E. Taylor Atkins: Let's Call This... Our Jazz?

Ian Patterson By

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AAJ: In "Blue Nippon" you refer to that way in which non-American jazz artists are perhaps made to feel obliged to represent their indigenous traditions as "orientalzing expectations"; could you explain what you mean by this?

ETA: In an art form that is so closely identified with the United States people who aren't American have to negotiate that and almost justify their performance of this music to their peers, to Americans, to people in the homeland—you know, a variety of constituencies.

A lot of the times the jazz audience will think "If I'm going to hear somebody just play straight up, mainstream jazz I'm going to go listen to [saxophonist] Stan Getz, I'm not going to listen to [saxophonist] Sleepy Matsumoto or somebody like that"—just because that person is Japanese. So, in order to win over an audience that would be curious about jazz with a Japanese-sounding aspect the Japanese artist will make that concession.

There is a point where if a Japanese band is going to go to the United States and play, they damn well better sound Japanese because that's what the audiences want. If they just go and play the Woody Herman or Count Basie stuff they play at home people are going to say, "What's the point? Why do you come all the way over here to play stuff that Woody Herman or Count Basie play better than you do?" Of course, that in itself is debatable but there would be that presumption.

The big example I'm thinking of is the Hara Nobuo Sharps and Flats big band which came to play at Newport in 1966 or '67, which commissioned a whole set of charts of Japanese folk songs for big band. Hara Nobuo was very up-front about this; he said we can't go over there and play the stuff we normally play because Americans can hear that all the time played by the original bands so we need to do something that's distinctive and different. So, they fall back on that national strategy, if you will. It has to sound exotic to get attention.

AAJ: It seems that non-Americans are often considered as being inauthentic if they play straight-ahead, bebop or whatever, yet it's okay for [saxophonists] Stan Getz, Charles Lloyd and Charlie Mariano or [pianist] Randy Weston for example, to explore other musics of the world: is there a double standard at work here?

ETA: Oh heck yeah. Absolutely there is. There's no question about it. There always has been a double standard. That's the privilege of being a superpower or an imperial power or whatever; you have perfect artistic license to pillage from other cultures but there's more skepticism when it's done the other way. I think there has been a double standard but it's not as pronounced as it used to be.

AAJ: In traditional histories of jazz—Ken Burns is a classic example—the story of jazz is usually portrayed as a natural, linear history, brought about by brilliant individuals; it's not really that simple, is it?

ETA: No, not at all. I don't think it's as big a shift from original jazz, New Orleans, Chicago-style jazz to the swing era; it's not such a big rupture. Bebop is a big rupture, free-jazz, jazz-rock fusion and what some would call world-fusion jazz including non-western instruments—those are bigger ruptures and I am very sympathetic to the view that those might productively be regarded as completely different kinds of music.

There are people involved in those movements who would be on either side of the spectrum. People like Louis Armstrong rejecting bebop, at least at first, beboppers rejecting [saxophonist] Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor, and then there were others who could see some continuity between them. Certainly the people who were making those revolutions had an ambivalent relationship with the past—they respected it and it influenced them but they wanted to do something different.

I wrestle with it all the time because I really do like all kinds of jazz. When I had a radio show my unofficial logo was "playing it all from [pianist] Jelly Roll Morton to [pianist] Sun Ra. I do believe there's something that holds them all together but very tenuously and I would be hard-pressed to have to define what those things are. I'm much more comfortable admitting that jazz is something that people argue about, rather than saying it is this one thing. I think that that's just more real.

You're probably familiar with the idea that the term jazz came to have some really practical value as marking art from entertainment and white from black. People in the musician's unions were either musicians or they were jazz musicians, the implication being that jazz musicians tended to be black, that they tended to play in clubs rather than concert halls; that determined how they were paid and how they fit in society. People like [drummer] Max Roach, who rejected the idea of jazz, it wasn't because he was offended by the word, he was offended by the implication that it was less value than what classical musicians were doing, and I think that's where his hatred of the word came from because it had real, concrete consequences for the economic livelihoods and working conditions of the musicians who played it.

