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Fragmentation Without Representation: The Triumvirate…And Then Some, Part 2

Sean Gough on Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman

If one were to pinpoint the most enduring contribution of each individual of this “Triumvirate”—Miles, ‘Trane, and Ornette—what would that legacy be? With Miles, it is his conception of a band, whether that refers to the makeup of its members, the combination of instruments, the quality of the interaction, or his role as bandleader. Miles’s music often gives the listener the impression that he loves bass and percussion instruments more than his own. As a result, he found music in places most people overlook. With ‘Trane (though it could be said of Miles too), the essence is a voracious intellect, perfectly married to extreme emotional intensity. Many listeners sense the mysticism, the spiritual force, the feeling deeper than the exoticism of the sounds emanating from his horn. That depth lies in the restlessness required to find those sounds, and the fact that he found many of them in sources hitherto untapped by jazz musicians. With the wideness of his vision, ‘Trane transcended jazz at the same time he embodies it like Miles, and like Ornette, the only surviving member of the “Trinity.” And Ornette most markedly demonstrates another quality common to all three musicians: namely, a profound philosophical and social awareness that transcends MUSIC itself, yet finds its most profound expression in music. In a 1960 radio interview with Gunther Schuller, Ornette speaks of trying to play according to the properties of sound and melody as they were understood before being codified into “proper” music theory. There certainly is great appeal in Ornette’s intuitive melodicism, but also in the dynamism of each performance, borne of great care to the next, as of yet unknown note. Ornette, ‘Trane, and Miles, all demonstrate an extraordinary commitment to improvisation.

If shared by today’s jazz musicians, this commitment is often not demonstrated in performances where composition (written or rote) holds greater or equal weight to improvisation. This is a crucial change. Granted, there remains a vibrant if small avant-garde scene, not to mention any number of other scenes in metropolises across continents, and in many quieter glens and hamlets. The world is flat. The Internet makes known to nearly all the world an unimaginable quantity of music, media, and intellectual property. In every domain of life, this spread of information has destabilized hierarchy as much as it has unified in dialogue people across cultures. But for jazz, which throughout its history has been given to disagreements over definitions and boundaries, the full impact of a weakening center of gravity has yet to be seen. At any rate, as of 2010, New York still sets the tone. Whether the subject of the moment is “modern mainstream,” “Nu jazz,” or the latest record that mysteriously catches hold of the small global jazz community, we continue to look to New York for our standard bearers. The difference in 2010 from the early 1960s, though, is that the Internet facilitates more coverage of less stuff (e.g., websites featuring very accomplished players in Macedonia) at the same time it permits less coverage of more stuff (too few critics to write about too many musicians with a web presence). Moreover, where jazz in the fusion era still had some relevance to American (worldwide) popular culture, the decline by 1980 in inspiring popular material available to jazz musicians, and the rise of the Young Lions (a history yet to be told by an objective outsider) has in fact paralleled widespread unawareness of jazz outside high art circles. The NEA first awarded their “Jazz Master” award in 1982. Coincidence?

The role of jazz schooling in all the above trends may seem exaggerated. It is not. First, schools contribute significantly to the excess of musicians seeking a shortage of media outlets and job opportunities. Second, schools have instilled in musicians the compositional focus that has found its way to the clubs (playing a solo is a far less gradable domain of personal freedom than writing a piece). Third, institutionalized jazz education has helped to mass-produce knowledge that was previously the responsibility of the musician to seek him/herself (whether it is tunes, chord changes, scales, modes, or important aesthetic concepts). In a related trend, many kids learn to play jazz in grade school or high school, not by joining the band of a respected older musician, but by playing with like minded kids, in competitions, thus leading them to identify with jazz at a tender age in the same way a debate champion prizes a winning performance, or a basketball player treasures a conference tournament trophy. When combined with the distillation of the recognizable, (tough-) loving adult jazz community Perla describes, maybe no single factor young jazz fanatics traveling safe, predetermined pathways to “success” guards more strongly against the presence of figures comparable to Miles, ‘Trane, and Ornette. Combine this with the dubious level of attention demanded by the young artist’s website, in addition to a wider cultural unawareness symptomatic of white elites who have no contact with the world Miles offers a glimpse of in his autobiography…..and Keith Jarrett begins to sound about right:

“It is totally unrealistic to think … you’re going to be a great player just because you know how to play fast or you know how to play 5,000 styles … I read reviews of young players who can sit in with anybody or play with five different types of bands in five nights and everybody talks about this like it’s a positive thing. If you … have a name before you have anything to say, it actually wipes out the possibility of saying something later.” (from the New York Times, 2/9/97).

Originally Published