Tag Archives: jazz history

LARGER THAN ANY TEXTBOOK

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!

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BENDING TIME DELIGHTFULLY: THE ANACHRONIC JAZZ BAND “BACK IN TOWN”

Some listeners believe jazz can be seen as a series of grassy plots, each sealed off and protected an electrical fence.  Thus, the Bad doesn’t infect the Good, the Impure is quarantined from the Truth.

“Old school” bands play GRANDPA’S SPELLS; “swing bands” play DICKIE’S DREAM; “modern” bands play “‘ROUND MIDNIGHT.”

This artifice was created and encouraged by writers, who believed that art could be conceptualized as a straight line, a flow chart, moving towards Progress or Decline.  Pres begat Bird who begat Trane . . .

Most musicians I know smile wearily when confronted with these stifling divisions.  They know that the distance between King Oliver and Bird doesn’t even exist.  In the Forties and Fifties, players trooped into recording studios to make music under these pretenses: HOT MEETS COOL, SWING MEETS DIXIE, and DIXIELAND GOES MODERN (real titles for actual recording dates).  But they knew that the names were simply journalistic devices to package music for consumers and to sell products: the music itself was not altered or harmed by the names.

Thirty and more years ago, I saw two discs in a used record store, by a French band I had never heard of, the ANACHRONIC JAZZ BAND.

From “anachronism,” I knew something interesting was happening, and even though my five years of French had eroded, I could figure out that this band was doing something deliciously unusual: playing “bop” and “modern” material in older styles — taking a Charlie Parker line and playing it in the style of a 1926 Jelly Roll Morton recording.

I bought the records in the spirit of “What could possibly go wrong?” — and they were immensely rewarding.

See for yourself in this 1977 performance of ANTHROPOLOGY:

First, you can’t miss the high good spirits here and the immense expertise: the Anachronics are deeply swinging and wonderfully precise but never stiff.

Second, the whole notion is hilariously wonderful, but not in the often mean-spirited way that comedy / parody / satire often operate (think of Chubby Jackson’s DIXIELAND STOMP, where “modern” musicians play “Dixieland” as a messy amateurish creation).  And it is deeply inquisitive — asking questions of jazz and its “styles” — rather than presenting a production of KING LEAR where everyone wears jeans and speaks in rap cadences.

The Anachronics aren’t satirizing Dizzy and Bird, Morton and Henderson.  Rather, their music is intensely witty play: “What would happen if we brought this composition into this world?  How could we honor both of them and have a rousing good time while doing it?”

The AJB began in 1976 and rolled along to great acclaim until 1980.  Although they apparently were based in the past, they were thrillingly original: no one was doing what they did!  But this post isn’t a nostalgic look back at something rich and rare that is now gone.

I am delighted to write that there is a new AJB CD, just out, and it is a rich banquet of sounds, feeling, and ideas.  Recorded in January 2013, it is called BACK IN TOWN — true enough!

The repertoire comes — initially — from Parker, Rollins, Shearing, Monk, Paul Desmond, Mingus, Chick Corea, Clyde Hart, Miles, Quincy Jones — with a few clever originals by AJB members.  The dazzling musicians on this disc are Philippe Baudoin, piano; Marc Richard, clarinet / alto; Patrick Artero, trumpet; Pierre Guicquéro, trombone; André Villéger, clarinet / alto / tenor; Jean-François Bonnel, clarinet / C-melody; Daniel Huck, vocal, alto; François Fournet, banjo; Gérard Gervois, tuba; Sylvain Glévarec, drums; Göran Eriksson, recorder.  (Arrangements by Baudoin, Richard, Artero.)

The soloing and ensemble work couldn’t be better, and each track is simultaneously a series of small delightful explosions and a revelation.  More than “listening to a record,” I felt as if I were perusing a collection of short stories . . . art that reveals itself more and more, a matter of shadings and gleams, on each hearing.

It has become an invaluable disc for me, and I hope it is the first of many to come.  See and hear for yourself: the Anachronic Jazz Band is truly back in town, and we are very grateful.

Here’s a sample of their recent work, captured by Jeff Guyot in July 2013: COOKIN’ THE FROG:

Here’s the band’s Facebook page.  And their website.

May your happiness increase!

THE “INNOVATION” MIRAGE

A centennial YouTube tribute to Ben Webster by “JazzVideoGuy” is a commendable idea — but its accompanying prose reads:

“Ben is without question one of the music’s immortals.  He did not originate a style or spearhead a period of radical change; but his magnetic tenor saxophone playing moved listeners as deeply as the work of any other artist on his or any other instrument.”

Intriguing that jazz listeners should have to rationalize, even apologize for what some perceive as a weakness.  Must we continue to champion “originality” and “innovation” as prime virtues? 

Frankly, having someone “spearhead a period of radical change” sounds dangerous, unfriendly.  I have to wonder what the jazz chroniclers thought was so wrong with any period of jazz that “radical change” was needed to rescue it from its artistic limitations.  One hears Roy Eldridge or Johnny Hodges in 1944.  Had their styles so calcified as to need all this spearheading?  I think not.  But the historians present it as if they were detritus waiting idly to be swept aside by the radical whiskbrooms of The New Thing.   

This, I suspect, comes from our advertising-driven desire for the New, our impatience with anything that looks Old.  Milk spoils; art doesn’t.

And to the championing of “originality”: let us propose that the “originals” of jazz were (I will pick five): Louis, Duke, Bird, Monk, Coltrane.  None of them, for a moment, pretended that they had come from nowhere, that they had created themselves.  Behind them stood Joe Oliver, James P. Johnson, Will Marion Cook, Lester Young, Benny Goodman, Benny Carter, Teddy Wilson, Johnny Hodges, Coleman Hawkins . . . and so on.  The musicians know that they are all branches on a growing tree; the historians who wish to set one School against another, to make good press, to sell CDs, create artificial distinctions.