In September, the jazz community was rocked by the near-simultaneous passings of pianists Harold Mabern, Larry Willis, and Richard Wyands. Each night during his week at the Village Vanguard that month, Barry Harris sang the original farewell ballad he has sung at the funerals of pianists since the death of Al Haig in 1982, this time dedicated to the late “trio.”
Jazz is full of grandeur, irony, and the unknowable: The minute you try to write down what it really is, the words look wrong on the page. But one way to frame the music of Mabern, Willis, and Wyands might be as “classical music.” John Coltrane said, “The term ‘classical music’ means the music of the composers and musicians of the country, more or less, as opposed to the music that people dance or sing along with, the popular music. …There are different types of classical music all over the world.”
Coltrane made this argument because the name “classical music” might suggest more sophistication than “jazz.” But that’s simply not true. While the music of Coltrane himself is perhaps unusually sophisticated, all consecrated jazz musicians have spectacular breadth and depth.
The three members of the late “trio” could swing and place each articulation inside the beat with casual mastery. They knew every standard. They could play the blues, bebop, and modal jazz. They were perfect accompanists for singers. They were ideal trio pianists. They could quickly learn any tune off the radio and arrange it in any style for a comparatively commercial circumstance. Furthermore, since Mabern, Willis, and Wyands were born before the civil rights era, the very fabric of their experience is uniquely American. As African-American students, they were hindered by racism, but also nurtured by a strong internal network of African-American teachers and professionals determined to help the best succeed.
In 2019, our feverish culture war includes hand-wringing about the participation of African-Americans in “classical music,” in this case referring to music that holds European-based presentation as the ideal. Around the time of the death of Mabern, Willis, and Wyands, two think pieces from eminent critics went viral. In The American Scholar, Joseph Horowitz unearthed and promoted the Negro Folk Symphony of William Levi Dawson; in The New York Times, Seth Colter Walls trumpeted eight operas by black composers, including H. Lawrence Freeman and Shirley Graham Du Bois as well as jazz avant-gardists like Anthony Davis and Anthony Braxton. (Regrettably, the names of great composers who just happen to be black while swimming comfortably in the mainstream of American concert music—George Walker, Ulysses Kay, and Alvin Singleton come to mind—seldom appear in such articles.)
The impulse to present more black composers and performers in concert halls and opera houses is commendable, but those high perches are not automatically better or longer-lasting than the humbler venues inhabited by Mabern, Willis, and Wyands. It would be helpful if American institutions, academics, and critics with a bent toward European forms kept learning about the high art found in jazz clubs and on jazz LPs. Our very best American musicians are often hidden in plain sight.
THREE PIECES FROM THREE GREATS
Richard Wyands, “Blues for Kosi” (Half and Half, Criss Cross Jazz, 1999): Wyands is an elder statesman with a legendary younger rhythm section, Peter Washington and Kenny Washington, and deals out a faultless round of urbane grit. Kenny Washington repeatedly calls Wyands “perfect” in the liner notes, and it is easy to hear why.
Harold Mabern, “The Beehive” (from Lee Morgan, Live at the Lighthouse, Blue Note, 1970): Mabern’s original modal burner brings out the best in an all-star quintet with Bennie Maupin, Jymie Merritt, and Mickey Roker. Mabern’s strength and endurance was a striking athletic achievement, but he was also an intellectual and a poet at the keyboard.
Larry Willis, “Lawns” (from Carla Bley, Sextet, Watt/ECM, 1987): Willis plays the melody and takes a florid solo that utterly reframes Bley’s simple and beautiful rock tune powered by Hiram Bullock, Steve Swallow, and Victor Lewis. The composer was so impressed that she named the piece for him: “Lawns” was a diminutive of “Lawrence,” Willis’ given name. Bley said, “That style of playing was just velvet.”
Listen to these three tracks in the Spotify playlist below:
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