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


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Perhaps Crouch would argue that during the late '60s and early '70s jazz critics were still rebelling against their middle-class upbringings by embracing black musicians at the expense of white musicians and that Ellis came along at an inopportune time. That seems like a pretty twisted argument. There are a lot of probable reasons why Ellis's legacy faltered: his infatuation with rock music and its trappings, his extensive use of electronics, the esoteric nature of some of his music, his use of the big band format, the ill health that sidelined him around 1974 as well as the heart attack that finally took his life. Miles went silent for five years, but he was able to return and forge a new phase of his career, and his star grew continually brighter right up until his death in 1991. Don Ellis died in 1978 and the Ellis group disbanded. Most of his recordings went out of print, and he began to be forgotten. Fortunately, there has been a resurgence of interest in his life and music, and some of his most influential recordings are being reissued.

Ellis wrote an interesting essay entitled "The Element of 'Corn' In Jazz Improvisation" ("corn" relating to "corny" or unfashionable playing) in 1959. He actually touches on the idea that new, "hip" music cannot be considered necessarily more progressive or advanced than that which came before. "The question which must be answered," says Ellis, "is: can music which is genuinely heartfelt ever be 'corny?' And my answer is no, it can only be, at worst, awkward...I submit that 'corn' in art comes from doing something because it seems fashionable at the time...It is my contention that the jazz musician can be deeper and much more valuable if he will play according to the dictates of HIS heart, and if he will strive to incorporate the WHOLE of jazz in his work. Playing this way he need never worry about being 'corny.'"

Photo Credit Dave Douglas by Chris Hovan

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