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Walter van de Leur: Jazz & Death, Part 2—Dancing With the Devil

Walter van de Leur: Jazz & Death, Part 2—Dancing With the Devil

Courtesy Walter van de Leur

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If you say to someone, and I defend Wynton Marsalis here because he has also been accused of killing jazz, what you do is not valid, that is a pretty serious accusation.
—Walter van de Leur
Part 1 | Part 2

Most people would probably take a linear, historical view of jazz in an attempt to understand its complex history. Walter van de Leur, Professor of Jazz and Improvised Music at the University of Amsterdam, starts with death.

His book, Jazz And Death: Reception, Rituals And Representations (Routledge, 2023) illustrates multiple ways in which jazz's fascination with death feeds into the narratives and mythologies that surround the music and its practitioners.

In the second installment of a two-part interview, van de Leur talks about jazz authenticity and the music's gatekeepers. Via Ben Webster he unpacks the phenomenon of the "last recording." His analysis on why Chet Baker is a problematic figure in jazz reveals a lot about the way dominant jazz narratives are spun by media, documentary makers and historians. And of course, jazz lovers, as van de Leur states, we need to talk about Kenny G.

All About Jazz: You make an interesting point in the chapter about John Coltrane and A Love Supreme (Impulse!, 1965) that the albums that he produced afterwards for Impulse!, Ascension (1966), Meditations (1966) and Kula se Mama (1967) have not received anything like the historical or critical attention of A Love Supreme and Coltrane's previous work. What does that say about the gatekeepers of jazz and the narratives that they are trying to spin?

Walter van de Leur: The thing with those hit records like Kind of Blue (Columbia, 1959) and A Love Supreme is that they're very accessible. They speak to a large audience. I think a lot of jazz fans are happy to see that there is something that appeals to more than the thirty thousand at most that buy a jazz record.

A Love Supreme: is a fantastically made record. It is also well marketed. Everything just worked. But when Coltrane goes into some other direction people don't get that. And historians generally like to ignore the things that do not fit their narrative. Another great example is (Charlie|) Parker with Strings (Mercury Records, 1950). People are sort of uncomfortable around it because it doesn't fit the narrative of him as a radical, risk-seeking rebel. And here he is playing with strings. "Oh, probably they forced him to do it,"—Eh? I don't think so! [laughs]

AAJ: Parker was very proud of that record and hurt by the reaction to it.

WVDL: Yeah, yeah. Again, there you have it. It is reception. It's how people think you should be. Jazz lovers were probably uncomfortable around the whole string thing because that was perceived as kitschy, and it smelled of classical music. None of it fit their ideas of bebop heroes. Charlie Parker liked country and western too. He loved it.

So, we are the gatekeepers. We are telling Parker that he is crossing a border by recording with strings. And by the way, I love that record. I also know that it took some time to admit that to myself. So, we come to the music loaded with ideas, and one of the subtexts of the book is, okay, look into your own little mirror and think about your ideas; Are they really valid? That of course is why I had to stop by Kenny G for a while.

The point about Kenny G is not "like" or "not like," because that is a very short discussion. But "I don't like it because... " and then commentators start thinking about authenticity, and about ownership, stealing and appropriation or what have you.

AAJ: In Penny Lane's documentary film Listening to Kenny G (2021) he comes across as a likeable guy, someone who is passionate about his music. On one level, I don't think he takes himself too seriously—he jokes that he must never lose his hair, or the game is up. On another level, he is serious about the product he makes. He wants to make it sound as good as he can.

WVDL: There is a great review by Richard Brody in The New Yorker (December 4, 2021), who explains why a lot of people have a problem with Kenny G. He just does not tick any of the boxes that we as jazz lovers think musicians should tick. He doesn't care about authenticity and improvisation. He doesn't go with any of those narratives, and that upsets people tremendously.

AAJ: Another terrific chapter in your book is "Swan Songs," which deals with the messaging behind final recordings. Just a very quick perusal of All About Jazz' album reviews archive turned up the following: The Last Call; The Last Night; The Last Tour; The Last Concert; The Last Great Concert—which opens up the doors to The Last Mediocre Concert somewhere down the line—and then we have The Last Recording; The Last Live Recording; For The Last Time; The Last Waltz; Last Waltz with Ireland, which is a Larry Coryell album, The Final Recording; The Final Recording Part II...

WVDL: [laughs]

AAJ: ...The Final Studio Recording; The Final Note ... and on and on it goes.

