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Nate Chinen: The Smithsonian Box, Continued

More commentary on Jazz: The Smithsonian Anthology

JAZZ: The Smithsonian Anthology

In the most recent edition of my column, I weigh in on Jazz: The Smithsonian Anthology, a six-CD set released in March. The main thrust of my argument has to do with the ultimate significance of the thing, at this heavily canonized juncture in jazz’s history. What does it actually matter, a full decade into this inter-webbed century, when some committee drops this summarizing document like a phone book on the doorstep? Given the availability of so much information—including the various judgments of previous canonologists—what was the possible relevance here?

I posed that question to the anthology’s producer, Richard James Burgess, who stammered a moment but then formulated this well-reasoned reply:

“I love the fact that music is available anywhere today, and you can get it almost any way you want. The upside is we’ve lost a lot of the gatekeepers; the downside is that we lost the filters. Obviously jazz radio is almost nonexistent at this point. I think record stores don’t exist as we knew them. The opportunities for people to find things are very random. While it’s exciting to find anything you want, trying to get an understanding of how music works is pretty much impossible if you’re 17 or 18. Maybe that’s a good thing. I’ll speak more for myself. I think there is a very difficult-to-define quality in the music that we call jazz. That very difficult-to-define quality is worth perpetuating. If we can put this collection together in a way that sketches out some rough, amorphous boundaries—everything that lives inside here is what we call ‘jazz’—by doing that, we might possibly be able to serve the music.”

Burgess and others involved with the Smithsonian project have said more than once that their target consumer was a student coming to jazz for the first time. Which is a good and noble thing. But as Ben Ratliff has pointed out, that ends up yielding a history rather than a canon. In his critique for the New York Times (“Ultimate Box of Jazz? Not Exactly,” March 17, 2011), he pegged it as “a House of Representatives.” I’m inclined to agree.


And so, as threatened and/or promised, I’ll lob a few nitpicky comments about the Smithsonian set, interwoven with some genuine praise. Some of these are points made in comparison to its predecessor, The Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz, compiled by critic Martin Williams in the early 1970s. (My column examines that collection in passing; I highly recommend spending some quality time with it, if you haven’t yet.)

– There’s less illumination of the music’s roots than on some other prominent sets: the Williams collection, certainly, but also the five-CD box set released in conjunction with Ken Burns’ Jazz. (You won’t find Mississippi Fred McDowell or Jim Europe’s band here.) Given the stated focus on teachable moments, this is an opportunity missed.

– The urge toward comprehensiveness has more than leveled the playing field; in fact, it practically paved over that field. It’s impossible to gauge jazz-world importance simply by the track listing, which strongly resembles a checklist. As a critic, Williams went in deep on a handful of figures he deemed crucial. The Smithsonian has the right to take a different tack, but in some cases (Thelonious Monk springs to mind), the cost is depth.


– While we’re on this grievance: You will search in vain for Wayne Shorter’s name on the track listing. He doesn’t appear as a solo artist. I’m sure the reasoning was that the Miles Davis Quintet playing “E.S.P.,” and, later, Weather Report playing “Birdland,” adds up to essentially the same thing. Eh, not really.

– The avant-garde feels hurriedly dispatched. We get one track by Ornette Coleman, “Ramblin’.” We get a brief spasm of Cecil Taylor. The AACM receives tokenistic acknowledgment in the form of a “Maple Leaf Rag” recorded by Anthony Braxton and Muhal Richard Abrams—nobody’s idea of these artists at their truest—and “Bush Magic” by the Art Ensemble of Chicago. The same applies to Steve Coleman and John Zorn.

– Some effort has been made to feature women, especially in an instrumental role. And I won’t be the one to argue against Toshiko Akiyoshi, whose big band merited a track. But even with a recent cutoff in the timeline, it seems irresponsible to shut out the Maria Schneider Orchestra. Evanescence, an influential album, was released back in 1994.


– The final disc is just a mess. Whereas some earlier discs in the set have a surprisingly easy coherence—I’m thinking of Disc 3, which breezes us through the early-to-mid-’50s—Disc 5 has less flow than most iTunes shuffle playlists I’ve encountered. The standard excuse is that we can’t make sense of our own time. I think that’s a copout. Sure we can. And this disc represents it with a tin ear.

– I also think, since we’re on the subject, that a strong case could be made for inclusion of the following artists, each of whom made a significant impact during the years covered by this set, influencing the language of those to come: pianists Brad Mehldau and Jason Moran; saxophonists Mark Turner and Chris Potter; guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel; vocalists Cassandra Wilson and Kurt Elling; etc., etc. I’m sure you have your own names to add to the roster, which is the response that canons should provoke, even when they’re feeble. (Maybe especially then.)

Originally Published
Nate Chinen

Nate Chinen

Nate Chinen is the director of editorial content for WRTI and a longtime contributor to JazzTimes, which published 125 installments of his column “The Gig” between 2004 and 2017. For 12 years, he was a critic for The New York Times; prior to that, he wrote about jazz for the Village Voice, the Philadelphia City Paper, and several other publications. He is the author of Playing Changes: Jazz for the New Century (2018) and the co-author of George Wein’s autobiography Myself Among Others: A Life in Music (2003).