From an English formal garden, 2010, a flower that is very much alive. Photograph by Michael Steinman

When does deep reverence become a self-created prison?

With my video camera, I attempt to capture what I think of as emotionally powerful performances by musicians playing and singing in 2012.  I don’t expect everyone to share my preferences.  But a comment posted on a YouTube video of an artist who isn’t yet forty took me by surprise.  Here it is, paraphrased:

Younger Artist’s performance is alright but isn’t distinct enough. Where are the Xs, Ys, and Zs (insert the names of Great Dead Musicians here)?

My first reaction was annoyance on behalf of the Younger Artist, someone whose work I admire, being made tiny in comparison with The Heroic Dead.

And then I felt sad for the commenter, whose ears were so full of the dead artists he loved that he didn’t have room in his consciousness for someone living who sounded different.

Many of us who love this music have spent a long time entranced by the sounds and images of those people who have “made the transition,” who are no longer on the planet.  Charlie Christian and Jimmie Blanton died before I was born, and that doesn’t obstruct my admiration for them.  So a historical perspective — something to be cultivated — has a good deal of reverence for the dead as its foundation.  Otherwise the reader / listener / viewer chases Novelty: this is the best band because it’s the newest, and Thursday’s child is fairer of face than Tuesday’s.  What was his name again?

But for some listeners, the dark shadow of NOT AS GOOD AS hangs over their experience of this lively art.  So that Kid J, a wonderful musician, is somehow unworthy when compared to Bix, Louis, Bunk, Coltrane, Jo, Billie . . .  And because we can so easily acquire almost every note that Lester Young or Peggy Lee (to pick names at random) recorded, we can fill our ears and iPods with the almost three-dimensional aural presence of our Gods and Goddesses from morning to night.  Very seductive!

What if that idolatry closes the door on our ability to appreciate the men and women who are creating it LIVE for us in clubs, concerts, dance halls, videos, discs, and the like?  The experience of being in the same place as musicians who are improvising is not the same as listening to a recording or even watching the video clip.

The improviser or improvisers creates something new and tangy, something that didn’t exist before, right in front of us.  And if there’s no one recording it with a video camera or an iPhone, it’s gone into memory.  The people on the bandstand giggle, take a deep breath, wipe their faces, take a swig of water, and prepare to create something vibrant on the next song.

This williingness to take risks in the name of music is very brave and very beautiful, and we should embrace the living people who are attempting to make a living by making art.  There will be time to sit on the couch and listen to records or mp3s.  There will be time to make critical judgments that the Living aren’t as good as the Dead.

In the recent past, I have heard tenor saxophonists who made me feel the same way Ben Webster does, pianists who make me as elated as Mel Powell does . . . and I could keep both perceptions in my mind, honoring the living and the dead.

I am not, by the way, saying that Everyone has to like Everything.  My own range is narrow by many people’s standards.  But when I hear an artist I’ve never encountered before, and (s)he elates me, it is a deep reward.  It doesn’t mean I am being disloyal to the dead if I applaud a living musician, does it?  But I think some people live in the land of Either / Or and thus, unwittingly, cut themselves off from possible pleasure.

I imagine someone, seventeen or so, walking past the Greenwich Village club called THE PIED PIPER or the RIVIERA (the latter stands, although without music) in 1944, looking at the sandwich sign on the street, advertising James P. Johnson, Max Kaminsky, Rod Cless, Frank Orchard . . . and thinking, “Nah.  He’s no Fats Waller; he’s no Bix; he’s no Tesch; he’s no Jimmy Harrison,” and choosing not to go in . . . and having the next fifty or sixty years to regret his choice.

Artists (and people) are perhaps only Different . . . not Better or Worse.

May your happiness increase.


  1. Bravo Michael!

    I agree completely. There are many marvelous musicians playing today at the peak of their creative powers. Appreciating and encouraging them is to me a separate matter from appreciating the legacies of the giants who are no longer with us.

    Here’s a toast to the living practitioners of that most challenging art form–the creation of jazz.

    Michael P. Zirpolo
    “Mr. Trumpet…the Trials, Tribulations and
    Triumph of Bunny Berigan”

  2. Chill, Michael. Some people invite comparison by their choice of material. Some don’t. Remember Lloyd Bentsen’s “You’re no Jack Kennedy?” to Dan Quayle. He was right, but Danny laughed all the way to the bank as a one of the most successful equity capitalists in America. There’s no justice in the world, but you knew that.

  3. My first thought on your blog was “have they heard Stephanie Trick, or Adam Swanson, Bria Skonberg, etc,” I really feel sure that the great musicians that have passed would be in awe of some our young musicians…I am!!!! Thanks for a wonderful blog, NM

  4. Sage advice, peerlessly expressed. It’s futile to wish for a second Louis, Bix or Bunny, and it’s a strange wish in an art form based on self-expression. If a musician has the courage to create honest, improvised music for us in person, in spite of the undoubted hardships that entails (artistic, commercial, you name it), we should applaud the effort and savor the music on its own terms. We should support it, too, or we risk seeing the day when live jazz is something we can only read about in the history books.

  5. michael, thank you for always letting me know about the new artists and of course those of the past. by the way spike wilner tuesdays with guests like the wonderful melissa aldana are mucho fun.

  6. music is a mode of communication and I have found that most people who tend to qualify artists do so from an unconscious place……..they just can’t hear the new song……so they criticise the ability of the player. many do not make it over the bridge-
    a professional, trained, educated and seasoned musician.

  7. Judy Sadowsky

    I personally feel we are so very fortunate to have this music and these musicians, both past and present. The more the merrier! Jazz is an art and art is created. These musicians are all individuals and all interpret and create different art. How lucky can we be!!

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