Honor Society: The Importance of Tributes in Jazz

Ben Ratliff on the jazz tradition’s expanding need for creative and inspired tributes


Pianist Jason Moran brought his Fats Waller Dance Party to the Newport Jazz Festival main stage on Sunday, August 6, 2017.

The future of the jazz tradition is a future of techniques, influences, instruments, cultural exchanges, audiences, clubs, festivals, distribution, copyright, broadcasting and education. All that. But I think it is also probably a future of creative honoring.

By honoring greatness, of the elders and the departed, I’m not talking so much about official or institutional recognition, about erecting monuments or naming streets or bestowing awards. That’s fine as far as it goes, but I mean figuring out new ways to render artists as social beings in their time, and as presiding consciences in ours. The jazz tradition is a philosophy of living; the lessons of its guiding spirits go beyond music. And every year there are more and more of them, staying right in the music’s common language and modes of thought, absolutely not going away.

I thought about this when I spent a day last October at [email protected], the festival in Durham, N.C., put on by Duke Performances in honor of Thelonious Monk’s centennial year. There, I was compensated to moderate a discussion with three pianists—Kris Davis, Ethan Iverson and Jason Moran. The idea, originally, was to talk about Monk. But when Geri Allen, who was scheduled to play at the festival, died last June, we agreed that we would make the discussion about her instead. The musicians talked about specifics of her precise, exacting musical style, and about the ways that style connected to a huge amount of jazz history, very much including Monk. But they also talked about her as a black woman and a colleague and a mother and a hero. For anyone who will be honoring her creatively in the future—it could be a continuous process—Allen’s life and work will suggest many ways to do it, partly because her work was itself such a creative acknowledgment of those guiding spirits. And for anyone who will be honoring Monk creatively in the future, honoring Geri Allen is one way to do that. (Later that night I saw Moran and Tyshawn Sorey, on piano and drums, doing another kind of creative honoring, sifting among an unbroken array of Monk themes: interacting with them, taking them apart, transforming them.)

I also thought about it in the following month, after the death of George Avakian, who was responsible for some of the earliest jazz-record reissues: a pioneer in a particular mode of honoring. Really, I think about it every time a great figure from within this tradition slips away. How can we best honor them? The act should have something to do with who they were and how they lived, shouldn’t it? An act of honoring, like an act of gift-giving, is best when individualized, or when it shows that someone has listened closely to the honoree.

Of course, lots of honoring is being done already. It often takes familiar forms: album reissues and biographies and music festivals, special issues of magazines like this one, and various aspects of what is generally called curation. But I sense that as the jazz tradition’s network of connections to the past grows exponentially, the honoring is going to become suitably more important. And it’s going to need to be done with increasing originality and sympathy.

Some years ago, I might have said “increasing care”—meaning accuracy, or correctly rendering the facts about someone’s work—and stopped there. But I have a feeling that in the future the old methods might no longer be enough. The new forms of honoring are going to look different: perhaps spiritual, or postmodern, or techno-magical, or purposefully indirect, so as to creatively reframe the subject. (Holograms are probably not the answer.) And perhaps the act of honoring will look more like daily practice, rather than like something that happens upon learning the news of someone’s death or takes place a century after they were born.

I’m also thinking about ways outside of jazz in which lives are rendered—for one, the rise in popularity, in journalism, of a kind of parajournalistic narrative, or “the story behind the story.” I’m thinking about new-style biographies, like Sam Stephenson’s Gene Smith’s Sink and Chris Kraus’ After Kathy Acker, which walk in those artists’ footsteps a bit, going down strange alleyways or focusing on particular details as part of a kind of conversation between author and subject. I’m also thinking about the way that Moran has staged his performances of Fats Waller’s music as dance parties, and woven recordings of Monk walking and talking and rehearsing into his concert presentations.

Centennials may seem a bit artificial—Monk’s music was just as important last year and may be even more so next year—but they are still powerfully symbolic time-junctures; they’re still convincing pretexts to make a recording or stage a festival as well. But my hope is that they’ll also catalyze new ways of honoring instead of freezing the old ones in place. Billie Holiday had her centennial in 2015. I wonder if the new ways musicians will honor her might require music yet not be restricted to it. They might also be concerned with what it was like to be in Billie Holiday’s presence, not only onstage but also backstage, and with how she saw the world. They might be about her relationships, her family, her attitudes, her living places, her scene. They might easily involve fashion, poetry, architecture, athletics—who knows? Perhaps the act of keeping Billie Holiday’s spirit in the air involves not only singing “Your Mother’s Son-in-Law,” but also learning something about how she navigated her environment.