Wynton and Branford Marsalis play the World’s Fair in New Orleans (1984). Photo by Syndey Byrd. Courtesy of the Louisiana State Museum
Way Down Yonder in New Orleans
By Stanley Crouch
All aesthetics arises from life and ends up going home to the world of art, no matter how or where it started, in the church or the counterfeit palace of pleasure known as the cathouse. What was understood by jazzmen like Jelly Roll Morton, King Oliver, Sidney Bechet, and Louis Armstrong was of such profound importance to jazz performance that it has continued to influence every solid approach to the music, regardless of style.
In the playing and thinking of Lester Young, Count Basie, Walter Page, and Jo Jones we hear a sense of group playing, a balancing of the band’s sound, that leads right back to what the supreme New Orleans jazzmen discovered. In the music of Duke Ellington, we can hear the indelible influence of New Orleans on his conception of counterpoint, brass timbre, and the overriding importance of the blues. In the best or most representative work of players and leaders like Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, The Modern Jazz Quartet, Charles Mingus, George Russell, and Ornette Coleman we hear the basic conceptions of New Orleans reinterpreted for very different styles, or multiple styles. Aesthetic motion through time is a long and intricate story that refutes adolescent visions of rebellion that have nothing to do with art, which is always about ordering the material used in specific ways that we usually call styles. However many styles come about, they are united by conceptions that are so fundamental, so basic that they somehow transcend the schools, as they always have, while making their joyful or sorrowful or bittersweet noises in the world.
It is always good to realize that any linear interpretation of the art of jazz is completely wrong. Aesthetic reality is always omni-directional, making nothing old and nothing new. This is often misunderstood in jazz writing because its practitioners are overly impressed by the intellectual powers that have underlaid so much European music since Debussy. But some of the finest thinking about jazz and its aesthetic elements comes from people who have thought about art enough to see clearly what makes jazz unique and valuable in itself, not as an imitation of anything else. Superior aesthetic thinking has been done by writers such as Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray, as well as musicians like Jelly Roll Morton and Wynton Marsalis—who, by the way, is unlike anyone else. Marsalis is the least impressed by European manners of making order—perhaps because, by his middle twenties, unlike any jazz musician that preceded him, he was already one of our finest concert trumpet players. Knowing concert music at the highest level, Marsalis came to understand its grandeur, which underlined the contrasting aesthetic facts of jazz.
Aesthetic facts, in jazz as in all the arts, are proof of an old saying from the 1960s: “Feelings are facts.” This is quite true of the meaning of New Orleans music. That factual feeling arrives in notes as invisible as the notes of any music; all music being an art of the invisible, equal to forces as deeply palpable as thought and emotion, the elements of existence we attempt to recognize from symbolic references we know as styles. The feeling of jazz is often about what is brought to the music by giving emotional shapes to the invisible. Those shapes arrived not out of nowhere but were a response to the world of music by writers and players who brought a new logic, a collective sense of interpretation that has individuated itself.
Some are so misled today, impressed by European avant-garde rebellion, that they think jazz is simply improvisation—absolutely free of any limitations and existing only with reference to itself, or to everything else. At its worst and most pretentious, this turns into an instantly hollow “openness” to the music of the planet at large called “world music.” That might sound good to academics who seek to make names for themselves, or pseudo-academics who have poorly read a few books, or people filled with tawdry ideas and rhetoric about oppressed minorities or colonized cultures, who find their voices in modern cliches justifying an avant-garde as a revolt against the powerful. Those cliches might defend certain schools that claim to be jazz, but are connected to it only through improvisation, which demands high talent.
The height of that talent is often left out of the discussion because it is so strongly connected to a sense of how one brings order on the moment. Leaving behind the idea of talent and a sense of form that has a loose body of playing rules makes it much better for those cliche mongers. They use this supposed thinking to bully their way into the very academy to which they claim to have no commitment—but once there, well, it can get very sticky. Too often, they utilize easy ways to make students think that contrivance replaces skill and, most importantly, talent. Just learn your patterns, or make up some yourself. But jazz playing is not merely reciting patterns while at the same time improvising. New Orleans musicians knew that almost from the jump. They talked about playing together and getting a balance in the sound of the band. All of that was about learning how to listen, so that you could play better. They knew that improvising well had something to do innately with hearing.
Hearing is a supreme talent in the world of music and often completely trumps academic knowledge. Supremely sophisticated musicians like Coleman Hawkins could make music with those best described as technically uninformed or intuitive, like Billie Holiday. There was always artistic room in Western music for a Hawkins, but there was no place in sophisticated art for someone like Holiday, who would fail all academic tests but pass all artistic ones. She had a small sound, a very narrow range, and would have been helpless or largely inaudible without a microphone; but she could sing in tune, had a perfect sense of time through her gifted interpretation of Louis Armstrong, and a very artful ability to reshape songs and change notes wherever she could find her aesthetic way. In short, for all of her limitations, Holiday could hear and she could execute what she heard.
