JJ 04/70: The Problem of Pop, by Richard ‘Dig’ Fairweather

Digby Fairweather shows how jazz wrestled with the incursions of eclecticism even in 1970, long before diversity became the mantra it is in the arts today. First published in Jazz Journal April 1970

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Gary Burton with shaggy mane and, in background, Steve Swallow

In the good bad old days, jazz was a fighting cause for us all. Jazzmen were society’s threat, bebop burgeoned in the wild, and John Dankworth was still Johnny, and very good too. Because jazz was the youngest art, with quite a few gratifying rough edges, jazzmen and fol­lowers soaked up music, starved in their artistic garrets, and enjoyed the fight for recognition. But nowadays jazz is a little older, consolida­tion rather than innovation is with us, and the sound of surprise, like any son, meets problems and obstacles as it grows. And, perhaps to the secret chagrin of many, a new musical phen­omenon – still more youthful and sensational has caught the public eye. Pop music. Because jazz and pop are the two liveliest musical arts, it is inevitable that one should take an interest in the other, and this interest is growing at two levels; amid enthusiasts and critics, and amongst musicians. Groups highly distinguishable, yes, but in both opinion is spreading that pop and jazz are compatible co­equal art-forms. The letter page of the Melody Maker is filled with exhortations to dig Bird, Bach and Beatles in regular equal helpings. Downbeat, the American jazz perceptor since 1934, has officially switched policies, and now salutes Hendrix and Joplin with fervour and a space quota previously reserved for Armstrong and Ellington. Former music festivals with a strict ‘jazz only’ policy, like Monterey and Newport, book pop groups to appear beside their jazz confrères. And even in the pages of Jazz Journal in 1969 a certain duality, however fleet­ing, is perceptible. ‘Bobby Gentry’, muses Steve Voce, ‘Now there’s a singer who’s hard to clas­sify.’ ‘But’, counters Stanley Dance, a month or two later, ‘we wouldn’t walk across the street with a free ticket to hear the Beatles.’ Audible sighs of relief all round.

But amongst young musicians in both fields we find liaison, more serious than ever before. The examples are endless: more will crop up in the next week. Ten Years After, a thunderous progressive-pop group, plays in concert with Woody Herman. Roland Kirk sits in with Eric Clapton at a much publicised (and, by all ac­counts, ill-styled) super session. Miles Davis – as deeply entrenched in the jazz spirit as any we know – publicly proclaims that his preferred musical listening is the Fifth Dimension. And Jon Hendricks, a deeply-in jazz singer, sits in Donovan’s house and proclaims him ‘a beautiful guy and a most original talent.’

What was most frustrating to the jazzman, it grew from a heritage entirely divorced from him … It was a phoenix of sorts, risen from ashes he had raked over and discarded years ago; it owed nothing to him and promised little

So the walls, it seems, are falling down. But how far have they fallen, and, more funda­mentally, why? Back in the 1950s, pop-music – a combine of cliché-stuffed melody, manifestly non-talented ‘stars’, and adolescent sentiment – was as easy meat for the jazzman as Jacky Gleason. But with the early 60s, and (inevitably) the emergence of the ‘Liverpool Sound’, a new force thrust itself into hearing, and this musical force, with everything that came after, was peculiarly akin to what the jazzman liked. Tunes potently imaginative, a jolly and vital free spirit, and an individuality which caught the eve and ear with similar force; a musical bastard which rejected its musical (sic) parent­age (‘Bless you, Bless every move that you make – so perfectly’ – Vic Dana, 1960) with boisterous good humour and know-how (‘And all I gotta do, is thank you girl’ – The Beatles, 1964). At this point in history many younger jazzmen found themselves on the horns of a dilemma. Against all odds a music has emerged, bound admittedly to the musical shackles of before (a heavy four, and guitars in abundance), which nonetheless was fresh, freely creative, and fun.

