I first wanted to call this post THE DEATH OF HISTORICAL CONSCIOUSNESS, but that title, although accurate, seemed too ponderous to be chewed and swallowed. So the BBC-mystery title shall stand. And the blank tombstone.

Maybe it’s collective amnesia, but can people forget what they never acknowledged to begin with?

What do I mean?

I have a large collection of photographs, and I found an extra one of a famous musician, an 8 x 10″ glossy with him in playing position, which I brought with me to a gig led by a then young artist who shone on the same instrument, someone of great promise. I gave him the photo, he looked at it, then at me, and said, “Who is that?” I confess that my first stifled reaction was annoyance, but I didn’t succumb; I didn’t rip it out of his hands. I identified the famous subject, and said, “Would you like it?” and he gratefully said he would.

That’s an extreme case. Is it innocence, shallow awareness, or something more?

But I’ve gotten into conversations with musicians I admire deeply, and bringing up some perhaps obscure name of a player on their instrument, the reaction is often a faraway look, with some embarrassment, and “Ohhhhhh. _______________. I’ve heard of them before, but never had the time to really investigate. Are they good?” And I think to myself, “You are a wonderful artist, but you haven’t put in the time studying the art as it exists and existed beyond your own mouthpiece, or fingers . . . ” It’s not limited to archaeology, for I’ve met North American musicians who live on one coast who are ignorant of great contemporaries on the other.

Now, these may be the rare exceptions, because I have met enough deep musicians who can discourse at length about the Ancestors: Mildred Bailey, Gene Krupa, Ben Pollack, Mouse Randolph, Pete Brown, Tiny Parham, Bernard Addison, and three dozen more. But when I meet this sort of sweet obliviousness, this easy acceptance of ignorance, it makes me cringe and then wonder. Where I come from. a lack of curiosity is a moral problem.

(I won’t linger on those who believe anything before Coltrane isn’t worth listening to, or those who “can’t hear” anything recorded before KIND OF BLUE because it’s so “primitive” and the sound is so poor. Their loss. Their substantial loss.)

You can say, “Well, these young cats are busy honing their craft, making a living, hustling from gig to gig. They don’t have the leisure time you do, Michael, to study the oeuvre of Frank Chace,” and you’d be right. But there is an odd technological twist to this situation: when I was a boy, I didn’t have to walk miles through the snow, barefoot, but much of the recorded history of jazz was not easily accessible to me. But I listened to as much as I could — from records I bought, from the local library’s collection, from FM radio. I learned as much as I could from books and liner notes. There was no Facebook; I didn’t start to have a jazz community of people who leaned as I did until I was almost out of high school.

Given YouTube and Spotify, and other digital resources, if a young pianist wants to hear nearly everything Teddy Wilson, let us, say, ever recorded, she has only to make sure her iPhone is charged and her airbuds in peak condition. I purl though YouTube some days and am open-mouthed at the rarities now easily available. The cornucopia is overflowing for those who are curious, eager to learn more about the art by which they define themselves.

I am reluctant to call this willful self-absorption, but some centuries ago, you couldn’t begin to call yourself A Poet if you hadn’t memorized, imitated, improvised on, analyzed the great works of the past. Serious study was your ticket of admission to the guild of craftspeople. If you wanted to be play cello in a string quartet, you had to have a deep immersion — practice and theory — in Haydn, Mozart, and the Elders. I never taught Creative Writing, but I have friends who do, and when students introduce themselves, “I’m five hundred pages into my novel,” and the question is asked, “What are you reading?” and the answer is either a blank stare or perhaps one contemporary author. Austen, Woolf, Joyce, Faulkner — new phone, who dis? Imagine an aspiring modernist painter who has never seen Kandinsky. Then imagine a young tenor saxophonist to whom the names Harold Ashby and Tubby Hayes are just names.

I wonder how an alto saxophonist can say, “Hey, I practice eight hours a day from the REAL BOOK, and I’m working on my own conception,” but never have heard Hodges, Carter, Pete Brown, Hilton Jefferson, to name four Ancestors. Yes, most modern jazz players know their Trane and Miles, but beyond that . . . ? (We can of course blame Jazz Studies programs in universities that begin in 1945, but they are too easy a target.)

I mentioned Frank Chace before, and when I asked him about his youthful immersion in the music, I said, “In 1954, did you also listen to Lee Konitz?” and his answer was an immediate, “We listened to everything. We thought that was a musician’s job.”