That is what separates the titans of New Orleans from so-called primitives, which was always a lucrative mask for black musicians to wear, just as it was for whites like the cinematic genius John Ford who pretended to be simple-minded and barely aware of what made a masterpiece in his idiom. Eubie Blake once gave an interview in which he said that when a hit song made the rounds, he would write an intricate arrangement of it, pretend that he and his musicians did not know it, and ask a listener to hum a few bars before breaking into a complex version of the song; this convinced the assembled audience that all the talent they were hearing was proof that these people were simply natural musicians. If that story of Blake’s is true, we know what happened next, and how a party joke and clever ploy to get jobs helped deepen a stereotype. The struggle against that stereotype led to excessively pretentious stances from the 1920s until just yesterday.
The New Orleans titans heard a brand new way to play collectively, all the while improvising within an order that had plenty of room for individuality. They heard and conceived, for instance, an original version of counterpoint in which a melody is played by a trumpet or cornet while two other horns create thematic variations that expand the nuanced dimensions of the melody. We can hear this in the playing of Lester Young, who was born in Mississippi but grew up very near New Orleans and used to follow the wagons on which musicians played. Young was influenced by Louis Armstrong, but the tailgate trombone players also touched him thoroughly—though they touched him in a conceptual way, which is how the great individuals always handle influences: Once they know why something is done they reshape that thing to fit themselves. Tailgate trombonists often began their features with a startling low note, which was a favorite device of Young the tenor saxophonist. But Young was also able to improvise alongside another horn or two in small groups. That is a high skill that has had diminishing presence in jazz ensembles over the years, but it is always possible.
This extremely sophisticated hearing ability can also be found in the work of Charlie Parker, as when he reinterpreted New Orleans counterpoint in compositions like Ah-Leu-Cha or Chasin’ The Bird. Contrapuntal group improvising was central to the sound of The Modern Jazz Quartet and was also important to Charles Mingus in the way his so-called front lines improvised in New Orleans form, but in his own style, or a number of styles. George Russell did remarkable things with his sextet on Stratusphunk and made one of his best recordings with the same instrumentation but new personnel on The Outer View. It featured Don Ellis, who invented his lines within Russell’s Lydian Chromatic Concept but used the horn as Lester Bowie would have if he had had Ellis’s talent for playing across styles in a perfect way. That came forward for Ellis through his work with Charles Mingus, who once led his band at the Village Vanguard for two weeks, playing what was called Dixieland.
The ultimate “free jazz” appropriation of New Orleans music was heard on Ornette Coleman’s Free Jazz recording, about which Coleman complimented Eric Dolphy, also a veteran of playing with Mingus, for sometimes sounding as if he were playing all the horns behind him. That is the greatest achievement of jazz and jazz playing: to empathetically hear the surrounding context while improvising, creating order from second to second, in a speed that rivals the Internet velocity we now have the technology to measure. We no longer have to wonder if we were dreaming. The dreamscape can now be proven.
We can now understand in objective terms the fallacies transcriptions create in jazz education, which is too often the greatest enemy of jazz understanding. The single line transcription tells us nothing about how those notes came about, or what they were a response to, on the spot and immediately. The incomplete “understanding” made by single line transcription now seems rather dumb after all of these years of supposed jazz education. That version of the dumb and perhaps the deaf would be as backward and incorrect as using one line of a Haydn, Beethoven, Debussy, or Bartok string quartet to tell you something profound other than how certain notes related to each other. This is far outside of the phenomenon of jazz, which is the result of what tones, literal pitches or timbres, appear in a mobile context when the ensemble work is improvised.
That is what jazz actually is and we will not understand it very well, at least in an academic sense, until we have complete transcriptions. At Lincoln Center we are presently developing an online magazine of entire transcriptions that will be discussed by musicians across generations: performers like Jimmy Heath, Tim Hagans, Christian McBride, Ben Wolf, and Aaron Diehl. With complete transcriptions including the horn line improvisation and the improvised context provided by the rhythm section, students will begin reading a performance like a string quartet score, which will vastly change things and sweep some of the ignorance out the door. Then students will actually see what makes a performance great. It is about how musicians interact, almost instantaneously, with a sense of form within a context. That is what came most importantly out of New Orleans, and was firmly based in blues and swing.
Since the blues is so often the feeling that gives what must be given to the melodies to make them into jazz, we should understand the influence of New Orleans music on Duke Ellington, the greatest and most varied creator of blues in the history of the music. New Orleans music resulted in two indelible legacies. King Oliver’s way of handling his horn influenced Bubber Miley to the core in his own use of plunger mutes. Miley sought to make his horn talk, shout, mutter, and swing. That defined the sound of Ellington brass from the late 1920s to the end of the composer and bandleader’s life. Ellington also hired Crescent City titan Sidney Bechet, which may have had something to do with Will Marion Cook—one of Ellington’s mentors—who took Bechet with him on a tour of Europe, which resulted in the very first serious recognition of jazz playing by concert conductor and writer Ernst-Alexandre Ansermet.
