Lester Bowie, trumpet; Joseph Jarman, saxophones; Roscoe Mitchell, saxophones; Malachi Favors Maghostus, bass; Famoudou Don Moye, drums, percussion.
The Henry Threadgill Sextett
Just the Facts and Pass the Bucket
About Time : 1983
HT, alto and baritone saxophones; Olu Dara, cornet; Craig Harris, trombone; Diedre Murray, cello; Fred Hopkins, bass; John Betsch and Pheeroan Aklaff, drums.
MRA, piano, conductor; Jean-Paul Bourelly, guitar; Baikida Carroll, trumpet, flugelhorn; Vincent Chancey, French horn; Marty Ehrlich, alto saxophone, flute, clarinet, bass clarinet; Eugene Ghee, tenor saxophone, clarinet, bass clarinet; Craig Harris, trombone; Patience Higgins, baritone saxophone, clarinet, alto clarinet; Howard Johnson, tuba, baritone saxophone, contrabass clarinet; John Purcell, piccolo, flute, alto saxophone, oboe, clarinet, bass clarinet; Rick Rozie, bass; Warren Smith, vibraphone, percussion; Abdul Wadud, cello; Andrew Cyrille, drums.
We conclude our ‘80s retrospective with the jazz figure who dominated the media landscape during the decade: Wynton Marsalis. If you haven’t already checked out Ethan Iverson’s essential interview with him – plus the accompanying suite of articles about the Young Lions, AACM, etc – do yourself a favor and head over there now. These thoughtful and provocative linked pieces constitute the best jazz criticism of the year, hands down.
Even if you’re like us and the mere invocation of Wynton’s name raises your blood pressure, the pieces are revelatory. Ethan mainly sticks to talking music with Marsalis, focusing on his new album Congo Square, featuring the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra with a West African drum ensemble. It’s no surprise Wynton is articulate and knows his shit inside-out. But we were surprised how forthright and engaging he is when discussing his music. It shows him in the best possible light. There’s also a fascinating blindfold test and a kozmigroov reference for good measure!
Ethan raises some fascinating points we want to tackle. But first, let’s set our prejudices on the table: We’re not particularly fans of Wynton’s music. Growing up, friends were obsessed with Wynton and the Young Lions. We duly immersed ourselves in the albums and attended concerts, trying to figure out the new scene. With a few notable exceptions, we were kind of bored. There was something intractably stodgy about much of this neo-traditional work, lacking both the spark found in the original forms and the thrilling innovations of the so-called avant garde. To our ears, it was minor music with a major publicist. So we moved on to greener pastures. We still occasionally check in on Wynton and his cohorts and discover a few impressive passages, but nothing has yet caused us to overhaul our initial opinions.
Our main gripe with Wynton is his self-serving rhetoric about what constitutes jazz. As he erupted on the scene in the ’80s, Marsalis gained an unprecedented bully pulpit through the media and his association with Lincoln Center. He used this power to redraw the boundaries of the entire genre, declaring that only acoustic music that swung was actually jazz. This argument was plain insane, but a surprising amount of otherwise intelligent people bought it. The result was that generations of jazz giants such as Sam Rivers, Marion Brown, and Cecil Taylor were denied work – and worse, their music was derided and further marginalized.
It’s been widely pointed out this is analogous to how Ronald Reagan* redrew the political map during the same period. Reagan espoused a bogus return to “traditional values,” and effectively used this term to belittle opponents and consolidate power for himself and his cronies. Wynton similarly used his curatorial duties at Lincoln Center to provide work for his colleagues and only allowed institutional legitimacy to trickle down to those who met his favor.
Almost as destructive was his role as consultant for Ken Burns’ Jazz documentary, instructing the documentarian that the genre corrupted itself after 1965 and didn’t revive until, surprise, his own ascendancy. That shameless lie has been amply debunked – particularly in the 1970-93 discussion initially launched by Ethan Iverson – but it was still broadcast to millions as the official story.
