The jazz scene has been marked by controversy and contention ever since the early days of the swing era, when French critic Hughes Panassie derided Duke Ellington and Count Basie for allegedly besmirching traditions established by King Oliver and Louis Armstrong. In the years since, as new styles have emerged, genres such as bop, free jazz, and fusion have each generated a host of champions and detractors. No matter what the style or the era, debates have always raged about the music’s future.
But as we reach the close of the millennium, there seems to be less consensus than ever about the condition of jazz. Even if people’s opinions differ greatly, it’s clear at the very least that many within the jazz universe are viewing the same phenomenon. Overall, observers do agree that the music has a much higher public profile today than it had even 20 years ago. But there’s substantial discussion about whether the increased attention has been beneficialand whether the newest generation of players are heading a renaissance or creating a debacle.
At the center of the controversy is trumpeter/composer Wynton Marsalis, who has perhaps the highest profile of any jazz player to emerge in the last three decades. Marsalis and his cohortsamong them pianist Marcus Roberts, saxophonists Wessel Anderson, James Carter, Javon Jackson, and Joshua Redman, pianists Cyrus Chestnutt and Jackie Terasson, and vocalist Cassandra Wilsonhave helped stimulate public interest in jazz music by reviving the sounds of bop masters from 1950s. That’s all well and good, critics argue, but these young traditionalists have yet to take the music into the future.
This very conflict was highlighted in November with the simultaneous release of two books. Blues Up and Down, by Tom Piazza, speaks in glowing terms about Marsalis and his colleagues, while in Blue: The Murder of Jazz Eric Nisenson asserts that the ’80s and ’90s crew are simply mutilating the music’s glorious traditions of innovation and personal distinction. The fact that both volumes were published by St. Martin’s Press, one of the nation’s most respected chroniclers of musical opinion, has only added fuel to the fire; to date, several lengthy columns about the books have been published in the jazz enthusiast press.
Both Piazza and Nisenson are somewhat uncomfortable with being painted as leaders of a critical camp, but neither shies away from advocating his point. For Piazza, Marsalis and his contemporaries represent a return to such values as thorough musicianship, historical overview, respect for acoustic instruments, and a love for straight-ahead, 4/4 jazz. He insists that innovation is alive and well in jazz music; those looking for something new, he argues, have simply failed to listen seriously to these artists
Nisenson, meanwhile, calls many current jazz musicians ”revivalists,“ suggesting that their love for hard bop is ultimately a refusal to incorporate other elements into their style. He says there are too many players who simply quote from past masters rather than develop their own voices. Innovation, he argues, is being discouraged because record labels are too busy rewarding these ”safe“ players.
”Jazz is a music that’s always being composed in the moment, and that’s the real problem with these revivalists,“ Nisenson contends. ”The greatest jazz musicians made music that was a product of their era, and what you’re getting now [are] musicians who dress like they’re in the ’50s and who want to play hard bop; they’re not playing the music that’s reflective of the era they’re living and working in. It’s not their fault: The record labels are the ones who’re discouraging innovation and who are defining jazz in a very limited way.“
”There’s an excessive preoccupation with newness,“ Piazza responds. ”There are a lot of new things going on, and young musicians who are doing some excellent work, but some people...are upset because these guys aren’t going in the direction that they think constitutes innovation.“
Controlling the debate
The tendency to dismiss all this as just in-house critical discussion would be justified, if it were limited to simple matters of taste. But Nisenson’s and Piazza’s comments are only the starting point. At issue is something deeper: questions of power and money. For Marsalis’ preeminence has sparked contention among detractors who say he wields too much control over the both the business and the politics of jazz music.
Certainly, he is a force to be reckoned with. At 35, Marsalis is the one current jazz artist known all over the world, even among people who don’t know the difference between 4/4 time and a salad. When he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize last year for his three-and-a-half-hour slavery oratorio Blood on the Fields, many saw it as the ultimate recognition of a prodigious talent. For others, however, the Pulitzer was the prime insult: Marsalis had won the award that the estimable Duke Ellington had been summarily denied, and he won it for a work that some considered bloated, pompous pseudo-jazz, at best.
Marsalis kicked off his career with polite, perfunctory albums that reflected a strong debt to ’50s and ’60s-era Miles Davis, as well as to Louis Armstrong and Clark Terry. As he began winning Grammies and gaining wider public acceptance, he developed a noteworthy friendship with Stanley Crouch, a former drummer turned conservative political and musical theorist. A staff writer for the New York Daily News and New Republic, Crouch was once an ardent admirer of the avant-garde. In the ’80s, however, his politics and his musical tastes turned increasingly right-wing. His friendship with the tradition-obsessed Marsalis seemed to fit right in with this image.
