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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 7, No. 2

Jazz Tracks: Things Ain't What they Used to Be

by Marc Chénard / October 1, 2001

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A couple of weeks ago, an old acquaintance of mine was lamenting the fact that today’s jazz musician is no longer driven by artistic ideals, but is rather guided by a number of pragmatic choices. For most of its history, jazz has been fueled by an essentially romantic vision of art, whereby its practitioners have chosen to pursue one path and have been less concerned with such things as trying to keep up with the latest trends, jumping on the latest bandwagon, or striving for a measure of popular acceptance at all costs.

And nowhere is this romantic view made clearer than in a recent (and rare) profile of the African-American trumpeter-composer Bill Dixon (published in the June issue of Jazz Times). In the article, the musician makes a statement that, by today’s standards, seems almost aberrant: “If too many people like what you’re doing, it’s time to revise your position. Maybe you’re not doing what you think.” Coming from one of the most uncompromising figures of the Black Free Jazz Movement of the 1960s, this statement reminds us of the fact that artists do what they do first and foremost for themselves, and not for others (the opposite being true of those called “entertainers”).

Generally speaking, artists aspire to elevate themselves beyond the realm of entertainment, but art, and those forms prefaced by the word “performing”, always do that to some degree. So let there be no mistake: art can be entertaining, but that this should be its sole purpose (as it is now the case in our market-driven consumer society) is to trivialize one of humanity’s nobler pursuits.

As for my acquaintance’s comments, they may sound utterly (or naively) idealistic to some. Yet, looking at jazz history, there can be no doubt that many of its founding fathers were so appreciated because they represented one thing, and held their own in spite of any fads. Mind you, even greats like Armstrong, Waller or Ellington faltered, and Miles Davis was not immune to the trappings of the pop world in his latter years; still, they somehow managed to bend at will any music they chose to tackle. But the opposite has been typical of the last 20 years or so, as musicians have instead bent themselves to all kinds of music. How many players now spread themselves out over several different bands or ad hoc projects, thus making us wonder who they really are in strictly musical terms?

While romantic essentialism may well be ennobling for the spirit, it is a basically nostalgic view on the world. And nowhere is this more obvious than in the hotly debated Ken Burns series, Jazz, that aired earlier in the year. As a visual document, it was a marvel: its iconography was rich in visual documents rarely, if ever, seen before. But the underlying text to the imagery harbors a thinly-veiled, narrowly-based reading of history, a yearning for less complicated times when people were easily pigeonholed into neatly defined niches. As for the series itself, some were touting it as an unheralded opening for jazz in the mass market. To support this great adventure, an unparalleled deal between major record labels was reached that enabled the marketing of a series of compilation CDs featuring no less than twenty-two major figures, a single highlight CD, a five-CD box set and a lavishly presented hardcover book. It so happened that during the broadcast period last January I was working in a record store that had stocked all of the titles. Sales were steady during that period, especially of the compilation disc, but soon enough the discs were sitting on the shelves gathering dust. If the series was supposed to have created greater public interest, I wonder why the spring months in the store were so quiet.

Like it or not, the Burns series was a blip on the screen, here today and gone tomorrow like the hula hoop. While the series was basically romantic in tone, it was a woefully distorted one at that. One couldn’t help but smile (or wince) when Gene Lees was given the last word on Cecil Taylor. Could one ever imagine giving Glenn Gould the last word on Mozart in a classical musical documentary? I’m sure anyone remotely knowledgeable in that field would have wanted the producer’s head. But that’s entertainment for you. In any event, Duke Ellington’s Evergreen, whose title heads this piece, rings truer than ever. And thank goodness for that!

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