WVDL: I have a big footnote with a ton of these. It is horrendous. And indeed, Chet Baker has The Last Great Concert (Enja, 1988) and The Great Last Concert (Enja, 1990). [laughs]

AAJ: You have to laugh. Obviously, there is a great commercial appeal in last recordings, but the point you make in your book is that the last live recordings specifically, are often more deceptive than studio recordings—more mediated, more manipulative, and often not what they claim to be. Could you pick out one example that you like from your book that illustrates this?

WVDL: For me, the Ben Webster last live recording resonates in many ways. It was a sort of a sad night. He was really not well; he was not playing well. His bandmates were concerned and embarrassed.

AAJ: His bandmates on that date didn't actually want the record to be released. They thought it was so poor.

WVDL: Indeed. They were shocked when it came out. You know, someone had taken a little Akai recorder, and smartly enough put one mic towards the podium and another mic towards the audience. Someone, even though he was a student understood that this was what live recordings needed.

Bob Richter is the father of a colleague of mine, Simon Richter. Simon, a fantastic tenor saxophonist, was present in the womb of his mum and Simon was born on the day Ben Webster died, so people know that, and many make something out of that, you know, the passing of the flame.

Musically, the concert was substandard on every level. Also, the recording is awful. But it is the last night. And then he speaks these prophetic words: "Have some fun while you can." And then everybody owns that. The bar (De Twee Spieghels) is still visited to this day by jazz fans from all over the world. It has Ben Webster's final words now painted on the wall, because the barkeeper also knows how to run a business, and people want to get close to that.

You can see it as our little form of walking in the footsteps of some of the jazz greats.

AAJ: You draw comparisons between the reception of Ben Webster and Chet Baker with regards to their respective addictions.

WVDL: Chet Baker also died in the Netherlands, but he was a very different character. Ben Webster was an alcoholic. That was sad and it got him into all kinds of problems. It also made him difficult to work with. But the fans forgave him because they sometimes drank too. And they liked that idea of a big black man being drunk and taking a leak in the alley, and they could take a leak with him and tell big stories about male bonding—stuff that women probably don't even realize happens. 'What are you talking about, taking leaks in the alley?' [laughs] Well, that's what the fans did. Supposedly everybody had a piss with Ben Webster, surprisingly enough.

AAJ: [laughs] Last Piss With Ben Webster...

WVDL: Last Great Piss With Ben Webster... [laughs]. But Chet Baker was a heroin addict. It's the same disease. It's an addiction. Of course, the effects are very different, but nevertheless, these are two men who were victims of their addictions.

We can forgive Ben Webster because he was this very deep, big black father figure, but Chet Baker we cannot forgive because he's seen as a white, unreliable fraud. And heroin is no fun. Drinking whiskey is fun. So, you see immediately how the reception of these two musicians changes.

Plus, they don't just have a disease, which is the addiction, oh no, it is a reflection of their character. If you are a heroin addict like Chet Baker you are a nasty person. And he was nasty at times, but believe me, Ben Webster was nasty at times, too. There are enough stories of Webster being drunk out of his mind and just screwing up in a big way, getting into fights, disturbing recordings, just being an impossible drunk. But we forgave that, and that is interesting in itself. Why are these stories spun this way? And why does that matter?

In the Ken Burns documentary (Jazz), from which I cite a lot, they use all that stuff. You know, Clifford Brown is this really neat, clean person because he doesn't drink, he doesn't smoke, unlike all the people around him, so he doesn't deserve to die young in a car accident. But there's no logic there! [laughs] I don't see the connection.

AAJ: Whereas naughty old Chet Baker... it is amazing how, what is it, thirty-six years after his death, that it is still viewed as a mysterious death, even though the Amsterdam police ruled out foul play, and even though the evidence suggested that suicide was improbable as well. The mysterious Chet Baker death idea is perpetuated in countless books, films and documentaries, a phenomenon that you address in your book.

WVDL: Yes. Suicide? Could be. Could be. But if you have two days' worth of heroin in your room, you know how to end your life, right? Friends of his overdosed under his nose, so he knows how that works. In all likelihood it was an accident. The rest of it is just baloney—people make up stories. 'Yeah, that's what the police says!' Well, they are sort of the specialists in this case. [laughs]

AAJ: All this mythologizing around, well, everyone from Charlie Parker, John Coltrane and Ben Webster to Chet Baker, what does it say about jazz fans, or is a necessary part of the human psyche to mythologize?

