I’m troubled by the code words that jazz listeners use to describe the varieties of music they prefer.
Some who believe that jazz only reached fruition when Charlie Parker (or John Coltrane or Ornette Coleman) burst forth, say in print that they prefer jazz that is “forward-looking,” “adventurous,” “innovative.” Others who think jazz reached the perfection of form sometime before 1945 or 1960 or 2000 and has been in decline ever since, then your music of choice is “authentic,” “the real thing,” “pure,” “uncorrupted.” Of course, “modern,” “contemporary,” “timeless” get a workout as well. “Adventurous,” too.
Veiled in code words, these ideological positions seek to validate a false premise: that Art progresses or declines. Did Louis “improve” on King Oliver? Did Clifford Brown “improve” on Roy Eldridge? Was “Swing” more innovative than “New Orleans” or “Chicago”; did “Bebop” sweep all that come before it away, only to be rumped by “Hard Bop” and “Free Jazz”?
Seriously, it makes jazz seem like a parade of the years: if you thought 1944 was great, wait till you hear 1945 — or one box of detergent replacing the last one because the NEW box is IMPROVED (and orange with blue stripes, too).
We all have very particular — sometimes idiosyncratic — preferences in our music as well as in everything else.
But when those preferences are expressed as statements of critical truth, they may do the music a disservice. I prefer Ellington’s analogy of the diner in a restaurant who likes his fish cooked the way Pierre does it. So if your definition of the ideal way to play the alto saxophone is Hilton Jefferson or Benny Carter or Phil Woods, say so. Those who see jazz as a progress year by year, with each new stylistic change an inevitable improvement on the old-fashioned music of the dusty past are missing out on many hot choruses, now and on record. And the listeners who are so committed to banjo-and-tuba rhythm sections and find anything else oppressively “modern” may deprive themselves of the joy of Andy Brown, Neil Miner, and Jeff Hamilton.
So let us abandon the ideological structures for an hour or a day. Say, rather, “I like the way _________ sings, the way ________ plays trumpet,” rather than suggesting that either of these players has somehow made all others superfluous. “Better” and “greater” might well be dispensable. Let us be open about our admittedly subjective likes and dislikes (I have boxes of them to share) — to be cherished as personal expressions, but not made into statements of value.
And perhaps it’s time for listeners and critics, too, to go back to the Blindfold Test — or what CADENCE calls “Flying Blind.” Let us not be swayed by the famous name (or the absolutely unknown name) on the CD: what does the music sound like?
A few unsolicited ruminations to begin 2010 . . . .