Categorizing the Future of Jazz

The pungent cornetist Muggsy Spanier, who found his life's vocation by listening as a youth to Louis Armstrong, once punched critic Leonard Feather—an advocate of modern jazz—in the chops a half-century or so ago during the war between the "moldy figs" and the beboppers. Muggsy resented being consigned to a museum.

I thought of that civil war when reading an article by Brian Gilmore in the December 2002 issue of The Progressive in which he quoted Reuben Jackson, the Smithsonian Institution's Ellington archivist, declaring jazz to be "moribund." My dictionary's definition of moribund: "having little or no vital force left." Gilmore, however, believes that "free jazz" will rescue the music from its doldrums and jazz may even become political again, as it was in the '60s and '70s, when, he writes, it "thundered about injustice."

That analysis of much of the present state of the music was in my mind when I went to the Blue Note in New York on December 9, 2002, for its 21st anniversary celebration, honoring 82-year-old Clark Terry. Having spent most of my time in recent months trying to wrest the Bill of Rights back from John Ashcroft, I was beat. But once Clark—having thanked those present for their support during his "siege with cancer"—started to play, the life force of the music lifted me up, as it always has.

Clark, even more inventive than when I used to hear him with Duke Ellington and Count Basie, was jubilantly swinging, along with then 80-year-old Frank Wess, 76-year-old Jimmy Heath and alto saxophonist Dave Glasser, a mere 40 years old. On drums, sounding like the fiery incarnation of Art Blakey, Sylvia Cuenca, in her 30s, was in total, resourceful command of her instrument, trading wit-laced breaks with Clark and driving the horns and the rest of us into a joyousness beyond categories and politics—even the present Orwellian actualization of 1984 in real time under Ashcroft. Speaking of his incandescent drummer later, Clark told me, "She sat in with my band 10 years ago and I never wanted her to leave." I doubt if he asked Sylvia her politics.

A few days later, I met Jim Hall on the street where we both live. He was walking his dog, Django, and I had Lulu (named after "Lulu's Back in Town"). I asked the 72-year-old guitarist and composer whether he feels jazz is "moribund." He laughed. "Except for the museum mentality of Wynton Marsalis," Jim said, "how can it be? The spirit of this music ain't going to die unless the world blows up." Hall, who never stops growing musically, can and does play with ease and authority with musicians of all styles and ages. "I've played," he said, "what we call jazz with people all over the world with whom I couldn't have a conversation. It's humans listening to each other, across barriers. The music isn't moribund. Whoever said that should get out more."

In the January/February issue of JazzTimes, Stuart Nicholson, who has communicated a lot about the music to listeners, wrote about Matthew Shipp's Equilibrium and said it "moves beyond the so-called 'jazz tradition' to the real jazz tradition…inspired by the present and future as much (or more) than the past." As Sidney Bechet wrote in his autobiography, Treat It Gentle, you can't hold the music back, but Charlie Parker, a master of the blues, was inspired as much by the past as by what he was creating that shaped the future of the music.

I remember Bird telling me with passion of having listened again to Bartók's "Second Piano Concerto." He said, "I heard things in it I never heard before. You never know what's going to happen when you listen to music. All kinds of things can suddenly open up"—as happened to me listening to Clark Terry at the Blue Note. On the way home, I bought The Complete Beethoven String Quartets by the Alban Berg Quartet, and again there were the quickening surprises that also come whenever I hear Louis Armstrong's "West End Blues."

On a new recording by trombonist-composer David Manson, Fluid Motion (isospinlabs.com), I heard, for the first time, 20-year-old trumpeter Jonathon Powell. Powell's crackling range and the electricity of his imagination reminded me of the first time I heard Lee Morgan and Clifford Brown. I didn't think of Jonathon Powell as a category. His voice is his own, as is that of the always-contemporary 79-year-old Sam Rivers, on the same date.

Duke Ellington used to say, "I don't want people analyzing my music, putting it into categories. Just listen!" Jimmy Giuffre, speaking of John Coltrane, said, "I began to understand that his statements on his horn were as if he was standing naked on the stage—the music coming directly from the man, not the horn." This is the real tradition in all music that lasts—what David Murray calls "the signature sound." Duke Ellington once said to me: "The other night I heard a cat on the radio talking about 'modern' jazz and playing a record to illustrate his point, but it had devices I heard cats using in the 1920s. These large words like 'modern' don't mean anything. Everybody who's had anything to say in this music—all the way back—has been an individualist."

So long as there are true uncategorizable individualists, jazz can never be moribund.

Originally published in April 2003

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