MUSIC ARCHIVES

Jazz Wars in the ’70s

“Maybe the best that can be said of jazz in the ’70s is that it didn’t just survive. It established its own precedents and raised important questions about an art that was finally pushed beyond its golden age.”

by

It All Depends on What You Know
December 17, 1979

In the mid-’60s, someone — I’m not sure who, though Gabor Szabo sticks in the brain — declared that jazz was dead. The observation is made whenever jazz is mutating, but once again a tremor rippled through the music’s cloisters as scribes hastily prepared a de­fense. At least one expression of increduli­ty was predictable: “Jazz dead? Is Louis Armstrong dead?” It seemed almost taste­less to point out that jazz was in big trouble if its future depended on one mor­tal’s coil, even Louis Armstrong’s. Apostasy made great strides. Miles Davis said calling him a jazz musician was like calling him a nigger. Jazz became Jazz & Pop, the Playboy jazz poll went the way of narrow ties (which, come to think of it, are back), and Down Beat’s readers voted Jimi Hendrix into the jazz hall of fame. By 1975, the intimidation was so widespread that out of dozens of young musicians I interviewed for an article, only a few would admit to playing jazz or knowing what it was; an agent for Stanley Clarke insisted he not be included if the article was about jazz. Meanwhile King Louis died. So did Duke Ellington.

Then, about three or four years ago, a turnabout started. Jazz, it transpired, had not died, it had simply gone away; now, it was back — Time and Newsweek each came to the same conclusion. Internation­al jazz festivals proliferated (even Playboy sponsored one). Stevie Wonder and Jim­my Carter announced that they liked jazz. Fats Waller and Eubie Blake were carted back to Broadway (where their music was dejazzified, but let’s not quibble), Alvin Ailey choreographed hours of Ellington, Mikhail Baryshnikov danced minutes to Cecil Taylor, and Scott Joplin (who died in 1917, and whose relationship to jazz in this regard is more symbolic than real) won an Oscar, a Grammy, and a Pulitzer. More significantly, young jazz musicians were willing to come out of the closet, especially after George Benson copped a platinum record for Breezin’. People who felt intimidated by the difficulties of jazz could now feel superior to its bourgeois sentimentality. Creed Taylor, Inc. had paved the middle of the road, and soon there were Chuck Mangione records for your maiden aunt and Maynard Ferguson records for your high school football coach. Herbie and Chick made jazz cute, Bob James, John Klemmer, Grover Washington, Tom Scott, and George Duke were on the charts, while the minions of Miles Davis took a trip down memory lane via V.S.O.P.; Keith Jarrett was baptized an Artist, Bobbi Humphrey a Flutist, and Donald Byrd an Ethnomusicologist. May­be Jazz had died.

This heresy occurred to me on air­planes. I didn’t mind if the middle classes thought jazz was Mangione rapping with Merv, there was nothing new about that. Did I really want to see David Murray rapping with Merv? But when I studied the menu of Billboard horrors on in-flight “jazz” channels, I did worry about our adventurous, music-loving youth, and the impenetrable cloak of commercial red her­rings that kept them from the real thing. How could anyone become interested in jazz from the available samplings, the meretricious make-out music manufac­tured out of lulling rhythm tracks, impersonal solos, cooing voices, and glutinous strings. I wondered: If I were 15 and knew only the processed jazz of mass media, what would I think of jazz? I’d think it was corny and predictable, without spirit or spontaneity.

A humbling thought. For what was jazz to me if not a celebration of the individual, fueled with spirit and spontaneity, sparked with irreverence? Jazz was a challenge to the listener and a risk to the performer, an expression of freedom, in the phrase of Thelonious Monk, who went on to say: “Don’t play what the public wants — you play what you want and let the public pick up on what you are — even if it does take them 15, 20 years.” Jazz was sublimely and lovingly seditious, and sometimes not so lovingly. But here it was splitting apart like a frazzled amoeba, jazz qua merchandise all but engulfing jazz qua jazz.

