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A Study of the Worldly Art of Jazz

Posted on Sep 3, 2010

By Stephen Brown

(Page 2)

They give due weight to life stories, although these tend towards the anodyne. About Charles Mingus’s autobiography Beneath the Underdog, they say “As a memoirist, he brought new insights into the tribulations of African-American artists trying to surmount the constrictions of prejudice”. That’s not how I remember the scene in the Mexican brothel. These were people with nicknames like Bags, Bing, Bix, Bean, Bird, Bubber and Bunk, complicated people who led complicated lives, and loved to tell stories about each other (the authors must know hundreds about Miles Davis alone) often with a sardonic edge (Zoot Sims on Stan Getz: “A great bunch of guys”). I could have done with more like the one about Johnny Hodges, who left the Ellington band for a time “partly out of irritation with Ellington’s habit of appropriating musical ideas—during a tune he felt was actually his own, Hodges would mimic counting out money onstage”. That the careers of Hodges and Ellington were intertwined is obvious to a jazz fan, but for someone fresh to the field, such humanizing anecdotes are essential.

Here is why jazz players love the blues: it is the perfect box to break out of, the most restrictive of musical forms. A composer of Gregorian chant had more freedom than someone trying to write a blues. The number of measures is specified; so are certain chords that must be cycled through; and their temporal position; the tonic chord, defying every rule of harmonic theory, is voiced like the aforementioned dominant seventh, yet still seems final. (How this works remains a mystery.) Performing is another matter. In traditional blues songs there are gaps for improvisation after every line (the singer says “I bought me a coffee grinder, the best one I could find” and the player has two bars in which to improvise a response—one which will probably indicate that she’s not really talking about coffee) and in a jazz performance the song provides the framework for any number of improvised solos. This reveals the secret of jazz performance: First, construct a box. Second, break out of it. In so doing the musician enacts a moment of liberation.


book cover




By Gary Giddins and Scott DeVeaux


W. W. Norton & Company, 704 pages


Buy the book

This may be a politically charged term, but surely everyone needs some liberating. It’s obvious Louis Armstrong needed liberation from the mean streets of New Orleans, less obvious that his playing would prove liberating for Philip Larkin in a posh enclave of provincial Coventry. The problem facing Giddins and DeVeaux in their closing chapters is: what happens when jazz has been tamed and civilized and turned into a classical music? What price liberation now, when twenty-first-century jazz seems to be chasing its own tail, “plagued with countless tributes, recreations, and variations on its past”?

The book itself is evidence of a remarkable kind of calm, after all the polemic that once engulfed writing about jazz. The only polemic the authors indulge in is a ritual baiting of so-called smooth jazz—“There are many things to dislike about smooth jazz—for example, everything”. But Kenny G. is everyone’s favourite target. The old passions of swing vs bop, hot vs cool, avant-garde vs everything, seem to have dissipated. Is this peace and consolation, and calm of mind, all passion spent? Or has some of the passion departed the art form along with the polemic? I find it hard to share in the authors’ confidence that “others will continue to forge daring explorations”—the flatness of that phrase makes me doubt how strongly they believe it themselves—but here on the ground, in the bars and the concert halls (I have tickets to hear Eliane Elias on Saturday), great things are still being done.

Stephen Brown’s CD of solo jazz piano music, “Sweet Lorraine,” was released in 2009. He is emeritus professor of music at Southern Illinois University and author of “The Sense of Music,” 1988.

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By moonraven, September 8, 2010 at 11:17 am Link to this comment

At least that’s a good photo of Dexter Gordon on the cover!

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By Anarcissie, September 7, 2010 at 8:51 am Link to this comment

It seems to me jazz (as such) has become a very small part of the musical circus which the the West is exporting.  Hip-hop seems to be the dominant thing, followed by electronica, ‘dance’, good old rock’n'roll, and the rest of the parade.  Of course all of these have been influenced by jazz, but everything influences everything else, so that’s not saying a whole lot.

The big threat to jazz isn’t pop, it’s the temptation to sink back into nostalgia.  The fact that everyone gets along these days is not a good sign.

I was sort of surprised at the treatment of Blues as a box or prison.  Blues is a foundation, like the foundation of a house.  You don’t break out of it; you build on top of it.  Foundations need to be strong and simple, and the Blues form fills the bill admirably.

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By gerard, September 3, 2010 at 12:55 pm Link to this comment

I sometimes wonder about the possibly parralel fate of English and jazz.  English, so far, has become the “world language” simply by dominance—that is, for commercial and cultural reasons it has been “pushed on” other people by sheer, though sometimes subtle, force. 

In some respects jazz is being subjected to the same experience. Due to electronics and its dominance in the hands of rich nations, jazz is “pushed on” other cultures by being made “available” as other places “aculturate” to “electronic” media. 

Undoubtedly this transference is interesting, and undoubtedly the transference makes youth worldwide feel “connected.”  Which is all to the good.

But—and there is always a doubt about these “unequal” interchanges—will the wide variety of “native” musics be overwhelmed?  Will they only appear as innovations into jazz when the idiom can be “fitted in” through some transformation.

Or is there some other way that local musics can and will be preserved without the artificiality of intentional “preservation” by music historians?

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By mthalermd, September 3, 2010 at 6:47 am Link to this comment
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I just returned, with my son, from a quick 3-clubs-in-one-night visit to NYC, and can assure you that jazz is alive and very much moving forward while still able to celebrate its extraordinary past.  Gerald Clayton, at the Jazz Standard, played an amazing set, and is a young pianist to be watched - his freedom with complex, almost uninterpretable rhythms was astounding, yet his music always swung.  Next, on to the Blue Note, to here a bit of older be-bop oriented jazz with Eric Alexander (young) and Lew Tabakin (grand old man) blowing like crazy, but even though this was a traditional set played as a tribute to James Moody, the standout was Antonio Hart, a young saxophonist who took the blues places it has never been.  Finally, on to Smalls to hear Jeremy Pelt, exploring new frontiers with his trumpet, and the talented young pianist Danny Grissett of whom we will all be hearing a great deal in years to come.  The point - nothing to disbelieve about the hopeful note that closes Gary Giddon’s book - the art is thriving - each club was packed to the gills - and in New York, at least, there isno end in sight.

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