Bird lives? A response to Will Layman

I’ve opened what I hope might be a productive tweet-ologue with jazz critic Will Layman about this piece, with the provocative headline: “Jazz Ain’t Dead, But Charlie Parker Is — So Let’s Move On, Shall We?”

Which seems to rest on the assumption that jazz hasn’t moved on since Charlie Parker. And that’s not what Layman ends up arguing, so it’s a bit of a bait-and-switch.

Layman offers a thumbnail history of jazz’s mass appeal at the front of the piece, under the subhead “Once, We Were Popular.” Oddly, that section does not contain the word “bebop.” You know, the music that Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie created, and that many felt severed the connection between jazz and its mass audience by being too blazingly fast, convoluted and arty for people to follow, let alone dance to.

“The ‘50s brought us rock ‘n’ roll, but not the death of jazz’s popular connection,” Layman writes. True to a point — jazz artists still made the occasional cover of Time magazine and reached iconic status. But jazz’s popular connection had already begun its downward slide. Layman writes: “Somewhere around 1980 or so, however, the connection of any real jazz to the popular pulse becomes problematic.” He’s off by 30 years or more, no?

I know, I’m interpreting Layman’s Charlie Parker jibe in an overly literal way. He’s making a larger point. But it’s ironic that Parker, who used to be faulted for being too modern, too intellectual, is now bandied about as a shorthand for everything that’s preventing jazz from being modern.

And so Layman quotes pianist Robert Glasper musing on Parker returning from the grave. “He’d look around, ‘What the fuck are you doing? I played that already! Why are you playing this? I’ve been dead for a hundred years—I’m back now and you’re still playing my shit. Move on.’”

So the problem is too many people sounding like Charlie Parker. No wait, here comes Jason Marsalis — the problem is Jazz Nerds International! Too little connection to the past! More Charlie Parker, please!

And we’re back to the contradictory morass of the Jazz Wars, which I’d hoped Darcy James Argue had buried once and for all.

In their recent book Jazz, Gary Giddins and Scott DeVeaux chronicle how jazz in fact moved on decisively from Charlie Parker in 1949, when a 23-year-old Miles Davis began recording what would become the album Birth of the Cool. Since then, jazz has gone in a thousand directions, and young players have drawn from all those sounds and more as they’ve worked to create their own identities.

Robert Glasper is one of them. I’ve written about his involvement in hip-hop; Nate Chinen just covered Glasper’s involvement with R&B star Maxwell in this excellent post. Terrific — it’s Glasper’s job to be Glasper, to be the best, most pathbreaking artist he can be. That doesn’t mean that other jazz artists are shirking some moral duty if they don’t pursue a path similar to Glasper’s — or Nils Petter Molvaer’s, or Marco Benevento’s.

“The point is not to reject the past but to honor it with a kind of independence,” Layman writes. I’m all for it. But to value distance from the past above all things can breed a kind of easy contempt for artists who play in a more straightahead vein. As I’ve said before, Jason Marsalis had a valid point about “innovation propaganda”: it sets up a dynamic where swing itself is seen as a kind of offense, a refusal to “move on.”

Personally, I’d be upset with a jazz world that did not value innovative statements like Glasper’s, or Stefon Harris’s, or Darcy James Argue’s. I’d also be upset if it didn’t celebrate albums like The Next Phase by Willie Jones III (due out July 20), which swings like mad and is every bit as genuine a piece of musical expression as any jazz/hip-hop or jazz/indie-rock hybrid out there.

There are many others besides Willie Jones III — Peter Bernstein comes quickly to mind — who are playing fiery, honest music that swings and is far from merely “curatorial.” Where’s the place for them in Will’s narrative?

6 Responses to “Bird lives? A response to Will Layman”

  1. Ian Carey says:

    On an interesting note, in the “Once We Were Popular” section, he seems to have combined (big band legends) Woody Herman and Artie Shaw into (modernist trumpet iconoclast) Woody Shaw. I only wish Woody had been as popular as those other guys.

  2. admin says:

    Good catch, thank you. I missed that entirely.

  3. Will Layman says:

    Hey, David — No one is more ashamed of that Artie Shaw/Woody Shaw mis-type than me. Sorry, everyone. I wasn’t thinking of Woody Herman, actually, just making a dumb mistake when thinking of Artie Shaw.

    I’d like to weigh in here on your site about this innovation vs. tradition tension that jazz seems to have lived with for 70 years or more.

    You are dead right that bop was a big break with jazz being THE pop music of its day. But it’s also true that modern jazz — via Miles Davis and Dave Brubeck and the MJQ and plenty of others — had another couple of decades of relevance to the public. The point made in the documentary I was reviewing seems valid: that even fairly “difficult” music like Mingus’s “Fables of Faubus” had a shot at resonating with people because it had a social meaning in the context of its time.

