Reflections on the Stanley Crouch, Mtume Debate on Modern Jazz

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Eric Wattree

Beneath the Spin * Eric L. Wattree

I recently watched the debate between columnist Stanley Crouch and percussionist James Mtume on the evolution of modern jazz with great interest. Crouch, the steadfast jazz purist, essentially took the position that much of what’s passing for jazz today is actually a corruption of the art form, while Mtume took the position that Crouch was simply out of touch with the new face of jazz.
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In my opinion, Stanley Crouch was right, and James Mtume was simply remaining consistent with what his musical philosophy seems to advocate - playing to the audience and giving applause priority over substance. But Crouch made the mistake of not framing the issue in a way that would allow him to sieze the bottom line. It’s not about the new versus the old; what the discussion is actually about is quality versus lesser quality, and that can be measured.
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First, just because something is new doesn’t mean that it’s better. The problem with a lot of electronic music is electronics is being used to camouflage a lack of technical competence. There’s so much noise and electronic distortion going on that it gives the musicians the "freedom" to play bad notes, be less than melodic, and play musical nonsense. Where, on the other hand, acoustic music is intimate. It’s purely about the musician and his technical ability. Period. If Bud Powell played a bad note, or played the wrong chord progression, it would stick out like a soar thumb. But if he was playing electronic music there’s so much chaos and distortion going on that nobody would notice.
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Mtume was also talking about "technical exhaustion." He said that after a given time, in a given context, everything has been played that can be played in a given form of music. That’s also nonsense - in fact, the ability to do something new with the rhythm and chord progressions of "Stella by Starlight" is exactly what we mean by art.
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There are only ten basic numbers known to mankind - 0 to 9. Yet we can take those ten numbers and combine them in an inexhaustible number of ways. On the other hand, there are TWELVE notes in music, and just like with numbers, you can build an infinite number of scales, chords, and rhythmic constructions with those twelve notes. So Mtume’s claim that you can "exhaust" the possibilities of what can be played on a saxophone is total and demonstrable nonsense.
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The fact is, Miles started having problems with his chops so he went into retirement. But he loved music so much that he wanted to get back into the game, so being the genius that he was, he simply INVENTED a form of music that he could play. Then we had a generation of musicians who came along behind him, who didn’t have a vision of their own, that built an entire musical movement based on what Miles created to accommodate his old age and disability.
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And finally, Mtume justified this "new music" by saying that it inspired young people who weren’t previously into jazz. But the fact is, art is NEVER suppose to lower itself to accommodate the tastes of the lowest common denominator of the people. Art is suppose to raise the consciousness of the people up to it. That’s why it’s called art.
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There’s a very simple way of resolving this debate over the relative merit of this so-called "new thing" over traditional jazz. Just like with good parenting, you can measure quality by what quality produces. So we can easily measure the relative quality of the two eras by measuring the quality of what the two respective eras have produced. Where is today’s equivalent of Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, Miles Davis, Dexter Gordon, or Jackie McLean? And where are today’s jazz standards, like 'So What,' 'Round Midnite,' 'Moody’s Mood for love,' 'Impressions' or 'A Night in Tunisia?' I’ll tell you where - they don't exist.
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The great jazz standards of the past are no longer being produced, because the towering jazz giants who produced them have become all but a thing of the past. I can’t think of one person of the stature of Dexter Gordon, John Coltrane, or Jackie McLean that’s been produced in over thirty years, and there’s a good reason for that - the quality of the music that’s been produced over the past thirty years is not conducive to producing people of that stature and creative ability. That in itself should close the case on this debate.
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But now let’s look at how young some of the old-school giants of jazz were when they reached their musical maturity. Charlie Christian, the father of the modern jazz guitar - died at 25. Charlie parker - died at 34. Clifford Brown - died at 25. Booker Littler - died at 23. Paul Chambers - died at 33. Fat Navarro - died at 26. So John Coltrane and Eric Dolphy were relatively old men when they died - John Coltrane died at 41, and Eric Dolphy at 36. So many of the giants of the past made their mark on the world and moved on long before many of today’s musicians have even gotten all of their scales together. And there’s a reason for that - because in the past young musicians were held to a much higher standard, and exposed to a far superior quality of music, and musicianship.
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The musicians of the Bebop and Hard Bop eras understood from the outset that they weren’t going to get rich playing the music that they loved, so they sought to validate themselves through excellence, while many of today’s musicians are in a hurry to learn their chromatic scale so they can run out and achieve wealth and fame - they figure they can learn to play in Gb Maj while they're on the road. Then they get out and play distorted chord progressions, add a thunderous beat and loud electronic distortion to camouflage their limitations, and label it as "The New Thang." Thereafter, they slap one another on the back as brilliant, and dismiss those of us who recognize it as noise as being "out of touch."
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So the bottom line is, many of the so-called musical "revolutionaries" never took the time to learn what jazz is really about. Jazz is more than just another form of music, and it's not just fun-n-games. Jazz is also a way of life. There’s a political component to it - a way of thinking that reflects a unique way of viewing reality. So jazz purists are not simply upset over a modified beat and the introduction of electronics, they're also upset over the caving in to mediocrity and the abandonment of the political principles and qualities that jazz represents.
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After all, one of the greatest contributions that jazz has made to the black community is informing the world that we're not the frivolous and thoughtless people in which we'd previously been portrayed. The harmonic complexity of bebop served to bring the dazzling intellectual capacity of black people to the world stage. So naturally, jazz purist are both reluctant and hostile to going back to the people-pleasin' days of what is essentially a musical form of Steppin'-Fetchism.
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Jazz has traditionally been the cultural anthem of social revolutionaries - both black and white - who are willing to fight the good fight. Thus, jazz purists resent the mongrelization and surrender of those principles in lieu of "Can we all just get along?" To them, that represents the selling of our principles. That's why the word "commercialism" is looked upon with such disdain.
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So you can’t just put a funky beat behind noise and call it jazz, because once you go frivolous, the spirit of jazz has been abandoned. While jazz does kick up it's heels on occasion, it's a very serious form of music that’s designed to appeal to the mind, not just the ass. For that reason, a logical and organized structure is essential to its character. Without that, and it’s arrogantly distinctive swagger, it's not jazz - Period.
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MILES
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We knew him as Miles, the Black Prince of style,
his nature fit jazz to a tee. Laid back and cool,
a low threshold for fools, he set the tone
of what a jazzman should be.
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Short on words, and unperturbed, about
what the people thought;
frozen in time, drenched in the sublime,
of the passion his sweet horn had wrought.
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Solemn to the bone, distant and torn,
even Trane could scarcely get in;
I can still hear the tone of that genius who mourned,
that precious note that he couldn't
quite bend.
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Eric L. Wattree
Http://wattree.blogspot.com
Ewattree@Gmail.com
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Religious bigotry: It's not that I hate everyone who doesn't look, think, and act like me - it's just that God does.

1 Comment

  • Aug 10, 2012 at 07:46AM floyd james

    The art passed down from Buddy Bolden to King Oliver to Louis Armstrong to Duke Ellington to Billie Holliday is not what we're hearing today due to a lack of discipline. The discipline that those "uneducated " folks displayed with the playing of their music came from the perfection of their crafts.
    It is an insult to use the word jazz with what's played today, henceforth there is no jazz today.
    As the boxing world is in desperate need of a new Sugar Ray Robinson, so is the music world in need of another Louis Armstrong.

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