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Rethinking Jazz Cultures

Tony Whyton: What Does Jazz Do For You?

By Published: October 21, 2013
TW: Well, yeah. The commercial aspects are quite interesting. The first thing is the way writers would describe Coltrane's relationship to [record label] Impulse! Within the period of 18 months to two years when he produced the ballads album, the Duke Ellington collaboration, the Johny Hartman album and then A Love Supreme, it's interesting to see how the narrative radically shifts. The ballads covers album, for example, is often portrayed as the big bad record company's attempt to force Coltrane to create an album for the broader marketplace—it's commercially oriented. So, you have one set of descriptions that basically portray Coltrane as having his arm twisted to produce this music. Yet within a year you have descriptions of A Love Supreme being produced solely from Coltrane's own head. So, he's in total control.

Now neither of these scenarios can be true. You can't go from being an artist manipulated by the industry on the one hand to completely autonomous on the other hand. This basically feeds into these bigger issues: the master art work that is a A Love Supreme has to have a narrative attached to it that gives Coltrane autonomy and power, whereas the more popular-focused ballads album can't have any artistic merits generated by the artist himself—it has to be the record label. Obviously, in both instances there's a marketing campaign; there's an agreement between artist and label about concept and how it's going to be marketed, designed and mediated. And it's just a denial of that really.

The other thing I would mention is the impact of A Love Supreme and associated record sales. Because Impulse! had sold on to several other labels and ended up with Universal, there are no specific statistics on how many records have been sold over the years. Whereas with Kind of Blue (Columbia, 1959) you might say the album has sold X millions of units, and the number of units sold is used as a marker of artistic integrity. But it actually adds to the mystique of A Love Supreme when we say, oh we just don't know how many units we've sold. So, you're drawing on the commercial success, when it suits, but it's to reinforce a much more dominant agenda, which is about the artistic status of the work.

I talk about several things like that in the book and it's really just to think about how the artist is portrayed as unmediated, like music is the only thing that matters. I'm sure Coltrane was an obsessive personality but at the end of the day he still had relationships. He had children. There's an everyday life that is lost in these deified descriptions of the artist's legacy. That extends to the links between politics and environment and also the industry itself and how the music could be marketed and best made available. What artist wouldn't want their music to reach the largest public that they possibly can? It's why they record and why they perform.

AAJ: It's interesting how the commercial success of Kind of Blue is often referred to as an indicator of its value and at the same time how saxophonist Kenny G's far greater commercial success is seen as an indicator of a commercial sell out and a complete lack of artistic integrity. In Jazz Icons... you re-examine the Kenny G/Pat Metheny
Pat Metheny
Pat Metheny
controversy; what for you are the main points it illustrates about our relationship with jazz icons and their recordings?

TW: There was a lot going on there, which I tried to highlight and it wasn't for one minute to credit or discredit Kenny G. It was more about why somebody like Pat Metheny should respond in such a way that they lose it. In jazz we revere these figures so much to the point that any kind of interpretation that's not an official one, where you've paid your dues or whatever, is treated with contempt or as a marker of disrespect. The idea was to challenge this and say, look, it's not like I'm walking into the Tate Gallery and defacing a painting by ripping it up or drawing on it. Recordings by their very nature are reproducible and can be reworked. The reaction was almost as if Kenny G had destroyed the Armstrong original when actually all it was doing was overdubbing some of Kenny G's music, which is what a lot of people do anyway.

What I was thinking was what is this buying into? I don't necessarily know, it's circumstantial but what makes an artist like Metheny react like this? Maybe it's the whole question of authenticity and what it means to be a jazz icon. Maybe there's an aspect of Metheny thinking he doesn't want to be identified with Kenny G as a white imposter. That's the shorthand of where I was coming from with it. There might be agreed and accepted forms of reverence and anybody who steps outside of that is seen as a transgressor. Metheny even described Kenny G's act as "necrophilia."

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