In recent years, I might meet a young pianist deeply immersed in Bud Powell, which is of course admirable. But when I ask, “Hey, have you heard Nat Cole, Billy Kyle, Kenny Kersey, Clyde Hart?” and the answer is “Who?” I have to say, “They are where Bud came from, pianists he heard.” “Oh.”

The musicians I’ve depicted (or you may think, slandered) above are myopic but they can be helped: no twelve-step program is needed. You’re a young trombonist and you’ve never heard of Bill Harris? Here’s five minutes of convincing . . . and curiosity takes over. Conversion isn’t the desired end, but education is.

But when I consider how this myopia has undermined the listening audience, I get even more depressed. I won’t even bother to invent fanciful names for imaginary bands (although I toyed with The Too-Tight Polo Shirt Collective and The Birkenstock Buskers for a moment) but I will just call them all SFB, for Someone’s Favorite Band.

So a fan I encounter after a festival set which includes some too-hasty Jelly Roll Morton compositions, complete with long drum solos, comes to me ecstatic, saying, “Wasn’t that wonderful?!” and I politely but sourly say, “They really made a mess of SHREVEPORT STOMP,” and I get what is casually called “the fish-eye,” but I continue. “Do you know that song? Have you ever heard the original version? Do you know the Morton trios, James Dapogny’s recordings, or the Bob Wilber versions?” and the fan is already starting to back up, appalled by pedantry. I imagine myself shouting down the corridor, “Omer Simeon! Barney Bigard! Tommy Benford!” as the traumatized fan runs off and calls for Security.

Or, even more prevalent, the fan wearing the SFB shirt and giving the secret SFB handshake applauds a rendition of some obscure jazz classic made rustic, the melody flattened, some important chord changes missed, and the verdict is, “They are the greatest band I’ve ever heard!” which may be true, simply because the ecstatic listener has heard no one else. Who’s Clarence Williams? Who’s Floyd Casey?

You may call my perspective a snobbish one, but it is as if (for readers who eat cheese), “Manchego? Brie? What’s that? Nothing’s better than Cheez Whiz in a can.” Go to it, I think. But I am declining any dinner invitations from you, no matter how nice you are.

And perhaps the fans feel that SFB is “keeping the music alive,” and if you count the millions of YouTube visits to videos by Someone’s Favorite Band, perhaps they are. But if the fans of SFB will only follow them, because they are The Truth, other worthy and more worthy bands go under for lack of gigs. The fan base becomes intensely narrow . . . and you cannot build a tall building on an upended plastic cup.

Years ago I might have despaired because I couldn’t hear the Ellington Fargo 1940 dance date. Now I can hear it whenever I want, and I despair because other people haven’t taken the time to hear it. Devoted fans. Eminent musicians.

Those who ignore history may not be condemned to repeat it. But if people don’t descend deeply into the art form they say they love, they are cutting off its air and are missing out on breathtaking creations. It’s all spread out on the cyber-table. But one has to start one’s own investigation, and see a reason to do so.

May your happiness increase!

17 responses to “WHO KILLED HISTORY?

  1. Amen, Brother Michael!!!

  2. And we now live in an era where music– that once was an art of the ephemeral– can endure and be shared across the generations, if there are those willing to listen.

  3. Dear Michael, Once again you’ve nailed it. You’ve said everything I wanted to say with 524% more depth and breadth.Critical thinking and listening is something I feel we need more of as musicians. I feel a little bad that in my Jazz Piano class I’m already up to 1957 in the first semester. But we did listen to Billy Kyle and Dodo Marmarosa and Washington Phillips, among many others. I love it when the students disagree with me and provide good reasons for their opinions, but no one has said Teddy Wilson is boring.You can’t read Joyce without having read Shakespeare, and I feel that jazz education, like you pointed out, mostly ignores much of what happened before 1945. I was in Paris two weeks ago and heard a young tenorist who really impressed me. The first thing I thought of was, “Wow! She sounds like she’s really checked out Bud Freeman!” She sounded better than any other horn player in the 20 performances at La Salle Pleyel. (The young Django group was perhaps the best thing there). I’m happy you are so prolific, because that means I can read your essays for the rest of my life.Yours in music and all things good,Jon Dryden Jon Dryden831-588-8353Lecturer in Jazz Studies, San Jose State UniversityJazz Piano Instructor, Santa Clara Universityjondryden@yahoo.com InstagramFacebook Spotify Jon Dryden TrioSpotify DrifterBandcamp- DrifterBandcamp- The Jon Dryden Trio

