Thursday, September 01, 2011

Down and Dirty in the Jazz Trenches

I'm not old enough to have lived through the era when some elements associated with Louis Armstrong were dissing Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and company, but I do recall when mainstream jazz players were tossing brick-bats at Miles Davis, Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock for experimenting with electric instruments, linear tempos and rock concert volume. It wasn't pretty, and it had a destructive effect on the image of jazz as a democratic and welcoming art form.

The whole us vs. them vibe strikes me as self-defeating, and when the art form in question is already on the margins, it just seems petty and pointless. My colleague Peter Hum has a blow-by-blow and analysis of the latest shots in the "jazz sucks" meme, which follow close on the heels of the "jazz festivals have too much rock content" and "jazz criticism sucks" posts and counter-posts.

It's all pretty nasty, and while I'm sure Kurt Rosenwinkel and Dwayne Burno have legitimate points—let's face it, we've all heard bad music—I can't help but think about the effect this all has on high school musicians who are considering a music degree with a jazz concentration, or young listeners who have wondered what they should check out in jazz. Maybe they just shouldn't bother; they can never be as good as Rosenwinkel or Burno. Someone better is always going to be judging you. What's the point of just having fun and making music with your friends?

Thinking back on my own entree into the music, I'd heard a lot of Charlie Christian, Count Basie and Duke Ellington by the time I encountered—and fell in love with the beboppers, and with my contemporaries who were pioneering fusion music in the early '70s—but it was bebop and fusion that led me back to Pops and Art Blakey and Lester Young. The lesson: People make their own connections, and find out for themselves what they like and don't like. But, when a musical form seems to be awash with back-stabbing and loathing, it is just off-putting.

I know that it's putting me off.

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