Ansermet knew that he was hearing something new and appreciated its distance from European convention, because jazz had the same things in mind that any music has if played by serious musicians, whose job is to evoke the mournful mood of a funeral, the roller coaster passions of a love affair, the ongoing drama and comedy of life, and the inevitable christening—no matter the religion—which could include the introduction of new life to the world by full-fledged atheists. That range of feeling matured the music and the musicians; they were as accustomed to meeting the demands of a funeral as they were in setting the pace for frivolity. Not acknowledging that plurality often explains why the weight of the music was frequently described as limited only to the glands instead of realizing it was as ready for human sensuality as it was for the spiritual sense of life that was present in the blues.
By the time they toured Europe in 1918, the members of the Southern Syncopated Orchestra knew how to play their instruments with a virtuosity that is powerfully captured by Rick Benjamin and the Paragon Ragtime Orchestra in Black Manhattan, a recording issued with the subtitle “Theater and Dance Music of James Reese Europe, Will Marion Cook, and Members of the Legendary Clef Club.” In its variety of moods and grooves, and the high-minded jubilance that underscores so many of the themes and techniques demanded of the players, it is easy to hear what the audiences of the day well knew. This music was not written for amateurs to play and has a tone far from dour or solemn. It sets well and firmly in place the opportunity for the emergence of jazz, which was always a music made from many parts, parts that were all so well comprehended that a new art form could break through the smooth shell of ragtime—an art that allowed for improvisation, which ragtime did not. Many of the composers or conductors were writing out folk or plantation melodies for their orchestras and they were already including moments when the music moved beyond the page and entered an adventurous and exciting world that was largely unknown. The great Bechet was among the players Ansermet heard in the Southern Syncopated Orchestra. He was already slipping past straight ragtime, improvising when he could and when allowed the space.
Ansermet was such an intelligent musician himself that he realized that these were musicians who had a professional level of technique. They were playing what they wanted to, not because they were hiding their incompetence with exotic coon songs or plantation songs. What Ansermet wrote demonstrates how well he could hear, and that the European audience for Negro American music was already in place. The young Swiss heard so much better than Americans did who were not themselves musicians. He accurately described what he heard and instantly intuited the motives of the players and singers.
The first thing that strikes one about the Southern Syncopated Orchestra is the astonishing perfection, the superb taste and the fervor of its playing. . . . They play generally without notes, and even when they have some, it only serves to indicate the general line, for there are very few numbers I have heard them execute twice with exactly the same effects. I imagine that, knowing the voice attributed to them in the harmonic ensemble, and conscious of the role their instrument is to play, they can let themselves go, in a certain direction and within certain limits, as their heart desires. They are so entirely possessed by the music they play, that they can’t stop themselves from dancing inwardly to it in such a way that their playing is a real show, and when they indulge in one of their favorite effects which is to take up the refrain of a dance in a tempo suddenly twice as slow and with redoubled intensity and figuration, a truly gripping thing takes place, it seems as if a great wind is passing over a forest or as if a door is suddenly opened on a wild orgy.
He then considers the leader, obviously a special artist and talent. “The musician who directs them and to whom the constitution of the ensemble is due, Mr. Will Marion Cook, is moreover a master in every respect, and there is no orchestra leader I delight as much in seeing conduct.” Ansermet writes well of Cook and of his compositions, but his deepest observation is what he hears in the blues and in Bechet.
Ansermet hears the music as an art and does not descend to the demeaning talk of primates in clothes. “The blues occurs when the Negro is sad, when he is far from his home, his mammy, or his sweetheart. Then, he thinks of a motif or a preferred rhythm, and takes his trombone, or his violin, or his banjo, or his clarinet, or his drum, or else he sings, or simply dances. And on the chosen motif, he plumbs the depths of his imagination. This makes his sadness pass away,—it is the Blues.”
This is no different from the many blues musicians who instead of giving a sociological explanation for the art say that one does not play the blues in order to get the blues, one plays it in order to do away with those blues. It is a sophisticated sense of fighting with the troubles of life itself, not only a social position, though there was always a sense of unfairness in the world, symbolized by the story of Moses and the Israelites looking for the Promised Land, as well as the story of the Crucifixion, a cosmic blues tale if there ever was one. Ansermet was better off than many of those “race men,” black or white, who think they love black people but only as receptacles for theories that use data to remove the mystery from life.
