by Peter Hum
May 20, 2010
Earlier this month, I featured this provocation from drummer Jason Marsalis.
… which prompted responses from several jazz musician/bloggers I know. Some agreed with Marsalis. Others repudiated his “false dichotomy.” I took a break then from wading yet again into the jazz-wars debate, but figure now I might as well step back into those murky waters again, even if I generally feel there are much more important matters for jazz-oriented people of all stripes to invest their energy in.
I’ll summarize Marsalis’ argument. He sketches, quite humourously, a division between the constituents of “Jazz Nerds International” and other jazz musicians who belong to an unnamed faction. Maybe Marsalis would simply call them the “good guys” in this battle. JNI consists, he says, of young musicians in their teens and in college who eschew playing jazz standards and don’t love swinging. Instead, they play compositions with a straight feel, often in odd meters, with “boring, chromatic solos and a million notes an hour.” They play for fellow JNI musicians rather than for non-musician listeners, who can come to doubt their tastes. Marsalis recommends that listeners “run away” from JNI music and keep the faith with music that has “melodies you can sing along to.”
Before offering my two cents, I’ll suggest that you read:
Montreal organist Vanessa Rodrigues’ response, in which she agrees “99-per-cent” with Marsalis.
Montreal-based clarinetist James Danderfer’s response, in which he agrees that “institutionalized jazz music hasn’t placed nearly enough emphasis on the core element of expressing emotion to audiences” But Danderfer continues: “On the other hand, it’s music dude! People should be allowed to do whatever the hell they want to! If some guy wants to play jazz music for himself (possibly in 5/4 too) then let him. There’s nothing wrong with that.”
Meanwhile, on the blog of Montreal pianist Joshua Rager, saxophonist Becky Noble commented:
What bothers me about the so called “jazz wars” (popping up online all over the places these days!) is the idea that there are two camps; the purists and modernists. I think the reality is that most people actually fall somewhere in between on the spectrum. To be quite honest, I just don’t buy the idea that a significant percentage (at least significant enough to be ranting about) of young musicians are shunning the history, abandoning melody, refusing the learn the standards, playing 30-minute solos void of meaning. Please, tell me where these people are???!!! Because in my experience studying and playing, I don’t think I’ve met one.
In my opinion some of the more successful “jazz” musicians today have been able to meld the art form’s history with modern influences, to create their own unique voice. I mean, that’s what Bird did. Miles. Coltrane. Bill Evans. All of them. Let me cite five contemporary examples, off the top of my head: Brad Mehldau, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Dave Douglas, Brian Blade, Seamus Blake. All are “hip”. You can clearly hear the entire history of their respective instruments when they play. They can swing like crazy, they aren’t afraid to play a blues or in 4/4, and they also play chromatically and often in odd meters. They play standards and they also compose beautiful music. The don’t sound like anyone else, and they just happen to be some of my favourite musicians.
I agree with SOME of the “essence” of what Marsalis is saying, but I think what I don’t like, and what bothers me, is the way he says it. It just seems so negative and extremist; painting a highly complex picture much too black and white. It reeks of intolerance to my ears.
I agree wholeheartedly with Noble. (And yes, I agree with her in agreeing with Marsalis, insofar as I hope that standards and swinging will never be forsaken by contemporary and future jazz players, even as I assert that jazz is flexible and pliable enough to grow with the inclusion of other musical aspects and influences.)
To reiterate a question that Noble rightly asks: Who are the jazz nerds that Marsalis so vehemently opposes? I don’t think it’s good enough for Marsalis to say — if he’s serious — that it’s simply the students in jazz schools who are woefully misguided. Surely these students are influenced by any number of established musicians who work (prominently, but not exclusively) in the odd-time, straight-eighths, chromatic nerd zone. It’s reasonable to assume that Marsalis is not denigrating the students, but also their influences too. Would today’s Jazz Nerd elders include:
Saxophonists Dave Binney and Mark Turner?
Drummer John Hollenbeck and his Claudia Quintet?
Saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa, in a group playing a pieces that “built on two measures of 5 followed by a measure of 9, and this is then gradually speeded up through metric modulation, using the 8th note triplet as a subdivision”? (The only reason I know this bit of nerdy esoterica is that bassist Ronan Guilfoyle provided it in this post that will fascinate rhythm nerds.)
Saxophonist Steve Coleman? (He seems like the nerdiest of the batch, but in a likeable way,
Frankly, I think if Marsalis would do better to name the alleged ringleaders of Jazz Nerds International rather than simply besmirch its rank and file — not because I would be keen on any resulting controversy, but because if he wants to be taken seriously, then he ought to move beyond a straw-man opponent. Or he should argue that his beef with mediocre students rather than the proficient pros.
I also think that the impulse that Marsalis is railing against — the move beyond standard repertoire and swinging — is some years older than he is, and that this historical context ought to be kept in mind. Think of bebop nerdily extending the language of swing, Miles Davis and Bill Evans investigating the use of modes in jazz more than 50 years ago, John Coltrane investigating tone rows with Miles Mode in 1962, and for that matter, performing the kind of epic, set-long songs that Marsalis slams. These are just a few classic examples of music history’s jazz nerds in action. In other words, there were jazz nerds long before Marsalis was drumming, and there will be jazz nerds ever after, in spite of what he said.
I have to wonder if Marsalis in the clip isn’t just exaggerating for the sheer, blustering fun of it. He’s criticizing the worth and validity of a great swath of music, and I’d prefer to think he’s being deliberately outrageous rather than monumentally arrogant. (Note: to be fair, there are many anti-Marsalis, anti-tradition folks who have struck me as equally blunt and heavy-handed in their statements.)
Stepping back, I side with Marsalis in affirming the value of playing music that revels in swinging, and in playing jazz standards with a whole-hearted embrace of their tradition. I also agree with Marsalis that jazz, however it sounds, ought to be played to connect with and move listeners (optimally, through a feeling of personal commitment, not through pandering manoeuvres). But these affirmations can be made without a simultaneous takedown against music that may not sound like the music that Marsalis makes, but may even appeal to jazz fans who don’t feel the artificial need to choose sides.