From this music burgeoned the pop music of today. And it blossomed remarkably quickly into a considerable art form. What was most frustrating to the jazzman, it grew from a heritage entirely divorced from him – the brassy histrionics of Little Richard (which he found unsubtle), the ravings of Presley (vulgar), and the coloured soul music of such as the Impres­sions and Temptations (who’s that again?). It was a phoenix of sorts, risen from ashes he had raked over and discarded years ago; it owed nothing to him and promised little. ‘We were always anti-jazz’, said John Lennon. ‘I think it is shit music even more stupid than rock and roll. We’d never get auditions because of the jazz bands.’ (The Beatles. The Authorised Biography, Hunter Davies, Heinemann, 1968)

And yet in the face of ruderies and unfounded insults the jazzman found himself irresistibly seduced. Indeed the seduction was so complete that it has brought about all and more of the changes we have noted above. It is worth looking at some of the reasons for an infatuation which, at present, is talking in terms of a permanent relationship. First of all, of course, pop music is better than ever before; the current scene (a curate’s egg admittedly) reveals what looks perilously like an art form in the bud. Until a very few years ago though, pop music was happily wedded to cash criteria; Hoagy Carmichael’s dispirited ‘Been listening to the publisher’s theme song – it’s not commercial’ was a statement of hard fact. When the Beatles invaded the sugar-candy fields of pop in 1963, their honest vitality flush­ed away, at least for a while, the worst commercial tastes of the time. Simple self-expressive music of considerable originality forced itself into the public attention, as Richard Mabey has pointed out (The Pop Process, Hutchinson Educational, 1969) because it was inherently good, and incidentally very commercial. Honesty and conviction are important in the inception of any art, and in the first fine days of the new era, pop music was often very good, and very popular too. But creativity and popularity are usually wary bedfellows (at least in a popular bed), and soon things began to take a dismal if familiar tone. ‘Beat music has become stale and monotonous’ noted Mabey dolorously in 1967; ‘ballads – have moved into the limelight.’

…there are increasing numbers of pop and jazz musicians who prefer being music­ally productive to being teenage idols. We think currently of Blood, Sweat & Tears, Chicago, Crosby Stills & Nash and others whose travails in the hit parade are less fre­quent than their production of worthwhile serious music

But with the revolution of 1963 turned to the dullest conventions, came tangible evidence that pop is growing up and away from commercial shackles – the underground movement, in which groups of pop and jazz musicians are busy pushing pop in an artistic direction. It would be stupid to suggest that all underground music is good (much of it is verbose and repetitive) or that straight and underground pop are mutually exclusive (one unkind critic termed an underground group one that hadn’t had a hit record). But there are increasing numbers of pop and jazz musicians who prefer being music­ally productive to being teenage idols. We think currently of Blood, Sweat & Tears, Chicago, Crosby Stills & Nash and others whose travails in the hit parade are less fre­quent than their production of worthwhile serious music. And it is in this area in recent years, that our younger jazzmen have been most active.

But an improvement in pop quality cannot account wholly for the jazzman’s concern; to see the light more clearly, I think we should glance at the state of jazz during the decade just past. First, the younger jazzman’s position during the flowering of pop has been peculiarly equivocal. Before, say, 1963, any young musi­cian who favoured lively arts could choose only jazz – but by the middle 60s, jazz was in a parlous state. The harmonic revolution of be­bop was twenty years old, and attempts to push it further – into the avant-garde – were met sceptically by musicians and critics alike. Younger jazzmen, therefore, faced a Hobsonian choice – either to carry on the traditions of their fathers (a sad bag for most young men) or to hold their noses and dive into an avant-garde as bewildering as it was lonely. In practice of course most musicians found a combination of both choices viable. And many gratifyingly (our own Jon Hiseman, Jack Bruce and Ken Wheeler amongst others) dived into the avant-garde whirlpool unsounded as it was. But many musicians felt that, with jazz (an austere art anyway) offering no clearly mapped field for ploughing, a new-burgeoning music like pop was a desirable stretch of country for explora­tion at least. James Pankow, the gifted trombonist-arranger with pop group Chicago, stated the case perfectly in a recent interview (Melody Maker, 18 December 1969): ‘Before I found this group I was basically involved in jazz music. But I started to feel that jazz had become kind of stagnant. I. was a young kid and couldn’t feel satisfaction playing music that other people of my age weren’t digging. I had the desire to intermingle my ideas with the music the kids of my age liked.” Penkow’s remarks are symptomatic of the jazz players who, in Gary Burton’s words ‘found a lot of meaning in the newer pop-music and feel that they’re limiting themselves if they play just traditional type jazz.’ (Crescendo, December 1969)