There is an old saying I once heard in Texas that fits this subject: A pig-foot-eating Negro, a chicken-steak-eating white man, and a hot-sauce-guzzling Mexican are all mysterious in the same way, usually because mystery comes along with nightfall. That’s when the love, the hate, the violence, and the good times come down. But don’t count on that, else it will get you in trouble when you’re not looking, right about high noon. One can say the same about the blues.
Here is what Ansermet had to say about Sidney Bechet:
There is in the Southern Syncopated Orchestra an extraordinary clarinet virtuoso who is, so it seems, the first of his race to have composed perfectly formed blues on the clarinet. I’ve heard two of them which he had elaborated at great length…they are equally admirable for their richness of invention, force of accent, and daring novelty and unexpected turns. These solos already show the germ of a new style. Their form is gripping, abrupt, harsh, with a brusque and pitiless ending like that of Bach’s second Brandenburg Concerto. I wish to set down the name of this artist of genius; as for myself, I shall never forget it—it is Sidney Bechet. When one has tried so often to find in the past one of those figures to whom we owe the advent of our art—those men of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, for example, who wrote the expressive works of dance airs, cleared the way for Haydn and Mozart—what a moving thing it is to meet this black, fat boy with white teeth and that narrow forehead, who is very glad one likes what he does, but who can say nothing of his art, save that he follows his “own way” and when one thinks that his “own way” is perhaps the highway the whole world will swing along tomorrow.
While we know that Bechet was not at all black, but brownish yellow at best, he was big and he did have a narrow forehead, but most of all he could improvise thrilling and seriously contemplative blues delivered with virtuosity, daring, and surprise in a well-ordered way. That may be why Duke Ellington called him “the great originator,” recalling how he sounded when the nascent composer heard him singing “I’m Coming, Virginia” in 1921 in Washington, D.C.
What Ellington saw was a man of mixed heritage from New Orleans, where white racism had brought about, or played a large part in the making of, a timelessly beautiful aesthetic achievement.
When the light-skinned Creole musicians were banned from playing for white audiences, that brought together the sophistication of the penthouse and the vitality of the sidewalk. Those Creole musicians were esteemed for decades because they were such good technicians and readers and interpreters of written music. When they were pushed from the competition in order to provide jobs for white musicians, they were flushed down an impoverishing toilet. If they were going to work they had to sell their musical wares to the same people who listened and danced to Buddy Bolden; they had to learn the “dirty” vocalizing techniques that the people loved to hear, during which time they taught many of those raw unschooled blues players how to better perform with their instruments.
Here was an integration of the high and the low, the sophisticated and the common, the European sensibility brought together with deep blues knowledge. This was New Orleans at its best, ironically, because it constituted, by accident, the greatest moment of integration in the history of the music. From this moment on it was an artistic phenomenon, it went beyond race in favor of aesthetics. The “real” white people, from musicians like Bix Beiderbecke through Joe Lovano, understood the bringing together of supposedly opposed technical information in the interest of a distinctly American music, while they made their individual ways as jazzmen.
All of this comes through in Alan Lomax’s greatest work, Mister Jelly Roll, a biography of Jelly Roll Morton which perfectly fits with Lomax’s Library of Congress recordings, the interviews of Morton that constitute something unlike anything else in jazz. Morton’s tall tales, jokes, funny stories, tales of obnoxiousness and terrible murder that arrive in an overview of precise musical memories are as important to jazz history as Homer is to Western literature. The sheer range of what Morton not only knew, but was able to articulate, has never been challenged. He forms a path that takes a reader from beneath the gutter to the tiptop of the penthouse. His answers and monologues form an epic of musical information, frequently illustrating how certain styles relate to the variety of the lives lived, but Morton’s jazz epic always goes beyond all that because an aesthetic achievement immediately ceases to be a time period’s or a people’s music and becomes the world’s. People like Leontyne Price, who grew up in segregated Mississippi but went on to become one of the world’s finest opera singers, showed us what Stan Getz showed us in jazz. Beginning as a follower of Lester Young, Getz evolved into a truly great individual player who could sing through his horn, play the blues, and also swing almost as hard as anyone else, unless they were in the magic circle of the grandest of grand masters. Those like Price and Getz, given their objectively superior talent, may have a destiny beyond color and sociology. Art never fails to show us that.
When we listen to the nineteen pieces in Black Manhattan, it is easy to see what was available in that music for Morton’s aesthetic imagination. Morton heard well enough to understand what would work in jazz. That was because ragtime was perhaps the first professional American music that was both virtuosic and popular. Morton recognized that forms needed to shift and to have unexpected parts to keep the listener surprised and intrigued. Morton was much more informed than Ansermet because he was more than a witness, he was a leader and a participant.
Morton knew how to use riffs, changes of tempo or rhythm, a three-part horn line, dynamic changes, breaks, and what he called the “Spanish tinge.” This meant beats that actually came from the Caribbean or from the Iberian peninsula, coating flamenco, or Spanish melodies with a particular intensity. These elements were just as important to Kansas City swing, blues, and big or small band music. In Morton’s Black Bottom Stomp and Dead Man Blues, we can hear the sweep of his authoritative imagination.