So, I'm very sympathetic to the AACM [Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians] in Chicago—it's not that they reject the jazz tradition, what they reject is the idea that they must either be jazz musicians or they must be something else, that they must either be improvisers or composers. In the end a lot of them say "It's music, damn it. It's just music." Why does it have to be one or the other? Why does it have to be composed or improvised? Why does it have to be classical or jazz? Why does it have to be art or entertainment?

I'm aware that the word jazz has a nefarious history. Somebody might ask me, "Do you think [saxophonist] Kenny G is jazz?" I don't think that's the right question. The right question should be "Is Kenny G any good?" It's not good because it's jazz or bad because it's not jazz. Critics have tended to use the term "jazz" to indicate something that's really good and pop or "non-jazz" as a term of abuse, as though it's self evidently good if it's jazz. This is the way Wynton Marsalis uses it, frankly.

AAJ: You make the point in "Blue Nippon" that in Japan in the late twentieth century you could find fans of every genre of jazz imaginable. I think we can also see this in other countries such as the UK, Australia, even America, yet this phenomena is rarely mentioned in traditional jazz histories; is part of the difficulty in discussing jazz that there is no single jazz culture, but rather there are myriad forms of jazz co-existing at the same time?

ETA: I do think that makes it more difficult but not unpleasantly so [laughs]. I think it's wonderful that the old music survives and people continue to play it or try to do something different with it. I don't think there's any harm in that. Perhaps the majority of jazz fans tend to prefer one aspect of the music to another and that does make it difficult to define. In the end that's one of the reasons I come down on the side of thinking maybe we should be focusing our energies on other issues or talking about other things other than whether something qualifies as jazz or not.

AAJ: In your book Blue Nippon referring to the artistic community in Japan post-WWII under the occupation, which includes jazz, you write, and I quote: "its aesthetic was referential; its art was quite deliberately derivative and its customs contrived; its faith in its own creative powers was too often obscured by its infatuation with American examples." It struck me on reading this description how it mirrors not uncommon criticisms of jazz as played around the world by non-Americans, and yet how it could just as easily refer to the most conservative elements of jazz in America today; do you see it that way?

ETA: Yeah, and I think I actually make the point in the postlude of the book that it's very strange you want to criticize Japanese for imitating when the Marsalis moment was guilty of the same sin, if you will. Wynton Marsalis and Stanley Crouch were a sort of Godsend for academic jazz studies because they gave us this great sort of cartoonish straw man that we could bounce our ideas off. They were such polarizing figures who took in some ways ridiculous stands that it became like shooting fish in a barrel.

It's not as big a deal anymore for a lot of reasons, one of them being because Marsalis is such an establishment figure now, which is not a bad thing because if I was going to name some people who I wanted to be in charge of a great cultural institution, then why not him? He seems like a decent person and I agree with his belief in artistic integrity, I just don't draw the lines in the same place he does.

One of the reasons it's not as big a deal anymore is not because he doesn't have any influence—I mean he's not a rebel anymore, he's part of the establishment, he sets the standard—but it's that a lot of people have just gotten over that whole business about keeping the tradition alive and they've gone on about their business making music however they want with less hand wringing about it.

AAJ: In Jazz Planet, Christopher G. Bakriges argues that the rejection of the so-called New Thing, or free-jazz in America was fundamental in nurturing the European equivalent; to what extent do you agree or disagree with his view?

ETA: I'm not sure I would say it's because of rejection but I do think that there was definitely a sense that among European musicians—and I don't want to get into any stereotyping here—they had to do something different and what they were going to do wasn't necessarily going to be based on African-American aesthetics or blues. Part of it would be drawing on the compositional heritage from European art music and another was abandoning any kind of composing whatsoever and go completely free.

It's a fair question whether that is jazz or not but I don't really care if it's jazz or not, it's whether it's good or bad and in improvised music that's going to vary from performance to performance. A great improviser might give a really good performance one day and a really bad performance the next day. It's the nature of the beast.

I'm aware that that free improvisation aesthetic has come to be the signature element of European jazz but I think when we look at it that way it homogenizes what is really a very much more diverse scene than that. The struggle that a lot of people have is whether to try to put that into the jazz tradition and incorporate it into the narrative. That's an academic issue which may be productive but it's not going to yield the kind of certainty that we would like. We're just going to have to be comfortable with the ambiguity [laughs], at some point.



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