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Walter van de Leur: Jazz & Death, Part 1—A Closer Walk With Thee

Walter van de Leur: Jazz & Death, Part 1—A Closer Walk With Thee

Courtesy Rebecca Todd


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There was no music that spread so quickly, that was so radically different from anything else that people had heard before, than jazz in the 1920s.
—Walter van de Leur
Part 1 | Part 2

What is jazz? Beacon of the oppressed; music of New Orleans bordellos; popular dance music; revolutionary music; high-art music with an established cannon; progressive music that absorbs and grows; hermetic traditional music... Jazz has always meant different things to different people.

Even the term 'jazz' is political and contentious. Black American Music, or borderless music of the world? The most democratic form of music, or a club that is stubbornly resistant to new members?

When it comes to jazz, musicians, historians, journalists and fans have long debated what is in and what is out, who is authentic and who is not. The music, played and loved around the world has some tough gatekeepers. So how to make sense of so many conflicting jazz narratives?

For Walter van de Leur, Professor of Jazz and Improvised Music at the University of Amsterdam, on behalf of the Conservatory of Amsterdam, the perfect prism through which to make sense of jazz is death.

An odd starting point, but as his book Jazz And Death: Reception, Rituals And Representations (Routledge, 2023) demonstrates, it is a revealing one. In Jazz And Death, van de Leur untangles some knotty mythologies surrounding jazz—mythologies spun by record labels, by western Christianity, by jazz fans and by the musicians themselves.

Why have some observers labelled jazz the devil's music? Equally, why do others believe jazz to be heaven-sent music interpreted by God's messengers?

What do the ways in which we celebrate and commemorate the passing of jazz musicians say about the music... and about us?

For van de Leur, statues and memorials to deceased jazz musicians, as well as jazz funerals and "last" recordings," all feed into an array of conflicting narratives, some masquerading as history.

In the first installment of a two-part interview, van de Leur explains the rationale behind his book. He shares fascinating insights on the New Orleans "jazz funeral" and the tensions between tradition and modernity. With no little humor, he discusses the pitfalls of nostalgia, the complex navigation today's jazz musicians must undertake with the past, and jazz fans' relationship with deceased musicians.

God, the Angel Gabriel, Wynton Marsalis, "spiritual jazz" and the Dutch football team of the 1974 World Cup all play a part in van de Leur's multi-layered analysis.

Oh, and how much would you pay to be buried—when the time comes—close to Miles Davis?

All About Jazz: Death is not the most obvious starting point for any understanding of jazz culture. What was the genesis of this book?

Walter van de Leur: I started out as someone who looks at the notes, for instance in my Strayhorn book Something to Live For: The Music of Billy Strayhorn [Oxford University Press, 2002] and I have gradually become someone who thinks about how we see the music, how do we understand it and what is its meaning. Of course, there are no fixed answers to that—jazz means all kinds of things to all kinds of people. But it helps if you have a lens, a perspective, a certain way of looking at it. And jazz has all kinds of connections, in the way that people have thought about it, with the topic of death.

One obvious point of entry is the jazz funeral, or the brass band funeral as they call it in New Orleans, which is a very old practice there. It is closely connected with marching bands, street music, swinging music—there are all kinds of connections there with jazz as a living practice, which is performed until this very day. If you look at New Orleans today, black communities are deeply invested in the whole idea of brass band music. It has evolved from, let's say, strict jazz to more funky, bluesy, hip-hoppy music, but nevertheless it is a living practice.

It was an obvious starting point, but then I began to think about other ways that death figures in jazz reception, history writing—which is also a form of reception—and I basically lined up these ideas and worked from them. I had done little research when I started this book, I had just the chapter heads, but before long it sort of exploded.

When I was writing my Chet Baker chapter, new stuff kept coming up, focusing specifically on one fatal night in Amsterdam where he fell from a hotel window. People are so fascinated by that. Then it is just a matter of hearing them out, or just by reading what they write, or watching the films or documentaries they make. Then it becomes a fascinating thing.

Another fantastic find was the Duke Ellington memorial, which really started as a sidenote to the Chet Baker memorial. But before I knew it, it had turned out to be this knot of conflicts and everybody being unhappy with it. What is going on? [laughs].

