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Thirty Years of Our JazzTimes: The 1980s

For JazzTimes' 30th anniversary, Bob Blumenthal looks back at the music of the magazine's second decade

What were the ’80s like? The decade seems particularly hard to grasp, since in the rapidly moving context of jazz history it inhabits a middle distance, too removed for easy recall yet close enough to ensure that any changes wrought have not necessarily been fully played out.

Quantitatively, the period threatens to overwhelm, with the music’s cumulative stylistic variations all coexisting and continuing to produce ever more massively documented trails on vinyl, video, cassette and the decade’s new format, the compact disc.

Yet I approach this summary with less fear than I might, because the music’s course in the ’80s bore out feelings I already had when the decade began. Asked to perform a similar task in 1980 on jazz’s avant-garde of the ’70s, I was struck by how all of the truly epoch-making notions—even to a great extent in the electric realm that had come to be known as fusion—had been introduced in the ’60s. I was already sensing that, while jazz might not be dead, it was no longer an engine of perpetual stylistic change. Recalling how, in the liner notes to the 1965 anthology The New Wave in Jazz, Albert Ayler had proclaimed that “it’s not about notes anymore; it’s about sounds,” I declared that the ’70s had taught us that it was not about new waves anymore, either. From this perspective the ’80s, which in part were about old waves, were just what I had expected.

But then we all view jazz’s ongoing evolution from our personal entry points, and my sense of things may be skewed by my good fortune in coming to the music when I did. I discovered jazz in 1960, and weaned myself initially on the incredible body of recorded music created over the previous five years for that relatively recent technological development, the 12-inch, long-playing record. New ideas and new styles were natural occurrences back then; Miles Davis alone had gone from bebopper to cool schooler to hard bopper to modalist in less than 15 years. Davis kept changing as I grew into the music, and so did much else in jazz as the ’60s wore on; yet the pace of change did have limits, and even the most exciting notions of the ’70s often appeared to be the working out of ideas first identified in the previous decade. By the ’80s, change was less dominant in our thinking and talking about jazz than the savoring of those “masters of the music” we already knew and had generally neglected, and the celebrating of the advent of a new generation with its own sense of history.

Testing such conclusions, and those that follow, by “looking it up” is not as easy as one might think. Economics and the music business intrude, distorting our view of what was valuable into a judgment on what was, or more likely what remains, available. Consider that for much if not all of the ’80s, many of the most valuable jazz musicians had to look to European and Japanese record companies, or to their own independent productions, for any semblance of documentation. Despite the success of Columbia with old master Dexter Gordon and young lions Wynton and Branford Marsalis, the two varieties of jazz involvement at most American labels were slim and none until the mid-decade advent of the compact disc. CD technology did not change the way jazz was created in the recording studio as clearly as the LP had, but the CD did revive the market for selling the music. This worked to the benefit of already existing catalogue to a far greater extent than it did practicing 1980s musicians, many of whose efforts from just prior to the CDeluge were the last to reappear in the new format. Verve, Blue Note and Impulse! resurfaced and began to sign artists, while also reissuing classic titles. Fantasy had already taken us back to record roots with its OJC series, and Mosaic set the standard for reissuing comprehensively with its limited-edition boxed sets. Amidst such riches, most neo versions of the same music inevitably sound second-best.

Such comparisons, always inevitable when dealing with interpretations of an established style, were underscored by a sense that the originators were slipping away from us. Everpresent mortality had been balanced in the past to a certain extent by the arrival of new voices with new ways of thinking. Now too many of the new voices thought in recognizable ways and were all too willing to credit their sources, which only made the loss of those sources more ominous. To take just the piano as an example, how does one replace Bill Evans, Thelonious Monk, Earl Hines, Count Basie and Teddy Wilson, all of whom died during the ’80s, and all of whom save Monk were still practicing their art?

Not that the surviving giants were guaranteed their due. Many found themselves in the position swing-era veterans occupied during the ’50s, part of an expanded mainstream that scuffled for a hearing in an environment with fewer clubs that booked shorter engagements and an institutionalized concert and festival scene that was relatively slow to take root in the U.S. If Tommy Flanagan and Shirley Horn, to cite two important examples, finally began to garner the respect their artistry deserved during the ’80s, this did not mean that their work in that decade was superior to their own earlier efforts, just as Joe Henderson’s rediscovery in the ’90s cannot be read as a critique of his ’80s playing. The resurgences of Benny Carter and Stan Getz were joys to behold, but again this was more a matter of the public finally paying attention than of individuals rebounding from creative slumps.