In the Iverson interview, Wynton comes off as inclusive, talking up his experiences playing traditional jazz, funk, classical, marching band, ragtime, and even avant garde music with Kidd Jordan. But as Ethan points out in an accompanying piece, Wynton still clings to his strict definition of jazz. Here’s a sample of what DOES NOT make the cut, as delineated by Iverson:
1) American popular music since 1955, especially if electric instruments are involved
2) Classical music, especially dense modernism and minimalism
3) Experimental, avant-garde, or free jazz made or influenced by musicians like Albert Ayler, Cecil Taylor, Milford Graves, the AACM school (including Anthony Braxton and Henry Threadgill), and the BAG school (including Oliver Lake and Julius Hemphill). This category includes Downtown metajazz like John Zorn, anyone playing hardcore free jazz today like William Parker, plus more recent composers and improvisers like Tim Berne and Dave Douglas.
4) Romantic and even-eighth-note “pretty” music associated with Keith Jarrett, Pat Metheny, ECM, and Europe.
5) One-of-a-kind rogue improvisers who are major stylists in both free and straight-ahead music like Paul Motian, Charlie Haden, Paul Bley, Steve Lacy, Kenny Wheeler, Dewey Redman, Eric Dolphy, Richard Davis, etc.
In other words, almost everything interesting that’s happened in jazz for THE PAST FOUR DECADES. Discounting 40 years of a 100-year-old art form isn’t revisionist history, it’s amputation. And even though, truth be told, we sort of feel Wynton on whole Jarrett/Metheny thing, we’d never claim it’s not jazz. Taken together these developments don’t constitute a series of quirky offshoots. They comprise the story of the music itself.
EARN YOUR PREJUDICES
One of the most interesting moments in the Iverson interview occurs when Wynton talks about how people have ignorantly criticized his music without hearing it all, especially the recent work he feels differs from his early efforts. He makes a salient point with this anecdote:
I was in the Modern Museum and I told my son, “Earn your prejudice. Don’t be prejudiced against something you don’t know. Look at the man’s work. Look at all of this stuff.”
Sound advice. But what’s jaw-dropping is that several minutes later, he admits to Ethan how he isn’t familiar with the work of the AACM. Wait a minute. You mean, the avant garde collective whose music he has demonized, barred from the hallowed halls of Lincoln Center, and claimed help ruin jazz in the 1970s? The Art Ensemble of Chicago, Anthony Braxton, Muhal Richard Abrams, Henry Threadgill, George Lewis, Leo Smith, et cetera. He admits he doesn’t know any of their music?!?!
It’s hard to know what’s more astounding here: The sheer hypocrisy or the remarkable musical ignorance.
The irony is layers deep. The AACM is deeply involved in a dialogue with the vast history of jazz. We’d argue they’ve engaged it far more widely and significantly than Wynton and his past-obsessed peers. The AACM may be interested in Cage and Stockhausen, but they also know their Jelly Roll Morton and Louis Armstrong. Some claim they deploy their knowledge as mere postmodern pastiche, but we hear something far more serious and playful, a sincerely daring attempt to reanimate history in a living and relevant context.
We’ve posted some AACM tracks above as a corrective. These are not from obscure albums, but rather from works that were cited in the Village Voice “Best of the 80s” poll. They were recorded about the same time Wynton was making his meteoric media ascent, and their engagement with the jazz tradition fairly demolish his arguements. Check out the Art Ensemble’s slinky, sultry, and muscular tribute to Charles Mingus; Threadgill’s elastic gutbucket blues; and Muhal’s creative big band that manages to swing like a mofo.
ASK THE DUKE
Ultimately whether Wynton is playing jazz or the AACM is playing jazz, or both, or neither, is moot. We always look to Duke Ellington to settle these questions of genre. He sagely says music falls into two categories: Good and bad. We’ll go on record as saying we’re in awe of the drumming of Jeff “Tain” Watts, that we dig many of Branford Marsalis’s more abstract blowouts, as well as some of Kenny Kirkland’s adventurous piano and Wynton’s fiery solos. Drew has even been known to occasionally enjoy some Marcus Roberts, though Chilly needed No Doze to make it through one of his gigs.
But really, if you’re comparing the purely musical accomplishments of Wynton and the Young Lions to the AACM… well, to misquote Greg Tate, that ain’t even a conversation, let alone a quip. Hell, the first third of Anthony Braxton’s career alone overshadows the entire output of the Young Lions in terms of musical quality, scope, ambition, and sheer gusto.
