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Out of Tunes

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By Mark Gauvreau Judge

There is a moment at the end of Art of the Trio 4, a live album released last year by 28-year-old pianist Brad Mehldau, when the problem with contemporary jazz is crystallized. After a seemingly endless set displaying his pyrotechnic virtuosity, Mehldau slides into Radiohead's "Exit Music (For a Film)." He plays the song straight, his suddenly spartan piano style capturing the rich, chilling vocal melody. There's no endless jamming, no fearful retreat into what has become the classicism of legends like Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, and Dizzy Gillespie--just a simple embrace of a brilliant pop song, like Sinatra doing Mercer or Ella singing Ellington.

It was a rare moment of clarity in jazz, and as such revealed a certain hollowness to the rest of the album. Jazz has become sadly irrelevant. A recent issue of Down Beat reported that jazz sales last year accounted for only 1.9 percent of record purchases, down from even a few years ago. That's a striking figure, and points to a sad conclusion: the music, once the source of some of the most unassailable popular songs ever waxed, has become an esoteric specialty, like speaking Latin. Next year Ken Burns will unleash his ten-part magnum opus on jazz, which makes sense. Who better to eulogize something deader than the Confederacy?

But then I suppose I'm not fit to judge. I came to jazz only about five years ago, just before the erstwhile swing boom. I liked some of the new swing music, which makes me a pariah in the eyes of "real" jazz fans, many of whom hated it the way punks hate the Backstreet Boys. Legendary pianist Oscar Peterson told Down Beat that he was "quite fed up with guys putting on porkpie hats, tilting their saxes like Lester [Young, the great Kansas City player], and calling it swing even though they still sounded like rock groups. Obviously, they haven't done their homework and wouldn't know Lester's sound if it rolled over them in a steam roller." Well, sure, most of the stuff was crap--most of anything is crap--but a few genuinely great songs were recorded: "Love" by the Camaros, "Pink Elephant" by the Cherry Poppin' Daddies, and just about everything on All Aboard! and Red Light! by San Francisco's Indigo Swing. If nothing else, these served as a reminder that jazz was once the catchiest music in America. In listening to the massive Duke Ellington box set The Centennial Edition, I am struck by not only the instrumental virtuosity of Duke's bands but also the sheer stickiness of the songs: "Sophisticated Lady," "Day Dream," "I Got It Bad (And That Ain't Good)," "Perdido," "In a Sentimental Mood," "I'm Beginning to See the Light," "Cotton Tail"--the list could go on for pages. Before jazz became fat with government grants and cozy in its mutual admiration society with academic audiences, it required hits to survive, and hits require great hooks. Unless jazz musicians learn how to write tunes again, it's doubtful that in another hundred years we'll be celebrating anything except the bicentennial of Ellington's birth.

For as much criticism as the swing revival suffered, the jazz mainstream isn't coming up with anything more exciting. Self-appointed jazz ambassador Wynton Marsalis has released at least a dozen discs in the past year and a half, but I haven't heard one of the songs on the radio. When confronted by Down Beat with the pathetic sales figures for jazz, Marsalis offered this: "Those numbers are just a way to demoralize musicians. Let's look at all of what jazz has sold. Let's tally up all the sales of all jazz records from the beginning of time--why then you'll see some truly interesting numbers. Jazz today is like a big mountain that has a volcano with hot molten lava that's getting ready to pour out." This is ridiculous. What the numbers obviously mean is that the volcano is dormant.

The problem goes back to the early 40s, when a revolution took place in jazz. At a Harlem club named Minton's, while the swing era was still in full bloom, a group of musicians began experimenting with a new approach to the music. Bandleader Teddy Hill formed a house band with drummer Kenny Clarke, trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, and pianist Thelonious Monk. During nightly jam sessions others would join them, most notably sax great Charlie Parker, who had gotten his start in the swing bands of Kansas City. Vats of ink have been spilled deciphering the meaning of bebop. If jazz writers are to be believed, it defies easy categorization and requires sets and subsets to understand, but a succinct four-part summary was offered by Neil Tesser in The Playboy Guide to Jazz a couple years ago. First, the beboppers used small, quick combos--most often of trumpet and sax backed by piano, bass, and drums--instead of orchestras. Second, they used more complex chords, exploring "lively, colorful combinations of notes that previous listeners considered too dissonant for jazz." Third, they often abandoned the melody of a song in order to improvise, relying more heavily on the song's harmony.

Fourth, beboppers had attitude: "Instead of smooth and hummable melodies designed for dancing, the beboppers created angular tunes with unexpected accents and irregular phrases--and they expected people to listen, rather than jitterbug, to these songs and the solos that followed. The boppers emerged as jazz's first 'angry young men.' They saw themselves as artists first and entertainers second, and they demanded that others respect them and their music accordingly."

Some of the new jazz was undeniably brilliant, and many of the bebop and hard bop recordings that have been remastered and reissued only seem to acquire more appeal with age. Albums like Parker's Now's the Time, Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, Dexter Gordon's Go, Sonny Rollins Vol. 2, and Coltrane's Blue Train are timeless, bristling with energy, jaw-dropping improvisation, and deep spirituality. But when they cast their spell, they laid complete waste to the pop-jazz tradition. Bebop offered challenges musicians thought they could never get from traditional swing bands, as well as an improvisational ethic that provided an escape from the tough work of writing strong melodies. Some of the players saw this: In 1949 drummer Buddy Rich fired his band because his players "just want to play bop and nothing else. In fact," Rich added, "I doubt they can play anything else." Louis Armstrong, whose centennial is being celebrated this year, once referred to bebop as "crazy, mixed-up chords that don't mean nothing at all." Before long swing had become a joke. Producer Quincy Jones recalls in the documentary Listen Up that as a young musician he once hid backstage from bebop trumpeter Miles Davis so Miles wouldn't know he was in the swinging band that had just left the stage.

Suddenly, jazz was Art. Gone were the days when 5,000 people would fill the Savoy Ballroom to lindy hop to the sunny sounds of Ella Fitzgerald or Count Basie. Bebop was impossible to dance to, which was fine with the alienated musicians in Eisenhower's America. (You can bet this era will be well represented by beatnik Burns.) Even bebop's own founders weren't safe from the ideological putsch: when Bird himself made an album of pop standards with a band backed up by a string section, he was labeled a sellout. Then Elvis, to simplify matters greatly, reinvented swing for a new generation, and the Beatles arrived with sacks of great new melodies, and jazz was over as a popular music. Remarkably, beboppers and their fans still blame the drop-off on American racism. Miles once called pop music "white music," and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, in a documentary about the Blue Note label, offers that "whites couldn't appreciate anything that came from black culture." Yet whites were as responsible as blacks for making stars of Ella, Basie, and other black swing artists. Only two kinds of music were allowed on the radio following the news of FDR's death: classical and Duke Ellington.

Ellington, like Armstrong, wasn't too wild about bebop or its offshoots, hard bop and free jazz. In his 1998 book of essays, Always in Pursuit, the unflinching critic Stanley Crouch tells a funny story about Ellington that sums up the problems jazz has had finding an audience since the bebop revolution: in the 60s, bassist Charles Mingus suggested to Ellington that they make an "avant-garde" record together, employing some of the chaotic elements then popular in the free-jazz movement. Ellington replied that he had no desire to take jazz that far back. Duke's philosophy was based on the idea that "if it sounds good, it must be good," and his music deserves every hosanna it received during his centennial last year. But the countless contemporary jazz musicians basking in his glow have yet to conjure even three minutes of magic on their own. As Duke might have said, until they do, their music won't mean a thing.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Sheryl Nields.

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