The British musician Graham Collier is an astute observer and a good writer. (Rifftides recently reviewed one of his early recordings.) In the current entry on his web site, Collier comments favorably on artsjournal.com blogger Terry Teachout’s review in Commentary of Alyn Shipton’s massive A New History of Jazz. Unfortunately Teachout’s review is available on line only to Commentary subscribers. Part of it is quoted later in this posting. Collier questioned TT’s observation that “it is by no means clear that post-modern jazz is itself sufficiently coherent to be grasped as a unified phenomenon continuous with pre-1970 predecessors.”
Here’s what Graham Collier wrote in response to Teachout’s proposition:
To expect what has happened in jazz in the last 50 years to be as coherent as what happened before is to miss the wood for the trees. There was a change in jazz in the period between the mid 1950s and the mid 1960s which opened up the music in such a way that it will never be the same again, and this change made any “coherence” impossible. For me the pivotal point was Miles Davis’s 1959 album Kind of Blue, but other musicians, such as Ornette Coleman, Charles Mingus, Cecil Taylor and John Coltrane, were each trying to open up the music in their own way.
The result has been the possibility of musicians developing their own way, showing influences (such as that of Ellington, Mingus and Gil Evans in my music) but realising that there is now room for unique jazz voices to develop. To invert my previous analogy, there are now lots and lots of individual trees and no wood will ever emerge.
My guess is that close listeners familiar with the first decades of jazz hear incoherence in plenty of new music after, say, 1958, the year of Ornette Coleman’s Something Else. If we need a benchmark year, ’58 is as good as any for the apparent start of a shift away from strict observance of traditional harmony and, to an extent, from melody and rhythm. (In Coleman’s case, the shift was not nearly as radical as those who professed shock or outrage over it seemed to think it was.) You could make a case that the beginnings of a shift came in 1949, when Lennie Tristano recorded “Intuition” and “Digression.” Although those free pieces did not start a movement, they forecast it. Pick a year. How about 1946? Shorty Rogers told me that to kill time between shows at the Paramount Theater in New York, members of Woody Herman’s First Herd stood in a circle in the basement playing what fifteen years later came to be called free jazz. But who knew? Rogers said, “We’d never have dreamed of doing that in public.” If we’re dealing in forestry metaphors, the Herman Herd example is a case of a tree that fell, or grew, with no one hearing it.
Abandonment of approved guidelines governing coherence has been a fact of musical life throughout history. Otherwise, we’d be listening to clubs on hollow logs. Beethoven would have done things as Mozart did, Stravinsky as Brahms did.
I wonder if Graham Collier missed a larger point that Terry Teachout was making or suggesting in his Commentary piece, which is that when one is in the midst of any area of human activity, it is impossible to put it in historical perspective. It may be helpful to read Teachout’s line about coherence in its fuller context at the end of his long review. Here are the final few paragraphs.
In recent years, many jazz musicians have looked for the answers to such questions in a famous remark made by the pianist Bill Evans and quoted in A New History:
“Jazz is not a what, it is a how. If it were a what, it would be static, never growing. The how is that the music comes from the moment, it is spontaneous, it exists in the time it is created. And anyone who makes music according to this method conveys to me an element that makes his music jazz.”
Alyn Shipton clearly understands the implications of this remark, and the catholicity with which he describes pre-1970 jazz promises an equally clear understanding of later styles. “In what follows,” he writes in his introduction, “I have attempted to examine what was being described as jazz throughout its history, and I have taken a very broad view of how jazz should now be defined.” But, despite this broad perspective, he does not succeed in integrating postmodern jazz into his narrative.
His failure to do so reinforces my own belief that it is not yet possible to write a coherent historical survey that includes post-1970 stylistic developments. Not only are we too close in time to the jazz of the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s to write about it with detachment, but it is by no means clear that postmodern jazz is itself sufficiently coherent to be grasped as a unified phenomenon continuous with pre-1970 predecessors.
Still, even if the many kinds of music that we continue to call “jazz” no longer have enough in common to be discussed collectively, most listeners and critics, myself included, stubbornly persist in viewing them as parts of a whole, unified (in Bill Evans’s words) not by their “whatness” but by their “howness.” Perhaps some jazz scholar as yet unborn will be able to explain to our children why we were right to do so.
