A centennial YouTube tribute to Ben Webster by “JazzVideoGuy” is a commendable idea — but its accompanying prose reads:

“Ben is without question one of the music’s immortals.  He did not originate a style or spearhead a period of radical change; but his magnetic tenor saxophone playing moved listeners as deeply as the work of any other artist on his or any other instrument.”

Intriguing that jazz listeners should have to rationalize, even apologize for what some perceive as a weakness.  Must we continue to champion “originality” and “innovation” as prime virtues? 

Frankly, having someone “spearhead a period of radical change” sounds dangerous, unfriendly.  I have to wonder what the jazz chroniclers thought was so wrong with any period of jazz that “radical change” was needed to rescue it from its artistic limitations.  One hears Roy Eldridge or Johnny Hodges in 1944.  Had their styles so calcified as to need all this spearheading?  I think not.  But the historians present it as if they were detritus waiting idly to be swept aside by the radical whiskbrooms of The New Thing.   

This, I suspect, comes from our advertising-driven desire for the New, our impatience with anything that looks Old.  Milk spoils; art doesn’t.

And to the championing of “originality”: let us propose that the “originals” of jazz were (I will pick five): Louis, Duke, Bird, Monk, Coltrane.  None of them, for a moment, pretended that they had come from nowhere, that they had created themselves.  Behind them stood Joe Oliver, James P. Johnson, Will Marion Cook, Lester Young, Benny Goodman, Benny Carter, Teddy Wilson, Johnny Hodges, Coleman Hawkins . . . and so on.  The musicians know that they are all branches on a growing tree; the historians who wish to set one School against another, to make good press, to sell CDs, create artificial distinctions.

4 responses to “THE “INNOVATION” MIRAGE


  2. Ezra Millstein

    I share your taste and your sentiments almost all the time. My hero is Ruby Braff.
    I don’t know that he is innovative or utterly original or takes the music to a new place but I would name Ornette Coleman in the group of 5. Greg Cohen did not play with him for no reason.

  3. John C Graham

    Perceptions change with the passing of time. There may be areas of the music still not explored or possibly just overlooked. Second or third time through(or 4th or 5th)may sound better(or worse)than the first. Ben has always sounded magnificent and majestic to these ears, through every stage of his development. As for tenor players, I dearly loved Danny Moss. Without a Coleman Hawkins there wouldn’t have been a Danny Moss. We’re lucky enough to have Scott Hamilton and Harry Allen a/o. They’re all adding their own flavour to a particular idiom. Nothing wrong with that.

  4. I think it was George Shearing who observed that “a good copy is better than a bad original”.
    True then, true now.

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