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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?

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