This was not entirely unprecedented or unexpected. Jazz hipness achieved total insularity in the ’60s, and a swing to the other extreme was inevitable. A dearth of interesting popular music served as a welcoming hand to jazz musicians who could cross over, and a tradition of easy-listen­ing-jazz provided models. So after the pained incantations of A Love Supreme came the Scientological doggerel of Return to Forever, after Free Jazz the CTI system of music in overdubbed layers, after Miles in the Sky Miles On the Corner, after the steamy crossrhythms of McCoy Tyner the portentous navel-gazing of Keith Jarrett, after the eccentric bombast of Tony Wil­liam’s Emergency! the wholesome treacle of Spyro Gyra and Jeff Lorber. Much rewarding jazz has resulted from the rec­onciliation of jazz and pop, from Armstrong’s “Star Dust” to Davis’s Bitches Brew, but Spyro Gyra — !

The historical relationship of jazz and pop mixes symbiosis with reproof. In the ’20s, ’40s, and ’60s, jazz was resolutely piloted by its avant garde, so much so that even today the Hot Five, Charlie Parker, and Ornette Coleman are more heard of then heard. But in the ’30s, ’50s, and ’70s, a taming of the extremist impulses and the compromising influence of pop effected a cooler dialectic. The changeover of the past decade was particularly strenuous for two reasons. First, the avant garde of Coleman, Coltrane, Taylor, and Ayler posited the jazz equivalent of the white-­on-white canvas or the nonnarrative novel. Having discovered that melody, rhythm, and harmony were neither sacred nor pro­fane, but neutral and infinitely adaptable, jazz had to take the long road back to rediscover the richness of its past, ferret out new juxtapositions, and relearn the axioms (if any existed) of its tradition. This was done in the leaderless at­mosphere that constitutes reason number two. Jazz is an eternal wedding of im­provisation and composition, and the ’70s claimed its greatest improvisor, Armstrong, and its greatest composer, Ell­ington. When the royalty of an art die, a pall is cast that is no less real for being metaphysical. It’s as if those deaths place the art beyond the sustenance of history in an untethered present; eclecticism reigns as the past is raked for guidance and validation. Suddenly, Armstrong and Ellington were renewed sources of pride, and in the absence of a dynamic leader the entire tradition was renewed as an unplundered text. New standards had to be in­voked, and the ’70s might be described as a period of blind runs and free falls. The obvious places to look for those standards were the jazz past (rural blues to Cecil Taylor) and neighboring musics (rock, pop, Europe, the third world, etc.).

I find symbolic forecasts of the un­moored ’70s in Lester Bowie’s “Jazz Death?” (1968) and the first side of Tony Williams’s Emergency! (1969). Each is prophetic on a number of levels. The Bowie recording (heard on Roscoe Mitchell’s Congliptious) is an unaccom­panied trumpet solo, and if the ’60s had to accept the collective effusions of Free Jazz and Ascension, the ’70s capitulated to countless hours of the solo solo. After a brief parodic opening, Bowie, in the person of Dave Flexingbergstein of Jism maga­zine, asks if jazz “as we know it” is dead. Later, in the midst of a performance that includes a march figure, torrid balladry, raspberries, a bop riff, and a mocking wah­-wah rejoinder, Bowie cavalierly responds, “Well, I guess it all depends on what you know.” As it turned out, many musicians — especially those who, like Bowie, were involved with the Association for the Advancement of Creative Music (AACM) and similar organizations — spent much of the decade showing us what they knew. The daffy eclecticism that made Jaki Byard a lone duck in the ’60s became everyday nourishment in the ’70s. Bowie’s cocky irreverence and the dry humor of his conceit also emerged as familiar traits of the decade’s hard jazz. Perhaps the most promising aspect of “Jazz Death?” was the assurance with which it marshaled half a century of jazz phrases and effects without a predetermined structure.

