This post comes out of decades of listening to, talking about, and proselytzing about jazz, whatever name you want to honor it with. And recent discussions with long-time listeners and creators my age who wonder why X is celebrated and Y isn’t. A is always mentioned when people speak of the music but B is unknown. C gets awards and record contracts but D scuffles. I am, of course, going to restrict myself to people no longer playing: to extend this question to ask, “How come N and not L?” when they are both active rightly invites angry response. Five-star reviews and gigs in well-publicized places, also. Grants and residencies, paragraphs in books.
A recent example, from New York City, certainly one of the jazz capitals of the world. A wonderful musician I know [a stellar player without his own publicity office] was a side-person on a gig, and I asked them, “When’s your next leader gig,” and was given a date four months from that evening. Four months. Yes, I know all about the math: number of clubs, number of spaces, audience posteriors in seats. But still.
It’s in part the question of recognition and identification. When I used to be introduced at parties as “someone who likes jazz,” the polite person (although sometimes responding through now-heavy eyelids) would ask if I listened to Miles. And when I said with a smile that Miles was a great creator but my taste was for music in pre-fusion styles, the polite blankness grew deeper. “You know, like Louis and Ellington and Billie Holiday,” I’d say, and then the polite person made a run for the distant tray of drinks or canapes. I repeat, nothing against Miles. But Miles = jazz. Surely an iconic figure. And I never wanted to interrogate the polite person but I would have loved to know where the identification came from, as if I’d said, “That food,” and the response was, “Oh, yes, pad Thai.” Ending the conversation right there.
Certain principles seem to apply. There is a Pantheon of creators so identified with jazz that their names seem to glow in huge neon. In no order: Coltrane, Miles, Bird, Louis, Duke. And before anyone gets irate, this post is not about knocking them down from their well-deserved pedestals.
Those who study jazz history or Jazz History know of other trumpeters, for an example. Buddy Bolden, perhaps. Dizzy Gillespie and Roy Eldridge. But where are Art Farmer, Don Rader, Frank Newton, Mouse Randolph, Shad Collins?
Some will know of Clifford Brown, Bix Beiderbecke, Bunny Berigan — celebrated not only for their artistic merit but for their short lives, for we love Drama also.
Drama means Trauma plus Truncated Life plus (often) Substance Abuse or Illness. Martyrdom. Billie and Bird. Chick, Blanton, Charlie Christian, LaFaro, Lang.
But let us move from individual awareness or the lack of it to the larger institutions that surround creative individuals. Let us also sidle up into the present.
There have long been Readers’ Polls and Critics’ Polls. Sometimes they truly recognized talent. Other times they reflected ideological scuffles, and “popular taste” emphasized the first word. Tex Beneke could “win more votes” than Lester Young in a listing of the best tenor saxophonists, and with no disrespect to Tex, he benefited from exposure on hit records, his name being called on radio broadcasts, his handsome profile in major studio productions. Winning a DOWN BEAT poll meant you could add it to your advertising, and presumably play gigs that paid better. If you were a METRONOME All-Star, you recorded in the company of your elected peers. ESQUIRE’s “All-American” jazz band played at the Metropolitan Opera House.
Politics. Recognition means money, which means more recognition. All fine, but the obverse is also a dark truth.
Eighty-five years ago, when there were record companies, someone heard a fine musician in a club and told someone else, and then (let us say) the word got to Helen Oakley Dance or Tommy Rockwell, Eli Oberstein, Harry Lim, or John Hammond, who then convinced a record company that R was not only good but that R’s records would sell. Records, radio, perhaps film, club dates, and so on.
But that machinery no longer exists, although CDs still get produced and Spotify hums along. What replaced it often seems like a Charles Ives clamor of self-advertisement, which I am not mocking, because it is necessary. I am not qualified to discuss the relationship of Instagram to art, but I have heard musicians tell of being required to bring “followers” in certain numbers to a gig to assure more gigs.
The splendidly worthy Bandcamp attempts to fill the void where once Columbia, RCA, Decca, Blue Note, Riverside, Chiaroscuro, Pablo, and Arbors once filled the shelves.
But I wonder (“I dream in vain”?) who books the remaining jazz clubs, cruises, and festivals. Who decides which musicians are featured on the remaining jazz periodicals? Who becomes Musician of the Year? And on what grounds? And to make the question more pointed, which agency is in charge of Silence? Who implicitly decides who gets ignored or forgotten?
That contemporary Silence is what most interests me. One could say, with justification, “Look, there were so many magnificent trumpet players in 1944 that you can’t expect me to know who Joe Thomas is.” Or, “You say that Nat Jaffe was a remarkable pianist. But I can’t find him on YouTube. How do I know he really existed and you didn’t make him up?”
But now. I know hundreds of glorious creative musicians who don’t get interviewed or profiled, who must pay to produce their own music for public consumption, who never get awards or grants, who scuffle for low-paying club dates.
Did something happen to jazz when I was sleeping that narrowed the Pantheon down into two dozen people who would get the spotlight? Was it the market, or the shrinking audience? Did technology — music for free — destroy a system that had a larger sense of merit to be rewarded? Did TikTok replace Nat Hentoff and Otis Ferguson?
I know some of the decisions — who will get Page One, who will show up only in the obituaries — are a matter of editorial judgment, human energy, as well as economics. I could not write about all the new CDs I am asked to review. (And that’s leaving aside that some of them I don’t like.) A magazine or newspaper has only so many column inches and there are publication deadlines. Of course periodicals want to attract readers and advertisers. But it does seem as if the same faces get the attention, and others, creative and diligent, remain in the shadows.
Is it a matter of who makes the most noise, whose “product” is the most likely to garner attention, what offering seems most singular? Sometimes those seem the only explanations. Packaging triumphing over substance.
JAZZ LIVES leans to the side of what some may call perverse. I write about what moves me, and stay silent about what doesn’t. And all the urging of publicists and fans sometimes add to the stubbornness. I think to myself, “I don’t have to write about __________, whose most recent YouTube video got nine hundred thusand hits in less than a week. They don’t need me. I want to write about ___________, who had ten people in the audience at their last gig. There I can do some good.”
I am not a conspiracy theorist, but at times it seems as if there is a faux-Wizard or committee of “influencers” behind the curtain deciding Who gets the limo and Who has to walk. Is it really “who you know?” more than “can you play / sing / write?” Or “Whose face on the cover will make people buy this issue?”
Are choices determined by extra-musical criteria?
That would be very sad news.
If you want me, I’ll be in the front row, next to Diogenes. He knows what’s good and he seeks it out.
May your happiness increase!