Say It Isn’t So


The unceremonious booting of the Carnegie Hall Jazz Band from Carnegie Hall is old news, but hasn’t been much addressed in or out of the jazz press, perhaps because George Wein, whose baby the CHJB was, capitulated without a fight to the hall’s new executive director, Robert J. Harth. The public excuse, and it’s a beaut, is that the hall wants to expand its presentation of jazz by looking to a wide variety of artists rather than one ensemble. Oh joy!—I so look forward to eating the words I’m about to deploy. Harth, the son of two concert violinists who was previously in charge of the Aspen Music Festival, where presentation of jazz was nonexistent, has told CHJB conductor and music director Jon Faddis that he intends no artistic slight. He just wants to broaden the jazz canvas. Apparently, the CHJB’s four evenings a year were getting in the way. So much jazz, so little time.

Actually, not only hasn’t Carnegie ever presented much jazz, it’s not in the business of producing concerts; it leases its hall to producers and institutions for that purpose. One producer remarked last week that he had been asked to mount jazz concerts several years back precisely because, a Carnegie bigwig told him, the hall had been so inimical for so long to African American music. He suspects that the latest slight is nothing more than good old elitist disdain. I’m uncomfortable with the word elitist, which can apply to jazz connoisseurs as well as any other kind, but it would be hard not to conclude that a time-honored prejudice is at work. It is ludicrous to float a parallel: New boss comes to Lincoln Center, fires the New York Philharmonic to widen presentation of 19th-century music. For one thing, no director would ever be powerful enough to execute so draconian a decision—that’s what boards of directors are for. It’s different for a jazz orchestra that’s survived barely a decade. One man controls the respirator. He flicks it off and an orchestra dies.

Ten years is not much time—not enough, in this instance, to become a treasured New York institution. The absence of protests proves that. Well, maybe it isn’t a very good orchestra, maybe it contributes nothing to music. Yet no one has asserted that issues of quality were even considered. Perhaps something really obvious needs to be said about the nature of jazz orchestras. Every jazz lover has had to endure hugely ambitious concerts at which the conductor or producer boasts that the marvelous players on stage mastered the exceedingly complex scores in only three rehearsals. “Yay!” we respond, meaning: “Close enough for jazz.” And sometimes the performances are so good we applaud with genuine amazement. But as John Lewis used to say, there is no substitute for the long haul of experience.

After the debut performance by the American Jazz Orchestra, which Lewis introduced in 1986, he confided with unmistakable satisfaction, “In a few years, this will be a band.” He liked to point out the discrepancies between classic discs by Duke Ellington or Woody Herman, when their bands recorded scores they’d first encountered in the studio the very day they were preserved for all time, with the concert (usually bootleg) performances of the same works that were captured after road trips—for example, Ellington’s Fargo concert, where the band sounds like it’s breathing the music. The Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra is light-years now from what it was in its early incarnation. The Vanguard Jazz Orchestra can do things now that would have been unthinkable when it was manned by bona fide jazz stars in its start-up years. The point doesn’t need belaboring. You know how you get to Carnegie Hall. Practice, practice, practice. So the problem is not that Harth has greatly diminished the finances of its members, who did not depend on its handful of concerts to pay the rent, or even that he destroyed a band that by jazz standards had a pretty good run. In firing the CHJB he has trashed the 10 years of effort that went into making the CHJB just about the finest traditional-jazz orchestra in the world.

If not the finest, then surely a contender with few rivals: Vanguard, Lincoln Center, Danish Radio Jazz Band, maybe one or two others in Europe (although they don’t have our soloists), and Count Basie’s ghost group. In a rare battle of the bands a few years back, the CHJB shellacked the LCJO, and I doubt the others would fare much better. That’s partly because Faddis has invested much of his musical capital in dynamics; not even the Basie operation, which under its founder’s gaze practically invented modern brass tuttis with unison shakes and decays, could outshine it, not without Faddis’s trumpet to top those tuttis off. Competition aside, the CHJB took upon itself a direction broader than other bands, excepting the Danes. Although some of its most memorable achievements involved classic jazz repertory—Lalo Schifrin’s Gillespiana, Maurice Peress’s restoration of Ellington’s Black, Brown and Beige—it preferred to commission new works, usually based on familiar themes.

