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IA P E R S O N A L O P I N I O N B Y G R E G M U R P H Y
The death of Count Basle broughf me back t o a recurring theme, one that always presents ~tselfw hen a jazz artist d ~ e s I t IS, quite slmply, that as the major craftsmen pass on, what vryill happen t o jazz?
Thls thought flrsr occurred when Wes Montgomery d~edso suddenly In 1968 Wes was perhaps the last major black jazz art~st to maintain a contact with the record-buy~ngpubllc at large - as opposed to the spec~al~stjazz market John Coltrane was h~ghly respected by the public, and, yet, h a contemporary record~ngs,w ~ t h a much greater jazz content, appeared only In the speclal~stcharts
Th~s,poss~blyimplies that jazz has only Itself to blame for ~ t s narrow appeal The rowth af jazz - arguably over the last seventy years - has followe2 a stalrgase pattern, the muslc belng pushed further upward, w ~ t hsome ripmalnlng on land~ngswhlch marked a particular state In the refin~mentof the genre One of these landlngs was thg big-band era - Benny Goodman, the Dorseys, Art~eShaw had lnstant ad~emceappeal and represented the popular muslc of the day. To perhaps a lesser extent, so dld that of Elllngton, Bas~e,Luncefad, Chick Webb, Jay McShann and many others It was a i$rnewhm ja3z was, as they once sa~d,"box off~ce" - even ~fmuch @ft M m s l c h a d doubtful jazz antecedents What was popular wad the'drl* of t h e b ~ gbands rather than the cerebral content of the rnuslc and the charlsmat~cappeal of such muslclans 1s Harry James, Gene Krupa a n d Art~eShaw
Jazz has been sa~dto have over-~ntellecual~seditself, leavlng the nass appeal behind But jazz has always had a degree of Intellect about ~t- some of EUlngton'e e4l1erextended works presaged the work of Parker and 6111$splei as d ~ dLester Young's techn~queand 4rt Tatum's heat-spppbg Dse d tlme Yet, all those muslclans were equally dt hQme p l qtng what has become known as "commerc~al"npslc:
One of the m a t ccmtr~erdalplayers of the F~ft~es,John Coltrane, ,\ad one aspect b v e b o k d I tor, often Wh~lethose who should have known bqter We@ d-mouth~ngh ~ semergent uptempo style, h ~ ssear@ for: ahd eament of, neglected ballads was Ignored Happily, surh items as "I'm A Dreamer" and "Love Thy Nelghbour" hav$ b e c o d p q t af the Coltrane legend
The early S~xtksrqprgenwd &e polnt where the public largely left jazz, and th@sacalled dvaqte garde movement all too often collects the blame The fact th& the muslc of Coltrane, Dolphy, Shepp, Ayler and several others *presented a further step forward In the development, o f j a p I# confused w ~ t han attempt at establishing a form elf jazz eBtlsrf3 True, there were often cases of self Indulgence k t w t h k g like the other branch of jazz that began to develop ~nthe la les Dav~sthe man who had so often acted as cat n A S~lentWay HIS swlrllng, myst~calrhythms a ng patterns r~ghtlycaused a stir repeat ~tself a pattern whlch owed more to have found a parallel w ~ t hhis ho was trapped In the "Bird ch the same way, Mlles's new so much, lncreaslngly became s was due more to the rhythmlc ponent - for once, hlstory d ~ d
Miles's new direction spawned many subsidary bands and coined a new phrase, "fusion" or "jazz-rock". In fact, the music had more to do with rock with an occasional solo that bore a resemblance to jazz, but it was - and sometimes still is - akin to sitting through the morass of Paul Whiteman to catch the gem of a Bix solo. Fusion lives on but has become a sub strata of pop rather than jazz. If the American sales charts for jazz are an indicator, they show albums which are almost universally removed from jazz, yet are seen as that by those who market and keep count. If jazz has a market appeal, i t is in these pretenders to the throne. The only encouragingfeature is the movement back to jazz as it is known by Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Freddie Hubbard and a few others, to produce fine albums by such units as VSOP II. This synthesiser, and even Miles Davis is playing "Bess You Is My Woman Now" once more.
But what of the avante garde of the Sixties? Coltrane, Ayler and Dolphy are dead; Archie Shepp is still active but lacks the incredible fire displayed in those early Impulse recordings or the famous Jazz Expo performance which sent many running for the exits. Indeed, if anything, Shepp is taking stock, in a reflective mood with recordings of blues items, reflections on Charlie Parker and even piano excursions. What has happened is the emergence of another generation of musicianswho, i f anything, keep the flame of the avante garde. This new generation temper their enthusiam and embody a spirit of preserving the jazz tradition with exploring new fields. Chico Freeman is one. Chico has recorded often, with contrasting albums such as the gentle Spirit Sensitive against others with a more extrovert approach. Arthur Blythe's vital saxophone can be heard in a variety of contexts on record, too, but he is at his best with an unusual band featuring tuba and cello. Blythe's In The Tradition album of several years ago seemed to personify the flexible approach taken. There are several others but perhaps most satisfying of all is David Murray whose fine octet recordings for Black Saint personify the way that modern jazz is moving, if only more people would listen. So, the avante garde lives, too, if in more of a refined form than fusion, its chronological brother, but keeping an infinitely lower profile.
So, t d return to the original question - what will happen to jazz when its practitioners have died?
First, let us not deceive ourselves that jazz suddenly lost its market appeal through increased cerebal content. Jazz had always had this element and i t is the mass popularity the music enjoyed during the Thirties via the big bands that has led, perhaps, to this conclusion. It was not the jazz element that was any more popular - just that i t was music right for the times.
Second, the development of jazz into many levels of development - traditional, mainstream, modern, avante garde etc - means that jazz continues to function in many areas, a diversity which can only be good for the music life expectancy.
Third, the experience of music educators has shown that interest in jazz per se is still there, so that while we may bemoan the passing of yesterday's dlM today's masters, the next generation is following.
If evidence of this is still needed, the quiet survival and refinement of the avante garde is perhaps the best example. If jazz has a future, this is perhaps the most fruitful road to follow.