All these elements come together in King Oliver’s sense of a band, which we can hear perfectly in 1923’s Snake Rag, in which he and Louis Armstrong execute some breaks that foreshadow all that was to come. While a sideman of Oliver’s in Chicago, Armstrong made one of his finest recordings as a young man, teaming up in January 1925 with Bechet for a “Cake Walkin’ Babies From Home” that must be one of the hottest and most soulful performances ever caught electronically. Bechet’s breaks are so heartbreakingly heated and graceful that they let you see why Ellington so esteemed him. Armstrong, who had been smoked by the reed player on the same tune a few months earlier, dominates the opening space with the size of his sound, almost pushing the formidable first jazz master of the saxophone into the background. Armstrong is softer on the part following the vocal and the snake charmer in the other man comes forward, far from rough but ready to throw anyone for a tumble. Dippermouth was ready for him. His tone is afire from the first notes, all of his breaks are full of unexpected accents, and the building logic of the performance shows that a brand new version of a master was inside the music. There was one who had been there already.
The first one, apparently, to accomplish that combination of dual techniques and musical emotions was Sidney Bechet. This aesthetic combining is why he so impressed Ansermet in 1918—just as Louis Armstrong did in another European place almost fifteen years later. The one with the satchel mouth astounded the trumpet players of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, who asked to see if he was playing a special horn, one constructed to make possible all that stuff filling the air, like the very blue of the sky.
Both Bechet and Armstrong were known early on as special talents, way down yonder in New Orleans. Bechet remembered going to Armstrong’s house because he had heard there was a boy around who could play on his brass horn the clarinet part from “High Society.” Having never heard such agility from a trumpet player, Bechet was shocked to hear the young man do just what the clarinet and soprano saxophone giant had been told. This was one of the grand moments of revelation, as when the young Charlie Parker broke out in a cold sweat when he heard what Lester Young was playing one night at a Kansas City jam session in the mid—1930s.
Young benefitted from the innovations of Armstrong—multi-directional freedom in the time—as much as from what Beiderbecke and Frankie Trumbauer played. Taking a piece of that firmament from the Armstrong sky allowed Young the saxophonist to float above or move behind the beat while still swinging, even at a strange rhythm angle. During the formative years of his highly original style, Young’s repeating of single notes through different fingerings made the single pitch into a melody of mobile timbre, which was one of Armstrong’s specialties.
In the 1930s, when Young and Eddie Barefield traveled together as a two-man band that played entire dances by themselves—one improvising while the other kept time by stomping out the beat—Barefield remembered Young often pleasurably listening to Armstrong records. Far from surprising is the fact that Young went along with jazzmen like Beiderbecke, because Buster Smith made it clear that so few people could even play jazz at that point that the musician didn’t care where anyone came from or looked like. If he could learn something about playing his horn, a musician got as close to that person as possible, and used the knowledge to make something for himself.
Even so it is befuddling that some jazz writers appear to believe Beiderbecke brought introspection to jazz. They must have never heard the contemplation essential to the slow blues, or known that W. C. Handy had written of the lyrical desires of a woman who liked her blues soft and slow. Perhaps they could not figure out the tempo shifting of the Armstrong title “I’m Not Rough,” or realize, as Martin Williams did, how clearly available was the impact of the New Orleans man on Billie Holiday. Writers only had to get to that by comparing his-and-her versions of “I Gotta Right To Sing The Blues,” hers second and dripping stardust beamed from the first. Armstrong and Bechet are all over Lester Young, as was Beiderbecke, who is, like the tenor player, one whom we still talk about because he went his own way, all while listening to the New Orleans titans in order to learn how and what to do.
Young became famous for leaving Kansas City, doubtless a wide-open gangster town where musicians played, as they had in New Orleans, for all kinds of people and all kinds of ceremonies or entertainment. The most important thing that happened there was bassist Walter Page getting the rhythm section even, as he heard it. Page relaxed the phrasing of the meter into two bars of eight beats, setting up a smoother cycle of rhythm. No longer 1—2—3—4, but 1—2—3—4—5—6—7—8.
“The clouds began to rise,” as Kansas City bassist Gene Ramey said of the way things changed when that flowing time came to the bandstand, where it still remains, every musician having submitted to its swing. All jazz bands began to realize that such a beat raised all the music up and made it easier for a rhythm section to measure itself. That and major improvisers in Young, Buck Clayton, Sweets Edison, and Basie himself made the ease, lilt, and the power of Count Basie’s band very impressive, because it imposed the swinging blues on the land and reinterpreted the victories of New Orleans in the ability of so many of its musicians to harmonize, finding the best place in the time for a riff, and even, as the small group recordings show, effectively improvising while more than one horn was up front.