Around the same time, Marsalis also fell in with Albert Murray, a widely published scholar who has written a number of acclaimed books examining the links between culture and politics. Though very much in the integrationist strain as a literary critic, Murray has been an ardent and frequent advocate of African American hegemony in jazz and blues. Indeed, much of Crouch’s own ’80s and ’90s commentary regarding African American culture and politics has been heavily influenced by Murray’s writing.
Marsalis has also cited Murray as a prime influence, and for many, the views of these three men are indistinguishable. Though the trumpeter was never comfortable with the jazz press, his attacks on critics have become more unrelenting and more bitter as his fame has grown. Some observers have suggested that many of these attacks have been fueled or even supplied by Crouch and Murray; they argue that Marsalis is doing widespread damage by spreading his mentors’ message to the legions of young musicians who idolize him and flock to his concerts.
Tensions in the jazz community have escalated steadily ever since the late ’80s, when Marsalis became head of Lincoln Center’s jazz program. At first, the trumpeter’s appointment generated little response, but he quickly exerted a noteworthy influence as artistic director. He instituted a regular concert series that became so prominent that National Public Radio started a syndicated weekly program featuring the concerts. (The show can be heard locally every Saturday evening on WMOT-FM.).
As the Lincoln Center concert orchestra began getting national engagements outside New York City, its funding and its visibility grew. But with that growth came the inevitable controversy: Critics charged him with excluding the work of white composers from the series, and with excluding white players from the band. Marsalis only alienated these same critics by openly recruiting Crouch to be part of the program’s decision-making body.
”There’s a lot of excellent things that the Lincoln Center program does,“ says Bob Blumental, jazz critic for the Boston Globe. ”I think that overall it’s a first-rate program. At the same time, one can criticize the narrowness of some of its criteria. For example, they refused to let George Russell, one of the greatest composers in jazz, appear there because he wanted to use an electric bass in his band. That’s a bit ridiculous.“
For Nisenson and many othersamong them The Nation’s Gene Santoro and Musician’s Tom MoonMarsalis, Crouch, and Murray have held the Lincoln Center program hostage to their restrictive, limited view of jazz history and tradition. Such arguments have only created a highly charged, combative atmosphere in the jazz world. While some contend that the three men are guilty of reverse racism, others shoot back that critics of the Lincoln Center program are themselves racist.
”It’s inevitable whenever you have any kind of discussion that involves African Americans in this country that you’re going to get racial considerations and questions,“ Blumenthal says. ”I do think that there are legitimate things that can be asked regarding the direction of the program, and that these points need to be made.“
Marsalis dismisses most of the queries about race as not even worth answering, but he’s more than willing to keep aiming his fire at jazz critics. ”They are cultured, intelligent men, but they’re always dispensing from above,“ he said in the May 12, 1997, issue of The Nation. ”It’s a type of white attitude to what they perceive to be the experience of being black.“
All of which is to say, perhaps, that the question of race continues to loom quite large in the jazz wars. There has even been a sort of backlash of late: Longtime New York Post jazz critic Richard Sudhalter is presently working on a book that will supposedly show that whites are the true jazz innovators. Meanwhile, critic Terry Treachout, writing in Commentary magazine, accused Marsalis of trying to ”blacken“ out the white contribution to jazz.
Thus, the state of jazz in the ’90s is fractious, yet those embroiled in the debate need to be reminded that there remain reasons for cautious optimism. In the ’70s, jazz was almost completely absent from the nation’s musical discourse, but today commercials are featuring the music of Wes Montgomery and Jimmy Smith. Locally, meanwhile, the music has gained a legitimate presence in the club sceneno small feat.
Greg Lee, program director at WMOT-FM, has a fairly upbeat view of the current situation. ”I think right now things are better for jazz than they’ve ever been at any time. There are more great players, more fine albums, and more first-rate music available to people than I can ever remember. I think things like the Lincoln Center dispute are more an East Coast thing; I can tell you from what people say to us, they feel this is truly a golden era.“
Down Beat managing editor John Ephland perhaps offers the best piece of wisdom. He suggests that it’s probably too early for anyone to assess the impact of the current crop of musicians. ”Let’s wait another 10 years or so before we rush to judgment on these players, and whether or not they’re innovators. A lot of people didn’t think John Coltrane or Sonny Rollins or Miles Davis were innovators when they first started out also. It’s just too early to be able to telleven about people like Wynton Marsalis.“
For now, it’s clear that the controversy will continue to rage, and that the state of jazz for the ’90s and beyond will be one marked by critical disagreements, tensions, and intrigue. But as we’ve learned from past experience, the music can’t grow if people don’t engage with these basic issues.
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