The highest form of flattery any book about music can receive is for its reader to become immersed in the recordings it covers. That certainly happened to me this past month, while making my way through Krin Gabbard’s excellent, unconventional new Mingus bio, Better Git It in Your Soul. I was busy choosing one worthwhile chunk to excerpt among so many, finally settling on an expertly researched account of how Mingus’ autobiography came to be. My soundtrack was Mingus, naturally-in particular 1960’s Blues & Roots, an LP I can’t possibly hear enough. Like his hero Ellington, Mingus sounds best to me at his most harmonically modest. I came to the music through blues, a term I use not in the jazz sense, where it implies a form, an aesthetic or even a set of politics, but to denote a genre. You know,the blues: a guy from Orange County dressed for a Stevie Ray Vaughan biopic, overplaying to drunk bikers and weekenders in Tommy Bahama shirts (also drunk). Many straw cowboy hats are involved. I’m being a bit facetious-I can appreciate blues-rock without irony-but it isn’t difficult to see how the jazz and blues scenes have drifted apart over the past half-century: one toward overintellectualism, the other into party-hearty purgatory.
Through the ’50s, ’60s and even ’70s, American roots music and modern jazz were more often dual interests of the same culturally engaged citizen, who could sate his or her curiosities via the same labels, clubs and festival lineups. (How the music itself factored into the eventual divide is a book to write another day, and a chicken/egg scenario: Which changed first, the players or the listeners?) There are many exceptions. Jazz at Lincoln Center, not surprisingly, has given up its Appel Room to fine contemporary bluesmen including Corey Harris and Alvin Youngblood Hart, and John Scofield enjoys a strikingly good kinship with New Orleans-based pianist Jon Cleary. But New Orleans is the rarest safe haven for crosspollination, and Scofield is now in his 60s, which means his tastes were solidified in the ’60s. How many sharp young New York postboppers are currently paying attention to the likes of Jerron “Blind Boy” Paxton and the Carolina Chocolate Drops’ Dom Flemons? In February at Carnegie Hall, I heard both turn Lead Belly Fest into a séance with John Hammond’s famous concerts in that sacred space. There was something there for musicians of any age or allegiance-lessons about entertainment; about the importance of narrative song; about how there is such a thing as timelessness in music, meaning that great music will always be great if it’s performed well.