Ellington continued to develop his take on New Orleans music, even though he claimed to have hated Jelly Roll Morton and said the older bandleader could not play the piano. The man got on many nerves for being such a braggart and claiming to have invented more than he could have single-handedly. Morton’s music still stands up and, in its essence, perfectly opens the way for Ellington’s 1931 Creole Rhapsody and his Black, Brown, and Beige from the early 1940s. Those works continued the jazz identity that Lomax called the “hybrid of hybrids,” pulling together concert sophistication and the omni-directional singing, dancing, and street vitality given special aesthetic power by the blues. It unmistakably influenced Mingus, who worked out a way of playing multiple styles in one piece, as his band does in such a timeless and penetrating manner in Tijuana Moods. It is not only one of the best recordings of that era, it was called his best recording by Mingus himself when the work was released, after five years, in 1962. Mingus uses the sound of bebop, riffs, and modal harmonic brevity that can be heard in two chords used by Armstrong and Earl Hines in 1928 on “Tight Like This.”
Mingus was becoming known for his powerful and unprecedented virtuoso bass playing, but he added the raw power of the black sanctified church to his mix, bringing that mix as close to the “Holy Ghost” as he could by mimicking the shrieks and cries and moans of those wanting to be anointed by celestial energy. Rarely did it sound fake or contrived when Mingus chose to use his voice as another instrument in his work, or to demand of his players that they have more than one musical personality, which he also learned from Ellington, seeing how musicians could seem to have alternately lyrical or turbulent moods when instructed to play beautifully or get down there in a hole with a mute.
On Tijuana Moods, this can often be heard in the playing of trombonist Jimmy Knepper or trumpeter Clarence Shaw and saxophonist Shafi Hadi. The creation of a three-horn front line allowed them and their leader to reiterate another version of three-part melody invention and collective playing.
The rhythm section is mobile and superb, playing a variety of rhythms and knowing how to give the blues an anchor and a stomping beat-down when needed. This was Mingus’s response to the two-horn unison playing—same note, same register—that pushed out collective playing, or the interpretations made by musicians who had the sophistication to play together and at the same time not step on one another’s feet. This was one of his wishes that grew large, becoming an aesthetic star that still shines brightly from mood to mood, making jazz itself bigger.
George Russell also wanted to open a way for himself and restate the combining of European intellectual depth with blues and the power of swing, asserting the timbre and the originality of New Orleans color to what had happened when Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie made their marks in the art. A former drummer, Russell made a handful of good albums with small groups and some big bands.
The best of the small groups is heard on The Outer View, an album that uses a three-horn front line like Mingus did, but the difference could not have been greater, outside of the rethinking of traditional concepts. The moods shift and so do the tempos. The reed and trumpet timbres reach as far back as far back goes, and the direction goes as far out as far out goes. But, unlike much of the pure noise that came out during Ornette Coleman’s first years in New York, Russell’s band sounds like professionals, not amateurs. Nor is this music full of practiced technique but devoid of beauty, which was the problem with a few of his small group recordings.
Tenor man Paul Plummer had given up on the ugly sound that dominated most of the playing done seven months earlier on The Stratus Seekers. His sound is smooth and pretty but not sticky, far beyond wet cotton candy. He is inspired by the two other horns when they join in with him. Trumpeter Don Ellis took to the open brass world of fresh melodies, bold colors, and shocking register changes inspired by Coleman’s sideman, Don Cherry. At this time, Cherry influenced men as different as Miles Davis, Bill Dixon, and Ted Curson. It was exciting to hear someone who could really play his instrument and who understood why New Orleans trumpeter Henry “Red” Allen was so great.
This is what makes The Outer View such a good set of performances. Every track is much more firmly grounded in the music itself than in the academy, or the so-called vanguard pretension that justified all ineptitude if there was enough talk about rebellion or spirituality attached. For a large contingent of the rebels, there seemed to be a fundamental adage keeping them together: If you can’t play, pray.
Made in 1960, Free Jazz summed it all up. Ornette Coleman had many sad personal stories to tell about his life and how often he had been rejected by musicians who felt that he did not have enough jazz data mastered. Then something truly miraculous happened. In whatever order, Billy Higgins, Charlie Haden, and Don Cherry came to him, so moved by what he made them feel that they were ready to learn his music.
Pianist Dick Katz had not heard an alto and a trumpet play this closely since Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie in the late 1940s. Cherry accepted the fact that Coleman could remember his tunes but did not write them in a way that a musician could read. Cherry was so touched that he took the time to learn what Coleman’s scores should sound like. Higgins and Haden would practice tempos and beats alone, sometimes not stopping for an hour. They got as close as they could. So when Coleman’s quartet opened at New York’s Five Spot, it turned Manhattan’s jazz community around, and some who were there remember loud arguments going on at the bar while the four men played. But drummer Roy Brooks remembered it this way:
I heard the guys complaining about Coleman and his group not playing any changes. I heard that loud and clear, but I also heard something else. And I saw something. Ornette and Don never looked at each other, no tempo was counted off, fast or slow, and nothing was said. Then wham! and they all came in together. Ornette played and I couldn’t count any bars or hear the form they were playing. Then Ornette would end and Don would start immediately as if he knew what was going on. Still, nothing that could be counted, no bars, no form. When Don finished, they all came in together!
