Musings on Wynton after the Jazz at Lincoln Center
Just got back from, of all things, a press conference announcing Lincoln Center's 2000-2001 season, of which I am unexpectedly a part. They've started a series of "Jazz on the Hudson" pairing so-called "mainstream" and "avant-garde" pairs of duos together in a single evening; I, in a pairing with Hamiet Bluiett, will, apparently, be the "avant-garde" half, in Mar. of 2001.
The whole press affair, which included hors d'oeuvres, plus speeches by Wynton Marsalis and others and a performance by his Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra and others, really revived in me the urge to express some of my own views on the whole neo-classical movement. Much as I am pleased that they are trying, with this Hudson series, to expand slightly their definition of what does and does not constitute "legitimate" jazz, I found myself being disturbingly intoxicated by the sheer force of "legitimacy" created by the occasion, as Wynton described his very single-mindedly Louis Armstrong and overall traditional approach to programming JALC will present next year. There is something strangely comforting about a vision of jazz which offers a "respectable" reference point - the equating of Jazz with classical music; which offers a very systematized approach to what should be taught, and to what, in fact, should be regarded as jazz or non-jazz in the first place. In their speeches, the JALC people described today a program which has outreach to thousands upon thousands of high school students, all of them learning about Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong and "swing" and "blues", plus world tours, bringing the music of the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra to people all over the world.
So what's wrong with this picture? Not to sound like a broken record (not only my own broken record, but many others' as well), but jazz ISN'T the same as classical music, and it doesn't need this parallel to be considered "great" - it is a music with entirely different aesthetic values, some of which (mostly by coincidence), may coincide with the classical world, but overall most of which should be taken on their own terms. There is nothing wrong with learning the tradition, and in many ways, I credit Wynton for teaching people about the rich legacy of the history of jazz. But jazz isn't only about history. Everything that needs to be said in jazz hasn't been said. It isn't enough to play Louis Armstrong's repertoire, and to joke about how "we're trying to bring our own thing to the music - but this is Louis so all we can do is try" (the implication, at least as I took it, being that Louis is so unapproachable, etc. that it's enough to try and play his music respectably like he did it, without building on it or adding further innovation).
Jazz, in fact, has always been as much - if not more - about the future than the past. At one point, Wynton made an astonishing generalization about "other" forms of expression that to him presumably fall outside the sphere of legitimate jazz, stating that there was basically no need for the more "abstract" forms of jazz (and by this I presume he means all of the various musics that emerged after 1969 - the loft jazz scene, the AACM, all the way up to the downtown "Knitting Factory" scene, etc., etc., etc.) He supported this notion by arguing that these abstract forms were, after all, less popular than what JALC does; that with the more presumably "avant-garde" stuff, the music needed to be propped up by government grants, etc., while JALC was actually genuinely popular and accessible.
But if one reviews the history of jazz and what has made it great, we are, ironically, almost always consistently struck by the fact that with the exception of the swing music of the 20's and 30's, most of jazz's crazy, individualistic "innovations" were the bane of many critics and the general public when they were first created; and that it took a long time for many of these developments to resonate with the public at all; in short, to be "popular", if ever (Thelonious Monk, whom many people still regard as "avant-garde" compared to the more "traditional" bebop fare of his day, is but one example). So the argument that the fact that a music is well-received by the public makes it more "legitimate" is certainly challengable (and I won't even site such "popular" artists as Kenny G :-)).
And much as JALC is an unquestionable success story, is this really, as Wynton purports, in itself an argument for the legitimacy of their musical values? Or is it, in fact, as I believe, a self-fulfilling prophecy? What if someone with a broader outlook were in charge of JALC, someone who treated the entire history of the music, with all of its crazy offshoots, it's forays into pop, funk, acid-jazz, avant-garde expression, and various conceptual approaches (not just bebop/swing) with equal weight; who welcomed innovation and commissioned some of the most individual compositional voices - Henry Threadgill, David Murray, Ornette Coleman, Anthony Davis, and on and on, to produce yearly large scale works. What if this person were as appealing as Wynton as spokesperson, and who expressed these open-minded views with the same fervor that Wynton does his more conservative ones. Can't one imagine in this instance that this more open-minded jazz philosophy would become the predominant view of what is legit in jazz? Isn't what is and isn't considered legitimate in jazz more, after all, about politics and posturing that some "objective" universals? Can't there, in short, be room for more branches of the "jazz tree"?
In my opinion, in order for jazz to be vibrant and to continue to grow, it is actually crucial that people reflect in their expression innovation; personal expression; that people not be afraid to try something new. Jazz is about innovation. Yes, it's about tradition, too, but as some have said, "the only tradition in jazz is innovation" - ie. you must build upon the past, or the music perishes. And yes, if one is honest in one's expression; if one reflects one's own life experiences to create a personal music, then some will find it "avant-garde", or, conversely, perhaps "commercial", or many of the other generalized dismissives often hurled at any form of jazz-related expression not related to the more narrow definition of jazz with a capital "J". But is this any different than what Monk went through, when he first emerged, with his music? Or Ornette Coleman? Or Miles? Or Coltrane?
It's safe to "legitimize" jazz by equating it with classical music - who, after all, can argue with a music proven by the ages to be great. But jazz ISN'T classical music. It's a living, breathing, art form. And people are needed out there that are courageous enough to forge new pathways, to push for the new; and to see how this relates to what has come before without, however, losing the "now".
Jazz on the Hudson is a small step, and I'm happy to be a small part of it.