Dan Krimm - Letter to Editor
April 1990 (Volume 8 No. 2)
Published by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, Inc.
TO THE EDITOR
In his article in the January issue [note: reprinted from an article in 1988 in the New York Times Arts & Leisure section introducing the new 'Jazz at Lincoln Center' series], Wynton Marsalis complains about people trying to "blur the lines [between jazz and other forms] for commercial purposes," and accordingly does not seem to acknowledge any validity for blurring the lines for artistic purposes. I enjoy Wynton's jazz playing. I also enjoyed his classical playing in the past. He seems to treat these realms as absolutely exclusive -- like oil and water. But what about the music of, for example, John Lewis and MJQ? Since it isn't pure jazz (the classical influence is intentionally showcased), is it jazz at all? Why, in fact, should anyone care, as long as it is excellent, creative music?
As a fretless bassist, I was excluded from both the pop-fusion mania as well as the acoustic backlash of the 80s. My style is not funky enough for fusion, not acoustic enough for the ultra-purists, not straightforward enough for much new age. I play everything from Monk, Mingus and Coltrane to Grolnick, Towner and Scofield. I play it on a single instrument, with a single tone setting and a single personality, and it forms a single genre for me. I take this as evidence that ultimately there are no hard lines between traditional "centers" of musical styles. Music is a continuum of stylistic possibilities, not a discrete set of mutually exclusive boxes, just as the human species itself is a continuum of ethnic and racial possibilites, notwithstanding the arguments of bigots for racial "purity" and its accompanying racism.
Traditions are important, without a doubt, but in a measured way. It is just not necessary to master a tradition completely in order to draw off it in an important way. To use Wynton's example with physics: Newtonian theory is indeed essential to get to the moon, and that arose from Copernican cosmology. But Ptolemaic astronomy is not of much help, even though it was an important, even essential, precursor to Copernicus and Newton. You can learn Newton without ever hearing about the existence of Ptolemy. Traditions are important to an individual musician inasmuch as they touch that individual in a meaningful way. They are sources but not necessarily goals. Successful artists naturally search out whatever sources (and develop whatever techniques) are required to reach their goals. To disagree with someone's goals is fine, but to judge those goals inferior because of that disagreement is just being self-centered, if not downright offensive.
Wynton's war against the archaic "noble savage" stereotype has certainly been won already. No jazz musician worth his or her salt would deny the depth and sophistication of such pioneers as Armstrong and Ellington. But their music reflected their era, through their own interpretations. Our era is different in many ways, and thus inspires music that is likely to take different forms, according to contemporary interpretations. "Eccentricity" may not be entirely historic, but it is certainly not "fraudulent." Some recent performances of jazz blended with other styles may not contain the brilliance of improvisation that underlies the most timeless of jazz performances, but not all of today's traditional improvisors are toweringly brilliant, either. If I had my way, all musical classifications would be outlawed. Music should be judged by its effectiveness and honesty, not by its stylistic accoutrements. The war should not be against stylistic variety, but against mediocrity. There is nothing that a priori links these two in any way, except in Wynton's mind. To play an improvised solo over a funky fusion groove or smooth new age spaciness may be distasteful to Wynton, but I bet he could do it with true brilliance, and it would be difficult to exclude that performance from the realm of jazz.
To me, jazz is less what you start from and more what you make of it. It is an approach, which applies to a huge variety of material, and the traditional material is simply a contingency of how it happened to develop, as it drew off of the surrounding musical environment, such as Tin Pan Alley and Broadway. Those sources have been joined by others in the following decades, and there seems to be no reason why new sources shouldn't be drawn into the jazz tradition along with the rest. The treatment of those materials then becomes key, and those who classify music by its elements instead of its treatment can get confused. To that extent, I agree with Wynton about what jazz is. But Wynton always seems to want to throw the baby out with the bathwater.
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