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.
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.”
Works like Milhaud’s La Création du Monde and Krenek’s opera Jonny Spielt Auf seemed to fulfill that prophecy in short order. In the years following World War I, jazz was embraced as the voice of modernism by innumerable European composers, including many who hadn’t heard any; their idea of jazz was ragtime or Irving Berlin, but at least they were on the right trail. Stravinsky once complained that discussions of Russian music always focused on its revelations of Russian character, never on its merits as music. So it was with most early writing on jazz, which proceeded from the belief that America, syncopation, and the new century were synonyms. Jazz was the muse that would finally drag American culture out of Europe’s shadow. This never happened, at least with our classical music, in part because World War II filled our conservatories with European émigrés for whom jazz and pop were a vulgar distraction from the serious business of the 12-tone row. From that point on, with meaningful exceptions like Stravinsky’s Ebony Concerto for Woody Herman and David Schiff’s recent Four Sisters for Regina Carter (not yet commercially available, but the best thing she’s ever done, to judge from a concert tape), most of the overtures have come from the other side of the divide.
Third stream is today widely regarded as an aberration, and I, for one, am unable to hear those two words without recalling the Mencken-like critic (and Bix Beiderbecke biographer) Ralph Berton’s dismissal of the entire movement as Schuller and Lewis pissing in the same urinal. But third stream’s legacy becomes staggering if, in addition to Schuller’s variations on Monk’s “Criss Cross” and Lewis’s concerti grossi for the Modern Jazz Quartet, we stretch the definition backward and forward to include Scott Joplin’s Treemonisha, James P. Johnson’s “Harlem Suite” and “Yamakraw,” Ellington’s “Harlem” and “The Three Black Kings,” Mary Lou Williams’s “The Zodiac Suite,” Tadd Dameron’s “Fontainebleau,” Ralph Burns’s “Summer Sequence,” Bob Graettinger’s “City of Glass,” George Russell’s “All About Rosie,” Charles Mingus’s “Half Mast Inhibition” and “The Shoes of the Fisherman’s Wife,” Ornette Coleman’s “Forms and Feelings” and Skies of America, Hannibal Marvin Peterson’s “The Children of the Fire,” John Carter’s Castles of Ghana, Anthony Davis’s X, Uri Caine’s Mozart and Mahler adaptations, parts of Carla Bley’s Escalator Over the Hill, and all of Stan Getz and Eddie Sauter’s Focus, Miles Davis and Gil Evans’s Miles Ahead and Sketches of Spain, and Wayne Shorter’s Alegria.
Give me a longer deadline and more column inches and I swear I could name a few hundred more, not even counting comparable works by European jazz composers or curiosities like Bley’s “And Now the Queen” (after Stravinsky), Coltrane’s “Impressions” (after Ravel, by way of Morton Gould), Art Tatum’s finger-busting interpretations of Dvorak’s “Humoresque,” and Jelly Roll Morton’s tip of the cap to Chopin on “Dead Man’s Blues.” In his autobiography, Miles Davis said one inspiration for Kind of Blue was a thumb piano he heard behind an African ballet troupe. But those textures suggest he and Bill Evans were listening to a lot of Debussy. It’s easy to hear Sly and James Brown in Agharta and Pangaea; Miles said Stockhausen was also in the mix. When Wynton Marsalis first burst on the scene as a trumpeter with laurels in both jazz and classical music, he insisted on keeping the two apart, like fleishedik and milchedik. Lately, though, even he’s come around, with unorthodox works like Blood on the Fields and All Rise.
Improvisers have also benefited from an immersion in the classics, even if their references are more difficult to identify. Jimmy Heath once told me that as young men in Philadelphia in the 1940s, he and Coltrane—aware of Charlie Parker’s fascination with the European modernists—spent countless hours examining scores in the free library, looking for ideas to elaborate on in their solos. According to the late Roland Hanna, the early boppers were especially keen on Scriabin for his daring with flatted fifths. The bebop era was also when young musicians who already knew their instruments began studying the aesthetics of improvisation and fine points of harmony with private teachers like Lennie Tristano, Dennis Sandole, and Stanford Gold. From this it was a short step to homemade systems of improvisation, like George Russell’s Lydian theory, Mary Lou Williams’s zoning, Ornette Coleman’s harmolodics, and who can keep track of how many others? Playing jazz was no longer just doing what came naturally—as if it ever was. Whereas pianists once swung the classics, today Keith Jarrett and Brad Mehldau often class the jazzers, turning unsuspecting pop tunes into Chopin or Liszt. On a brighter note, Ornette Coleman so loves Mozartian symmetry that he frequently sounds like a Texas bluesman wearing a powdered wig—phrased differently, “Dancing in Your Head” could be a minuet.
I’ve dwelled on history because, of all today’s fusions, only jazz-and-classical has as much to draw from. I’d argue that third stream reached its peak not in its own erabut in the early 1980s, by which point the emphasis in what was still being called free jazz paradoxically shifted to composition, ultimately producing Anthony Davis’s X—not a jazz opera, whatever that might be, but a legitimate one in which jazz from ragtime to Coltrane and beyond played an integral part. Given the decelerated pace of jazz evolution, that period feels like just yesterday. Its strides forward and missteps are still being sorted out in clubs and concert halls (and on panels), even though Davis himself and others from his 1980s circle (their efforts color-coded as “jazz,” rather than Philip Glass or Meredith Monk’s “new music,” by everyone except the jazz police) have taken refuge in academia, alongside the post-serialists and dodecaphonists who don’t care if anybody listens—a luxury jazz has never been able to afford, and one it had better not covet. “If it sounds good, it is good,” Ellington preached, and even if it appalls aesthetic conservatives among the jazz faithful, who can be as scornful of relativism as the Christian right, his subjective criterion is the only one worth applying to future jazz-and-classical hybrids. There figure to be lots of them. When haven’t there been?