Fleishedik and Milchedik

Jazzing the classics and classing the jazzers from Jelly Roll Morton to Uri Caine

Jazz being human, it covets whatever it thinks it's being denied. From Paul Whiteman and George Gershwin's attempt to make an honest woman of it at Aeolian Hall in 1924 to Rahsaan Roland Kirk insisting its proper title was "Black Classical Music" in the '60s, jazz craved respectability. Now that this has been achieved, at least in theory, what's lacking isn't just commercial viability but the perceived cultural relevance that comes in the bargain—the Bad Plus and techno beats, anyone?

I'm aware that there are several problems with my dichotomy. Jazz began losing its audience two generations ago, with the demise of the big bands and the growth of rhythm and blues; black audiences were defecting at such an alarming rate by the 1960s that much of that era's nationalist rhetoric seemed compensatory. You could argue that third stream, an attempt to synthesize jazz and classical in the early 1960s spearheaded by John Lewis and Gunther Schuller, didn't catch on because it bumped into free jazz and there was room for only one new movement. But third stream would have fizzled anyway, because soon musicians were plugging in to a different bunch of longhairs. Jazz's present status as an art on the endangered-species list, worthy of institutional preservation, is limited to the canon; active players intent on setting their own rules are scuffling the same as before. Though my experience on funding panels open to both suggests that "jazz" composers have gained equal footing with their "classical" brethren (and may in fact have the upper hand), there aren't enough dollars to go around—the city governments that have traditionally funded "serious" music are strapped, and Daddy E-Bucks was disinclined to endow orchestras even before the dotcom crash. So jazz finds itself wishing simultaneously for social relevance and recognition as a fine art, even though the two rarely go together. Maybe it's always that way. Besides, except for the occasional Hazel Scott jazzing the classics to the delight of café swells (or more recently, Regina Carter playing Paganini's violin), a rapprochement with classical music was never merely a bid for upward mobility anyway.

On the train the other night, I was reading a panel discussion on the future of jazz in which an unspoken concern seemed to be whether jazz had one. The panelists—a diverse group of instrumentalists and two critics—mostly agreed that the comely young female singers being featured on the covers of jazz magazines were upmarket pop acts and not jazz singers at all, if the standard is Billie Holiday. There was much talk about fusions. Though the consensus was that input from African and world musics was a promising development, a few panelists worried that by borrowing so many conventions from classical music and extolling composition over improvisation, jazz was in danger of fusing itself right out of existence.


The Village Voice Jazz Supplement: Crossing Over Everywhere

  • Crossover Realities
    Seeking ways to get heard and to grow, and more often succeeding at the latter
    by Larry Blumenfeld

  • Band in My Head
    How Mojo, Bitches Brew, and Butch Morris inspired a funktional African American family unit
    by Greg Tate

  • The Joan Baez of Jazz
    A great tradition strives to keep itself young by discovering its inner Melissa Manchester
    by Tom Smucker

  • Darn That Dream
    Major tie-up on the one-way street from jazz to jam
    by Martin Johnson

  • Summer Jazz 2004
  • These were hot topics on the panels at this year's Jazz Educators convention, and will be at next year's. But this was a panel assembled by Playboy in 1964 and included in Robert Walser's 1999 Keeping Time: Readings in Jazz History. Plus ça change, huh? A notion that never goes away is that jazz risks losing its identity as well as its heritage—its blackness, ultimately —in any exchange with classical music. Referring to Duke Ellington, who made generous use of European amenities in works that portrayed the full scope of 20th-century African American life, Cecil Taylor once said, pointedly, "He doesn't look European to me." Ellington may be the best rebuttal to the sort of racial nativism that's attached itself to jazz since bop, but he's not the only one. On the Playboy panel, it was left to Dave Brubeck to state the obvious, that "the first written jazz form was the rag, and that was a copy of the European march." Of course, this overlooks the blues. But Brubeck's larger point has the ring of truth. Even if we discount ragtime (and I say we shouldn't), the first jazz borrowed all its instrumentation except drums from Europe, along with its harmonic substructure. Why would anyone have expected it to stop there?

    And almost from the beginning, the borrowing worked both ways. I had Walser's anthology with me because I wanted to reread a piece written by the Swiss conductor Ernest Ansermet after hearing Will Marion Cook's Southern Syncopated Orchestra and its star soloist, Sidney Bechet, in 1919. Regarded as the first work of serious jazz criticism despite its racial condescension and

    Eurocentric frame of reference, Ansermet's essay is often quoted to support the revisionist theory that Bechet, not Louis Armstrong, was the first great jazz improviser. "Their form is gripping, abrupt, harsh, with a brusque and pitiless ending like that of Bach's Second Brandenberg Concerto," Ansermet writes of Bechet's solos. "[W]hat a moving thing it is to meet this black, fat boy with white teeth and narrow forehead, who is very glad one likes what he does, but can say nothing of his art, except that he follows his 'own way'— and then one considers that perhaps his own way is the highway along which the whole world will swing tomorrow."

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