It went on like that and it swung. It had the sound of the blues in it and they were all swinging their cakes off. I didn’t know if I liked it, but I knew they had something going. It was mysterious but it had a groove.
Coleman made a series of recordings with that quartet and wrote music for many different ensembles, from string quartets to symphony orchestras, but what I consider his strongest success and boldest jazz innovation was homemade. He took nothing from the European disavowal of song. In the case of jazz that meant composed or improvised melody, melody dipped lightly or deeply in the indigo mood that has always given a certain human tinge to the moment. It was all about empathy and trust.
In December of 1960, Coleman took two quartets into a studio, set them in different tempos, wrote some dissonant battle cries and produced Free Jazz, his strongest paean to New Orleans music. Bobby Bradford, who had recorded with Coleman and followed Cherry into the new 1961 quartet, says, “For people to play with Ornette, they have to be sympathetic to the kind of music he loves to make. He is always willing to try to cross a cliff on a tightrope, but it is not a trick. He doesn’t have any insincere notes in his music. All of it is real and you have to be real to play it. There are no road maps beside the melody. That was why so many people didn’t understand what he was trying to do, which was figure out another way to play together, another way to listen. There were less rules to protect you, and Ornette had decided you did not need those rules to sound good. You could be inspired by your ear and your feeling. When you were up there with Ornette, you learned night after night how well he could hear and how much emotion went with his hearing.”
That is not how Coleman’s music was judged, however. What he was doing in order to retool jazz playing—without conventional chords, keys, or tempos—was thought to be another highway to chaotic disorder. As usual, jazz was caught between the shortcomings of show business and the insubstantial impudence of the academy. That is why exceptional musicians such as John Lewis of The Modern Jazz Quartet, Charles Mingus, and George Russell all supported what Coleman did.
Coleman’s music is glorious and affirmative but remains a special taste fated for a smaller audience. In those transitional times, the popularity of Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Horace Silver, The Modern Jazz Quartet, and Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers was far larger than Coleman’s, but none of them were able to make it past the commercialized funky soul movement of the time, the crucifix—once called fusion—on the back of the art.
Musicians esteemed for their integrity began to submit to pop music, regressing to adolescence rather than rising to the level of art. Louis Armstrong showed us what could be done with popular material, as did John Coltrane, who was set up in the catbird seat by My Favorite Things, an accidental jazz hit. But that is not what was wanted this time around.
The art began to waiver under the tasteless costumes and antics of hip-hop, a doomed misunderstanding of the vitality that can come from the street, from the point at which humanity manages to transcend disadvantage and hard times through community.
That community is always found in the blues, which is never limited to the sordid subjects of pornography, the stripping away of a resonant inner life from what can be romantic intimacy. A large but enhancing intimacy is one of the gifts of art to its audiences. Like all art, blues contends with the ironies that arise from being an individual and apart from everyone else while being inextricably part of what living means. Jazz improvising, always interwoven with the blues, stood for things like romantic love, friendship, and trust.
But America returned to the dark ages when materialism and criminality became attractive and fashionable. Those in fusion music used respectable track records in the jazz art to justify selling out. They had already played plenty of music, was the argument, now was the time for profit. Things were getting critical because this period of selling out was celebrated as a new direction, an upsurge of power that would draw a young audience who confused volume for fire.
At about that time Wynton Marsalis arrived in Manhattan. Marsalis has always irritated the jazz press because he refuses to buy into what Rimbaud termed “the love of sacrilege.” He called the cliches as he saw them and stood up to all of those famous players willing to genuflect before fusion, before rock, and lastly before hip-hop. He did not accept ignorance and incompetence as a form of “authenticity.”
Marsalis took the position that one did not have to be provincial; he set out to be an explorer of the depths of jazz in order to keep in touch with the purity of the art. He agreed with Albert Murray that timelessness was the best way to keep up to date.
Near the end of his career Ellington said something similar whenever he introduced Money Johnson to let the audience hear what music would sound like in a hundred years: Johnson sang “Hello, Dolly” and gave an Armstrong impression. That made clear what Ellington thought about music: New stuff would always happen, but what Armstrong once called “the good old good ones” will perpetually remain in place. Picasso said it this way: “To me, there is no past or future in art. If a work of art cannot live always in the present, it must not be considered at all.”