The first side of Williams’s seminal two-record set, Emergency!, shows the strengths and pitfalls of the fusion move­ment. To a degree, this album, issued before Bitches Brew and showcasing a trio of Williams, John McLaughlin, and Larry Young, made fusion a reality. The title selection fused jazz improvisation and en­semble interplay with the color and vi­olent energy of rock, and the result was jolting and savage; I can think of no subse­quent fusion endeavor that surpasses its flailing, nearly claustrophobic tension. It promised a startling, dangerous future. But with “Beyond Games,” the churning rhythms part for a Williams recitation of shocking banality and ineptitude. “Why don’t you say what you mean/you didn’t mean what you said,” he whines like a piker Bob Dylan, and in place of Bowie’s wit is a humorless will-to-profundity that would plague much of the fusion to follow. “Indeed, a comparison of Bowie’s and Wil­liams’s work in the ’70s establishes addi­tional prototypes: Bowie’s music remained constant and strong while Williams, smit­ten not only by the dream of fusion but of commercial success, vitiated his music to ­the extent that the promise of “Emer­gency” began to seem like an accident.

So jazz in the ’70s boiled down to a debate between the non­compromising eclectics and the compromising eclectics, a debate that escalated into a class war. Monied groups with major record label affiliations played concert halls; a middle class of dependable mainstream-modern attractions monopolized the established jazz clubs; the new and avant were accom­modated briefly by the loft scene, and then by a network of new clubs and theatres. Numerous exceptions to this pic­ture don’t alter its veracity. Jazz radio became fusion radio, while the record in­dustry, puffing away at the jazz-is-back myth with one overproduced confection after another, steadfastly ignored serious young or mainstream jazz musicians, en­couraging by default the modest rise of independents. Some of the latter attracted cults and were leased by the majors­ — Pablo by RCA, ECM by Polydor and then Warners; Inner City, an outgrowth of Mu­sic Minus One, amassed an immense catalogue from European labels. Few of the ma-and-pa operations that attempted to replace the ignominiously slaughtered Blue Note, Prestige, and Impulse labels achieved better than minimal distribu­tion, but by decade’s end Fanta offered its Galaxy line, Arista its Novus, and Columbia an occasionally adventurous signing. There was never a stir from MCA or Capitol.

If the most important developments centered around modernism and fusion, two subordinate movements also con­tributed to the period’s identity — the rise of jazz repertory and the continuous rediscovery of its forgotten ancients and not­-so-ancients, most particularly Eubie Blake and Alberta Hunter, though every year had its share of comebacks. These four areas suggest a period of fertility, but it must also be acknowledged that one very crucial area of jazz foundered on the critical list. I’m talking about jazz singing. The Bessie-Billie-Ella-Sarah-Dinah dynasty is without heir or heiress, unless it be Betty Carter, who in her late forties was widely acclaimed as the last of the Mohicans. Until the ’70s, it didn’t seem quite so certain that jazz singing would be a casualty of jazz evolution. But how could it be otherwise? The classic jazz singers were dependent on the very material jazz has generally abandoned, and Aretha Franklin has made soul the most attrac­tive idiom for expressive young singers. Thirty years ago, Millie Jackson might have been a superb jazz singer; today I can’t imagine her doing anything but what she does. Singers who are attracted to jazz tend to follow one of three avenues: they develop styles to complement the modern instrumental forms, sell themselves as fusion props, or nostalgically recreate the good old days. But there should be a fourth option, to fashion a contemporary setting for a time-honored idiom. This still means acknowledging an old repertoire (some of the best of which is practically virgin territory; for example, the Billy Strayhorn songbook), because most con­temporary pop songs are either too har­monically bleak or too self-consciously maudlin and hook-laden to suit the needs of the jazz singer, and a swinging rhythm section. I thought Dee Dee Bridgewater and Randy Crawford were most likely to make the grade, but jazz didn’t hold them and they’ve become versatile hacks.

