Note: I wrote this a couple of months ago and set it aside, thinking I didn't really need to go here. But then I saw that Ted Warren has written about a similar situation with some lesser young players in Toronto- and I thought I'd go ahead and put it up as a companion to his better piece.
Here's an article I stumbled across when I googled "crazy jazz chart" while casting around for a suitable image for the getting lost post. Some young avant cats in New York talk about what they see as the sorry creative state of jazz, and indulge in the time-honored tradition of complaining about their education, and a clueless writer blunders around the subject, dumping on artists too lame to have "seized" him by his lazy ears. Aside from being smarter than me, the players sound exactly like I did when I was in school. In the name of personal expression I've edited it down willy nilly- you can go read the original for context:
Darius Jones, alto sax: "They say you need to play what you hear. But if I do, they say, 'oh, you can't be hearing that.' "
Mary Halvorson, guitar: "I couldn't listen to jazz for eight years after I went to jazz school. I'm serious. I could not listen. It turned it into this terrible exercise. And I couldn't listen until about four months ago, when I got into it again, and remembered why I loved it initially. It becomes so formulaic. It all sounds the same and you're taught that the end goal is to perfect a style. Creativity is not emphasized. You're in school and you're being graded on how well you can perfect a style. I don't think it's bad having these structures. It's just overdone, and overdone in a crappy way. There's such an oversaturation of mediocrity."
Read on after the break:
Darius Jones: "This is what they say: if you learn the arsenal, the arsenal will take you somewhere else. But it never does! How you get somewhere else is by leaving the arsenal completely out of the framework."
Kevin Shea, drums [that's this amazing nut, by the way- tb]: "For me, it's about active thought. If they tell you to play a specific way, there's no real reason do that except that someone's played that way in the past. But if you have active thought, and you're really invested in the music, you should be able to reevaluate the moment and play something in a way that is not just set up for you by history. In that way, you're actively reconsidering your approach. Otherwise you can get stuck in intuitively doing things, but with intuitions made up of things you've learned in the past."
Travis Laplante, tenor sax: "It's more intellectual and less emotional, in general. Which is, I think, one of the main reasons that jazz is losing its audience. Because it's harder to pick up on, just on a humanistic level. That's one of the reasons people our age don't go out and see jazz all the time. They used to. There's a reason for that."
What all these New York musicians have in common is that ultimately, they care about jazz. They know its history and they believe in its ability to captivate and astonish. But they've also all been disillusioned with jazz at some point, and their work today is a product of complicated relationships, whether they're attacking outmoded conventions, charting ignored or unknown territories of technique and style, or just pushing familiar forms to their best and brightest potential.
Here it's weirdly quaint to see yet another generation thinking it's discovered Warholism:
"I've been getting really interested in the smooth jazz phenomenon," Elliot explained. "As musicology and sociology. It's some weird shit. Just the fact that is exists, and that so many people get so mad about it. And yet so many people like, for really bizarre reasons. People like to dismiss it, but I also know a lot of great straight-ahead jazz musicians who can't play smooth jazz to save their lives. They just don't know how to do it. So it's a little more complicated than that. You can actually be good at it. I've been trying to listen to more of it, which usually turns my stomach. But I'm making the effort. I'm gonna figure out what the hell's going on, then I'll get back to you."
This all makes me somewhat nostalgic; it's very familiar territory- practically a rite of passage. What I really enjoy, though, is when a writer with no knowledge whatever goes on about "outmoded conventions" and opines on:
"...stagnant or restrictive elements in modern jazz. Narrow-minded educators, talented musicians who will only push their instruments so far."
This is the guy who elsewhere in the piece writes:
Full disclosure: I don't listen to much traditional jazz. But these reconfigurations have proven very capable of seizing my attention.
Right, his attention.
Anyway, never mind the writer- I'm interested in the musicians. Apart from the obvious ego, there are a couple of young-artist conceits at work here:
- They seem to share the simplistic view of arts education that the mediocre students have; that is, treating it as a roadmap to artistry. The mediocre students think it's a good roadmap, and these guys (and myself, at the time) are disillusioned because it's a bad one. Really, education is an environment for being around other students, getting some rehearsals, performances, and repertoire under your belt, and acquiring some technical skills and a base of very general knowledge. And for just generally knowing how things are done. That's it. School music is not real music. Real music happens out in the world, and many of the professors themselves are aware of that, and that education is something your supposed to rebel against.
- There seems to be this idea that because veteran players don't squawk on the gig, they're playing a style, or they're not really improvising, or they haven't made every sound there is to make on their instrument at one time or another. That's wrong.
Again, I've heard and said all this before- and I cringe at the memory. Fortunately no one was writing about me and only a few people were exposed to my BS.