Is it jazz seeking acknowledgement, but not knowing other forms from what we have done since the 19th century? You know, the statue of the king on his horse. Those are the models to revere and celebrate our heroes, but once you do that you open a can of worms, because it is problematic from the start. There are less literal memorials that celebrate the music, which are sort of smarter. With all the great intentions that people have who erect these memorials, at the same time they set themselves up for these problems.

AAJ: By which you mean the very different interpretations that people may put on a memorial? The wildly different reactions to them?

WVDL: Yes, and also in the process they show what they think the music is. That is what reception studies looks at; What do people make of it? With the Duke Ellington memorial it is a very particular way of understanding the music, even if there is no music to be heard.

AAJ: Talking to some of the old-timers at the The Australian Jazz Convention in Lismore in 2008—this is annual festival, running since 1946, dedicated to traditional, New Orleans-style jazz—they told me that when they visited New Orleans in the 1970s there were disappointed to find that there was very little of such music. And this is one of the main ideas that comes out of your chapter on the New Orleans jazz funeral, or brass band funeral, that is how it has changed over the decades. Do you think the changes, particularly those brought about by tourism, have helped preserve the tradition, or have they somehow damaged it?

WVDL: The key word to tradition is "change." People think that the key word is "stability," "the same thing," but no. The key to tradition is that it adapts to the changing world. The world changes, and so does tradition, unless we are in some sort of museum society. As the editor of a Dutch early jazz magazine said, "If there is an article about a band without a tuba then my phone starts ringing, because the double bass is already too modern." [laughs]

For the brass band tradition to stay relevant of course it has to change. That is the way to keep it going. I wouldn't be surprised if the Australians you mentioned who went to New Orleans in the 1970s were looking for something that clearly wasn't there, specifically not where they were looking for it. Modern day Westerners no longer use a horse and carriage. We drive a car. But we expect other cultures to stick to their horses and carriages.

Or like the Inuit; They go seal hunting on snow scooters. Then we look at them and we go, "Hey, that's not your tradition!' Yes it is. And, by the way, they are the judge of what their tradition is. It is nostalgia, or longing for the old times, which is romanticized usually. How much trad jazz from black New Orleans would most Australians have experienced?

AAJ: Probably just from records, or from bands imitating what they had heard on records.

WVDL: Records! Yes. And to what extent do records represent the practice? We all rave about Louis Armstrong's Hot Fives and Hot Sevens, but he hardly played with those outfits live in the twenties. These were studio bands. Louis was playing in different orchestras. So, again, we have to be very careful around all these ideas. I too am a nostalgic. I know where I would set my time machine. I would go to the Cotton Club and listen to Duke Ellington in 1927. And probably I would be disappointed.

AAJ: But at least you would be disappointed in the front row. If you were black they would put you at the back of the room.

WVDL: At least, [laughs]. This is how we function around these ideas and around the music. Part of the draw of the music is that it rings with these ideas of authenticity and nostalgia. At the same time, it is a problem for the people who are interested in making that music now, because "What is it you want me to do? You want me to play like Miles Davis?"

AAJ: They have to negotiate that.

WVDL: They have to negotiate this, and usually young musicians have to explain where they stand in that debate. Particularly in jazz, because it is music that carries so much weight. We expect so much of this music. It is not just fantastic music, it is also a model for a better society, democracy, equality, emancipation of minorities—all that you have to do on your horn. That is a tall order [laughs].

AAJ: A very tall order. In popular music, the death of a loved musician provokes all kinds of behavior from fans; candle-lit vigils, wall murals, shrines, graffiti, poems, books of condolences, and of course, there is commercialization. Think Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, John Lennon, Michael Jackson, Elvis Presley, Bob Marley, Jerry Garcia... and jazz fans are not dissimilar in this regard. Are they more obsessive about jazz deaths?

WVDL: I don't know that I would say that. At least jazz fans don't have the pop cult behavior of visiting those places, etcetera. I think when it comes to that jazz fans are much more subdued, less extravagant, less outgoing with their emotions. Incidentally, for pop fans I think this is something that they have learned through the media. For each subsequent pop star that dies there will be a bigger outpouring of grief.

