Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Welcome to Jazz (Jazzers Jazzing)

Welcome, fellow jazzer. It was 40 years ago today (approximately)/ Captain Davis taught the band to play/ They've been going in and out of style/ But they're guaranteed to raise a smile/ So may I introduce to you/ The act you've known for all these years...

This is the maiden voyage of a blog which emphasizes discussion of jazz and jazz-related music since 1968 . In that seminal year, August to be exact, Miles Davis brought Dave Holland over to New York from England (where he had been the bassist in a band with John McLaughlin, John Surman and Tony Oxley) and Chick Corea over from San Francisco (where he had been playing a gig as Sarah Vaughan's piano accompanist), to introduce each (eventually) to a couple new "directions in music", i.e., electronically amplified bass and piano performance, and to record Filles de Killimanjaro in September. Miles had somehow become the de facto captain of the Good Ship Jazz, so he took the helm and began to steer a radically different course. Many other musicians were already contributing to this change and legions of others would follow.

1968 was when Rock & Roll and Jazz came together with a loud bang. Some sort of multi-phase internal explosion occurred throughout music, and the seismic aftershocks continue to be felt right up to this present moment. Record company executives and concert promoters were calling it Jazz/Rock or Fusion, or Progressive Rock. Jimi Hendrix called it "Rainy Day Dream Away" on his Electric Ladyland album and Rod Argent called it "Time of the Season" for the Zombies' Odessey and Oracle. This was the year that James Guercio commuted between the U.S.'s East and West coasts to simultaneously produce Blood, Sweat & Tears & Chicago Transit Authority. The same year that Cream's live recordings on Wheels of Fire revealed that their roots were in the jazz tradition as well as the blues, as they established themselves as the hottest live act in the world.

Not that nothing important occurred in music before 1968 – it's just that a lot occurred then and so much has occurred since, and most of it has been ignored (listen to WBGO in New York or KKJZ in Los Angeles sometime... when was the last time you heard something from Bitches Brew?) So that's where the emphasis will be. But intelligent discussions of music of all kinds, from all eras, will be welcome here. Of course. With your contribution of comments and opinions I guarantee this could soon be one of your favorite blogs. The standards are: smart (intelligent) dialogue; interviews from this millenium; insightful biographies that reveal something about the musician and his music; useful reviews and commentary; accurate discographical information; etc.

Jazz is a living thing. It is performed by and listened to by living beings, and takes many forms. Duke Ellington, a structuralist if there ever was one, made dismissive comments on the wrong-headed attempts to define and limit jazz because he wanted to keep the music free and vital. Jazz is an artistic expression that embraces change. In many ways change is its defining characteristic. It evolves, and has done so many times since those early days in the parlors of New Orleans sportin' houses. But you wouldn't know it from the way it has been chronicled. In my appetite for more on the subject I tried valiantly to watch Ken Burns' 1140-minute documentary Jazz when it was first aired on PBS a few years ago. But every time I tuned it in I felt that soporific mental numbness that accompanies a guided tour through a museum... or mausoleum. If one were from another planet and checking out this thing called jazz as defined by Burns (and his advisor Wynton Marsalis), one might have thought one were watching a film about an art form from the ancient past... not an art form still alive and breathing today. When he reached the tenth and final episode, 1961-present, he had already bottled it all in formaldehyde. The music's last 40 years were then collapsed into a single obligatory segment of vapid commentary. And the revolution that occurred in the mid-1960's? What revolution? Don Ellis, Ornette Coleman, Don Cherry? The Miles Davis Quintet(s)? Electrified jazz bands so popular that their records were certified Gold by the R.I.A.A. while they filled sports stadiums with paying fans? Weather Report? Mahavishnu Orchestra? Return to Forever? Headhunters?

Downbeat, despite the limitations of a magazine format, has always done well keeping abreast of things. But in the ensuing 40 years it seems one has been able to count the important books written on the subject on the fingers of one hand: Julie Coryell's book Jazz-Rock Fusion: The People, the Music, a nice collection of photos and interviews; Stuart Nicholson's Jazz-Rock: A History, an openly opinionated but encyclopedic detailing of the high points of the music’s history; and Walter Kolosky's recent Power, Passion and Beauty, a very readable fan's paen to the Mahavishnu Orchestra. To be fair, there have also been useful passages in many biographies, especially ones like Quincy Troupe’s Miles: The Autobiography and Michelle Mercer’s Footprints: The Life and Music of Wayne Shorter. For its exceptional detail and accurate portrayal of the spirit of the music, although it is ostensibly devoted to a single period in the artist’s oeuvre, Paul Tingen’s Miles Beyond: the Electric Explorations of Miles Davis 1967-1991 is probably the best of the lot. Other than that, it's been crickets.

Trying to be all things to all people is a mistake many an artist and businessman has made, but contrarian jazz critics and historians who have inexplicably sealed up the time capsule and ignored the last 40 years are attempting to be of no use to anyone. They have succeeded in many ways. With the arrogance only a revisionist knows, they have closed their eyes and hoped it all goes away. Their blindness has served their self-fulfilling prophesy better than it should have.

But this music is un-killable. It is full of life. It still has all the potential it ever had, right here, right NOW. I personally would like to hear jazz make some noise again!

That's where we will begin.

Get ready. Exciting things are coming in 2008!

Happy New Year!