dance music. A tiny percentage of all dance music miraculously turned out to be on a level we could consider to be “art.” When “modern” jazz abandoned the dance floor in the 1940s, Charlie Parker still swung as did Miles Davis in the late 50s. Even drummer Elvin Jones and bassist Scott LaFaro’s free-floating time concepts in the 1960s were swing, too. Also, let’s not forget that early country and rock ‘n’ roll groups such as Elvis, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Johnny Cash, The Beach Boys, The Beatles and The Supremes were also based on swing.
It’s ironic that the graying generation of bebop players, those former, fiery radicals of the 1940s, resented the success of 1960s pop music because they thought it was simplistic. But much of the music of Frank Zappa, Stevie Wonder and the late Beatles was as challenging and interesting as bebop, and it swung too. At least it had progressed way beyond 1940s kitsch like “In the Mood,” “I Love Coffee,” and “The Yellow Rose of Texas.” It was also raking in millions of dollars!
NOT OF THE MOMENT