by Vannessa Rodrigues
May 10, 2010
Montreal jazz pianist/educator and all around nice guy Josh Rager sent out a call to local musicians to check out a passionate rant by Jason Marsalis about the current state of jazz. Aside from being an awesome jazz musician (more on this later) Josh writes a blog that actively engages the jazz community and often features opinions of local musicians. The following is my long-winded response … hey, he asked for it! He has even added it to his blog as a guest posting 🙂
(it’ll probably make more sense if you watch the video of Jason’s rant first … then again, maybe not …)
re: Jason Marsalis rant at the Rex …
I am always very interested to hear a Marsalis’ take on things; there was a time when I thought Wynton was a stodgy, crusty old purist, stuck in a rut and bitter about it. However, the more I learn about jazz and jazz history, the more I can appreciate his point of view and the more, I have to say, I agree with him.
Think about where the Marsalis family is from … New Orleans, the cradle of American musical culture and birthplace of what is almost certainly America’s greatest contribution to art on the world stage. We look back through the history of jazz with rose coloured glasses, especially now that it’s no longer “the devil’s music”, and has now been institutionalized, systematized, accepted as an academic field of study, and dare I say it, somehow sanitized in the process as well. Early jazz was thought of by the white upper class as low-life brothel and gambling hall music that the undesirables (read “blacks”) partook in, and it ultimately took Europeans to recognize and nurture this incredible emerging art form. (Germans Alfred Lion & Francis Wolff launched Blue Note Records). Wynton was around to see his fellow African Americans press on through unimaginable hardship and win their civil rights, only to have the image of his culture be reduced to the vapid glorification of black on black violence, to the benefit of Big Entertainment Corp.
Some of the most romanticized, revered figures in jazz history that we admire today were often victims of police brutality and racial profiling, debilitating drug addictions and a host of other problems affecting mostly the poor and down-trodden. (Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker and Bud Powell come to mind). If we look farther back in history to the blues, the original roots of jazz and all African American music (and by extension rock & roll and pop music), we see that it is the mournful cry of an oppressed people who also had hope and a sense of humour to see them through; there is such a rich pallette of emotions in the blues, the songs tell incredible stories of suffering and despair, love & laughter … to call yourself a jazz musician and shrug off the blues as being old and tired is like calling yourself an Italian chef and deciding that tomatoes and olive oil are boring and passé and are going to cook with something newer and more exciting. You have removed a key element of the essence of what it IS, one of the main things that makes people fall in love with it, and it ceases to be what you say it is if you do that.
I’m not saying that in order to be considered jazz it can only be Cotton Tail played like Ben Webster plays it, but what I am saying is that for it to be meaningful, the history, and therefore the melodies, rhythms and phrasing, have to be respected and built-upon. It’s a language. All languages evolve by building on what came before. Nobody speaks Latin anymore, but anybody who speaks French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese or Romanian can read, understand and appreciate Latin, and through that gain some insight and respect for the history and lives of the people who spoke it while experiencing the constant evolution of their own languages in modern times.
Jason talks about melody and communicating/connecting with the audience, and I’m absolutely with him on this. Like a spoken word performance (stand-up comedy comes to mind), it’s not what you say, but how you say it; it’s about HOW you deliver your story using the common language, and there is NO limit to the creative possibilities involved. Take the ending of Bye Bye Blackbird from “God Bless Jug and Sonny” – Sonny Stitt and Gene Ammons … they quote pretty much every tune under the sun during the endless turnaround and the exchange between them gets more and more exciting, more and more energetic, comical, engaging, and dare I say it, orgasmic! They are using this rich vocabulary of timeless melodies and songs and interweaving it in such a brilliant way … I can’t imagine anyone who claims to love or play jazz not being affected deeply by this.
Now, after all is said and done, I can’t say I agree completely with Jason’s rant, (though I think it’s hilarious and he’s totally within his right to say all of those things) in that I believe because the very spirit of jazz is one of growth, progress and exploration, that there is a place for complex meters and chromatic, cerebral improvisation. (Small digression – odd meters can groove like crazy if they’re approached in a natural, organic way – ex. Soulive’s “One in 7”). That being said, while I can appreciate the particular area of jazz Jason is referring to, it certainly doesn’t move and shake me personally the way a hard-swinging take on an old standard tune steeped in emotion and history does.
So I suppose I’m with Jason 99% 🙂