Like Gerry Mulligan with his much- shorter-lived Concert Jazz Band, Faddis developed a cadre of gifted writers, representing several generations of jazz, and allowed them to go for broke. Generally, they were invited to tackle and revise celebrated jazz works or classic songs. The inconsistent results were, strangely, one of the CHJB’s charms: You were never too certain of what you were about to hear, and thus experienced the excitement of discovering big band music in the making, as an evolving art. Owing to thematic constraints, listeners had a grounding with which to evaluate variations: Can this hymn really be “Yesterdays” (it is, via Michael Phillip Mossman) or this mad labyrinth “Sing, Sing, Sing” (credit unpredictable Jim McNeely), and did Coltrane ever receive more disparate treatments than “Giant Steps” (the invariably swinging Frank Foster) and A Love Supreme (Slide Hampton slyly banishing solemnity)?

I agree entirely that Carnegie Hall ought to broaden its approach to jazz, and with a resident crack orchestra that can handle virtually any challenge, one way would be to encourage the CHJB to do more. For my money, it ought to do a lot more classic repertory. No orchestra is better equipped to interpret a host of durable works that are no longer played, from Jimmie Lunceford and Mary Lou Williams to Bill Holman and Gil Evans. It’s disgraceful that no orchestra (including the American Jazz Orchestra) has explored the works of George Russell (of course, Harth is probably planning to bring Russell himself to the hall, as part of his jazz expansion). In the meantime, here’s a band growing like a pearl. Instead of tearing the pearl from the oyster, to which it brought much credit, Carnegie might have insisted on a board to oversee an enlargement of its mandate.

In that respect, I wish the CHJB’s farewell, the first of seven intermittently jazzy Carnegie Hall concerts at this year’s JVC Jazz Festival (ongoing as I write), had been two full sets, to more fully display its wares. After an hour of deconstructed ballads by the Brad Mehldau Trio, Faddis, clearly as angered as he was moved by the event, indulged a bit much in envoi speeches and ceremony (this has been the talkiest JVC in memory), before playing five of the band’s commissions based on pre-war standards. The chief pleasure of the CHJB is its ensemble esprit: You expect to be charred by high notes, jolted by dynamics, and caressed by snug voicings. Mossman’s “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” was an ideal opener, displaying the orchestra’s polish, vibrant swing, and, in a two-note transitional screech, diverting virtuosity; Faddis’s poised, midrange solo was perfectly gauged. Hampton’s “Days of Wine and Roses” was a pastel: muted brass, flutes, and clarinet. Mossman’s “I’ve Told Every Little Star” incorporated a mambo joke and rhythm before heading on to strong solos by his own trumpet and Ralph Lalama’s tenor. Mike Abene’s “You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To” introduced Terrell Stafford’s trumpet and flute exchanges between the ageless (80, actually) Frank Wess and Jerry Dodgian. Frank Foster’s thunderous “Fascinatin’ Rhythm” laid out all the CHJB’s strongest cards, powered by drummer Dana Hall.

Before Foster, Faddis supported Wess, on tenor, producing a warm purring sound, cozy as a stuffed animal, in a quintet reading of “Body and Soul.” Faddis’s willingness to allow small groups to emerge from the big one, a gambit at least as old as Benny Goodman’s trio, gives the band a rest and the audience a change. But it takes a musician of uncommon aplomb to allow his own band a siesta while permitting an unannounced guest to steal the show. The infinitely hearty Carrie Smith belted “Blues in the Night,” but she was really a beard for Clark Terry, who, at 81, is besieged by ailments and can’t walk unaided. “The golden years suck,” he announced, but, wit notwithstanding, the prospect of listening to him fumpher was not a pleasant one. Well, he didn’t muffle a note; his tone was gorgeously unspotted, unmistakably lyrical and ironic (including a few high-note Mumbles asides). I’ve heard he played as well at the recent Town Hall Eddie Bert tribute, but if I hadn’t heard him I wouldn’t have believed it. The only way to end was with the big band and Goodman’s old, nightly farewell, “Goodbye.” I hope not.