When I was in graduate school, we knew that “modernism” began around the First World War; we are now in “post-modernism,” although the name makes me itchy, especially when it’s collapsed into “pomo.”   

I feel a kinship to “modernism” as practiced by Woolf, Joyce, Kandinsky, Stravinsky, and so on.  Looking at the world through rose-colored glasses that are a little askew, intentionally.  Breaking things up to see what nifty shapes they might take.  Shoring those fragments against our ruins. 

In jazz, some older listeners define “modern” as the music of Gillespie and Parker.  They were revolutionaries, we are told, getting rid of all that stale Big Band stuff.  But even that might seem antiquarian to those listeners who hear “modernism” as Anthony Braxton.  Both those assertions makes me bristle, because Louis and Lester and Big Sid and Bill Basie were “modern” then and remain so. 

But my point of view is obviously outmoded. 

The Museum of Modern Art is restoring its series of outdoor free concerts in its Summergarden.  A fine thing!  I did not expect them to send Mozart into the warm summer evening (although I would have loved it) but someone’s idea of jazz “modernism” is Andrew Cyrille and Don Byron.  Fine, respected fellows, both of them . . . but when will curators and their likes realize that “modernism,” if you’re going to connect it accurately to the climate it came from, might be something like Louis bursting out of the Henderson band or Bix in 1927? 

The double standard is at work: a Kandinsky (like the one at top) remains “modern,” while the free-thinking jazz modernism still practiced in New York City has, to some ears, become “old.” 

See for yourself:

My imagined series would be called KANDINSKY MEETS KAMINSKY, but would MOMA go for it?

13 responses to “ONE PERSON’S “MODERN”

  1. Have you noticed that the more modern it is the quicker it becomes dated?
    Miles’ work from Bitches Brew onwards was seen as an exciting new direction yet Kind of Blue now sounds, even after saturation point has long been reached, the fresher.

  2. To me, you are talking about a dilemma that faces not just curators, but also jazz musicians and other artists: to what extent do I need to strive to be “new,” aka modern? If I was going to produce some art/music event on this subject, my goal would not be to bring certain things forward as “modern,” but to explore this dilemma. Artists from many different eras could speak (or rather, play) to this issue.

  3. Very wise! I think that the moment an artist — with a paintbrush, a guitar, or a netbook — sets out to be NEW, he or she might be letting unseen forces and restrictions get in the way of an artistic impulse. Better than art should be true and beautiful, although we know those terms are loaded, too. And for those readers ready to write in that Cyrille and Byron are both true and beautiful, I am not saying that their work isn’t . . . to you. Cheers! Michael

  4. Bob Sparkman

    Truth and beauty are high ideals, hard to achieve in a fast changing and commercial world, where “the eye (ear?) of the beholder” is assailed with such constant excess as to be numbed beyond reason. Add avarice and personal axes, and it’s a wonder that either survives. But “timelessness” is “its own reward,” and most artists can strive for that.

  5. And those axes are very sharp! Woodman, spare that . . . uh . . . tree! MS

  6. Happy Birthday to Miles Davis today (May 26) –

    See an interesting collection of pictures at:

  7. John P. Cooper

    Painting by

    Wassily Kandinsky – Composition VIII – 1923 –

  8. I missed the party? Dang, as the kids say. But thanks for reminding us, Marv. Cheers! MS

  9. I’ve always felt a connection between early jazz and Modernism, as an all-purpose collective term for postwar movements in the arts. This might seem counterintuitive based on works associated with jazz at the time. Jazz lyrics and poster art were very much pop phenomena, still steeped in the aesthetics of vaudeville. Yet I find parallels with Modernism in the Hot Five recordings or the Trumbauer Orchestra recordings. The hints of abstraction, the improvisation around melodies, the reserved sense of joy while exploring the form – at their best these things strike my ear as being a musical expression of what was concurrently en vogue in poetry and the visual arts.

  10. Pingback: ONE PERSON’S “MODERN”

  11. A tremendously good and relevent point (the original post, that is) well made.
    I also feel that our reveloutions have been won, the values established, and now is a time for consolidation. There is such a rich literature now to be digested, if you only have the sensitivity, and, yes, the ability to discern.
    But, moreover, your notion of “modernism” itself here is what I share.

  12. I don’t understand your beef.

    Wouldn’t your definition of “modernism” also encompass Lester Young, and his 1956 trio album with Nat “King” Cole and Buddy Rich? Which is in fact the inspiration behind Don Byron’s Ivey-Divey Trio, with Jason Moran and Billy Hart, who will be playing at MOMA?

    I for one am always happy to listen to this group, who perform beautifully and flexibly with reference to jazz modernism of the 40s, 50s, 60s and beyond, without rigid adherence to “schools” or “movements” — in a way that sounds entirely fresh to me…

  13. Sir, I don’t have a “beef.” I did not dismiss Byron’s music . . . but a group inspired by a recording made in 1946 is not the same thing as musicians playing the music of the modernist period. I am glad that you enjoy their music — at this rate, I am glad that anyone comes out in public to state their enjoyment of jazz — but my “beef” is a preference. I’ve expressed mine; you’ve expressed yours. Cheers! MS

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