Conflict & Conversation

On March 25, 1963, an alto saxophonist named Jimmy Woods entered a Los Angeles studio to record an album, his second, for the Contemporary label. He had assembled some musicians of note, including tenor saxophonist Harold Land, pianist Andrew Hill and drummer Elvin Jones. Their sessions, which spilled over into the next day, yielded an obscure little gem called Conflict. For reasons no one has publicly aired, it would be the last release by Woods, who would surface as a sideman on just a few more recordings (Gerald Wilson, Chico Hamilton), before withdrawing completely from the scene.

I thought of Jimmy Woods—not to be confused with the actor James Woods, or literary critic James Wood, or bassist Jimmy Woode—after spending four days in Seattle for the EMP Pop Conference, a summit and gabfest hosted annually by the Experience Music Project. Partly this was because the conference encourages its participating critics and scholars (and intrepid audience members, attending free of charge) to reconsider people much like Woods, whom the Los Angeles-based pianist-trombonist Horace Tapscott remembered in his autobiography as “an inspiration to all the modern players around.”

Partly, too, my thought process hinged on that album title: Conflict. The theme of this year’s Pop Conference was “Shake, Rattle: Music, Conflict and Change,” and it inspired some terrific papers on subjects both predictable (protest singer Phil Ochs) and less so (retro-soul siren Amy Winehouse). For at least one good reason—1963 was a pivotal year for the civil-rights movement—Woods’ album sprang to mind as perhaps another of the myriad instances in which music engages, incites or deflects social tensions.

Jazz topics generally occupy only a narrow band of the EMP spectrum, a fact that probably has less to do with the organizers’ prejudices than with a lack of widespread involvement and effort among the jazz cognoscenti. Gary Giddins appeared on the inaugural conference in 2002, and a handful of less illustrious folk, myself included, have presented on or about jazz since. But only rarely has a knockout piece of jazz analysis or scholarship turned up there. This year I moderated a session that included three of the only jazz-focused presentations. Among them was “‘We Insist!’ Popular Music, the Civil Rights Movement, and King’s ‘Urgency of Now,’” a timely but rather rudimentary survey by Barry Long, an assistant professor of music at Mount St. Mary’s University.

There’s still ample reason to revisit the conflict-minded jazz of yore, including We Insist! Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite (Candid), the 1960 Roach and Oscar Brown opus invoked above. One reason is that much of this music still packs considerable power. (Professor Long could have bolstered his case by screening one of several awe-inspiring YouTube clips of the Max Roach Quartet with Abbey Lincoln.) Most JazzTimes readers could probably cite a litany of related works. And of course political commentary continues in our era, among artists as stylistically diverse as pianist Vijay Iyer, tenor saxophonist Andrew Rathbun and trumpeters Wynton Marsalis and Dave Douglas.

What was missing at EMP among a profusion of exegeses, many quite compelling, was any sustained investigation of these ideas, beginning with the politics of improv. (That phrase surfaced in a paper about Mingus’ collaboration with filmmaker John Cassavetes, but the takeaway there was that both men were as hardheaded as rumored.) While I sat absorbing some especially thoughtful and illuminating work on, say, turn-of-the-century vaudeville sensation Eva Tanguay, I couldn’t help but wonder where the equivalent jazz ruminations might be lurking. During my session, Jazz Journalists Association president Howard Mandel put forth the interesting idea that Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor—the troika at the heart of his recent book, Miles Ornette Cecil: Jazz Beyond Jazz (Routledge)—were all “coalition-builders.” But because that notion wasn’t framed in a structured paper, it felt more like a teaser for the book than a standalone argument.

The friction between academic and journalistic efforts in jazz—between university-rooted “jazz studies” and workaday jazz criticism—still seems to curtail much meaningful discourse across the aisle. So jazz critics don’t turn out for EMP, and jazz scholars largely disregard it. I believe this can change, in Seattle or some other forum, though few hopes can be pinned on the International Association for Jazz Education, an organization that imploded this spring under financial duress.

But then the IAJE Conference was never primarily about ideas anyway, as Giddins implied in some quote-worthy comments made shortly after his only visit to EMP; this took place on a panel organized by jazz journalist Larry Blumenfeld under the aegis of the National Arts Journalism Program. (Blumenfeld, by the way, presented another of the jazz papers at this year’s EMP, focusing on post-Katrina New Orleans funerals.) But back to those comments by Giddins, delivered during an afternoon at the Village Vanguard.

“Every time I’ve ever been to a jazz conference,” he said, “it always turns into a kind of boosterism: ‘What can we do for jazz? How can we help jazz?’” Whereas at EMP, he continued, “everybody wrote papers that had to do with ideas and theories and concepts and historicism and criticism. It was absolutely fascinating. The critics were doing serious scholarly work, and the academics were doing their scholarly work in plain English, and everybody understood everybody else.”

It sounds like the opposite of conflict, which isn’t to say absolute consensus. And if jazz is to have a summit as stimulating as the EMP Pop Conference—or even just a stronger presence there—all of us simply need to make an effort. Speaking for myself, I’d love to hear more erudite jazz talk in Seattle next April. Maybe someone might even find some context for Jimmy Woods, a figure I still don’t know nearly enough about.

Originally published in June 2008

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