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


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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?

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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