Pete's Blog

Jazz

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I took a Pat Metheny concert DVD out of the library the other day. I figured it would be adventurous, genre-busting music. After all, he made a record with Ornette Coleman, right? Well, it was certainly intelligent music. These guys know lots of scales, you have to give them that. But for all the ecstatic faces they made it was essentially cold, humorless, what I call "chess-club" jazz. The Japanese audience sat calmly in their rows of theater seats while a cascade of scales and accents blew past them, signifying, it says here, nothing. What happened to jazz? You could say, now that Barack Obama has freed us from self-censorship, that as white people have become more prominent in the music (Metheny's seven-piece band had one black person in it and he looked African-African rather than African-American) it has become a more rigidly intellectual exercise. But the bebop revolution of the 1940s, with its emphasis on advanced harmony and daunting technical display, was spearheaded by black players. And bebop, most critics say, is where jazz turned its back on the more instinctive (not to say uneducated) side of the jazz tradition. Certainly, the artistic pretensions of bebop became the precedent for a 40-year period in which the jazz mainstream celebrated all that was most hincty (look it up) in the American character. Even Wynton Marsalis's recent experiments with old-school New Orleans polyphony seem self-conscious. When did jazz become so...dressy? Early jazz - as practiced by such greats as Eddie Condon, Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Bix Biederbecke, and others - was unmistakably raffish, the interplay of voices anarchic, unpredictable, and sublime. Even the beboppers, for all their music-school affectations, had their low-down side. The '50s and '60s free jazz was rebellious, untameable, a blow against the mainstream. But after the death of John Coltrane a creeping respectability took over. Now if you want to hear jazz that frightens you find it as a spice added to other musical cuisines: the better jam bands, avant-garde noisemakers, classical or bluegrass outfits. Of course, you can always go to the annual Pee Wee Russell Memorial Stomp in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Somebody there will be blowing "Dinah," you may be sure. The last time I went they were still doing a brisk business in Jelly Roll Morton CDs.

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