Jazz is Dead! Is Alive

Every experienced jazz journalist knows that there are two jazz stories one can always sell to high-paying slick magazines.

The first is: Jazz is dead!-an ever-popular gloss available in two flavors (sorrow and anger) that serves two purposes. It confirms the biases of mature readers who've been saying for years that jazz turned sour around the time they stopped going to hear it, and it unburdens immature readers of the worry that they ought to know something about jazz, when beyond the token Miles or Ella disc there's really no need, so they may as well stick with pop.

The second, much beloved of newsweeklies in need of a slow-season pick-me-up, is: Jazz is back! A frequent variation-see the Bad Plus review by Andy Langer in the March Esquire-involves the writer's presumption that the reader, like himself, lacks the "decoder ring" to understand jazz, and that a jazz disc he likes must be, ipso facto, a groundbreaking moment for western civilization. (Teaser: "Can one album single-handedly make jazz relevant again?") Both stories are fabrications of convenience: Only the dead can be resurrected, and since jazz has never actually died, it can never actually return. The clever journalist is thus free to manufacture either at will. And the beauty part is he doesn't have to waste precious time listening to music.

In the '80s, a third sure-fire sale emerged: the Wynton Marsalis story. The critic for a major daily once remarked that his editor would happily accept a Wynton piece every weekend. Once again, no particular interest in music was required. Here you have a photogenic, quotable young black man, a great family backstory, easy-to-follow controversies (a microcosm of American political debate between the bowties and centrists), and, above all, fame-a law unto itself.

True, the Marsalis story has recently declined in favor of a genre that had been moribund since the 1940s: the sexy young white or light woman singer with big hair and serious crossover appeal.

But Marsalisians need not despair.

In the March issue of The Atlantic Monthly, David Hajdu introduces a new storyline: Wynton is dead! This will be followed by: Wynton is back! Expect the pendulum to return no later than his first Blue Note disc, though a prototype may appear before this column hits the newsstands. A new opportunity has opened for writers who can't be bothered with peeling off the cellophane and detestable sticky-strips from jewel boxes looking for that decoder ring. We can anticipate an unending stream of Wynton is dead! and Is not! stories. The mind drools-as does Hajdu's peculiar article.

"Wynton's Blues" (it could have been worse-it could have been "Wynton and All That Jazz") covers 12 long pages and yet never lands on or discusses a single Marsalis work. An introductory teaser that, like the title, cannot be blamed on Hajdu, says Marsalis "has been drawing increasing fire from critics and fellow musicians alike for his narrow neotraditionalism-perhaps the biggest name in jazz faces an uncertain future. Just like jazz itself." I love the "perhaps"; I think whoever came up with "perhaps" deserves a major award for teaser writing. And that ominous final sentence, cast off on its own, an undeniable song cue (for Jazz is dead!) Don't we all face uncertain futures? Just like The Atlantic Monthly itself? And surely "increasing" is a misprint for "decreasing"-that hook was played out how long ago, 10, 15 years?

The article begins with its true hero, Hajdu-an often sensitive and entertaining writer-alone at the Village Vanguard one dreary August in an otherwise abandoned Manhattan. Charles McPherson's band is playing and, to Hajdu's horror, Marsalis, perhaps the most inveterate sitter-in since Dizzy Gillespie, is sitting in, surely the first sign of an uncertain future. What's he doing with McPherson, who, though "a superior talent," is "not a top jazz attraction," which is why Lorraine Gordon, "the Medici of the jazz world," brought him in for deadly August? (McPherson is playing to full houses at Jazz Standard as I write, but maybe February is also thought of as a crummy month.) Worse, Wynton no longer possesses "youthful élan." Au contraire: he has grown "older and heavier...and his eyes were small and affectless."

Indeed, Marsalis has committed jazz's original sin: He has grown older. Twenty years ago, he was 21. Now he is 41. At his present rate of aging, he'll be 61 in another 20 years. Once a "creature of fearsome beauty," he now looks "downtrodden," his body given to "midlife thickening." He "projects a quieter, softer, slower presence."

In the course of nailing down battles between Marsalis and the enemy press (none of it quoted), Hajdu snares a line from my old friend Stanley Crouch, whom I hope was misquoted; he says that critics disdain Marsalis because he "has access to and has had access to a far higher quality of female than any of them could ever imagine."

Here is a new field for jazz crit: reviewing wives and girlfriends.

Before that gets under way, however, I want to state unequivocally that my wife is of as high a "quality" as any woman Marsalis has ever met or ever will meet. I imagine Stanley feels the same about his own wife. Still, I do sympathize with the melodramatic approach to jazz writing. If you stick to music, you end up writing for plebeian publications like JazzTimes.

Originally published in May 2003

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