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The Gig: Watch the Tapes

Word came hard and fast: Michael Brecker was gone. And for a number of musicians and fans at the 2007 International Association for Jazz Education Conference, there was comfort in solidarity. My experience with the news was more private: I was working at the computer, and called up an online menu of Brecker performances, spanning more than a quarter century.

There was the artist as a young man, carving up “Invitation” and “Oleo.” There he was onstage with Paul Simon in Central Park. And there he was in recent years, playing with groups I had seen and heard. Somehow this accumulation of clips, more like a dream montage than a highlight reel, encouraged a sense of connection. The footage captured the figure, in a way that recordings couldn’t match. (A similar search for the reclusive Alice Coltrane, whose passing was almost concurrent, didn’t yield much at the time.)

What felt strange, in retrospect, was the nearly automatic nature of my query. Possibly for the first time, I had instinctively turned to video snippets rather than my usual repository of albums. It wasn’t an inherently meaningful gesture, but it said something about the recent ascendancy of jazz on the small screen. The trend has been developing for a while now-and jazz was a comparatively late arrival, to be frank-but 2007 was a boom year in this respect, marking what felt like an exponential leap. If you harbor any doubts, direct the nearest Internet browser to YouTube and plug in Brecker’s name today. Just don’t expect to get anything done for the next few hours.

As many a jazz fan can attest, online video sources now offer an embarrassment of riches, and it’s easy to slip into that sort of wormhole. Ever seen the Sun Ra Arkestra on NBC’s Night Music in 1990? What about Stan Getz and John Coltrane in 1960, trading quips on a Jazz at the Philharmonic show? Oh, and here’s a taste of Sonny Rollins in 1963, knocking about with trumpeter Don Cherry. Of course this is hardly the tip of the iceberg. Don’t even get me started on the second great Miles Davis Quintet.

And in addition to the online scrapheap-much of it unlicensed, in the outlaw spirit of the age-there have been concerted efforts to release and distribute jazz on DVD. If you haven’t sampled the material grouped under the Jazz Icons banner, now’s the time. Compiled by an entity called Reelin’ in the Years Productions and distributed by Naxos, the series features archival television and film footage long available in Europe but rarely seen in the States. Results range from the merely wonderful to the nearly revelatory, including long-lost footage of Coltrane with the first Davis Quintet in 1960, sans Miles. (The Getz-Coltrane exchange, incidentally, can be found on the same disc.)

There are those who would argue that a certain mystery dissolves when so much material suddenly becomes this accessible. I tend to align with the opposite perspective, delighting in discovery and feasting on new information. At this point I couldn’t tell you exactly what I learned from observing multi-reedist Eric Dolphy on two separate Jazz Icons discs (with Coltrane in 1961 and Charles Mingus in ’64). But something clicked, and in time it will translate to understanding. As someone who never witnessed Dolphy in action, this is invaluable perspective: no amount of isolation with the albums could supplant it.

One question that intrigues me about this moment, though: What will this new era of accessibility mean for jazz’s future generations? Material like this was once hard sought and closely guarded, a reward for those students curious or tenacious enough to dig it up. (I can recall scrutinizing a tape of Buddy Rich’s drum solos in high school, which probably tells you more than you need to know about my teenage years.) A skeptic could easily lump the jazz-video boom together with the jazz-instructional glut: one more information source to add to the cache, alongside Aebersold Play-A-Longs. In another of the Icons DVDs, there’s a recurring over-the-shoulder shot of guitarist Wes Montgomery that reveals both his trademark thumb technique and his fretboard voicings. Could we be making it too easy for aspiring players, who once had to puzzle over and decode these details? Are these resources responsible for the pervasive criticism that younger players are sounding more homogeneous with each passing year?

It’s possible, though I suspect that these open floodgates will do more good than harm. The online realm and the DVD market propose an open landscape, not a fixed course. And if the archives represent a wellspring, there’s also the steady stream of new content, which appears to be growing stronger all the time. In 2005 the Delmark label began supplementing its CD releases with companion DVDs: Black Unstoppable, which chronicles a Velvet Lounge performance by flutist Nicole Mitchell and her Black Earth Ensemble, is a low-fi but estimable counterpart to the studio album of the same name. Other labels and artists are following suit, and not just via MySpace updates and YouTube clips, though that’s not a terrible place to start.

At the memorial tribute to Michael Brecker held at Town Hall last February, and at a subsequent tribute to Alice Coltrane at the Church of St. John the Divine, there were as many heartfelt testimonials and hair-raising performances as anyone could desire. Each gathering, though, peaked with a thoughtfully edited projection on a video screen.

Originally Published
Nate Chinen

Nate Chinen

Nate Chinen is the director of editorial content for WBGO 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).