Like it or not, there’s no human being alive anywhere today who isn’t in some way a product of the times through which they’re passing. At the moment those ‘times’ are unified by one single, enormous and deadly threat, but even in more peaceable circumstances the world around us shapes and influences our choices, actions, tastes and behaviours, often without any conscious effort. And as it is in life in general so it is in jazz. In my case, the musical personality/writer that I have become is a direct result of the happenstance formed by my birth year and the trends within the music most prevalent in my teens.
Born in 1974, I first became intrigued by jazz around twelve years of age and by the time I was taking a serious interest in the music – around 1989/90 – I was the sort of person tailor made for the mood of the moment. And what was that mood, exactly? Well, the early 1980s to middle-1990s marked a decade and a half stretch in which jazz began to feed off its rich backstory in a manner that was, up to this point, virtually unheard of. True, ‘revivalism’ in the 1950s (on both sides of the Atlantic) had create a wave of young men eager to play the music first made by the elders and betters in New Orleans and Chicago almost a half century earlier but the fundamental difference between these young turks and the pride of young lions who came to dominate the 1980s jazz scene was that they were essaying these older styles at the same time when many of the men who pioneered them were still themselves musically active. In extreme cases like that of the resurgent Bunk Johnson jazz began to cycle back upon itself, providing second wind to those whose careers had either stalled or simply fallen into abstraction. But in the ‘tradition’ conscious era of the 1980s, many of those ploughing the furrow of retro-bop were free to do so without fear of competition from the styles originators.
Take the example of Wynton Marsalis, the hugely gifted, precocious and articulate tyro of the trumpet who burst upon the scene at the dawn of the decade as a member of that veritable jazz dynasty, the Jazz Messengers. Even in his teens Marsalis was ready to set up shop as a sort of walking/talking jazz history book and in taking the baton of Messengers trumpet man he was automatically a part of a brass lineage that stretched back to Clifford Brown, Kenny Dorham, Lee Morgan and Freddie Hubbard. Yet whereas men like Dorham and Hubbard were in essence seizing the mantle of the players who directly preceded them, Marsalis found himself in an almost unique position; Hard Bop’s biggest hitters on his instrument – players like Brown, Dorham and Morgan – were already long dead, all having left this mortal coil in tragic circumstances well before their time. And even those who occupied that same chronological era (if not quite the same stylistic base) – Miles Davis and Chet Baker – had moved on from the music of their younger selves, Davis to the heady realms of plugged-in post-bop fusion and Baker to ever more navel-gazing introspection. As such, Marsalis’ ‘competition’ was rather slight; Freddie Hubbard was still around playing as brilliantly as his life was wayward, while Woody Shaw – arguably the 1970s most overlooked trumpet talent – was set to fall in the face of the same kind of jazz-life curse as earlier heroes like Brown and Morgan.
Forefathers and antecedents
To a young would-be jazz musician like myself, Marsalis became a figurehead. Already predisposed to believing in my own nostalgic musical faith (in the late 1980s I was head over heels in love with the recordings of the Gerry Mulligan Quartet), when I first encountered Marsalis’ passionate, forthright defence of the old-school values of bop and the blues – values he thought had been needlessly buried in the 1970s’ rush for ‘new’ sounds – I became an instant convert. He spoke animatedly and with huge conviction on the importance of knowing and becoming thoroughly familiar with the great legacy of the music’s past, from King Oliver to early (acoustic) Ornette Coleman, his sermonising punctuated with words like lineage, referencing and tradition. Indeed, this last word even became almost a sub-genre of its own, young players from Tokyo to Toronto suddenly talking of a vast, imposing and yet hugely enriching body of recorded work from the 1920s to the early 1960s known simply as ‘The Tradition’. And everywhere from Los Angeles to London young players' album titles started including overt name-checking of musical forefathers and antecedents from Louis Armstrong to John Coltrane. This impressive back story, it seemed, was there not to be ignored or cast off but to set the standard for anyone who claimed to be a ‘serious’ jazzman. If you could fire off a Charlie Parker theme, knew your way around an obscure piece of Ellingtonia, could dig into a pre-bop blues and play a heartfelt ballad the world, it seemed, was your oyster. Oh, and if you happened to look good in a suit and had a line in entertaining, engaging and yet dedicated patter (as Marsalis and his saxophonist brother Branford had) that helped too.
I fell hook, line and sinker for this entire rationale, buying all the latest ‘tradition’-heavy releases, poring over my Blue Note, Verve and Impulse! reissues, even posing with my saxophone in the one suit I owned in front of the bedroom mirror while playing along to Branford Marsalis and Courtney Pine albums, imagining I was the next sharply cut cat to sign a major record deal. Even outside jazz this thinking guided my every move, my G.C.S.E. English essays peppered with all the buzz words of the Marsalis’ doctrine, the effect of which was rather like reading a budget Stanley Crouch.
When, some time later, I made the ‘discovery’ of British jazz from the 1950s and 60s, and this then became my true sphere of interest, my homages to the great continuum of UK jazz were equally as passionate. Only this time, I didn’t have to dream of seeing Sonny Rollins or Art Blakey, I could go out to my local pub gig and watch the likes of Art Themen, Dick Morrissey, Peter King and Don Weller for little more than the price of a Coca-Cola and a raffle ticket. Seeing this sort of jazz up close shaped me in more ways than the Marsalis codes ever would, although in essence the thinking was the same; checking out the grand masters, paying heed to their decades’ worth of practical wisdom, bowing low before their world class craftsmanship.