Much of the tendency towards hackery can be blamed on fusion. In the notes to a debut album released last year, a pianist named Rodney Franklyn was quoted as follows: “When I was nine years old, I used to listen to Herbie and Chick and say, ‘I can do that!’ ” Whereupon he proceeded to recreate the funky superficialities of Tweedle-dee’s and Tweedle-dum’s styles, reserving one selection for the kind of acoustic piano romance that is presum­ably intended to please a kindly old piano teacher. Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea were ubiquitous, and it’s hard to tell why. Both were Miles Davis sidemen and pro­lific jazz musicians who aimed for smaller things in the ’70s. Hancock applied his compositional talent to fashioning riffs in a meticulous kind of funk that had little to do with jazz, and Corea used his similar talents to organize a band that did at­tempt to fuse jazz and rock, until the latter overpowered the former and only gaseous bombast escaped. Gimmickry aided them at every turn — perhaps the ultimate example is Hancock making himself a singer by talking into a vocoder — but with the possible exception of a bass riff on Hancock’s “Chameleon,” they’ve composed little as enduring as their early work (“Maiden Voyage,” Empyrean Isles, “La Fiesta,” “Crystal Silence”). Han­cock’s attempt to present himself as a shy Sly Stone and Corea’s insufferably adorable sense of humor have produced embarrassments, and their periodic forays into jazz during the last couple of years have been only moderately satisfying.

It’s not irrelevant to note that Corea is a proselytizing Scientologist and Hancock a Shoshu Bhuddist, in that so much of the worst fusion music isn’t content with mere music, but with our spirituality. Imagine! — jazz musicians attaining the shallows of Rod McKuen. I’m reminded of Nietzsche excoriating Wagner (Stanley Clarke’s fa­vorite composer): “He repeated a single fact all his life long: that his music did not mean mere music. But more. But infinite­ly more! — ‘Not mere music’ — no musician would say that.” The tendentiousness of the fusion propagandists means less, in­finitely less — love, peace, L. Ron Hubbard, be real, learn to fly, have a nice day. Technique and sentimentality became ev­erything — there has never been a gener­ation that so worshipped technique for its own sake as this one. The music of the ’70s is rife with funny noises — either primitive (a table of Latin percussion) or sophisti­cated (tiers of synthesizer keyboards) — ­suggesting third world, exotica and extraterrestrial mysteries, much of it cheap and silly. References to science fiction are legion.

By decade’s end, fusion had de­generated into formula — even for compe­tent players: Al DiMeola, Brecker Brothers, Lonnie Liston Smith, the Crusaders, Pat Metheny, et al. — and it was difficult to believe that it ever had spunk. But 10 years ago it did. Miles Davis, Gil Evans, Tony Williams, Weath­er Report, the original Return to Forever, Larry Coryell, and Mahavishnu Orchestra all suggested a revitalization of space, color, and rhythm, an assimilation of the strengths of both schools. That paled quickly enough, as accessibility became the absolute goal. Instead of fusion, we saw gifted musicians lending their talents to the tepid excesses of an aesthetically failed movement — Freddie Hubbard, Jackie McLean, Gary Bartz, Cedar Walton, Blue Mitchell, and Raul deSouza among them. And how could the results sound fresh when the productions were devised by failed jazzmen and Hollywood hacks brought into the labels to create fashionable settings, arrangers like Don Sebeskey, Bob James, Dave Grusin, and Lalo Schifrin, who filched the worst aspects of rock and jazz — the polite, the weatherbeaten, the humorless. The for­mula took a predictable shape: im­maculate, tuned rhythms; hooky bass patterns; static harmonies. It was erotic but unthreatening, spontaneous in dollops, mindless, and meticulous — a Puritan’s dream.