In any case, whether or not his political characterizations of market forces and of what “passes as jazz today” are accurate, Collier lays out an unavoidable truth facing all creative artists who depart from accepted norms.
The only problem for these individuals – who exist in every part of the world – is getting heard. And finding an audience among the increasingly market-led neo-conservative, re-creative and tribute-led music which passes as jazz today.
I would respectfully disagree with your premise concerning the inability to cohesively discuss the continuing evolution of jazz since the 1970’s. Ken Burns used this same concept, although he somehow had no problem making up a myth about Jazz itself dying after the deaths of Armstrong and Ellington, only to be magically resuscitated by the emergence of Wynton Marsalis.
I believe it’s not a matter of cohesiveness. The music itself exploded into a wealth of diversity during the last 50 years, as has the human condition. It doesn’t hurt to talk about all the ways musicians continue to be inspired by Jazz, or use it as a vehicle to incorporate their own influences into a new expression of it. We can of course argue indefinitely over the merits of all these new expressions, but we cannot ignore them.
Burns should have used the last episode of his Jazz documentary to explore many of these new and diverse jazz artists. It could have easily fit into the central theme of all his films, that of the American experience as it pertains to race, by portraying the continuing diversity of the music as representative of the continuins diversity of humanity. It could have therefore been celebrated as an achievement of many people, not just one prodigal son.
I guess ultimately my point is this – the music has changed tremendously over the last 50 years – perhaps our historical perspective should change as well.
Larry Blumenfeld says
I’ll be brief: Ken Burns used the “we’re too close in time to the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s to evaluate…” line as a convenient copout for his failure to deal (in his PBS film “Jazz”) with anything after the mid-60s: My hunch is he shied away because his main storylines — formal structure in jazz, race relations, and American identity – all get really messy once MLK,the Kennedys, Medgar Evans, Malcolm X, Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong are dead.
The 1970s are too close to evaluate?! That’s like someone in 1945 saying that Armstrong’s Hot Fives are too fresh, or a 1960s critic shying away from an assessment of bebop.
Teachout, erudite as he may be, falls into a familiar trap: “Jazz” doesn’t go where he wishes it would and it messes up his flowchart. (I’m not picking on Terry, but poking at the notion that jazz has a linear progression that’s supposed to make sense in the same way that, say, the European classical tradition marched forward in an orderly way. (And hell, how silly do classical critics get when they deal with the full range of 20th and 21st-century composition?).
Burns erred mightily in dismissing the role of African identity and thought in jazz: What if jazz is meant to develop by coming round a circle? What if the music strives above all to defy codification, and to exist as more than one thing at one time.
Armstrong was once revolutionary, then dated, then obsolete, then once again hip.
Bebop was largely rejected in its inception. And when jazz musicians stopped playing for dancers, everything changed for good.
Maybe jazz began morphing into something that defied the sort of categories that make for orderly history books just decades after it began to be codified and, now, has reached a point where it explodes and warps the very structure of such rigid critical thinking: Maybe we need a “quantum theory” for jazz?
I didn’t think of any of this: musicians — from Randy Weston to Steve Coleman, Roswell Rudd to John Zorn explained it to me.
Now that the recording industry — which demanded orderly categories and a clear story for market reasons — has shattered, we can all move on. That said, I love a good story where the ending makes sense: It’s just not the right way to compose a nonfiction history of where the music is, was, and will be.
Graham Collier says
A few hours after reading your piece I came across the following which seemed relevant.
“The history of art and art’s condition at any time are pretty messy. They should stay that way. One can think about them as much as one likes, but they won’t become neater; neatness isn’t even a good reason for thinking about them.”–Donald Judd, found in “Pictures of Nothing, Abstract Art since Pollock,” by Kirk Varnadoe (Princeton 2006)
Excellent posts, Graham and Larry. I agree with the assessment that Ken Burns copped out once his linear view of Jazz got messy.
At the end of his Baseball film, he waxed on about the growing diversity of the game, emphasizing the increasing contributions of Latin American countries. He could have just as easily observed the last thirty years of Jazz history, and highlighted similar diverse elements. It wouldn’t have even been necessary to put them in the context of the rest of the film – a celebratory look at these newer artists would have left everyone with a good taste for jazz and the future.
It would have made for good film symmetry also, since the beginning of the Episode 1 featured a rousing rendition by the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra of “Take The A Train,” with an introductory solo by Sir Roland Hanna.