    Today, so much of the best jazz — whether it is great post-bop or something “newer” — is just a fairly obscure kind of ART, museum stuff, a tiny minority taste, intellectual play you might say.

    Too often, then, the argument has come down to a crummy binary choice, at least since 1980 or so: (1) “popular” jazz that seeks a lowest common denominator but doesn’t advance the art form, or (2) great music, popularity be damned. I don’t think the issue is whether or not to honor the past — all the good musicians do that today. But the challenge is to make great music that CONNECTS with society today. The goal isn’t “popularity” (record sales or downloads or whatever) exactly but rather RELEVANCE.

    The artists in “Icons Among Us” were not trashing tradition, exactly, but they were championing a sense of forward motion that naturally ADVANCES the past. They want to be heard, not studied. They want to connect, not instruct. And I think that the music will only stay vital and truly alive if they pull it off.

    Which is not to say that we don’t all enjoy a great new album that, perhaps, could have been recorded in 1958 by Cannonball Adderley. But if people are going to keep caring about Adderley, then maybe Greg Osby and Steve Lehman are going to have to find a way to make “jazz” resonate for young people who grew up on Radiohead and Kanye West.

    — Will Layman

  4. admin says:

    Thank you, Will – re Artie/Woody Shaw, I’m sure I’ve made similar mistakes somewhere out there.

    What you say makes perfect sense. I guess what bugs me is this tone of tough love that crept into the piece: “Jazz, you’re great, and we only mean the best for you, but you really need to shape up.” And from the Glasper quote and others, the picture that emerges for the average reader is that there’s a handful of artists “advancing the music,” and everyone else is copying Charlie Parker and living in the past. That just doesn’t square with reality, in my view. And I think we’ve become so obsessed with “advancing the music” that we often forget simply to listen to it.

    I know that my post doesn’t deal sufficiently with the audience question, and that’s because I don’t really have an answer to that question, I’ll admit. I feel like the artists are sorting it out. New young presenters like Search & Restore are sorting it out. As far as jazz resonating with the wider culture, I think “advancing the music” is exactly what many regular Joes and Janes in the potential jazz audience don’t want. If anything, they’re looking for a nostalgic, idealized type of jazz, no?

    Let me bring up the ’60s avant-garde, which I should have mentioned along with bebop. I love a lot of free music. Jazz needed to take that step; thank goodness it did. But in terms of popular appeal, it was the worst thing that could have happened, and right when rock was winning over the young audience.

    And yet in the early to mid ’60s, at the same time, there came Jimmy Smith, who popularized organ jazz and maintained jazz’s connection to black urban audiences for at least another 15 years or so. My point is that different kinds of jazz can wax and wane in the culture in the same time period. Maybe we’ll see more of that sort of thing in the years to come.

  5. Will Layman says:

    David —

    I hear you. I agree that jazz — and any art form — needs diversity of approaches. ICONS AMONG US certainly pressed an “innovation agenda”, and I think my article was picking up on that and applauding it. The perception of those artists, I suppose, is that innovation needs more champions because (as you suggest above) “listening to the old stuff” already resonates with lots of people.

    THAT truth — that people think of jazz as a comforting and nostalgic music associated with some kind of Good Old Days — is nettlesome. I’m not against digging some classic Johnny Hodges sides, and I’m not against contemporary players emulating Hodges. But if that is IT, if that is main thing about jazz today, then jazz is really about tomorrow and will be gone soon enough.

    I agree that the free jazz of the ’60s was ill-timed from a popularity point of view. But it’s also true that much of the more free jazz has the potential to connect with young people. Even back in the ’60s, Coltrane meant something to people because of how his ripping music connected to the culture. Carlos Santana made the link for some, for example. And these days when you go see Medeski, Martin and Wood, sure the groove is great, but the sense of abandon also comes across.

    The high school kids that I teach often tell me that they like, say, a track I might play them by Art Blakey, but they are inspired and excited by something by Cuong Vu. I don’t have the answer either, of course (and, hey, I’m a CRITIC, so I don’t really have ANY answers), but I suspect that the jazz fans of tomorrow are going to drawn in by music that gives them pleasure but also reflects some of the edge and excitement of discovery. That, not comfort and nostalgia, has been the music’s trump card.

    Thanks for the dialogue.

    — Will

  6. admin says:

    Thanks Will – my final thought is that this sort of questing, innovative, “discovery” jazz is happening, all over the place. So to use a politically loaded phrase, mission accomplished. It’s not a hypothetical situation, like, maybe one day jazz will be innovative again. It already is – the question is how to get people hearing it. How to get people to approach it without preconceptions and with an open mind. On that we certainly agree. But meanwhile, we as critics also need to pay attention to players who are less concerned with innovation, without saddling them with all this baggage. My two cents. Thanks again, Will!

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