Touring the Jazz Museum

JVC 2000 Looks Backward

Is jazz a dead historic thing, or is it simply homesick for another era, any other era? The first concert hall ever built to house jazz is about to go up at Columbus Circle; the academy is rapt with attention, building new departments, endowing chairs; statues will follow. But what exactly is being honored: a music of unceasing innovation and achievement, or an archive parsed into its historical components? If jazz in the 21st century is to become what classical music became in the 20th century, an art of reconnaissance and interpretation, then last month's 2000 JVC Jazz Festival may be remembered as a key transitional event. For the first time in its history, JVC looked backward every night. Two concerts by modern players, Don Byron and Dave Douglas, were canceled for lack of audience interest. But, then, Byron was scheduled to play his score for a silent picture and Douglas has been exploring Mary Lou Williams. It's as though we were strapped into a time machine without the lever that moves it forward or back: Time marches on, but we are stuck—with our memories.

So let me blur the matter by adding that this was the most satisfying JVC in several years. It was especially eventful for singers João Gilberto, Cesaria Evora, and Cassandra Wilson (no surprises there); Diane Reeves, Diana Krall, and Joan Osborne (plenty of surprises there). It raised the question from night to night, even from set to set, of whether you can go home again. And the resounding final answer was: Some can, some can't. It also raised questions about racial authority, as James Williams and Don Byron essayed Bill Evans and Benny Goodman, and Mike Halby and Joan Osborne attempted Big Bill Broonzy and Sister Rosetta Tharpe.

Perhaps the most characteristic evening was the supremely peculiar "From Spirituals to Swing," an attempt to replicate the 1938 and 1939 Carnegie Hall concerts produced by John Hammond. I think the way to be true to Hammond's vision is to violate it: honoring his gift for recognizing innovation and genius, while acknowledging his limitations. Hammond's goal was not didactic. He wanted to make a case for music he loved by presenting its finest exponents. Associate JVC producer Danny Kapilian showed courage in going beyond the usual jazz rep suspects, but was unwilling to dispense with the original instrumentation and repertory.

Cassandra Wilson: shoelessly cohesive
photo: Hiroyuki Ito
Cassandra Wilson: shoelessly cohesive

Nor could he let go of a bewildering self-consciousness about race, telling the audience that color blindness is a good thing as though he expected an argument. He did, in fact, get a lot of mumbled arguments when he claimed that the original "From Spirituals to Swing" was Carnegie Hall's first integrated concert, forgetting Benny Goodman's milestone (also produced by Hammond) almost a year before. Besides, assertions of color blindness often raise embarrassing questions. Like: Was the evening's emcee, Danny Glover, who bungled every introduction, hired because of his love of music?

The concert began well enough with transplanted African Angelique Kidjo, accompanied by ace studio percussionist Danny Sadownick, singing and strutting and getting the audience to clap in time. She was followed by Dr. John, paying homage to "Boogie-Woogie Masters," who the host said had something to do with New Orleans and stride pianist/Broadway songwriter James P. Johnson—yet more creative history. No matter: Dr. John didn't quite raise the head of steam pumped out by Albert Ammons, Meade Lux Lewis, and Pete Johnson, but he held his own, interpolating "Sheik of Araby" into a blues. Don Byron and Steve Wilson joined with him for a trio that was supposed to suggest Sidney Bechet, but probably would have made him reach for his pistol.

Then came David Hidalgo and Mike Halby to confirm every possible prejudice against white guys singing the blues. Their dull-edged electric guitars turned the sound system to fog, and their interpretations were humorless and inept. Big Bill Broonzy had gotten big laughs with every punch line of "Just a Dream"; Halby never got a chuckle, except when he conceded that he and his partner felt "like a couple of midgets." Race aside, you cannot sing blues without Authority. Glover returned to ask, "Do you feel Robert Johnson at the crossroads?": A witty rejoinder would have been too easy. So while I was thinking, "Stevie Ray notwithstanding, color blindness is not always a virtue, especially when so many good, authentic, black blues guys are around," out came Joan Osborne, who sexily cocked her hip and—backed by Wendell Holmes, a genuinely rocking guitarist—did two Sister Rosetta Tharpe numbers so effectively that, being color-blind, I figured Osborne was light-skinned. Later, I learned she is a Caucasian from Kentucky who apprenticed on the blues circuit and scored a rock hit. Her contralto rang true and clean, without affectation or fake humility, and seemed no less at home when she joined with the 11 singers of the SRC All-City Chorale for Tharpe's "Can't No Grave Hold My Body Down," the choir shadowing her like an orchestra.

Color was less the point than attitude when Don Byron allegedly paid tribute to Benny Goodman's sextet; Byron's band, like Goodman's, was integrated. Now if Kapilian had recruited someone like Ken Peplowski, we might have heard Benny through the looking glass, but in hiring Byron he was aiming for a more interesting take and got it, though I did not get the point of the unswinging "Flying Home" or the "Memories of You" with a Latin vamp that ignored the melody until the last chorus. Drummer Joey Baron smashed his cymbal on every beat, as though packing bricks; his lack of elegance was reflected in inchoate solos by everyone but vibist Stefon Harris, who played with a direct, relaxed, melodic sparkle. By the third number, though, "Tuskegee Strutter's Ball" (Byron's "I Got Rhythm" variation), the group came into its own. Baron calmed down, and the leader delivered a good, chancy solo, quoting Monk and others, that wiped away the last vestiges of homage in favor of his own brave new world.

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