Of course, the great wide public was hardly paying attention to jazz at all, unless it was presented in the guise of sophisticated pop music by a George Benson or a Grover Washington Jr. These were the jazz musicians who sold albums in quantity, though by decade’s end they too had been eclipsed by the more attenuated jazzlike noodlings of Kenny G. Things went from pop to pap, leaving little room on the airwaves (save David Sanborn’s noble and short-lived TV show, Night Music) for anyone with a more uncompromising sense of creative expression.

In this atmosphere, a return to classic songs and classic styles may have been the only way to maintain some semblance of a jazz audience. Even celebrated explorers from previous decades became more cognizant of “the tradition.” Keith Jarrett, whose ensemble music had been almost exclusively original during the ’70s, began to emphasize his Standards trio, while McCoy Tyner also reverted to a trio format. Charlie Haden, a former associate of both Jarrett and Ornette Coleman, went noirish with his Quartet West. To the extent that anyone in America noticed Misha Mengelberg, it was as one of the people who had started to play Herbie Nichols tunes. Even Sun Ra’s Arkestra began devoting significant time to its skewed takes on Duke Ellington and Fletcher Henderson.

It was a new generation of jazz musicians in their 20s, though, that really signaled the coming reimmersion in the bop-to-modal discoveries of 1945-65. They walked the walk and wore the wardrobe, gave hope to traditionalists (who felt betrayed when Coltrane took it out and Davis switched on) and frustrated those of us who demanded the next new thing. These players were still finding their voices, and one suspects that Wynton Marsalis, Branford Marsalis, Terence Blanchard and many others would not now choose to be remembered by their ’80s output. Not that Wynton’s Black Codes (From the Underground) and Marcus Roberts’ Deep in the Shed don’t provide excellent examples of young players coming to grips with different aspects of the tradition.

In retrospect, though, the emergence of the Young Lions during the ’80s was actually the triumph of their teachers. Not just their professional bosses, particularly Art Blakey and Betty Carter, whose bands correctly came to be viewed as “schools” from which stars of the future graduated; but their actual classroom instructors and childhood mentors, who set them on the path and provided them with the fundamentals. It was Ellis Marsalis, Kidd Jordan and Alvin Batiste as much as any hometown tradition that gave us the influx of young players from New Orleans; and it was other teachers, at Berklee and Rutgers and the Manhattan School of Music and other programs here and abroad that set young musicians on their neoclassical course. For the ’80s was truly the era when jazz education came into its own, even if this meant the systematic standardization of even the most complex techniques. How else to explain teenagers who could play “Giant Steps” in every key? Pay your tuition, transcribe your solos and a hundred Michael Brecker wannabes will bloom.

What these students had that earlier students lacked was a niche in the music market, created by celebrated contemporaries like the Marsalises. After all, Tom Harrell and Joe Lovano had gone to school in the late ’60s, Thomas Chapin and Marty Ehrlich in the late ’70s, but the biz wasn’t paying attention when they graduated, and their choice of less easily categorizable courses ensured that it would take longer for the public to catch up with their work. Guitar players had it easier, because the instrument provided a natural connection to the wider non-jazz public. Pat Metheny, for one, emerged in the ’80s as the rare artistic/commercial success who could boldly rub shoulders with Ornette Coleman’s circle after providing feel-good grooves for his larger audience. Mike Stern and John Scofield became solid presences on their own by decade’s end after being featured with Miles Davis (their emergence, and that of Kenny Garrett and Marcus Miller, may be the primary achievement of the trumpeter’s final decade). Bill Frisell, like so many nonguitarists, recorded and worked primarily in Europe and tended his own iconoclastic garden.

Jazz and its offshoots continued to exist, and even thrive, in other parts of the world. We got our clearest stateside notion of this fact when Paquito D’Rivera defected from Cuba and moved to New York, and from occasional sightings of bands that spoke the language with even stranger accents, such as Willem Breuker’s Kollektief. Steve Lacy, whose band became a sextet in the ’80s and whose countless recordings celebrated both the known and the unknown, was the decade’s most visible champion of jazz without borders, but examples also could be found on home ground. Operating from the Chelsea section of Manhattan with his wonderful band Ekaya, Abdullah Ibrahim became the voice in exile of South African liberation. Across the bridge in Fort Apache, Jerry and Andy González did as much as any Cuban or Puerto Rican natives to reconfirm the kinship of jazz and Latin music.

