Nate Chinen: The Smithsonian Box, Continued

In the most recent edition of my column, I weigh in on Jazz: The Smithsonian Anthology, a six-CD set released in March. The main thrust of my argument has to do with the ultimate significance of the thing, at this heavily canonized juncture in jazz’s history. What does it actually matter, a full decade into this inter-webbed century, when some committee drops this summarizing document like a phone book on the doorstep? Given the availability of so much information—including the various judgments of previous canonologists—what was the possible relevance here?


JAZZ: The Smithsonian Anthology

I posed that question to the anthology’s producer, Richard James Burgess, who stammered a moment but then formulated this well-reasoned reply:

“I love the fact that music is available anywhere today, and you can get it almost any way you want. The upside is we’ve lost a lot of the gatekeepers; the downside is that we lost the filters. Obviously jazz radio is almost nonexistent at this point. I think record stores don’t exist as we knew them. The opportunities for people to find things are very random. While it’s exciting to find anything you want, trying to get an understanding of how music works is pretty much impossible if you’re 17 or 18. Maybe that’s a good thing. I’ll speak more for myself. I think there is a very difficult-to-define quality in the music that we call jazz. That very difficult-to-define quality is worth perpetuating. If we can put this collection together in a way that sketches out some rough, amorphous boundaries—everything that lives inside here is what we call ‘jazz’—by doing that, we might possibly be able to serve the music.”

Burgess and others involved with the Smithsonian project have said more than once that their target consumer was a student coming to jazz for the first time. Which is a good and noble thing. But as Ben Ratliff has pointed out, that ends up yielding a history rather than a canon. In his critique for the New York Times ("Ultimate Box of Jazz? Not Exactly," March 17, 2011), he pegged it as “a House of Representatives.” I’m inclined to agree.

And so, as threatened and/or promised, I’ll lob a few nitpicky comments about the Smithsonian set, interwoven with some genuine praise. Some of these are points made in comparison to its predecessor, The Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz, compiled by critic Martin Williams in the early 1970s. (My column examines that collection in passing; I highly recommend spending some quality time with it, if you haven’t yet.)

- There’s less illumination of the music’s roots than on some other prominent sets: the Williams collection, certainly, but also the five-CD box set released in conjunction with Ken Burns’ Jazz. (You won’t find Mississippi Fred McDowell or Jim Europe’s band here.) Given the stated focus on teachable moments, this is an opportunity missed.

- The urge toward comprehensiveness has more than leveled the playing field; in fact, it practically paved over that field. It’s impossible to gauge jazz-world importance simply by the track listing, which strongly resembles a checklist. As a critic, Williams went in deep on a handful of figures he deemed crucial. The Smithsonian has the right to take a different tack, but in some cases (Thelonious Monk springs to mind), the cost is depth.

- While we’re on this grievance: You will search in vain for Wayne Shorter’s name on the track listing. He doesn’t appear as a solo artist. I’m sure the reasoning was that the Miles Davis Quintet playing “E.S.P.,” and, later, Weather Report playing “Birdland,” adds up to essentially the same thing. Eh, not really.

- The avant-garde feels hurriedly dispatched. We get one track by Ornette Coleman, “Ramblin’.” We get a brief spasm of Cecil Taylor. The AACM receives tokenistic acknowledgment in the form of a “Maple Leaf Rag” recorded by Anthony Braxton and Muhal Richard Abrams—nobody’s idea of these artists at their truest—and “Bush Magic” by the Art Ensemble of Chicago. The same applies to Steve Coleman and John Zorn.

- Some effort has been made to feature women, especially in an instrumental role. And I won’t be the one to argue against Toshiko Akiyoshi, whose big band merited a track. But even with a recent cutoff in the timeline, it seems irresponsible to shut out the Maria Schneider Orchestra. Evanescence, an influential album, was released back in 1994.

- The final disc is just a mess. Whereas some earlier discs in the set have a surprisingly easy coherence—I’m thinking of Disc 3, which breezes us through the early-to-mid-’50s—Disc 5 has less flow than most iTunes shuffle playlists I’ve encountered. The standard excuse is that we can’t make sense of our own time. I think that’s a copout. Sure we can. And this disc represents it with a tin ear.

