BLUE: The Murder of Jazz
by Eric Nisenson
St. Martin's Press, $22.95
Reviewed by Don Rose
To paraphrase my friend Garry Wills, I'm willing to believe a dozen bad things about Wynton Marsalis before breakfast, but this hysterical, sloppily written, badly argued, error-ridden, self-contradictory rant almost makes me want to join his defense team.
Add to this Nisenson's treatment of the perennial issue of race, racism and racialism in jazz and you have an exploitative, potboiling polemic that has achieved at least a part of its purpose by generating lots of comment and controversy. On the other hand, for all its problems—which, we shall see, are legion—it raises a couple of legitimate and serious issues about where we are in the jazz universe today and where we may be heading.
Nisenson, who is the author of a fawning "celebrity biography" of Miles Davis and a book about John Coltrane that I have not yet read, suggests, then retracts, then suggests again, that jazz is dead—probably. Its murderers are 1) Marsalis and the pride of young lions associated with him in the neoclassicist jazz movement and 2) the critics Stanley Crouch and Albert Murray who support the movement and, more importantly, provide its philosophical undergirding by rigidly and exclusionarily defining the "true" jazz tradition both musically and racially. The accessories to the crime are the record companies and the related "them" of the media, such as Tom Piazza and Peter Watrous, who employ, tout and promote the "neos" to the exclusion of more creative and more deserving players.
One of the odd things here is that Nisenson is fully aware of the Chicken Little syndrome in jazz criticism: since the beginning of jazz consciousness critics have been proclaiming the end was near if not already upon us. Depending on whom you listen to, jazz died when Louis made the Hot Fives and ushered in the age of the soloist; when Duke left "jungle music" and started swinging hard; when Bird and Diz invented the "Chinese music" they called bebop and left true jazz in its harmonic grave; when Coltrane and Dolphy played hours of "anti-jazz."
Nisenson has read all these musical obituaries and related warnings of falling skies. He notes them and others in the 10 historical chapters of the book, yet never exactly gets around to recognizing that maybe he, too, could be writing a premature obituary—mainly because he is so pissed off at the throwback music of the neos and some of the more fatuous philosophical posturings of the Murray-Crouch-Marsalis axis.
The essence of his argument seems to be that the neos (he focuses mainly on Wynton but includes brother Branford and, among others, Roy Hargrove, James Carter and Joshua Redman) all play mainly hard bop, which is a music of the past, though he acknowledges they toss in elements of later free and avant-garde styles.
Now, because they are the dominant forces in jazz today—apart from Kenny G. and the jazz-lite crowd—it means jazz has come to a dead end and is withering away. Naturally, the youth-crazed big record companies who sign and promote the neos are complicit here because they are short-changing older, better and more innovative musicians.
Nisenson recognizes that the history of jazz is layered with individuals and movements that harked back to earlier periods—from Scott Hamilton to the Dukes of Dixieland. But what makes the hard bop of the neos so repellent to him is that they somehow, in his view, do not really live and feel the music. He asserts that one cannot genuinely improvise a music of the past because jazz relies on the existential experience of the moment. In other words, these guys are musical liars.
It fazes him not, however, that Stan Getz and those who later formed the "cool" or West Coast submovement in jazz, were playing Lester Young's music a couple of decades after Prez started it all. Nisenson actually gives a spirited defense of the cool school—as he later defends much of the fusion movement. In fact he praises every other movement and school of jazz—New Orleans to free. But for the neos there is nothing but scorn.
In the raving overkill of this book, when he's done trashing their music, he rips them for their wardrobes—the way, years ago, some of my superhip friends denounced the natty "Ivy League" dress of the Modern Jazz Quartet. He attacks their (presumably collective) education: "They have been taught how to play a music without also being instructed what is the heart of this music, the true source of its power and vitality: commitment to one's individualistic voice in this time now, and along with that, the great law of growth, innovation and change."
Apart from this typically tortured syntax, how does he know what or how they've been taught? And how can he presume, as he also does, that a major problem is they never had any place to hang out with the other cats and exchange ideas and otherwise "learn" how to be jazz musicians?
He goes on to give us bargain-basement psycho-biology that purports insight into their spirits and psyches: "The music of the neos comes from the left, cognitive, side of their brains. The music of the great jazz musicians comes from both the left and the right sides, as well as their hearts, bodies, and souls." Yeah, man.
He rages against the critical dicta of Murray and Crouch, who suggest that 1) the jazz tradition stems essentially from the culture and lives of black people, 2) blues is intrinsic to jazz, 3) swinging is elemental and, 4) jazz is an interactive group art. None of these are especially new critical concepts—not even when the first dictum is wrongly extended to suggest that whites can't play real jazz. I've been hearing one or another version of that since the early '40s, long before either Marsalis or the Black Power movement were born.
Nisenson is correct to join the critics who complain that Marsalis's Lincoln Center band disses the work of white players and composers who should be included in the repertory—as they are in Bill Russo's Chicago Jazz Ensemble. But here's one of Nisenson's rabid, circular disquisitions on the racial question:
"...there have been a number of white jazz musicians equal to the best (although not the very greatest) black jazz musicians. And really, if this were not so, it would mean that jazz is not a great art form, not an art form that goes to the heart of our universal experience, but rather a provincial and very limited art form, a folk art created and truly understood by only one ethnic group, African Americans. If this were not so, jazz fails the test of universality essential to a truly great art form."
He then goes on to create raving cartoons and straw-man arguments against the other critics. He speciously states that neoclassicism requires that swinging can only be done in 4/4 time, so therefore the neos and their mentors who insist jazz must swing are excluding masterworks done in other meters. C'mon—these guys may talk some trash, but I've never heard any of them limit the idea of swinging to 4/4, even in their own work. That's Nisenson's invention.
