JT Notes: In the Tradition

JazzTimes editor Mac Randall introduces the April 2019 issue

Miles Davis’ mid-70s band (L to R): Mtume, Al Foster, Miles, Michael Henderson, Reggie Lucas, Sonny Fortune, Pete Cosey (photo courtesy of Vince Wilburn, Jr.)

Of the many trenchant quotes in the April 2019 of JazzTimes, one in particular from bassist Jaribu Shahid sticks out for me. You can find it in Shaun Brady’s story on the Art Ensemble of Chicago, a group Shahid has been playing with since its original bass player, Malachi Favors, passed in 2004. “How long does it take to decide something is traditional?” he asks. “We’re talking about the 50th year, and jazz isn’t much more than 100 years old entirely.”

Shahid is referring to the Art Ensemble, which celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2019—or at least its 50th anniversary of being called the Art Ensemble of Chicago (that name was adopted, interestingly enough, while the band was residing in Paris, but you’ll have to read the story for more on that). And he’s got a good point. You’ll still find people out there today who don’t regard the Art Ensemble as a fully legitimate part of the jazz tradition, and that makes no sense. Not only is the band’s longevity remarkable and its impact on jazz indisputable, but its collective-improv style is and has always been rooted in the music of New Orleans and its African antecedents.

It just so happens that Shahid’s quote applies equally well to Miles Davis’ electric era, which also began 50 years ago and which is also the subject of a story in this issue, featuring recollections from musicians who played with Miles between 1969 and 1991. As the percussionist Mtume notes in that story, many listeners just didn’t get what Miles was trying to do during this period. “Traditional” jazz lovers in the 1970s found albums like On the Corner and Get Up With It as unjazzy and unpleasant in their way as, well, an Art Ensemble of Chicago record. Even worse, they saw Miles’ move away from acoustic instruments and swing rhythm as a betrayal; he was selling out, simplifying and cheapening his music in the process. But time, as it often does, has altered viewpoints. In the 21st century, listeners come to post-’69 Miles with no ideological baggage, and they appreciate the music for the totally uncompromising—and often very funky—statement that it is.

So how do we answer Jaribu Shahid’s question? How long does it take to decide something is traditional? In these particular cases, the question really has become rhetorical. The Art Ensemble and electric Miles are part of the tradition now, just as much as Congo Square and the Cotton Club and Minton’s Playhouse. Their music has been discovered and rediscovered by generations of enthusiasts, and aspects of their work can be heard in the playing and composition of countless other artists. Are there any further tests necessary to establish artistic legitimacy? No, and that’s as it should be. After all, the tradition’s big enough for everybody.

Sour Note: Our Jan./Feb. cover story on Jon Batiste implied that he and Stay Human perform five nights a week on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. This is, strictly speaking, not true; Friday shows are generally taped on Thursdays.

Mac Randall

Mac Randall

Mac Randall has been the editor of JazzTimes since May 2018. Prior to that, he wrote regularly for the magazine. He has written about numerous genres of music for a wide variety of publications over the past 30 years, including Rolling Stone, The New York Times, Vanity Fair, The New York Observer, Mojo, and Guitar Aficionado, and he has worked on the editorial staffs of Musician, LAUNCH (now Yahoo! Music), Guitar One, Teaching Music, Music Alive!, and In Tune Monthly. He is the author of two books, Exit Music: The Radiohead Story and 101 Great Playlists. He lives in New York City.