- I also think, since we’re on the subject, that a strong case could be made for inclusion of the following artists, each of whom made a significant impact during the years covered by this set, influencing the language of those to come: pianists Brad Mehldau and Jason Moran; saxophonists Mark Turner and Chris Potter; guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel; vocalists Cassandra Wilson and Kurt Elling; etc., etc. I’m sure you have your own names to add to the roster, which is the response that canons should provoke, even when they’re feeble. (Maybe especially then.) Have at it in the comments below.


  • May 03, 2011 at 10:31AM Joseph Vella

    These collections are silly. I would go as far as to say that disc 5 and 6 are both a mess (& lacking). And who ever sequenced (& approved) "The Girl From Ipanema" into "A Love Supreme" ? Ouch! And they think this is going to get the kids wild about jazz? Think again scholars... All in all, this is WAY too narrow musically.

  • May 04, 2011 at 04:08AM joesh

    Interesting take. I unfortunately haven't had the chance (no the budget) to hear this box set, and probably won't either. I must say I find compilations most frustrating and their main use is best as library reference material.

    What's actually more interesting (for me) is the totally American take on jazz that we are constantly bombarded with. Of course these are recordings that the Smithsonian has access to, but it's not the whole picture. There are other people playing jazz outside of the USA, and although it's true to say that jazz and it's roots are American, once you hit the 60s jazz from Europe starts creeping into the picture. By the 70s - at least for us Europeans - it has equal 'listening' status, and also has a strong impact on other music from Europe ex : King Crimson, Soft Machine, Magma, Nick Drake etc. Of course American jazz and blues also has it's influence ex : Rolling Stones, John Mayall, Led Zeppelin, etc.

    One could write a couple of pages talking about the how the USA kind of 'kidnapped' jazz as their art form, which in a way it is. Maybe the Smithsonian could have named their box set 'American Jazz' which would at least make people aware that there are/is other types and styles out there that have shaped the direction of jazz.

  • May 05, 2011 at 02:04PM Nate Chinen

    Good point, joesh -- is it Joe? The Smithsonian box actually appears to make a concerted effort to acknowledge European contributions to jazz. Certainly it seems to offer a rejoinder to the Ken Burns thesis, which emphasizes jazz-as-American-byproduct to the point of cultural distortion.

    So in the Smithsonian set, we get Django, of course. We get a well-known track from Keith Jarrett's "European Quartet" (rather than the one with Dewey Redman, Charlie Haden and Paul Motian).

    And as things are winding down, late in Disc 5, we get tracks by Nguyen Le, Martial Solal and Tomasz Stanko. Whom I all like, let's be clear. But the selections feel arbitrary, and the gesture ends up backfiring: instead of thinking, "Hey, really important things are happening outside the States," you're left with a sense of limp compensation. ("Oh, they play jazz too.") It's all too little, too late.

  • May 07, 2011 at 06:16AM joesh

    Hi Nate

    I'm glad to see that there's a little nod towards Europe, unfortunately I haven't looked at the box set - ... I should at least check the track listing before making sweeping statements ;-). I get your point and had to laugh at you fun remark "Oh, they play jazz too".

    Leaving the box set behind a little I should just re-state that I'm kind of waiting for a book to be written (maybe it's my job) about European influence on the improvised music world. Like Randy Sandke's book that recently caused such a stir it seems that the same could be said for the subject of jazz outside of the states.

    An example of Europeanism (as it could be known) is a certain podcast which on the whole is excellent 'BUT' obviously pretends that Europe does not exist, there are never any groups from outside of the states. From here in Europe we see things differently, and although Americans and American jazz (in my opinion - unfairly) dominates the jazz calendar, people do actually buy local artists - EST, Garbarek, Sclavis, Tommy Smith, any many many more smaller names.

    Anyhow, I should try sending you an email to carry on the conversation off screen as I'm sure your readers are not here (this post) to read about States/Europe, but more to discover what's on the Smithsonian Box Set.

    Thanks for your kind reply.
    - Joe (indeed it is).

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