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The Trouble With Gary: An Open Letter to the Jazz Community

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My point is not that one should never 'judge' another artist; or that instrumental virtuousity, advanced melodic and harmonic ideas, or the ability to improvise are unimportant.
(This article was written to be distributed at last night's Keith Jarrett Trio concert at Carnegie Hall. This explains a few of the initial references.)

Knowing ahead of time that the writing and distribution of this small missive may upset some gives me pause. To some this will seem an immature prank. Still others may feel me mean-spirited, a day late and a dollar short. A day late I'll give you. Nevertheless, I feel strongly about the issues and attitudes brought to light by Gary Peacock's appearance in Lee Konitz's group at the Iridium jazz club back in November of 2003. Distributing this article, at this venue, on this night, is obviously not coincidental. However, my intention is not to offend, shock or hurt the artists or patrons of this concert. Rather, it merely happens to be a rare opportune moment to find the audience my message is intended to reach.

Jazz, in many of its varied incarnations, is a soulful, intelligent, and challenging music - but certainly not the only style that deserves love and respect. NYC jazz fans will already be familiar with the story, but let me summarize the event in question for those unfamiliar:

On one of the nights Gary Peacock was appearing in Lee Konitz's group at the Iridium, Elvis Costello was scheduled to "sit in" and sing a tune or two as part of a birthday celebration for Mr. Konitz. Costello arrived at about 5:30 p.m. with music for the group. For about 20 minutes Costello, guitarist Bill Frisell and drummer Matt Wilson (I don't recall whether Konitz was there this early; he may have been) went over the music together and ran through the tunes on the stage in the club. While this occurred, Peacock sat eating an early dinner at a table on the floor about 20 feet in front of the stage. After going over the music with Frisell and Wilson, Costello walked over to where Peacock was eating. Peacock was unwilling to play on the couple of tunes Costello was to perform with the rest of the group. They spoke for a few minutes, then Costello left and did not return. Costello was rather understandably upset by this snubbing, but whatever else was said in this short exchange was inaudible to the rest of us in the room. During and after the performance, quite predictably, there were many disappointed and puzzled Costello fans who had come to see him perform in the context of a jazz group and club.

Soon thereafter, Bill Milkowski quoted Peacock as saying, "I don't play backup to no rock star," in JazzTimes magazine. I was/am personally offended and embarrassed by Peacock's shameless public display of musical elitism. Also, his use of the term "rock star" most likely hints at his lack of familiarity with Costello's music and career as that term doesn't really fit, but this is a relatively semantic point. Is this kind of exaggerated, smug, self-important behavior deserving of our respect and support? The scant reporting (cursory at best by only a few) and lack of discussion on this incident in the jazz community makes us complicit with this type of jive attitude. This is why I'm writing this article: to be sure I've done my part to counter Peacock's actions. I don't write for the New York Times, JazzTimes, or DownBeat, so this is one of the only avenues available to me to reach our community with my concerns. While I harbor no illusions as to the impact of my writing, I also have no good reason to stay silent and do nothing. Our respect of an artist's ability (Peacock is unquestionably a great bassist) shouldn't mute our criticisms of their actions when they're hurtful, inciteful and plainly vain. That's celebrity worship. Peacock's public disrespect and shunning of Costello could be seen as a reflection of the jazz community's attitude in general and this is why we must react. There is no doubt in my mind that a large majority of the jazz community (artists and fans) does NOT share Peacock's elitist disrespect toward Costello and the best pop/rock has to offer as a style/artform, which is well represented by Costello himself. Jazz music is universally regarded as the most malleable, inclusive and open-minded of styles. What a shame it would be to forfeit that reputation through a lack of respect for the very styles that contribute to its existence. How many people unfamiliar with jazz heard about this event and were turned off to the music? If it's one, that's one too many.

It's difficult to imagine a musical scenario in which someone behaves more disrespectfully than Peacock. Imagine Chick Corea being a guest performer with the London Philharmonic Orchestra (as he has done) and the bass section of the orchestra refusing to play on Corea's piece "Spain" during the program. You may think this a poor analogy, but it is not. First, Costello is as highly regarded in his field (singer/songwriter/ lyricist in pop/rock) as Corea is in the jazz world. But more importantly, the analogy is sound NOT because the musical styles necessarily have the same relationships (ie: jazz is to classical as pop/rock is to jazz), but because these elitists (whether jazz or classical) make the same intellectual or philisophical blunder in their critical attitude toward music. Their blunder is this: Believing that a piece of music, an artist or a style of music has less meaning, value or merit simply by virtue of its being technically easier to play (requires less instrumental facility), or because a piece's harmonic and melodic content are simpler. If judging music (or other arts) in this way was valid, Chick Corea's playing and writing would have more meaning and value than Thelonious Monk's, Pat Metheny's more than B.B. King's, Radiohead's more than Big Joe Turner, Michael Brecker's more than Johnny Hodges, T.S. Eliot's "Prufrock" more than Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken," etc...

My point is not that one should never "judge" another artist; or that instrumental virtuousity, advanced melodic and harmonic ideas, or the ability to improvise are unimportant. But their level of importance in "judging" an artist's work depends on the musical context. Song form, lyric content, vocal quality, intensity, stage presence, etc... These factors are much more important than the former when dealing with music in the singer/songwriter, pop/rock tradition. Peacock seeing Costello as an inferior artist because he can't cut it on "Giant Steps" is like Costello judging Peacock as inferior because he can't compose songs and lyrics as fine as "Almost Blue" and "Everyday I Write The Book," or because he can't sing "God Give Me Strength" at his level. It's ridiculous!

When it's all said and done, Peacock could easily say, "Hey, it's a free country. I do what I wanna do and if you don't like it, that's too bad." And I can understand that. The problem is this: Even if his vision of Costello's music as being so inferior to his own was valid (obviously I don't think it is), he still made the wrong choice. He chose his vision of being an artist over being a compassionate human being. This is always the wrong choice. People who support Peacock's actions will cite the fact that Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, etc..., may not have been the nicest people either. However, having a bad attitude and being a mean person is never a prerequisite to being a great artist. Never. Artists who justify their rudeness by trying to conflate it with their artistic process or, worse, with an "artistic nature," are cowards. I invite Peacock to issue a public apology to Costello, but I don't expect one will be made.

Lastly, please forgive my lack of willpower in going ahead with this closing quote, in which I have substituted only a couple minor words/phrases. The original context was on a different subject; but maybe not so very different:

"There's a point where it's up to history, but if the jazz world is saying this is good, accepting this, we're creating a new generation of people who are not really [open-minded to the possibilities]... I don't feel envious of [Gary Peacock], I feel sorry for him."

Peace, Love, & Understanding,

John Dworkin, June, 2005, NYC

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