  4. My happiness definitely increased after reading that one.
    No explanation warranted.

  5. Agreed. Modern tech and the need for quick gratification from “likes/shares” contributes to a forward-biased focus, leading many to dismiss a broad variety of progenitors as simplistic prelude to the (assumed superior) modern day. It also can manifest as intense focus on technical rather than motific and interpretive aspects. The trumpeters know about Miles….but are only amused by names like Bubber & Jabbo. Reed players play hyperspeed rote Bird solos, but can’t recognize the lyrical phrasing of Prez, ferocity of Ben Webster or the uniqueness of Pee Wee Russell if they don’t try listening & studying more deeply.

  6. What a perfectly stated and thoughtful post. Thank you.

  7. I think the root of this is the collapse of the mentoring tradition where older players would instruct and promote younger players resulting in an unbroken link between generations. Blakey was a prominent promoter of younger players and an instructor. Barry Harris, who recently passed, was another. Milt Hinton of course! King Oliver!

    But It has moved from “the street” to the academy with predictable results, good and not so good.

    The abundant infrastructure of venues for players which formed the material basis for the mentor tradition largely collapsed about 50 yeas ago.That is two generations.

    There are sociological and economic reasons for this of course, beyond this discussion. (There is a book by Gerald Horne called “Jazz and Justice” which discuses this to some extent.).

    In my own experience as a player (I am now considered an ‘elder’) , younger people are receptive to learning about older players and playing the “good old good ones”.

    All this said I am rather amazed by the number of younger players (as consistently displayed on this blog) who are hip to the older styles and play it with integrity and originality. They obviously are aware of “history”.

    (But I hath said enough)

  8. An excellent polemic! Well done, Michael!

  9. Bravo Michael. I am still hungry to learn and share what I know and my experiences with young cats who love to hear about it and jot down names to check out on youtube and other platforms. I’m no techie but we are living in a time when there is no excuse for a drummer not to check out Sid or a trumpeter to find Roy and when they do it will open up their hearts and that can only add depth to what ever it is they are presenting.

  10. Furio Dei Rossi

    Great! That’s all

  11. I lost my comment. Michael. You expect too much from people. Gene Krupa had never heard of Jay Corre or Sal Nistico, younger tenor players in the 1960s. I know. I didn’t ask him about them, but someone else did. I was there. “Never heard of them.” As God is my judge.

    Give the younger people a break. Ignorance is no sin. Refusal to learn is. Enough. I got no business lecturing you. None whatsoever.

  12. Do you know how many singers I never heard. I go to this wonderful You Tube page (I mention it in the AAJ piece), Eddie…..I can’t recall does it. I am in awe of him. And you. But, sadly, there is what economists call opportunity cost. One of these days I’ll check out a few of the chick singers there. But I’ll have to do my taxes first.

  13. Eddie Styles

  14. Bill Morrison

    I think it’s more complicated, and even worse, than a simple lack of curiosity. To give structure to the history of jazz, the typical textbook narrative is one of innovation up to about the time of Coltrane’s death, after which no one quite knows what to say. This puts all the emphasis on innovators, at the expense of the players who “only” played lyrically and had beautiful, personal voices. (Not to mention that innovation is easier to write about than beauty.) Ironically, this means that even innovators get shortchanged–a student so indoctrinated is less apt to enjoy Jimmy Blanton for the sake of Jimmy Blanton than he or she is to regard Blanton as little more than a link in the Great Chain of Glorious Innovation leading up to Scott LaFaro. Implicitly, it also puts the onus on the neophyte player not simply to play well, but to aspire to be an innovator, an absurdly tall order when one considers what a small number of musicians were true innovators. Who knows how many latter-day Joe Newmans or Tony Fruscellas we may have lost in the rush to be the next Miles Davis?

  15. This is so wise, Bill: I am honored to have it on my page. AND you bring in the sacred name of Tony Fruscella! Blessings, brother.

  16. Bill Morrison

    Thank you, Michael.

  17. danyel nicholas

    I agree to every word. I even find myself shouting down the corridor, “Omer Simeon!” at least once a week. Phil Schaap kept complaining that there were too many musicians educated and not enough connoisseurs. Confucian scholar-artists would not even understand how there could be a difference!

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