Nisensen raises some excellent questions which in turn, prompt many addition questions.
Must jazz continue to progress to remain viable?
(Buddy Bolden) ››› King Oliver ››› Louis Armstrong ››› Roy Eldridge ››› Dizzy Gillespie ››› Miles Davis ››› Lee Morgan ››› Clifford Brown ››› Freddie Hubbard ››› Woody Shaw.
But then we get to the 1980s and 90s and what happens?
We observed the emergence of "The Young Lion Movement" --- a neo-conservative, reaction against the avant-garde and jazz-rock fusion, spearheaded by record labels. Their primary goal was to market more accessible jazz music in the style of the 1950s and 60s, played predominantly by talented, young, well-dressed African-American men.
Moving from progression and rebellion to recreation represented a radical shift in the jazz world.
What lead to this?
- Dexter Gordon’s homecoming in 1976: After 15 years of residing and performing in Europe, the expatriate jazzman returned to the US to performed a triumphant stint at the Village Vanguard. These performances led to subsequent recordings and extensive promotion from Columbia records. Just imagine the impact of Dexter's swinging, acoustic, hard bop sound, transplanted (seemingly from nowhere) into an era accustomed to hearing cross-over, disco-infused, commercial styles!
- Wynton Marsalis’ emergence as a charismatic, eloquent, marketable trumpet player, adept in both classical and jazz. He played with Art Blakey at the time, perpetuating the hard bop style of the 1960s.
- swing is essential
- the music must be acoustic (minimally amplified and no electronic instruments)
- the blues is an intrinsic element of jazz
- jazz reflects and stems from the culture and life of African Americans
Nisensen also points out another significant shift: until this time, jazz music always had a direct correlation to the times in which it was created. Blues drenched hard-bop of the late 50s and 1960s, for instance, reflected an era where African-Americans fought for racial equality. During this time the "Black Power" slogan was adopted, Black pride was prevalent, many musicians adopted African names, the Black Panther movement emerged, etc.
Should jazz be a reflective expression of its times? What if it isn’t? Is it then less artistically valid? If contextually disconnected, are its practitioners thereby musical liars?
Joey DeFrancesco, an Italian-American teenager from Philadelphia who was playing in the 1950s/60s hard bop style of Jimmy Smith. The music was swinging, bluesy and brilliantly executed, but was void of its original context and intent. Similarly, Brad Mehdau, an upper class optometrist’s kid from West Hartford, CT was playing in the style of Wynton Kelly. Obviously Brad has developed significantly as an artist since then, and has come into his own. But at the time, he was just another upcoming, half-done young lion, playing musical vocabulary from a previous era.
Even today, one can see that neo-conservatives uniformly revere and idolize their iconic musical forefathers. They work diligently to play, compose and even dress like Ellington, Monk, Coltrane, Davis, etc. Yet they reject the resolute intents of their forefathers to:
- play with their own unique sound/material,
- express themselves and the times in which they lived, and
- be committed to their own artistic vision.
Ongoing innovation was an essential part of the history of jazz. Is it necessary for the continued vitality of the art form?Some people, including writer Tom Piazza, view Marsalis as the savior of jazz. Wynton brought about a resurgence in the popularity of the music, created a respectable performance venue for the genre at Jazz at Lincoln Center, improved the recorded quality of the string bass, and is an eloquent spokesperson for the music.
Nisensen on the other hand, argues that the dogma of the neoconservatives has:
Dick Oatts, Fred Hersch, Hal Crook, Jim McNeely, Kenny Wheeler, Ed Neumeister, Billy Drewes, George Garzone, Billy Hart, Jerry Bergonzi, etc. Although artists of the highest caliber, who had paid their dues, none appeared on the front cover of magazines or had major label contracts.
The good news is that many of these forward-thinking artists turned to teaching, and have influenced subsequent generations. History has a way of correcting itself.
Why is it important to contextualize the young lion movement?Today's university students didn't experience the young lion movement firsthand. They didn't grow up reading and trying to make sense of Wynton Marsalis interviews. They must be made aware that the continuum of jazz’s evolution was unnaturally disrupted.
We must be mindful of philosophies that have entered our subconscious, through reading and listening to interviews by Marsalis and his disciples.
Building on tradition, rather than dwelling on it may be a healthier approach, if it is concluded that innovation/evolution is an important defining factor for this art form.
Questions with which all jazz musicians, teachers and students should grapple include:
- How strong a sense of tradition must we have?
- What aspects of the neo-classicist definition do you accept? What aspects do you reject?
- What is jazz and which of today’s musicians best exemplify it?
- What might your next album sound like? Do we need another quintet album in the style of 1957 hard bop?
Let me know your thoughts... and pick up a copy of Nisenson's book at your nearest library.