Whomever coined the phrase, “We agree to disagree,” was either referring to politics, religion, marriage, or jazz. Perhaps no other American musical art form has been so greatly debated or so profoundly ignored. It seems you’re either on the knowledgeable inside (hip) looking out, or as the perplexed outsider looking into a soap-smeared window, for entrance into the jazz world can be difficult at best. Even the musicians can’t agree on what jazz really is.
When ragtime appeared at the turn of the century, the venerable European-trained music critics were generally dismayed, calling the music ‘trite’ and fearing that it would lead pianists who studied this syncopated music to ‘play sloppily.’ By the time Dixieland bands developed in New Orleans and later Chicago, there was little question that jazz would become the new music for a turbulent century. Who would have thought that when Swing became the new craze in the early 1930s, the cry, ‘Jazz is dead’ would be shouted by the traditionalists, who despaired that it was too arranged and it didn’t allow for sufficient improvisation? Jazz. was not dead, just evolving.
Louis Armstrong and Bix Beiderbecke were two major innovators who got caught in the swing tidal wave. One gave in and joined it, the other drank his way out, but jazz was far from settling down into one unified sound. The development of Bop by young and gifted jazz musicians in the early ’40s was less than enthusiastically received by the established veterans, for it was Armstrong himself who dismissed it as ‘Chinese music.’ Of course jazz was neither dead nor ‘Chinese,’ just evolving.
As they huddled at Gil Evans’ West 55th street apartment, Miles Davis, Evans, Gerry Mulligan, John Lewis, and John Cansi set the stage for the Cool school of the 1950s. This time it was Dizzy Gillespie, the revolutionary architect of Bop, who criticized its lack of intensity and drive, but even without Dizzy’s blessing (and many critics of the time concurred), jazz had sprouted another branch on its tree of many branches.
Enter the tumultuous sixties and the Avant-garde movement lead by Orriette Coleman (Does anyone play a plastic saxophone anymore?) while a new music movement.Was created as a soundtrack to the work of Jackson Pollack and the loft artists of Manhattan. The ever-changing Miles Davis unconvinced at the validity of these free jazz players, dismissing it as ‘playing weird.’ Yet it was also Miles who used his concept of ‘controlled freedom’ as the catalyst for his landmark quintet of the early to mid sixties.
When fusion heated up in the late sixties and early seventies, the critics and jazz purists had a tough time with the funk and rock influences, never mind the use of electronic instruments. The “It’s not jazz!” cry was louder than ever but it didn’t stop the Eleventh House, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Weather Report, and others from creating a new sound, jazz or not. Dead, no, evolving, yes.
In the late 1990s we have record companies who would like us to believe that ‘smooth jazz’ is also an evolutionary stage in the history of jazz. it reminds me of the time when the hula hoop was popular. We bought it by the millions – a plastic circle that went around your waist and it sure was fun to whir that thing around the backyard. (I guess we didn’t get out much). Fun, yes, but culturally defining, no.
Though we agree on little, we might do well to remember the words of Duke Ellington as we bring the 20th century to a close, “There are only two kinds of music, good and bad.”
Now we just need, to find, develop, or educate an audience who can tell the difference.