I opened a jazz-history textbook the other day, and was struck once again by the packaging of the music as a chronologically-unfolding procession. Each “style” is afforded a chapter. World musics lead to ragtime, to Bolden, to Louis, Henderson, Ellington, Lester, Bird, Miles, Coltrane, Ornette, and “the future of jazz.”

Implicit in this survey, since “progress is our most important product” in this contemporary landscape, is the idea that the music began in simplicity (acceptable because they didn’t know any better) and added on new densities of harmony, rhythm (all to be applauded).

I find the idea that New is an improvement on Old distasteful, but I will leave that for now.  (By the same token, I do not automatically think Old = True, and New = Corrupt.)

What fascinated me so much in this textbook was the presentation of The Great Innovators.  The “Stars,” if you will. I am proud of what others might call unrestrained admiration for Louis Armstrong — a love perhaps bordering on idolatry. I feel the same way about Jack Teagarden, Lester Young, Billie Holiday and a hundred others. But this book made clear that when the New Innovator came to town, everyone tried to play or sing like him / her, so immense was their powerful artistic identity.

The Innovators, to be sure, affected musicians with seismic force. Rex Stewart wrote of hearing Louis with Henderson that he, Rex, tried to not only play like Louis but affect all things Louis-like.

But we see in Rex’s case, that imitation very quickly becomes a subtler thing, and that Rex absorbed from Louis certain shadings and approaches that fit into his own conception of what he was meant to do and be.

There is, of course, the other example: the Innovator comes to town, the critics go wild, the fans bow down — but some musicians say, “That is not for me at all,” and keep developing their own sounds in a sweetly defiant individuality. Pee Wee Russell is very much aware of Benny Goodman; Miff Mole knows about Jack Teagarden; Pete Brown lives in the same city as Charlie Parker . . . but Russell, Mole, and Brown go their own ways.

All this is meant only to suggest that the creative improvised music we love is too large, too organic, too fluid to be compressed into a forward-moving history textbook.

May your happiness increase!


  1. The schoolmaster of modernism has loomed so large over jazz pedagogy, he isn’t even visible anymore. We have internalized his presence – we feel the prod ourselves whenever we look back.

  2. Tom Hustad

    In my career I focused on managing innovation. There are many ways to define it that different in scope (revolutionary to improved to various degrees), but each requires assessment in the context of those who are affected. In jazz ‘new’ is complicated, and one of our most important challenges is developing new and extended audiences unfamiliar with jazz apart from hearing music in the background in shops and restaurants. To them as ‘novices,’ anything they hear might be new in jazz styles. To jazz critics, new means often radical shifts in style (e.g. “The New Thing”). To me, all this boils down to whether a musician and performance delights and connects to people, whether they are familiar or not with various styles of jazz, including a wide range of intermediate levels of familiarity. To me there are ‘new’ things happening in many jazz performances simply because improvised performances are spontaneous, at least in part. Some of these new things are adopted and adapted by others, and that is reflected in the sort of history Michael describes in this book as Miff Mole’s influence is extended by Teagarden’s artistry. Truly jazz has evolved, but it is artificial to then classify only certain styles as ‘new’ and others as ‘old.’ That is an unfortunate implication too easily drawn from various histories of jazz where labels can become more important than artistry. Progress can occur in jazz performance at many levels simultaneously. Hopefully the ‘future of jazz’ is not to be determined by a single approach designated by a few authors and will reflect the many pathways that various artists forge to create delight for an expanding (we hope) and diverse audience.

  3. Andrew J. Sammut

    Kenneth Prouty, a professor at Michigan State University, wrote a fascinating essay on the jazz canon and the challenges of fitting the history of jazz into a straightforward narrative. He touches upon jazz history texts that happen to lionize the same seminal figures, leading the reader to ask who gets left out of the story.

    I am greatly paraphrasing but you can read it online at

    One of his most fascinating points (to me) in his paper is about the decade-based model of jazz history, where styles, developments and players are neatly grouped into “the twenties, the thirties, etc.” Combined with a recent listening session with a friend who has sharp, loving enough ear to distinguish individual years as well as decades or periods in a musician’s playing, Prouty’s point really made me reconsider how I approach this music.

  4. I adore Satchmo, Dizzy, Bix, Handy, Monk, Parker …list is endless! Deep appreciation to you Michael for acknowledging and honoring the hundreds of other jazz musicians whom contributed so greatly with hard work and commitment to their bands and friends!

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