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

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Blue: The Murder of Jazz by Eric Nisenson
St. Martin's Press
ISBN 0-312-16785-7

by Tom Piazza
St. Martin's Press
ISBN 0-312-16789-X

St. Martin's Press was clever to issue these books simultaneously. The authors have widely divergent opinions about the state of jazz today, and reading their books one after the other makes for a fascinating study in contrasts.

Which book you choose to read first may depend on your own allegiances in the "jazz war" both books detail.

Jazz war? If you're confused by the phrase, you've either overlooked a lot of the critical hubbub that's gone down in the jazz press over the past decade, or you're too high-minded or sensible to have bothered with it. At any rate, the conflict centers on this question: "What is jazz, and which of today's musicians best exemplify it?"

On one side you have the traditionalist/purist faction led by trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and his ideological role models, the writers Stanley Crouch and Albert Murray. Jazz critics have labeled them "neoconservatives." The opposition, which hasn't got a label that I'm aware of, essentially includes anyone who plays or enjoys sounds that, according to Marsalis, et. al., aren't "real jazz."

The "not jazz" category covers a lot of territory—everything from the late 1960s and 70s electric explorations of Miles Davis, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Weather Report, etc., to avant-gardists such as Anthony Braxton, the AACMers, John Zorn and David Murray, to commercial-minded, "jazz lite" players such as Kenny G., George Benson and David Sanborn.

Nisenson comes to the defense of these strange bedfellows in "Blue: The Murder of Jazz," making a compelling claim that the neoconservatives' dogma has not only drowned out the music of more experimental and forward-thinking musicians, but has also stifled the creativity of younger players who are so hung up on all-important tradition that they never find their own voices or styles.

He worries that jazz may not even make it into the next century as a living, growing art form if today's young musicians continue playing with the pieces of the past. He notes that the most influential jazz musician today is Marsalis, who came on the scene as a Miles Davis imitator in the early 1980s and who now aspires to be a modern-day Duke Ellington with long-form pieces such as his Pulitzer Prize-winning "Blood on the Fields." The successful young jazz musicians in Wynton's wake are caught up in the same derivative drift.

Despite their idolization of such greats as Davis, Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane, Marsalis and his disciples "Don't seem to get the main lesson to be learned from them," Nisenson says, "That to create jazz that is truly authentic, the music you make must be an expression from and for yourself and the times in which you live: that you must make music with your own sound, one different from anybody else's."

Piazza, meanwhile, credits Marsalis with sparking a jazz renaissance and with setting a new standard for young players. Young musicians today are practically expected to demonstrate a thorough knowledge of jazz tradition and technical proficiency on their instruments before they get signed to a record label. Piazza sees this as a far cry from the late 1960s and 1970s when, under the spell of rock'n'roll, players were able to coast their way to success by incorporating simple rock and funk riffs into their music.

While critics such as Nisenson complain that there are no groundbreakers along the lines of Ellington, Monk or Coltrane among the Marsalis generation, Piazza says truly great innovators must have both a strong sense of tradition and a mastery of their instruments.

"Genius is important, but you can't will yourself into being a genius," Piazza says. "All the sneering over the supposed lack of new innovators is a lot less likely to prepare the ground for innovation than the dissemination of the widespread belief that it is important to know what you are doing when you play an instrument."

Elsewhere in "Blues Up and Down," he writes: "The performance of jazz music, like any other kind of music—Bluegrass, African drumming—or any kind of choreography, or any form of cooking, depends on the ability to gauge time accurately and deploy materials in proper measure in order to achieve a desired effect. The ability to do that demands a certain amount of mechanical skill—no way around it—and not only that but a working knowledge of canons of taste and deployment in the field in which you're working, without which any technical mastery is, indeed, empty."

So, there you have your jazz war. On the surface it looks simply like any critical pissing match: writers and artists bickering over definitions and styles. But, as Nisenson convincingly argues in his book, the stakes are far greater than that.


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