As a side-thought, I am from The Netherlands, and our big national trauma was losing the 1974 World Cup soccer final to Germany. If you watch that, our players come off the field, these guys, and they are disappointed, but that's it. Today you see if players lose a game they collapse to the ground, you see men crying—it is something that we learn from each other.

There are ways of being around a particular music culture. In jazz, for instance, it is the record collector who knows just who was on second trumpet on March 13, 1954, in the Duke Ellington band. And he'll have an argument with another Duke Ellington fan: "No, that was March 17," [laughs] and it matters to these people. But I think jazz fans, audiences, listeners, have a different relationship with their deceased musicians than pop audiences.

AAJ: So no rolling around on the ground wailing in anguish any time soon. And yet the one anecdote from your book that is really surprising is the story about Woodlawn cemetery in New York selling plots to jazz fans close to the plots were Miles Davis and other jazz icons are interred.

WVDL: I think it was a mausoleum. These plots went for pretty steep prices too, in the thousands of US dollars, and they sold out overnight. People want to be with their beloved musicians. By the way, I think if you were to sell space beside Michael Jackson's grave it would also go for top dollars.

AAJ: Or next to Johan Cruyff... or Maradona ...

WVDL: When looking at different figures we have to realize that... I just read that Kind of Blue sold around a million copies, in sixty years. Well, of course, that's what Michael Jackson sold in a year for one record. Kenny G has sold 72 million records.

AAJ: In your book you write about how jazz, from its earliest days, was equated with the devil's music, or as sinful. What were the roots of the fear, or mistrust of jazz?

WVDL: I think it was a couple of things. In a lot of cases people were not so much concerned about the music as about the dancing. Any sort of bodily activity didn't go over well, particularly in Christian society. There is always anxiety over bodies. Then there was race. White youngsters were dancing to Black music. There were fears that there were dangerous things going on in that music, and there was specifically a moral anxiety around women and their bodies.

You open a newspaper you see that we are still trying to control women's bodies. That's also part of it. You know, in 1930s the Netherlands there was a government committee for "the dance problem."

AAJ: The mind boggles.

WVDL: It was also a time when Victorian values were quickly disappearing, people were getting wealthier, they didn't have to listen that closely to the church anymore. The wealthier the country the less churchgoing they are. That is the push and pull. And within this, jazz was really the new kid on the block.

There was no music that spread so quickly, that was so radically different from anything else that people had heard before, than jazz in the 1920s. It went all over the globe within a year or two or three after the first Original Dixieland Jass Band records. There was jazz to be had on every continent. To all these cultures it was clearly alien, and it was clearly a non-white music, so there were all these concerns.

Also in the United States, because New Orleans was a very exotic and far-flung place. Jazz was an exotic music and New Orleans was one of the most exotic cities in the US, which was not representative of the US at all.

So, because the authorities thought the music centered around sin and lewdness and people losing their minds to these rhythms, entering some sort of state where they could no longer control their impulses, there were concerns. There were also concerns in black communities, which were also Christian. Black Americans wanted to show that they were decent, civilized people, and all of a sudden there is all this wild vice coming up.

Of course, blues music had a worse reputation because it also had these questionable lyrics. Some of the lyrics went over the heads of the decent, straight, Christian people. These songs were not about coffee grinders, or cabbages and sausages [laughs].

AAJ: Or boys in boats. Today, jazz has this reputation as high-art, high-brow, respectable music, an establishment music in many ways, and yet there still persists, particularly in popular media, this idea of jazz as subversive, dangerous and leading to a life of sin and in the worst cases an early death; Why does this image persist? Is it purely media-driven?

WVDL: Yes, I think so. But it is also a history that the music cannot shed. We are still running into these tired old cliches. And then of course musicians at times are smart enough to use that to their advantage. "If this is what you want me to be ... hah! I'm late, I'm drunk! If that spells jazz to you, I'll give it to you," [laughs].

As you say, jazz is serious, respectable and artsy, but what I also see is that it has become so spiritual. So many overtones of the music are, it is somehow a conduit between our daily world and the harmony of the spheres, which I think started largely with John Coltrane. I don't think if you look at most interviews from the 1950s, with any jazz musician, that they make any claim about the music being spiritual or representing all these esoteric ideas.