In other pages he pointlessly attempts to discredit the idea of jazz as a collaborative art by postulating first that Art Tatum's greatest work was as a soloist, not in a trio or larger group, and therefore the neos must write off Tatum as a jazz great. The book is riddled with straw-man arguments like that. It is also riddled with all kinds of errors due to haste in writing, fact checking or pure ignorance. ("Take the A Train" was not Ellington's theme song, it was "Sepia Panorama;" Ellington actually did hire white players. Ask Louis Bellson.)
He gets certain classic quotes wrong, and mis-attributes them in other cases. He credits Armstrong with a statement about meeting Jack Teagarden, when it actually was Big T's comment about joining Satch. He asserts Charles Mingus would never play a revivalist-style music—hasn't he heard "Mingus Ah Um"?
It is never sufficient for him to argue with those with whom he disagrees: he must discredit them any way he can. He compares to Murray and Crouch to Marx and Lenin. (Hey—why not Hitler and Goebbels?) He twice refers to the old-timer Mezz Mezzrow as "clarinetist/dope dealer" Mezz Mezzrow. He red-baits critic Rudi Blesh by attributing his musical views to the old-left party line. Crouch is then blasted as a political conservative and Marsalis as a Reaganite.
So the upshot of all this is that because the neos play hard bop and their critical mentors are too restrictive in their definitions of jazz, "The freedom that used to be part of the jazz scene is now in great peril. And this has a direct influence on the actual creation of jazz."
Funny, I haven't noticed Marilyn Crispell or John Zorn or Ken Vandermark or David Sanchez cowering in the shadow of the mighty Crouchzilla, unable to blow freely. Maybe Nisenson needs to spend a couple of weeks in the Knitting Factory or come here to the Hot House now that it's reopened.
The idea that jazz must continue to "progress" to stay alive is, however, one to be reckoned with. It is central to any discussion of jazz and virtually all other arts as we stand at the end of the "modern" century. Jazz has had no primal, dominant force in the vein of Armstrong, Parker and Coltrane for the last third of this century. The concept of progress or modernism is completely up for grabs, as it is in the other arts.
The visual arts today have no Picasso or Pollack, who are landmarks in a continuum of progress and modernism. After Pollack and the abstract expressionist movement—in its way a parallel to free jazz—there were reactive schools, such as pop art and, later minimalism. But were those schools more "progressive" or more "modern"? There are scores of intriguing artists at work today—including many using video and computers, the most modern technologies. Does that make them more progressive or modern—and ergo better—than those pursuing other abstract techniques or even figurative or representational works? Is easel painting now dead?
Who is today's Stravinsky or Schoenberg? Has anyone since Cage brought us a major new musical concept beyond serialism—which Stravinsky first rejected then adopted then dropped again. Is the interesting minimalism of Philip Glass and Steve Reich more "progressive" or more modern than serialism?
Today's battles in "classical" music rage over the stranglehold of 12-tone music on the academy, where nonserialists are denigrated—though they're far more accepted in the concert halls. Sort'a like the stranglehold of Marsalis, Crouch and Co. in reverse.
Both the purity of Hemingway's prose and the complexity of Joyce's in "Ulysses" continue to be modern influences in the English-language novel; however, the apex of modernism, Joyce's "Finnegan's Wake" has not founded any new school of writing (and probably could not). To draw another slightly imperfect parallel, Coltrane's "Ascension," with Ornette Coleman's "Free Jazz" are like "Finnegan's Wake." Masterpieces of modernism that are in their own way dead ends. Where does one progress" after them?
In architecture we have a glimmer of insight into the future. After Frank Lloyd Wright, the spare, clean-lined international school led by Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier became the dominant force of the century. It seemed we could not go "beyond" them. In reaction came both neoclassicism, exemplified by the abysmal Harold Washington Library in Chicago, and postmodernism, exemplified by the still controversial James R. Thompson (State of Illinois) Center. But quietly a new movement, called "deconstructionist" by some, has emerged and shown there is a modernism and progress beyond Mies. It is epitomized in the works of Christian de Portzamparc and Frank Gehry, the Californian whose Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain is being hailed as the first masterwork of the 21st Century.
All of which is to say that we have much to speculate about and many questions to ask regarding the future of jazz—the very last of which ought to be whether it is dead or dying. The history and evolution of jazz is not really one straight line of progress. From Armstrong to Ellington to Bird, Coltrane and Coleman, you can say there was—harmonically, rhythmically and, yes, melodically. But in between, Chicago-style Dixieland was a consolidation, not a progression. Cool jazz and hard bop were reactive, not progressive. After the advent of modalism and then free jazz, which represented progress, fusion at its best became both a consolidation and a reaction.
There are scores of musicians today making what could be called new jazz music. The critic Ted Gioia lumps most of them—debatably—as either postmodern or deconstructionist. The pigeonhole is of little concern. Who knows if any of them are coming up with anything that could be called more modern or more progressive than what has come before? Who knows if the next Bird or the next school or movement is among them? In both classical music and jazz we have pushed the boundaries to the absolute limits and perhaps beyond, harmonically, rhythmically and tonally. So we must first ask if "progress" is still possible—and then we must ask if it is really necessary any longer.
I can't answer those questions definitively. I can make a case that what we call progress is no longer required, that we can have lots of splendid new music by reworking what we already have. But my hunch is there will be something new coming up, just as Gehry brought something new to a seemingly moribund modernism. It may, however, take a few years longer to get there. So much happened in jazz between 1927 and 1967 that we got spoiled. Just because the 30 years after were more consolidative than progressive does not mean the next 30 will be empty—and in the long run, neither Marsalis nor Crouch nor Murray will likely have much to do about it.
Nor will Nisenson.