Quite simply, the bottom line is this: jazz and pop are incompatible when jazz is subordinated to pop. When you strait­jacket jazz, it becomes a corrupted affec­tation, a seasoning. Where fusion might have incorporated rock sonics to bolster improvisation and slice through the mud­dle of Top-40 sentimentality, it turned to easy-listening sophistication, complete with doggerel, cloying guitar sonorities, pretentious interludes from 19th-century Europe, and synthesizer-replicated strings. The tonal and spatial adventures of Bitches Brew and the extravagant har­monies and instrumentation of Gil Evans were abandoned. The decline of Weather Report is indicative: Joe Zawinul is a composer of intimations, a master of at­mosphere and not of substance. With his Austrian sense of foreboding, he can com­bine rhythm, repetition, and color for menace; but he’s no melodist — his tunes are derivative, self-conscious, and dis­honestly chirpy — and his counterpoint is stilted. It isn’t fair to disparage Weather Report’s latest work for not being jazz and not showcasing Wayne Shorter in a way commensurate with his jazz abilities, yet the road from I Sing the Body Electric to Mr. Gone demonstrates an increasing capitulation to the Puritan ethic, as cleanliness and simplicity enfeeble the audacity that the group now reveals only in concert. No less disheartening is Michael Gregory Jackson’s Heart & Cen­ter, an undistinguished bandwagon effort even by the low standards of the genre, in which an intriguing young artist who had made interesting and personal statements now shows he can create lyrics as precious, melodies as unfocused, and rhythms as damp as anyone else’s.

It’s interesting to note that the cliché-­ridden improvisations of much fusion re­flect the immense influence of John Col­trane, incontestably the most imitated musician of the ’70s. The most challenging new saxophonists of the decade — David Murra, Julius Hemphill, Henry Threadgill, Arthur Blythe, Chico Free­man, Anthony Braxton, and Oliver Lake, not to mention the increasingly personal acolyte of swing tenor, Scott Hamilton­ — have circumvented Coltrane, while the sound of commercial jazz is infatuated with his storming arpeggios. Miles Davis provided fusion with official approval and formal inspiration, as well as on-the-job training for just about everyone of im­portance in the movement, but Coltrane provided the soloists with their notes. Not since the legion of Lester Young and/or Charlie Parker followers in the late ’40s has a jazz musician attracted so large and rapt a band of disciples. But Young’s example inspired lyricism while Coltrane’s fosters scalar virtuosity, and virtuosity combined with crashing two-beats and aggressive sound systems is what fusion too frequently substitutes for ingenuity and feeling. The best of Young’s disciples evolved their own style’s eventually, and this will undoubtedly be the case with Coltrane’s — at the moment, Michael Brecker, for one, bears watching.

There were musicians who achieved commercial success without electronics — notably McCoy Tyner, the most influential pianist of the decade — but the in­evitable acoustic backlash made Keith Jarrett suddenly loom as a savior, an im­passioned American Chopin whose every contact with a keyboard was deemed holy writ. Jarrett lacked Chopin’s taste, gift for melody, and sense of overall structure, but it didn’t matter — he was decidedly a man of his times: music in the ’70s wasn’t out to freeze the moment, but to enchant and subdue it. “Trance music” was a part of every critic’s jargon, and no one was more adept at provoking the stony stare than Jarrett, a romantic sensualist of limited sensuality. Anyway, most jazz in the ’70s was acoustic; you just had to be in a big city to find it.

The big news in New York was the invasion of outland forces, musicians from Chicago, St. Louis, Los Angeles, Mississippi, and elsewhere who were associated with the avant garde, but didn’t sound like Coltrane or Coleman or Taylor. Muhal Richard Abrams, the co­founder and first president of the AACM, was acknowledged as a guru, and by the mid-’70s was frequently encountered in loft settings, churches, and clubs, playing in every imaginable context. There were a few thrilling years there, because you nev­er knew what to expect. The atmosphere led you to expect the unexpected, and at almost every concert you were introduced to another musician with something to say. There were Leroy Jenkins and Anthony Braxton with painted faces, appear­ing in a “happening” by artist Frederick Brown; and Hamiet Bluiett leading a dozen or more players in an Ascension-like revel for an audience half the size of the band; and David Murray playing bit­tersweet melodies with a fuzzy tone; and Chico Freeman alternating between thoroughbred swing and arcane tribal rhythms; and Arthur Blythe contrapuntally involved with a tuba or swaggering In the Tradition; and Julius Hemphill invok­ing the Gotham Minstrels or trading aphorisms with Oliver Lake; and Anthony Davis turning from impressionistic pastiche to Ellington’s “The Clothed Woman”; and Roscoe Mitchell repeating a skimpy arpeggio for 15 minutes; and Leo Smith picking his way through a forest of brass and percussion instruments; and Europeans like Willem Breuker and Evan Parker unveiling their own angles on post-­freedom freedom; and Steve McCall and Fred Hopkins establishing themselves as the all-purpose rhythm section; and Jack DeJohnette escaping the tepid Compost to forge New Directions; and Lester Bowie choreographing 50 musicians in the balconies of Symphony Space; and Blood Ulmer proving that a meaningful fusion of new wave jazz and new wave rock was still worth trying; and on and on and on. Some of it was frankly experimental, ephemeral and dull. Most of it was accomplished and enriching.