It really starts later, and it is something that has to do with identities, etcetera. Before, in the fifties, it was just about making the best music, and about swinging like mad and blowing your horn, an all that. Gradually it shifts and it becomes a music loaded with meaning, and I think it sometimes gets in the way of young musicians.

I hear a lot of young musicians in my school. It is 2024 and if you want to play the tenor saxophone and there is this huge Mount Rushmore of legends and voices from the past that they somehow have to deal with. And you are supposed to deal with, because jazz is also a music that is deeply invested in tradition and heritage, and ancestors, and influences, you know...

It sometimes worries me that this is what we load on the music. I love to hear a record where people are just playing, and the titles are not ...

AAJ: Honorific? And they sound like nobody but themselves ...

WVDL: Yeah, whatever that is [laughs].

AAJ: It is out there. Belfast had its annual jazz festival there in March—Brilliant Corners you call it—and there were a couple of young bands that really stood out for having their own identity. A Scottish trio called Aku!—trombone, saxophone and drums—and a French trio called Nout—flute, electric harp and drums—that both sounded utterly original. Seriously musical and seriously potent. Both with roots in jazz as well as electronics and a heap of other stuff—the future here and now!

WVDL: That is something that I definitely look into in my final chapter—is jazz itself dead? Because it is a recurring theme in jazz history, and it's loaded with these kinds of ideas; how do we position ourselves in this ever-growing history of greats?

AAJ: You address the whole notion of "spiritual jazz," the idea that the music is God-given, and that musicians are vessels through which the music passes, in the chapter of your book entitled "Louis and the Angels." There is a tendency to frame jazz within a Judeo-Christian tradition, and one of the chief spokespersons for this viewpoint, someone who you reference a fair amount, is Wynton Marsalis. You find this simplistic, reductive philosophy problematic, don't you?

WVDL: Yes... well, everybody has the right to see whatever religious idea they subscribe to represented by whatever music. But if you're talking about people like Louis Armstrong and John Coltrane and you do not acknowledge that their religious ideas were different, then it becomes reductive. That's the key thing.

Armstrong, he knew the Bible and he joked with that, you know, that old Gabriel schtick that has been with him from the beginning onwards, Okay, he's a trumpet-playing angel, battling with Gabriel on a couple of choruses [laughs]. There's that record, "I Hope Gabriel Likes My Music" (Decca, 1936) where he makes literally every joke there is about the golden steps and the pearly gate [laughs].

But I don't think he saw his music as transcendent or anything. If you frame it that way in a historical documentary (Ken Burn's Jazz), instead of let's just freely associate what Louis Armstrong means for us... you know, it's God-sent, it's heavenly music, you could hear from the moment he picked up the trumpet that he was great...

AAJ: As Wynton Marsalis proclaims it...

WVDL: Wynton knows it is not true. When Wynton first picked up the trumpet he didn't sound great. [laughs] He tortured his parents like every other kid setting out to learn an instrument. And that's okay. That's the way it works.

Why can't we be honest to our audiences and tell them this is the way it works? Musicians practice a lot. There's the famous early recording of John Coltrane in the navy band, where he is suffering through "Hot House" at half tempo. Nothing there tells us that there is something great in the making [laughs]. It's just someone who needs to spend a lot of time in the woodshed. And that's okay.

AAJ: Not God-sent, at that point.

WVDL: No. So, what I like to think about is why do we need these fantasies? Why do we want the music to be so extraordinary, and the musicians so extraordinary that we keep coming up with these ideas?

The average music listener probably doesn't have a lot of insight into the nuts and bolts of music making. And that's okay, because I don't need to be able to bake a great cake to still enjoy it. That's cool. But specifically with jazz we have this feeling that there is more going on, and I think the key word there is improvisation, the logic of which escapes even a lot of musicians. Even classical musicians, who are not improvisors, often have little idea how that works. Not all of them, but a lot of them. I think that is where these fantasies come from and these ideas of extraordinary musicians.

I have to admit if I listen to a Coltrane record I am blown away. There is this thing that is difficult to grasp or to understand. But you know that apart from a ton of talent, a ton of work went into that as well. In the end, they are people. They are not angels, or devils... or reincarnations. They are just average people who have special talents, which is good enough for me.



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