What the great painter said definitely applied to the surprising rise of Wynton Marsalis—who came out of nowhere, it seemed. He appeared at first as a wooly-headed country boy, from way down yonder in New Orleans, with his leather cap on backward. The newcomer to Manhattan went to Juilliard and was already one of the best concert trumpet players in the world, and his potential was recognized by master jazzmen like Buster Williams, Ron Carter, and Woody Shaw.
He soon joined Art Blakey and began to quick-step away from what was expected. Having played both classical and tradition-rattling concert music, and popular funk stuff in New Orleans, he was overly impressed by neither. He was shocked when a purported innovator sat in on a blues session with Blakey’s band and got lost; the man showed no mastery of a fundamental form and its feeling.
Working with one band led by another supposed innovator, Marsalis was disturbed when neither the leader or any of his musicians could spontaneously harmonize themselves on “Just A Closer Walk With Thee.” But whenever he got together with players like John Lewis, Dizzy Gillespie, Elvin Jones, Ron Carter, Max Roach, Stan Getz, or Betty Carter, he found they were surprised that he had vehemently declined to buck dance with pop music.
The trumpeter made up his mind to play jazz, but not any particular style. Here his Crescent City background paid off. His playing displayed a freedom to access any style in the pursuit of his vision.
These were years of commercial mess and muddle, when Dexter Gordon returned from Europe in midlife vitality and reminded listeners how elegance, beautiful ballad playing, and hard swinging blues should sound. His was a new kind of rebellion in jazz that should have been known as a renaissance, a renaissance that refused to be melted down into a lucrative but trivial product sold as a new version of a fine art that had made its reputation by rebelling against convention.
Gordon had a reputation from the days when bebop stood up and moved from pretentious eccentricity to form a legitimate style. During the ‘70s, the trumpet was in big trouble, and there was only one large and famous talent left in Manhattan; a man who was unwilling to sell out. At every performance, he played as if it were his last night to live. That was Woody Shaw, who helped make the Dexter Gordon Quintet an almost peerless force. Though he wasn’t a bebopper, Shaw held high the standards of the music and was something of an innovator. Like Gordon, who refused to be confined below the plateaus of his art by 2—5—1 bebop harmony, Shaw was also far above the Coltrane influence that too many musicians took seriously, thinking it placed them beyond the conventions of standard songs—which was possible but it could also make them sound like rats in a maze, chained to the wall of minor keys and modes. Coltrane did well inside his new conventions, but most of his imitators were hyperventilating, muscular bores. Woody Shaw was not one of them. He was a real swinger, a real inventor. Shaw even told his wife that Wynton Marsalis, though far from there yet, would play an important part in the future of jazz.
December 1994 was a great month for jazz, because Marsalis brought his band to the Village Vanguard, making a live recording of Citi Movement, a forty-minute composition that is one of the finest achievements in the history of the art. Jazz musicians love to dismiss displays of technique that have no soul, and they should. This was not one of those occasions. The finest leaders and composers in jazz have always shown through in the quality of players who create the context in which all of them work, as featured and supporting players.
In Citi Movement Marsalis and his band executed some very difficult material, with plenty of swerve, irony, humor, and swagger. We hear a comprehensive set of allusions to ragtime, New Orleans, Kansas City, bebop, and the developments made by talents as different as The Modern Jazz Quartet and Ornette Coleman. The dialogue between horns and ensembles, or the use of all four of the lead instruments to set material up against two or three parts simultaneously performed at the top, middle, or bottom of a voicing. These are fragments or motives from forthcoming melodies or those that had already been played.
Unity is all-important. Every note is an idea and is always moving forward, not static or undeveloped. At certain places, there are exchanges between Marsalis and Wessell Anderson, short responses from Gordon to a swift passage, setting up two ways to hear the space and the thematic development. Victor Goines introduces Eric Reed with some breaks that are delivered with swift but bracing effect. Just as George Russell’s D.C. Divertimento had to do with black people taking the trains North from Dixieland, living soulfully inside the Southern exposure, this is a portrait of New York City, from the streets to the high buildings to vistas filled with spark and romance.
The two brass features of Marsalis and Gordon seem to say all that there is to run down about country boys in the big city. Marsalis invents one of the premier statements of the era, improvising a single line that takes both the spare parts of a dialogue and its fast note return, both sides thematically laid out with red-hot technique and rhythmic nuance. It is virtuosic, as would be expected from perhaps the greatest trumpet player in jazz since Dizzy Gillespie—and surely one of the best bandleaders, a fact revealed by the context he creates with his players, whose abilities always reflect the leader.
Marsalis had confidence that the blues and swing could stand up to the culture of decadence. He was right. We still have many lessons to learn from what the grand masters of New Orleans had to say about the ability to listen to others and to react with creativity and with grace, and in that reaction create a context for everyone. E pluribus unum.
That is the democracy of jazz, and those who doubt it either haven’t been listening or don’t know how.
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