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Interviews

Robert Levin: The War is Over - A Conversation About Jazz

By Published: August 21, 2010
Look, it's entirely possible that Marsalis is right and that jazz is indeed finished as an evolving music. What I'd emphatically disagree with is the judgment that jazz culminated with bebop and that the "new thing" wasn't really jazz. If jazz and the changes within it can be said to have served as a document of the African-American's evolution—if that's, in fact, one definition of jazz—then "free jazz," as a reflection of where African-American musicians had arrived in the late '50s and early '60s, was no less a part of the jazz continuum than bebop was. Actually, coming from this definition, and from the assumption that jazz is no longer an advancing art, you could say that "free jazz," implicitly—and appropriately—completed jazz.

EB: Then what now?

RL: We can't know with any certainty. In the future, the underlying dynamics of American art music will be different. Changing ethnic demographics figure to engender all manner of new musics. Will jazz systems have their place in them? I can't see how they wouldn't. But frankly, Eleanor, I'm not as interested in issues like that as I once was—no more than I'm interested in participating in the war between jazz factions or arguments about whether or not black jazz musicians are innately superior to white jazz musicians. After years of listening to and occasionally writing about only one species of jazz, I find that I'm refocused now on musicianship and artistry on their own terms and that it makes no difference what style a musician is playing in or what color he is. If a talented musician is emotionally connecting to the discipline he's chosen to work within, I can be moved by what he's doing.

EB: Wait. Are you saying that, contrary to some very strong opinions you came to hold, you believe now that white jazz musicians can be the equal of black jazz musicians?

RL: Yes, of course white jazz musicians can be the equal of black jazz musicians. And yes, they can be great jazz musicians. In the past, white musicians who wanted to play jazz had to break with certain of their own cultural precepts in order to open themselves to black perspectives and methodologies. They had to be rebels of sorts. At this point in time, given the sweep and depth of the Afro-American's influence on American culture and the fact that most everyone has assimilated that influence, the African-derived elements of jazz have become as ingrained in white musicians as they are in black musicians. I think that any white musician who's disposed to play jazz is now as innately qualified to play it as a black musician is.

But again, issues like that no longer preoccupy me. I'm into jazz now purely for the music. At the moment there are still a lot of people playing what we call "jazz," and in literally every idiom, and I'm listening to as much of what's going on as I can. In New York, representations of the entire spectrum of jazz, from Ragtime to Dixieland to swing to bebop and beyond—or in various combinations—can, on a given night, all be found within a several-mile radius. Most of these idioms are still attracting new recruits and can still claim a following, however meager. If it's true that some of the musicians playing these musics are essentially mimics and functioning largely as custodians, others are infusing the genres they're choosing to play in with new energy and ideas and are actually expanding those genres.

In the case of "free jazz," the musics of a number of people have not only survived the passing of the movement in which they originated but are also wielding an influence on a significant percentage of the younger musicians. I'm thinking, for just a few examples, of the work of the recently deceased Bill Dixon (who I regarded as a great American composer), Ornette, Anthony Braxton
Anthony Braxton
Anthony Braxton
b.1945
reeds
and Cecil, of course.

EB: Taylor. You go back a long way with him.

RL: Yeah. More than half a century, since right after he made his first album, Jazz Advance. He's ten years ahead of me, but, it's amazing, we both got to be senior citizens.

EB: Fifty-plus years later, how would you assess him?

RL: Cecil hasn't realized all of his ambitions. He'd wanted at one time to achieve the stature and influence of an Ellington. But I think enough people would agree that if he's fallen short on that count he's still taken his place alongside the masters. Certainly as a pianist.


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