The loft scene, which started as a couple of playing spaces managed by Ornette Coleman and Sam Rivers, mushroomed and peaked by 1976. It was exciting to get to know the work of all these musicians, and 50 more, by hearing them in a diver­sity of playing situations, but for the musi­cians the carnival atmosphere proved stultifying. They felt frustrated by all the obstacles to organizing working bands­ — many a cappella concerts were strictly a make-do situation — and the lofts simply weren’t conducive, economically or emo­tionally, to longterm leader-and-sideman commitments. When they were replaced by clubs and theatres, notably the Public, there was little mourning. The next step was musical organization. The most en­during and widely admired band of the decade was the Art Ensemble of Chicago, which appeared infrequently in the first half of the ’70s, achieving greater economic stability in the second half and en­couraging the emergence of other groups. The Revolutionary Ensemble disbanded prematurely, but Air took off beyond its own expectations, the World Saxophone Quartet meshed music and theatre in an unpretentious and drily amusing style, and various cliques of musicians played together so frequently under rotating lead­ership that distinctive group identities evolved despite the absence of regular work. The struggle for recognition was exacerbated by the absence of strong, middle-level record labels. In the ’50s, companies like Blue Note or Riverside would have grabbed players of the caliber of Hannibal Marvin Peterson, Chico Free­man, or James Newton; the new inde­pendents, like India Navigation and Black Saint, did not have comparable distribu­tion or capital. An unprecedented number of the best jazz recordings were made in Europe and Japan.

But it was enough to know that there was still an avant garde, a fringe on the fringe, musicians determined to keep their art honest. They inherited the total free­dom of the ’60s, and set about reapprais­ing their options. More than the fusion players, they succeeded in breaking down idiomatic constraints, but in the end jazz kept calling them home. Abrams or Jenkins or Hemphill might play a program of experimental pieces for a respectful audience, but when they invoked the blues or some familiar groundwork that could be freshened and renewed — the listeners really came alive. Swing was rediscovered as an axiom, and so was the repertoire. Hemphill found Charlie Parker in his “Kansas City Line,” Air reclaimed Joplin and Morton, Braxton structured a mili­tary march, Blythe formed a band just to invoke the Tradition, Brian Smith wrote a “Spanish Love Song” that Stan Getz might have played, only it was David Murray’s warming timbres that did it justice. Here, in short, was a large and de­termined generation of musicians sorting through the past to portend the future. Jazz dead? It all depends on what you know.

The reinvestigation of jazz repertoire had all kinds of benediction. Two major companies were formed, the New York Jazz Repertoire Ensemble and the Na­tional Jazz Ensemble; they left significant footprints but failed to survive. The no­tion, however, spread like wildfire, thanks in good part to Dick Hyman, who helped spirit Joplin, Morton, Armstrong, and James P. Johnson into the present with his transcriptions and recreations. Jazz repertoire was Eddie Barefield recreating Chick Webb, Panama Francis the Savoy Sultans, Richard Sudhalter the California Ramblers, Mercer Ellington his father, and Joe Venuti himself; it was Sun Ra recording “Lightnin’ ” and Lee Konitz ­”Tickle Toe”; and it was Aaron Bell reuniting Ellingtonians and Earl Warren Basieites; it was Soprano Summit, Mingus Dynasty, V.S.O.P., Andrew White, and numerous others. Jazz repertoire is still in its infancy, with few of its possi­bilities explored — we’ve yet to hear an orchestra successfully negotiate a range of styles. Jazz musicians are trained to express themselves, and it will take a different kind of jazz musician to play Coleman Hawkins–style on one number and Lester Young on the next; yet that’s the kind of musician who will make a genuine repertory company possible.