Someone else’s signature
And this has more or less been my thinking every since. Sat in the office in which I write these blog entries I’m surrounded by hundreds of vintage jazz albums, accumulated period ephemera, old arrangements and photographs, both related to UK jazz and to the great US traditions from swing to the early avant-garde. The music is, by and large, acoustic and it mostly swings. It’s how I ‘hear’ jazz and how I tried to play it. And, if anything, I suppose you could call both it and my thinking about the music an ‘analogue’ belief in what’s become a world of cyber faith.
This, of course, is all a matter of personal taste. My ‘jazz’ may tick all the boxes I personally feel give the music its deserved name, yet to others it may seem tame, overly retrogressive and pointless. I will, of course, defend my choices to the death (both in print and in person) yet this doesn’t mean that I am immune from worry about the inherent danger of looking back too often and and to deeply.
As a record reviewer (and annotator) I most often called to deal with reissues of classic jazz material or newly released ‘archive’ albums on which disinterred tapes of past giants reveal still more of their genius to the world. I do this on practically a weekly basis and, aside from providing subject matter of the sort I simply can’t get enough of, these sounds of yesteryear feed into whatever performing I try to do. In fact, I cannot imagine one without the other. Still, there is a real issue with such a fixation. At times the titanic examples of the music’s fallen greats is there not so much as an inspiration but as a inhibitor. Indeed, too much thinking about how a Johnny Griffin or a Ronnie Scott would have played something can be as damaging to your own sense of direction as not knowing the names of either. Likewise, playing your solo on someone else’s signature piece can seem a futile exercise if you focus too closely upon their ‘definitive’ statement. And in this the past is able to hold a player prisoner as much as set them free, their love of a certain sound, a particular style or even a cultural zeitgeist (the Blue Note ‘look’ for example) weighing so heavily on a musicians’ shoulders that their own onward progress towards identity is more burdened than it ought to be.
And it’s this that concerns me – not for myself but for others. With a hundred years of recorded jazz on which to draw and study, where does the need to be familiar with the music of the past end? Is it still crucial that a young trumpeter be able to play, say, Louis Armstrong’s West End Blues cadenza or a new tenorist cruise through Coltrane’s Giant Steps? Does an up and coming altoist still need to be able to lead a saxophone section like a Marshall Royal, or a pianist re-harmonise a standard song like Bill Evans? The fact that jazz’s richest – and fastest - period of development (from 1930 to 1960) coincided with the advancement of recorded sound has undoubtedly left us with a ‘golden age’ to study in detail but are we simply hidebound by this ‘tradition’ because much of it is still within the realms of living memory? I admit that I’ve been a sniffy as anyone when hearing a young saxophonist with no bop chops or a trumpeter who can only play within post-Kenny Wheeler settings, but I have to ask myself this; free of any sense of nostalgia for the music they play (bop is an eighty year old phenomenon; Wheeler would now be in his nineties) why should they feel they have to ‘honour’ any tradition whatsoever, save that of the spirit of jazz, which is, of course, to play how you feel?
Yoke of comparison
For musicians/fans like myself, there is the nagging doubt that the very thing we love – that grand slab of jazz achievement which dominates mid-twentieth century musical culture – has maybe held us captive beneath its immense shadow. What might jazz might we have arrived at if we hadn’t worshipped at the altar of our particular long-dead idol, or not measured our own ‘stature’ by how much of the Charlie Parker Omnibook we could digest? And if jazz truly is a language arrived at by default and autodicatic means, is today’s climate of ‘learning’ it nuts and bolts-style really a sign that it has reached its end game? One thing I’m sure of; that the musicians who will emerge over the next five years, players for whom arbiters like Wynton Marsalis will be ‘old school’ veterans, will be in a position that I envy. Free of the obligation to play within a linear tradition, and quite possibly having never heard in person a soloist of the stature of a Freddie Hubbard, a Johnny Griffin or a Max Roach, they’ll not have to labour under the yoke of comparison and competition many of my generation have. What they’ll find minus these restrictions I can’t say, but I do know what they’ll have missed. Indeed, for all the intimidation to be had in following a Dick Morrissey on stage or trying to gamely balance your solo atop Martin Drew’s relentlessly swinging drums, there was an ever present reminder in such things that the craft of jazz is as important as the art. These men grew up measuring their own gifts against the best and my generation followed in the same vein. I’d like to think it freed many of us from arrogance and posturing (you don’t posture when you’re sharing a stage with Don Weller) and I know it certainly threw down a formidable gauntlet but I also wonder what might have happened had we worried less about what they might think of us, and of the general ‘demands’ of the jazz tradition, and concentrated solely on building our selves? That said, like my boyhood hero Wynton Marsalis I remain a willing prisoner of what I love; still locked into a never ending game of comparison with dead men I never met nor heard live; still trying to play jazz ‘that’ way.
Photo: compared to what? Louis Armstrong and Bunk Johnson.