Signposts of Posthistory

The Best New Jazz CDs of the Year of Louis and Miles

So the year 2000 in jazz, which was supposed to be the year of Louis Armstrong, turned out to be the year of Kind of Blue. True, Pops has a year to go—he gets a double centennial, one for his presumed birth in 1900 and one for the actual one in 1901. And if Ken Burns's Jazzachieves nothing else, it will reposition him in cultural history. Meanwhile, Kind of Blueappears to have achieved a Valhalla of its own; Sony, which caused nary a ripple of news when it dismantled its jazz department, reports that Miles Davis's 1959 classic sells 5000 copies a month, more than all the company's recent jazz discs combined, while Ashley Kahn's illuminating book of the same name (subtitled The Making of the Miles Davis Masterpieceand published by Da Capo) is breaking sales records in jazz lit: some 25,000 copies in its first five months. Sony, or one of its vestigial Columbia appendages, also released the most significant of the numerous Armstrong reissues, an imperfect but irresistible Complete Hot Five and Hot Seven Recordings, as well as collaborating with Verve on the five-disc boxed companion to the Burns series and 22 Burns-selected individual-artist discs.

So you'd think that Sony, of all companies, would be madly waving the red-white-and-blue of jazz patriotism instead of breaking the staff over its knee. But in fairness, none of the record companies have a clue anymore. Blue Note hires Rudy Van Gelder to remix its inviolable catalog and people who already own the LPs and CDs buy them again; the new stuff is a harder sell. Young people aren't coming to jazz because there's a cool cat like Miles or Coltrane or Rollins or even Corea drawing them in; they come to hear the cool sounds that Miles, Coltrane, Rollins, and even Corea left some time back—much as you came to classical music to hear Bach or Stravinsky, not Boulez. That's why Sony's ax didn't make 60 Minutes, didn't raise an uproar like the one that followed the abandonment by other labels of domestic symphony orchestras, didn't even engender the outrage sparked when New York lost its last commercial jazz station. These are the posthistorical doldrums: What's past is prologue, text, and epilogue.

Much of the anticipatory anguish over Burns's Jazz (about which, as a consultant, I will reserve comment) concerns whether it will be interpreted as the celebration of a living art or the valedictory for a dead one. Jazz at Lincoln Center, which, with the secretive brusqueness that has long been its stock-in-trade, recently rendered its leader a nonperson like Aline Bloomgarden (who got the thing started with the Classic Jazz series and hasn't been heard from since), is about to launch the first major concert hall ever built to the specifications of jazz, and the question is, Will it spur new music or memorialize the gloried past? More to the point, since—let's be real—it will undoubtedly try on some level to do both, will the new music be worth memorializing?

Another nonstory big story was the almost total lack of interest in comprehensively assessing the tonnage of CDs released in the previous season by Wynton Marsalis—the most issued by a single musician since Cecil Taylor's Berlin cataract of 1989. Perhaps our smarter heirs will rap the dust of our knuckles for failing to recognize the lineaments of genius in an act of vanity, one that appears to have contributed directly to the tanking of Sony jazz. But right now the reception—an indifferent silence—to an outpouring by the most famous living jazz player seems more noteworthy than the work itself, perhaps because even a consensus of disregard is better than no consensus at all.

Miles Davis in 1959, when he recorded the bestselling jazz album of the year 2000
photo: Don Hunstein
Miles Davis in 1959, when he recorded the bestselling jazz album of the year 2000

Kind of Blue, on the other hand, forged a consensus from the time it was released and has never wandered very far from center stage, even though, until 1997, Sony did not produce an acceptable version on CD (a frantic collector once offered me $200 for my LP). It's not the best jazz record ever made—there isn't one—and its universal appeal is not beyond suspicion. The music, after all, is superficially easy listening, however radical its underpinnings; even Coltrane goes down like mother's milk. Yet it summed up the immediate past, defined the present, and augured the future. No jazz record in recent years has done anything remotely like that. Nor has any forged more than a fleeting (at best) consensus. In compiling my own best-of-year CD list, I perused others and found one topped by a CD I'd rejected as cliché-ridden (clichés will always have appeal) and a second whose winner had seemed to me ersatz and overproduced. I am not suggesting my responses are more enlightened, but they are mine and I am stuck with them. The point is that in the absence of anything suggesting a movement, we are less united than ever before—even about what jazz is. In my favorite review of the year, from an Oakland-based magazine, Sonny Rollins is described as "the worst tenor player on the scene today. He is a honker, his tone is very, very flat, in the sense that it is not rounded or full"; what's more, his "execution is that of an amateur." When you leave the big cities, you meet—I speak with anecdotal evidence—jazz lovers who tell you how great jazz is for aerobics or speak glowingly of Boney James. "I don't know his work," I lied. "But I thought you were a jazz critic," she said. "Well, I'm just beginning," I apologized.

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