Humphrey Lyttelton’s famous ‘I ask myself if I want the New Statesman – breathing hotly down my neck every time I lift up the trumpet to blow?’ (The Second Chorus, MacGibbon & Kee, 1958) foresaw the days, now with us, when jazz has been dragged from pit to respectability, com­plete with Arts Council Grants and unlimited space in the Sunday press

But not only for the uncommitted jazzman was pop a haven. Many younger avant-garders turn­ed to it with a will. Ignoring for the moment extra-musical motives, I think we can look to avant-garde jazz itself for the most potent reasons why the jazzman in this category found himself ready for pop. What were, and are, the hallmarks of the avant-garde movement? Experimentation, to begin with, freedom, a breaking down of jazz conventions (chord se­quences, tune-solo-tune routines, and so on), and reluctance to quote jazz clichés. In such a climate, the media and conventions of new pop – anathema to the jazzman only five years previously – suddenly became viable, and could be assimilated lock, stock and barrel. The philosophy of the avant-garde musician – if it’s music it’s good – was perhaps dangerous for the jazz purist, but it bore a peculiar unanimity with the pop movement. In both, unfettered, musical expression was the order of the day, be it expressed via tenor, organ, trumpet or guitar against a rock four or a subtle jazz five. And so the walls fell a little further. Pankow’s inference that jazz had become stuffy and stagnant brings us, I think, to the brink of an emotional issue which could get out of hand. But it is worth a quick look. Humphrey Lyttelton’s famous ‘I ask myself if I want the New Statesman – breathing hotly down my neck every time I lift up the trumpet to blow?’ (The Second Chorus, MacGibbon & Kee, 1958) foresaw the days, now with us, when jazz has been dragged from pit to respectability, com­plete with Arts Council Grants and unlimited space in the Sunday press. And this is of course a desirable state of affairs for a young art form and does it no harm whatsoever. But I would hazard a guess that many young jazzmen, how­ever incidentally, enjoyed the opportunity of being trendsetters in the rebellious youthful atmosphere of pop; of being in the avant-garde of fashion, musical and otherwise. Diz’s bebop ties, the baggy-trousered revivalists, Satch’s box-back coat were all at the head of a trend – and at one with Gary Burton’s shaggy mane, as effective an antithesis to the Mulligan crew cut as you could imagine.

…is there any reason why pop and jazz should not merge in one great big melting pot? Certainly, I believe, there are most cogent reasons why, in effect, this melting pot will not hold water

So this has been the trend. And is there any reason, therefore, why pop and jazz should not merge in one great big melting pot? Certainly, I believe, there are most cogent reasons why, in effect, this melting pot will not hold water. To discover one fundamental reason, we must glance at the melodic heritages of pop and jazz. Present day pop grew from the rock and roll of ten years ago, which in turn grew from blues and gospel music. This accounts, in part, for many features of today’s pop music; group instrumentation (usually a rough parallel to city blues bands), concentration on the vocal rather than instrumental side of things, with special emphasis on the message of the song (in direct contrast to jazz), and above all, a limited set of musical ideas. To criticise the blues for being less melodically sophisticated than modern jazz would of course be ludicrous; the criteria by which we judge the two are quite different. But it is fair to say that in the blues field we are up against a more limited set of melodic ideas and techniques. Jazz how­ever has grown up in a melodic and harmonic environment where, academic knowledge aside, limited vocabulary was very far from being currency. Indeed, until quite recently, rhythm and blues often came in for gentle leg-pulling by jazzmen and critics alike (remember Howard Rumsey’s ‘Big Girl’?). Whether or not this was fair I leave to you; for me, it points the huge gap separating Long Tall Sally from Billie’s Bounce, Stand By Me from Miles Ahead, and Junior Walker from Coleman Hawkins. But strangely enough, the clearest indications of this predicament are being thrown up by the pop scene itself. With technical proficiency burgeon­ing, instrumentalists often find themselves shackled by ever-narrowing sets of clichés, with the options only of going faster, getting louder, or turning off. The guitar – the primary instru­ment as far as pop is concerned – is even now a case in point; despite technical proficiency, most pop guitarists are largely indistinguishable as far as style and ideas are concerned, simply because the well from which they must draw their inspiration is fairly shallow. The technique has, in fact, outgrown the medium, a predicament common to most instruments in the rock field. To discuss why would make this essay over-long; very briefly, I think the root of the problem lies in the fact that both in pop and its musical forefathers, instruments have played predominantly an accompanying role to the song, and have therefore seldom needed to operate to their fullest melodic ex­tent. Melodic paucity in a lot of instrumental pop explains why, for most jazz enthusiasts, the idea of pop group Ten Years After playing solo with Woody Herman is less attractive than, say, Tubby Hayes doing the same. And why, in practice, most jazz musicians find a diet of pop alone dries up their inspiration. And here the formal inflexibility of most pop composi­tions is another vital factor. Henry Lowther, a noted British jazz trumpeter in the Keef Hartley pop-jazz band, pointed the problem in a recent interview (Melody Maker, 11 December 1969) ‘I played a jazz engagement the other night – but I didn’t feel I played very well. You need time to get back into that sort of scene.’ No artist can thrive on an aesthetic diet of small beer – or at least beer of a very different brewer. And in fact the inflexibility of much small-group pop promises many of the restrictions which the jazzman suffered in the big bands of yore. Small temptation, indeed, for the jazz musician of today, who finds, like Gary Burton, that ‘the contrast between differ­ent things’ provides his inspiration. And who, like Burton again, ‘in order to get a clear picture of what I’m doing – get very careful as to just what music I’ll expose myself to, and how much time I’ll spend listening to one thing or another.’

