Sunday, March 11, 2007

what’s in a name: the j-word

Jazz is dead, long live jazz.

This one is a little bit more personal in its politicals than my previous ‘what’s in a name’ posts. As what started off as a comment to ‘Jazz Death?’ at Stochasticactus and ‘Jazz historiography versus jazz reality’ at Soundslope, this is my partial, subjective take on ‘jazz’.

Jazz is not dead, it just smells funny.
Frank Zappa on ‘Be-Bop Tango (Of The Old Jazzmen’s Church)’, Zappa/Mothers (1974).
‘Jazz’ is the name of the political system that controls and dictates African-American information dynamics.
Anthony Braxton quoted in Lock (1988), p. 92.
I’m stuck somewhere between the implications of the Zappa quote (in a sense who cares if jazz is dead) and the Braxton (well, if that’s jazz, they’re welcome to it). Yet I head straight to the J-word section in record stores since, for better or worse, right or wrong, much of the music I love and study is to be found there; I find the results of the labor of many of my cultural elders filed under that moniker.
Reading some of the debates here and there, it occurs to me that there are at least two issues here: one is, for lack of better word, ‘authenticity’ which comes under threat from diversification, intertextuality, marketing and reception. I’m not a huge fan of marching under this banner: I’ve seen what it (or the pursuit there of) can do to traditions of musicking.
And if the lack of ‘authenticity’ leads to an uncomfortably high dosage of ‘jazz’ of the—choose your prefix—smooth-, cocktail-, comfort-, easy-, light-, yuppie- brands, I can live with it. At least Kenny G does not pretend to tell the whole story—the one true story—of jazz.

The other issue is the ‘official stories’.
…It [jazz] was seen as that [subversive and culturally corrosive] a long time ago because of race. That’s the only way you could see Louis Armstrong as a subversive figure, or Charlie Parker, or Duke Ellington. Their message was always one of humanism….
Wynton Marsalis on The Daily Show, March 7th 2007 (watch the video).
So Marsalis claiming that, once stripped of its historical, political and, yes, racial specificity, jazz can stand for a universal humanhood. But is Marsalis also arguing that, having developed colorblindness, we can now appreciate the colorless message underneath the black faces? And isn’t this identity-free, discorporate, humanism a luxury of the wealthy? the white? the male? the heterosexual? Is Marsalis in fact saying that underneath the black faces is the music of/for whites?
…Jazz is the product of the whites—the ofays—too often my enemy. It is the progeny of the blacks—my kinsmen. By this I mean: you own the music, and we make it. By definition, then, you own the people who make the music. You own us in whole chunks of flesh.
Archie Shepp (1965).
What motivates Marsalis’ odd-ball desire for colorblindness (‘once we get rid of the race element, we shall see the universal value of the music’)? Of course this music was subversive and culturally corrosive. Surely you’d have to be come kind of reactionary, wingnut not to want it to be. Why would you want to neutralize this music? Does Marsalis want it to smell less—to smell better?
You wanna know about ‘official stories’? Misha Mengelberg gets to be a composer, but Ornette Coleman—well, Ornette?—is a jazz musician. Wanna know where Ishmael Wadada Leo Smith is found in Grove Music Online? In Grove Jazz. How about John Zorn? John Zorn gets two entries: one in the vanilla, mayonnaise, real Grove, and the other in the ‘jazz’ subsection. (Macy, accessed March 11, 2007.)

If Pulitzer Prize winning neo-classicists want the J-word, they can have it. …Or they can’t: it’s not theirs to own, and its certainly not mine to give. But if jazz becomes Jazz™, fine, have it. Just leave the rest of us alone and save your sermonizing to yourselves—to your little ghetto—and stop staking claim to the names, works and labor of those you wish to forget; wished hadn't been born; wished did not pollute the perfect, flawless, immaculate, clean, purity of your fictitious history. Stop speaking as if the music of anything after hard-bop has any relevance to what you do. In fact, fuck off.
You have to give Wynton [Marsalis] and those guys credit for insisting that black people should have a very important voice in outlining what African American culture is all about. I think that’s a good thing to do. But then, I have a pretty expanded view of what the African American tradition can be. I’ve learned from some really amazing individuals representing a pretty diverse take.
George E. Lewis quoted in Corbett (1996), p. 40.
But whether or not jazz is dead, I don’t share many of the feelings underlying expressions of pessimism. And if the youthful musicians of today appear timid, maybe that has more to do with the fossilized tradition’s elder guardians’ constant proclamation that there will never, ever be another genius of the status of Duke, Parker, Monk, Coltrane. Ever.
What’s important to me is that my work is seen in a particular context, coming from a particular tradition. I don’t really care what people call it but I would want is to be clear that I was inspired to play by listening to certain people who continue to be talked about mainly in jazz contexts. People like John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy, Cecil Taylor—these were people who played music that excited me to the point where I took music seriously myself. That continues to be the case. That’s where what I’m doing has to make most sense, if it makes any sense at all.
Evan Parker quoted in Lock (1991), p. 30.
I’m happy to be labeled under the J-word; I’m happy not to be. The musicians I work with orbit the traditions of improvised musics (free or otherwise), the Blues, of Rock, of R’n’B, folk musics (regional or nomadic), and Experimentalism (from its various forms, branches and chapters). However, it may be that the single most common cultural lineage we hover around and intersect with is encapsulated by that J-word. That, to me, is the testament to the legacy of African-American… actually, let’s not tip-toe around this in our current Obama fueled condition: the legacy of Great Black Music.

The tradition is dead; long live the tradition.


Corbett, John (1996), ‘Interactive Imagination: George Lewis’ Wild Trombone’, Down Beat (vol. 63, no. 8, August).
Lock, Graham (1991), ‘speaking of the essence’, Wire (issue 85, March).
______ (1988), Forces In Motion: Anthony Braxton and the Meta-reality of Creative Music (London: Quartet).
Macy, Laura, ed. (accessed March 11, 2007), Grove Music Online,
Shepp, Archie (1965), ‘An Artist Speaks Bluntly’, Down Beat (reproduced at
Zappa/Mothers (1974), Roxy & Elsewhere, CD (Rykodisc re-release of Discreet).


Dan said...

I find the juxtaposition of Wynton Marsalis' and George Lewis' quotes interesting, because I'm sure Lewis would have a stronger reaction to that particular Marsalis quote than he did in that generalized stance on his importance. The only reason I mention it is because Lewis has been so anti-deracializing the history of the music. I agree with Lewis that Marsalis could be a positive force for African American culture, but the quote from the Daily Show proves why he is failing in that role. I just see Marsalis as being so invested in his jazz story that he can't see the damage he is doing by so greatly restricting what can be welcomed under the banner of jazz.

the improvising guitarist said...

I find the juxtaposition of Wynton Marsalis' and George Lewis' quotes interesting….

You’re right of course: I doubt Lewis would ever claim ‘jazz’ as a racial neutral zone. My apologies if I ended up giving the impression that Marsalis’ and Lewis’ positions are closer than they really are.
You’ve spotted my editing slip up. One of those instances where the quotes had lived in slightly different relation to each other in an earlier draft…. My bad.

S, tig

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