I’ve neglected the most authoritative group of musicians to shape jazz in the ’70s, the group that provided the larg­est body of music likely to endure. I’m referring to all those who achieved recog­nition in earlier decades and held on; omitting them from any kind of survey of the ’70s is unfair and misleading. It was a time when Ellington gave us Afro­Eurasian Eclipse, New Orleans Suite, the third sacred concert, and his last work, “The Three Black Kings,” which Mercer Ellington performed impressively at sever­al concerts but never recorded. Sarah Vaughn recorded her epochal Live in Japan, but generally reserved her best work for the concert hall, as did Sonny Rollins, who was never more brilliant and energetic than in the last few years. Dizzy Gillespie, on the other hand, made the recording studio work for him: his style and tone changed markedly, and his encounters with Roy Eldridge, Count Basie, Bobby Hackett, and Benny Carter, as well as two all-star bop contingents, rate among his best work. For all his elusive­ness, Ornette Coleman delivered himself of Skies of America and Prime Time. Basie survived a heart attack to return to the road, vying with Woody Herman for sheer stubbornness, and taking time off to pilot a series of small jam sessions. Cecil Taylor encountered Mary Lou Williams, Baryshnikov, and Max Roach, allowed his Unit to stomp, and produced some of the most exhilarating solo piano we have. Charles Mingus recorded Let My Children Hear Music, mounted annual concerts, and wrote prolifically and well in the face of a painful death. George Russell or­chestrated Living Time for Bill Evans and made modality boogie on his own terms. Gil Evans, Sam Rivers, and Jaki Byard organized wonderfully agile if shortlived big bands. Lee Konitz struck up a partner­ship with Martial Solal. Jimmy Heath struck up a partnership with Percy Heath. Sonny Stitt made two of the best records of his life, Tune Up and Constellation. Dexter Gordon and Johnny Griffin made dramatic returns from Europe, and Benny Carter and Joe Venuti made dramatic returns from obscurity. Jimmy Rowles dabbled with Al Cohn, Zoot Sims, and Stan Getz, while Hank Jones, recording more prolifically than Chick Corea, was finally recognized as a master. Charlie Haden conducted duets and joined in Old and New Dreams. Roy Eldridge, Earl Hines, and Vic Dickenson continued un­diminished by time

From the vantage point of classic jazz, it was a great decade. There were new places to listen and an endless stream of reissues. The popularity of fusion may have created a spurious focal point, but it spilled over to lift the whole music. Still, the losses were devastating: Armstrong, Ellington, Webster, Mingus, Garner, Hodges, Carney, Venuti, Dorham, Hackett, Garrison, Rushing, Krupa, Nance, Gonsalves, Ayler, the MJQ, Kirk, Tristano, Hawes, Criss, Ervin, Ware, Blue Mitchell, Larry Young, Eddie Jefferson, Desmond, Milt Buckner, Brew Moore, Ethel Waters, Crosby, Cannonball Ad­derley, Oliver Nelson, Howlin’ Wolf, Willie the Lion Smith, Kamuca, George Barnes, T-Bone Walker, Otis Spann, Hendrix, Presley, Kenton, and many others. Maybe the best that can be said of jazz in the ’70s is that it didn’t just survive. It established its own precedents and raised important questions about an art that was finally pushed beyond its golden age. The trends will pass, but the players who are brave enough to tap their own inner demons — from Eldridge to Bowie (who jammed together one night at Ryan’s)­ — will continue to pose fervent challenges in the ’80s. I hope we have the energy to respond.

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on December 11, 2019

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