Don Ellis, Dave Douglas, and the 'Progression' of Jazz


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Like Ellis, Douglas has had a long and varied career to date, playing with many top musicians, both live and on recordings. Following stints at Boston's Berklee College of Music and the New England Conservatory, Douglas went to New York, where he studied with the great teacher Carmine Caruso. After a stint in Europe with Horace Silver, Douglas returned to New York and began his recording career, working with a variety of groups. One of these, the Tiny Bell Trio, he has described as a "jazz-Balkan improv" group. Certainly Douglas has been influenced by the folk music of Eastern Europe, as well as by classical music, and the jazz of the 1960s, including avant-garde, free improvisation, and the early incorporation of electronics. His recent series of recordings for RCA/Bluebird, including Witness, The Infinite, and the recently released Freak In have shown him continuing to pull outside influences and styles into his jazz work. In many respects, Douglas has much in common with Don Ellis: interest in a wide array of musical styles, a strong work ethic, a gift for composition, a distinctive trumpet style. But unlike Ellis, Douglas has found his work met with a great deal of interest and critical acclaim. It is in part this nearly universal acclaim of Douglas and his work on the part of the critical establishment that has Crouch crying foul. To him there is no question that Douglas is not a major trumpet player and that his playing does not hold up to scrutiny next to African-American contemporaries like Blanchard, Payton, Hargrove, or, of course, Wynton Marsalis. One reason for this is that Douglas is, from Crouch's perspective, playing music that is infused with elements that are from outside the African-American, blues-based jazz idiom. Crouch sees this as a subtle argument that jazz only advances as it picks up progressive elements from European music. Indeed, the entire notion of "progression" is suspect with Crouch, and that is one area where I think he's definitely on to something. The idea that jazz "progressed" from collective New Orleans improvisation to larger swing bands to bebop, and so on, provides a nice framework for discussing jazz history, but that is all. There is nothing inherently more advanced about bebop than there is about early New Orleans jazz. But since the same language and set of post-modern ideas about art are usually used to discuss jazz, the progressive narrative is generally the one that is taken as gospel.

I agree that this is not necessarily the best way to look at the history of jazz music, but I don't think that Dave Douglas is to blame for this. Neither is Miles Davis, whom Crouch thoroughly disowned from the time of Bitches Brew on, and neither is Don Ellis, about whom I've never seen Crouch comment, but toward whom I doubt he would be inclined to be generous. Crouch's original column is nowhere near as incendiary as some would have you believe, and his dismissal by JazzTimes seems like a bit of overreaction, but there are supposedly other reasons why Crouch was dismissed, and few of us are privy to the details of that relationship. I think that what is relevant, and what Crouch really hit on, is the fact that the critical jazz establishment has become, to a large extent, an adjunct marketing tool for the record labels and their artists. This is one of the reasons that we see the same cover stories, or variations of them, in every one of the major jazz magazines month after month, why the same records are universally reviewed favorably and others dismissed or ignored. It should be noted that this is scarcely a new phenomenon, as pointed out by French writer, jazz critic, and trumpeter Boris Vian, who said: "The critic's simple soul needs to discover genius; that's why fat old Hughes Panaissie makes a fool of himself ten times a year by declaring ten times a year, 'Whatshisname is incontrovertibly the greatest...'" It's true, hopefully, that the best recordings will be recognized as such by a majority of jazz writers, but there is so seldom a dissenting voice as to seem strange. After all, this is a group of people who often find it difficult to settle on a current working definition of the term "jazz," so how likely is it that they should all agree on who is doing the best recorded work at any given time?

Crouch uses this observation to postulate the existence of a white critical jazz establishment that is now rebelling against the African-American elements in jazz, seeking to replace them with more "progressive" European elements. I would say that the real answer may be just as sinister, but is not specifically a racial problem, nor even specifically a jazz problem. Record labels push artists that they believe can sell recordings. Even in jazz, which reportedly represents only some 2% of all recordings purchased, there is a need to promote and move product. Naturally, magazines and other outlets want to write about that which people are most interested in reading about, and that is most likely to be what is selling the best. And what is selling the best is, of course, what is being promoted the most. Writers need to write about artists and music that editors are looking for stories about, and so Dave Douglas turns up on the cover of every jazz publication over the course of a year.

I'm not denying that most jazz writers are white and come from middle-class backgrounds. But that does not seem, to me, to be the main source of the problems that Crouch is citing. I happen to think that Douglas is a solid composer and arranger with interesting musical ideas, and that he is a good trumpet player who presents a compelling range of improvisational ideas and has a solid technical command of his instrument. He is not always exciting to listen to, and sometimes his music, like some of Ellis's, can suffer from the feeling that it is overly conceptual and lacking in spontaneity. But I do not think that a cadre of white jazz writers has decided to put Douglas at the top of the heap of current jazz musicians at the expense of black musicians. Certainly black musicians such as Greg Osby, Jason Moran, and Matthew Shipp have also been written about favorably by a majority of jazz critics, and they have, at times, been promoted with the same fervor as Douglas. I also ask this: if this controlling group of white critics has been pushing jazz into more "progressive" and European-influenced formats for the past several decades, then what happened to Don Ellis, who, far from being promoted above his abilities, never really seems to have gotten his due? Where was this white critical establishment then?
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