Perhaps it is this multifaceted side of the ’80s that makes summary judgments difficult. Rather than a single defining thread, the music became a complex weave of old and new faces. Trend-spotting shortchanges the glories of individual performances, many of which were magnificent. I recall Sonny Rollins’ G-man; Ornette Coleman’s In All Languages; the eloquent last days of Zoot Sims; Al Cohn and Charlie Rouse’s swan song with Sphere; the magnificent Eddie Harris tearing through Homecoming with only Ellis Marsalis in support; and Steve Kuhn defining the contemporary pinnacle of piano-trio art on Life’s Magic.

Then there was the World Saxophone Quartet, the only representative of the ’80s in the revised Smithsonian box. The WSQ did indeed show us new ensemble possibilities, although credit on this point should be shared with the even more adventurous ROVA Saxophone Quartet. The WSQ also contained two of the decade’s most important individual voices in Julius Hemphill and David Murray. As the quartet’s primary composer, Hemphill became the music’s most distinctive and inspired writer for reed instruments, a position he confirmed when he formed his own saxophone sextet in 1990.

Murray, with energy and extended techniques to match his voluminous output, became the model for how to survive as an outcat. In addition to participating in the WSQ, he led a quartet, an octet, a big band and variations on these units when circumstances demanded or allowed. His most valuable band was and remains the octet, a group compact enough to satisfy the solo needs of its members yet offering colors to inspire substantial mini-orchestrations. In this last regard, the seven-piece band that Henry Threadgill called a Sextette and Edward Wilkinson’s Eight Bold Souls created solo-ensemble tapestries even more complex than Murray’s, with the Sextette amassing one of the decade’s most substantial bodies of music before Threadgill moved on to more eccentric and less satisfying configurations.

The ultimate indication that the ’80s may come to be remembered as the decade of the midsize band was the octet that clarinetist/composer John Carter led through five album-length suites that composed what he called “Roots and Folklore: Episodes in the Development of American Folk Music.” A history of black people from pre-slavery days in Africa to the modern American city, these suites made room for every imaginable sound and all generations, including Basie veteran Benny Powell’s trombone and the synthesizer of ex-Mother Don Preston. Carter relied on grants and a handful of public performances to see this project through and died in 1991 shortly after its completion. The appearance of the first suite on Black Saint and the rest on Gramavision did not make them the decade’s most visible new works. Yet they are among the signature statements of the ’80s and beg to be rediscovered.

Several more compact combos also helped define the decade. Bassist Dave Holland finally became a working bandleader in the ’80s, fronting a brilliant quintet with its own international, cross-generational mix of players. (One of Holland’s sidemen, Steve Coleman, forged his own complex mix of jazz and funk with a group of like-minded young musicians that included Greg Osby and Cassandra Wilson.) Paul Motian worked his way over the course of the decade from an excellent quintet to an even better trio that included Lovano and Frisell. With an ear for the best of the younger players (including at one time or another Murray, Osby and Arthur Blythe), Jack DeJohnette made a mark with both Special Edition and New Directions. The seeds of Bobby Previte’s rhythm-centered, minimalist-sounding compositions were sowed in two or three bands, and Tony Williams returned to the acoustic realm with a newfound talent for writing and a great quintet that featured Wallace Roney, Billy Pierce and Mulgrew Miller. (There’s something about those drummer-leaders, isn’t there?) And my favorite band of the ’80s, the George Adams/Don Pullen Quartet, turned every set into a religious experience.

The ’80s as I remember them were also about Muhal Richard Abrams’ great big band albums, which culminated at decade’s end with The Hearinga Suite; Ronald Shannon Jackson’s Decoding Society, which delivered a charge in the free electric realm that not even Ornette Coleman’s Prime Time could match; Anthony Davis, whose “X-cerpts,” a concert-hall reduction of his opera X, was one of the most powerful live events I witnessed in the decade; Kip Hanrahan, with his mergers of poetry and percussion and second-line and rock singers and a few other things; Butch Morris, whose conductions really have to be seen to be fully appreciated; John Zorn, especially in his studio-generated pieces Spillane and The Big Gundown; Steve Turre, Clifford Jordan, Fred Anderson, Toshiko Akiyoshi, Warne Marsh, Barry Harris, Bill and Kenny Barron, Lester Bowie, James “Blood” Ulmer, Sheila Jordan and Tim Berne, each of whom had gone previously unmentioned yet provided some of the live and recorded music that made my decade.

Have I forgotten anyone? No doubt. The in-the-moment aspect of jazz makes such omissions inevitable, even as it provides the satisfaction that gazing at the big picture often withholds. This is why it seemed fitting to save the lists for last, because it is at the level of individual players and performances, not new schools or sweeping trends, that the ’80s look best. Originally Published