In the avant-garde of our two musics there is perhaps most scope for tentative meetings, simply because in this sphere, musical ideas tend to be most fluid. But there are huge vistas in both musics which are so sternly individual as to have nothing to say to one another (Ruby Braff and Chuck Berry are two examples)

And it is fair to say, the best pop-music has an identity all its own. It is a peculiarly cos­mopolitan identity, rooted securely in rock and roll, folk music and blues, which has trampled happily along picking up anything attractive on the way. Strangely enough, jazz has seldom been a source of inspiration (possibly because it was too unadaptable) and pop now shows strong signs of getting about quite happily with no need of a jazz crutch. The most convincing pop compositions nowadays are just that – vig­nettes of almost classical mould, and a very large number are totally successful without any reference to the jazz vocabulary. A short ex­ample, Martha My Dear, a later Beatle song, lasts for two and a half minutes. Its charm, which is immense, lies in a galloping neo­classical piano introduction, an appealing melody, and a lolloping brass-band interlude. And as such it is absolutely satisfying; a small compositional masterpiece in the pop idiom which asks and owes nothing at all to what we know as jazz. The pop composer, pure and simple, (Lennon and McCartney, Steve Marriott, Roy Wood, Cat Stevens and others) is in fact emerging as an artist in his own right, an artist often as contemptuous of what he would term ‘bebop cliches’, and the pigeon-hole of jazz, as he is of the latest saccharine ballad singer. Like it or not, the pop-scene at its best produces self-sufficient talent, and the jazzman need no longer look to himself as the aesthetic saviour of a commercial world. Jazz and pop have their courses to run, and they do not intertwine. So are we arriving at an ultimate truth; that, to paraphrase Humph, ‘Jazz is jazz and pop is pop and never the twain shall meet.’ I think so, certainly. The conventions of pop and jazz are too firmly rooted in different soils. In the avant-garde of our two musics there is perhaps most scope for tentative meetings, simply because in this sphere, musical ideas tend to be most fluid. And, no less important, many jazz­men will find the security, recognition and respect afforded them in the pop world quite attractive. But there are huge vistas in both musics which are so sternly individual as to have nothing to say to one another (Ruby Braff and Chuck Berry are two examples). And when the noise has died down, I doubt if we shall find a jazz classic embedded in the ‘Battle of North West 6’ (Keef Hartley), any more than the pop critic will find the best hard rock in the newest John Hardy recording. Simply because pop will be successful jazz only insofar as it concedes to jazz – and vice versa. And with an ultimate concession on either side, then either pop or jazz must disappear altogether. And we ain’t ready.

So the melting pot is a doubtful theory. Let the two tips of the pop and jazz icebergs try one another by all means. But let us be ourselves and above all, let us jazz people not acquire an inferiority complex because there is an art form younger than ours. There are plenteous kicks in store yet. For us and everyone.