THE BENEFITS OF MINOR TYRANTS
But this isn’t a baby and bathwater tantrum. One of Iverson’s crucial points is that Wynton Marsalis’s musical seriousness and deep knowledge about jazz’s origins contributes something important for musicians. He writes:
Wynton’s message may not open creative doors; indeed, he wants young players to do only one thing, “real jazz”! But minor tyrants who really know their subject and make their students learn it just so are an important tradition, too.
Makes sense to us. For musicians (though not necessarily listeners) it’s important to know the tradition so you can move on from there. Even the most adventurous jazz is usually nurtured through its roots to the past, whatever form that takes. The tradition of jazz may be innovation, but one way to become an innovator is to work your way deeper into the tradition rather than out of it. To really quote Greg Tate: “Recognize that there’s gold in them haunted hills.”
Iverson worries this isn’t the case anymore. Without naming names, he cites a lack of historical knowledge in the larger jazz community. Ethan takes Wynton’s side that musicians need to know the past and acquire the necessary chops to take the music into the future. He writes about being horrified by a master class full of piano students who didn’t recognize a classic piece by James P. Johnson – and worse, didn’t even know who that was!
From our far more limited purview, we see many of the younger adventurous jazz acts more eager to embrace European free improv and noise than the American jazz tradition. We suspect one factor is that many of these musicians are white. It often seems like they feel that plugging into the rich continuum of jazz is hijacking an African-American expression that doesn’t belong to them. Our favorite exchange between Ethan and Wynton obliquely covers this ground:
Iverson: Jazz culture wasn’t part of my upbringing.
Marsalis: Yes, it was. You’re an American.
And here is Wynton at his best, his most magnanimous, his most Whitmanesque. Here’s the Dean of The One True Path of Real Jazz implicitly telling a white guy from Wisconsin that by taking the craft seriously and studying the past masters, that this is his birthright just as much as a third-generation musician from New Orleans.** It’s a wonderful moment.
A DISTORTED BODY IMAGE
If only everyone had Ethan’s sane lens through which to view Wynton: A valuable player and educator who works a narrow field of music. But unfortunately that’s not the case. Wynton’s narrow-minded mythologies have shaped a generation of musicians. The so-called mainstream players we come across also tend to have gobsmacking gaps in their knowledge of jazz history. They know absolutely nothing about any of the adventurous jazz from the past 40 years – from Wayne Shorter on. Again, this isn’t merely overlooking a niche, it’s being ignorant of essential history.
As much as we’re distressed about the piano students being clueless about Johnson, we’re equally worried that a 46-year-old jazz legend knows nothing about the AACM! To our mind, this is just as horrifying a lapse and symptomatic of a deep problem. Actually, it’s even more troubling considering Wynton’s influence and the fact he can’t claim the ignorance of youth.
Largely thanks to Marsalis’s “real jazz” propaganda, jazz today suffers from a distorted body image. His high-profile opinions have helped obscure the full history and musical range of jazz. The fruits of this approach is an overall scene that often seems divisive, uninformed, and unhealthy. Some of the younger mainstream believe they know the full story when they’re missing almost half the picture. And for some of the younger adventurous players, Wynton has made studying the past seem like eating your brussels sprouts rather than exploring a goldmine of possibilities. Both sides lose.*** Or rather, we all lose as jazz is steadily sapped of its vitality from both ends of the continuum.
Our favorite newer acts on the scene don’t fall prey to this false duality, musicians like Vijay Iyer, Jason Moran, Rudresh Mahanthappa, Matthew Shipp, and of course The Bad Plus – among many others. The divisions of tradition and avant garde only serve those afraid to submit their music to Duke Ellington’s ultimate criteria, those who are afraid to embrace a music that truly encompasses the ancient to the future, both at once.
*A recent blog post tackling Marsalis claimed there shouldn’t be anything inherently negative with being compared to Reagan. But students of history will strongly disagree. We bet even Wynton bristles at the comparison.
**As for the Europeans, well, that’s probably another discussion.
***One is reminded of a quip from Henry Kissinger, who, when asked why academic squabbles were fought with such viciousness, replied, “Because the stakes are so small.”