September 1, 2018

JOHN COLTRANE AND THE END OF JAZZ:

The fact that this 55-year-old recording is the year’s most significant jazz release tells you all you need to know about the health of jazz in 2018. The only real argument is about the clinical symptoms of jazz’s death and when it happened. It would be wrong to claim that jazz died with Coltrane in 1967, the year that rock cemented its takeover at Monterey. For one thing, many of jazz’s inventors were still going. Louis Armstrong, the first of the master soloists, had his biggest hit, “What a Wonderful World,” in 1967. Duke Ellington, the Debussy of the big band, was in 1967 preparing the second of his three “Sacred Music” concerts. And in 1967, jazz still contained the seeds of at least two of its final evolutions. The trumpeters Miles Davis and Donald Byrd had yet to form their electric bands, with Davis heading toward bleary oblivion and Byrd toward the dance floor. But Armstrong’s pop hit was orchestral, Ellington’s band always had been orchestral, and the crowded studios and thick textures of Davis’s In a Silent Way and Byrd’s Places and Spaces were, in their disorderly ways, orchestral too. None of this music was played by acoustic quartets.

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The assumption that it was the musician’s task to develop the music reveals how deeply jazz was soaked in the forms and assumptions of European art music. A Balkan folk musician or a West African griot doesn’t seek to push his people’s music forward technically but to imitate it and preserve their sonic memory. But a jazz musician, like a classical composer, has the modern itch. Imitation is not enough; he must go beyond his sources. He pursues formal development for its own sake and believes in progress. Jazz didn’t exactly die with Coltrane, but he certainly helped to kill it. No one (apart from Miles Davis) read its inner logic so clearly. No one did more to pulverize show tunes and the blues into stardust. Arguably no one did more to reunite secular Western art with religion, which is where secular Western art came from and what it had been striving to rejoin ever since it left. And no one (again apart from Miles Davis) did it better.

Read the whole thing. Of course, jazz had already survived its earlier attempt in the late 1940s at making its audience “more selective,” as Spinal Tap’s manager would say, thanks to albums with strong melodies such as Miles Davis and Gil Evans’ 1959 interpretation of Porgy and Bess, Dave Brubeck’s classic single “Take Five,” and the numerous swing bands and crooners still touring in the ‘50s and ‘60s, but its recovery was a temporary one. Previewing Ken Burns’ 2001 documentary Jazz, Mark Gauvreau Judge wrote:

Bebop offered challenges musicians thought they could never get from traditional swing bands, as well as an improvisational ethic that provided an escape from the tough work of writing strong melodies. Some of the players saw this: In 1949 drummer Buddy Rich fired his band because his players “just want to play bop and nothing else. In fact,” Rich added, “I doubt they can play anything else.” Louis Armstrong, whose centennial is being celebrated this year, once referred to bebop as “crazy, mixed-up chords that don’t mean nothing at all.” Before long swing had become a joke. Producer Quincy Jones recalls in the documentary Listen Up that as a young musician he once hid backstage from bebop trumpeter Miles Davis so Miles wouldn’t know he was in the swinging band that had just left the stage.

Suddenly, jazz was Art. Gone were the days when 5,000 people would fill the Savoy Ballroom to lindy hop to the sunny sounds of Ella Fitzgerald or Count Basie. Bebop was impossible to dance to, which was fine with the alienated musicians in Eisenhower’s America. (You can bet this era will be well represented by beatnik Burns.) Even bebop’s own founders weren’t safe from the ideological putsch: when Bird himself made an album of pop standards with a band backed up by a string section, he was labeled a sellout. Then Elvis, to simplify matters greatly, reinvented swing for a new generation, and the Beatles arrived with sacks of great new melodies, and jazz was over as a popular music. Remarkably, beboppers and their fans still blame the drop-off on American racism. Miles once called pop music “white music,” and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, in a documentary about the Blue Note label, offers that “whites couldn’t appreciate anything that came from black culture.” Yet whites were as responsible as blacks for making stars of Ella, Basie, and other black swing artists. Only two kinds of music were allowed on the radio following the news of FDR’s death: classical and Duke Ellington.

As Judge wrote, “Some of the new jazz was undeniably brilliant, and many of the bebop and hard bop recordings that have been remastered and reissued only seem to acquire more appeal with age,” but the urge to go further and further out also risks dramatically shrinking an audience that, ultimately, wants to be entertained. Judge notes that “The unflinching critic Stanley Crouch tells a funny story about Ellington that sums up the problems jazz has had finding an audience since the bebop revolution: in the 60s, bassist Charles Mingus suggested to Ellington that they make an ‘avant-garde’ record together, employing some of the chaotic elements then popular in the free-jazz movement. Ellington replied that he had no desire to take jazz that far back.”

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