WVDL: I fear so [laughs]. I think we love these mythologies. I know that when I was younger I subscribed to them too. A lot of these stories were just too good to be true. Life is just much more mundane and stupid and inconsistent than that. Musicians also love those stories, so they mythologize as well, because a good story goes over better than a not-so-good story. And they often have to tell these stories over and over again, so if you look at the genealogy of these stories you see musicians add things. For some musicians, the same story circulates.

AAJ: Bill Crow wrote two books on jazz anecdotes. It is amazing how often you hear people at festivals or at gigs or wherever, repeat these stories and alleged quotations from sixty, seventy years ago. In fact, you can hear them all over the world.

WVDL: Yeah. That's why I begin one of my chapters with a quotation that Jelly Roll Morton never said. [laughs] Yet go on the internet and it is everywhere. But I for one was unable to find its source, and some people who were willing to spend extra time digging in the Library of Congress recordings said, no, Jelly Roll Morton did not say the thing about the devil's music, etcetera, etcetera.

But that is how it starts. I think the mythologizing is a way to set up a special connection with the music, to show that the musicians are extraordinary, which is what we feel anyway, and stories reinforce those ideas we have of musicians. Of course, our task as historians and researchers—and I would say also journalists—is to always be critical around those stories and ask ourselves why people circulate them.

Very often you find that these anecdotes are not so innocent. They can reinforce particular tropes about music which have roots in stereotypes if not racist origins, which makes them problematic. You know, white composers need to work painstakingly with paper and eraser, but black people can just channel it instinctively, then you are also saying something about the nature of these different groups in society, and that is not so innocent. It feeds into these ideologies that have dark histories.

It is great to hang with your jazz buddies, have beers and tell tall stories, [laughs] that's how we are around the music, right? But it is a different thing to commit it to paper, to say it in documentaries and to use such stories as proof of stuff.

AAJ: Or to use it as doctrine...

WVDL: Right.

AAJ: The last chapter of your book has a tremendous title "Funky Odors; Is Jazz Dead?" In this chapter you also talk about the not-so-innocent intent behind the question, is jazz dead? You also talk about the need to see this question through the prism of necropolitics. Can you explain what that you mean by that, please?

WVDL: Yeah. It is a concept that comes from a very dark and grim historic reality where in the colonies the colonizers decided who would live and who would die. That's what we call necropolitics. You could say that the same holds true for the whole practice of slavery, which is predicated upon that idea that you are owned by someone who owns your life—literally—and has the right to kill you.

Under US law if you killed one of your human beings, just as if you killed your cattle, you walked free. It is something that the people who were enslaved full well realized. That is probably one of the most horrendous and grim things to realize.

So, asking "is jazz dead?" is not remotely as grueling as the practice of slavery and colonial practices—and at the same time I am thinking of police brutality, where minorities are still facing necropolitics—but to a degree it is the same principal. If you say to someone—and I defend Wynton Marsalis here because he has also been accused of killing jazz—what you do is not valid, that is a pretty serious accusation.

We can have all kinds of opinions about Wynton Marsalis, but I think he is totally sincere when it comes to who he is as a musician. There is no doubt about that, right? He has invested his entire life in what he does. And here comes some author and says, "You know what? You are killing our music." Well, you are basically disenfranchising him, disenfranchising people, groups. Why don't you say that to the trad fans in Australia, or to those on stage with an electric harp? You know, people who feel that they are part of that tradition in whatever way. Who are we to declare their practice dead?

It sounds like an innocent question, and again, we can discuss it and have a laugh about the idea over beers, but once we go public with these narratives we are doing stuff that is unethical.

AAJ: That's a great answer. In conclusion, I love the last line of your book: "Better catch some live jazz while you can." [laughs]

WVDL: Yeah [laughs]. People ask me, "Well, what do you think, is jazz dead?" And I say, "That's the wrong question, obviously. Read the last line." As long as we are having these conversations, as long as people connect to the practice in whatever way, and we may like it or not like it, then the music is valid, and the culture is going on.

And no, it doesn't look like 1910 anymore, and it doesn't look like 1959, but then again if Miles had put out ten more Kind of Blues we would have said, "Hey, you are a bit stagnant here, aren't you?" [laughs] "Where is the development" [laughs] For a music that celebrates innovation and development, I mean, Ellington, Davis, they were people who did not want to look back. They were always interested in their next project, and we have celebrated them for that. But gradually that has turned around, and the people who are the innovators, including Kenny G [laughs], now get the backlash. If we think 1959 was the best year in jazz then it is a dead practice. I think we should not even think that.

AAJ: But still okay to discuss over a few beers with jazz buddies.

WVDL: Yeah, still okay [laughs].

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