JJ 05/60: Lightly & Politely

Stanley Dance reported on Downbeat's symposium on the future of jazz and formed a gloomy prognosis. First published in Jazz Journal May 1960

725

686 – CRUX CRITICORUM
In the fifth (1960) “Down Beat Year­book”, under the novel heading “Quo Vadis?”, there is a discussion by “three good men and true” with John Mehegan acting as moderator. This is described as “a symposium on the next ten years of jazz”. There are more than ten pages of it and most of them are rather tedious. The platitudes and slabs of jargon let fall by William Russo and George Russell evidently numb Gunther Schuller and Mehegan, for they seem barely able to stay the course.

What emerges is the distinct possi­bility that during the next ten years musicians of the Russo-Russell type may, as Larry Gushee has indicated, “do away with jazz as such”. This will fulfil the wonderful improving mission of the so-called intellectual, that strange, half-baked, half-educated and increas­ingly prevalent product of modern society. Should he chance on something  good and perceive its value, be sure he will mess with it, “improve” it in the sacred name of Progress, until it is no longer recognizable. Of course, he can argue. He can drown you in words. For instance, Mehegan has to interrupt the good, true men. “May I,” he asks after five pages, “say that, as far as your topic is concerned, we have gotten almost nowhere in discussing 1960 and jazz.”

What happens if we all acclaim the jazz values of the non-improvised, non-swinging music of Miles Davis and Gil Evans?

Gunther Schuller, the most perceptive of the bunch and the one who obviously cares most for jazz, offers a ray of hope:

“I think there will be a continuation of a very direct communicative kind of jazz, which, for lack of a better word, we’ll call mainstream jazz. (This) will continue absolutely oblivious of any intellectual or theo­retical or other complexities that may be developing in non-jazz music.

“Then I see another music develop­ing, which in varying degrees relates itself on the one hand to jazz and on the other hand, the other extreme, to non-jazz music… And within this wide area, there are again many, many splits, many factions or divisions. And if you think of this middle stream as an entity – although as I say it’s divided into many factions – then I think of it as quite separate from this mainstream of jazz. Now, how many persons who believe only in that mainstream of jazz will immediately say that this other thing happening in the middle, which to some extent relates itself to non-jazz music, is no longer jazz?”

The answer to his final question is, surely, “Too few”. It is towards the kind of demi-jazz he discusses, promoted with all the awesome assiduity of the Ameri­can publicity machine, that we are being adroitly moved step by step at this stage. What is George Russell thinking about when he says the MJQ “carried the message of the music with dignity into the far reaches.” (That’s not the proper way to talk of Europe’s hallowed concert halls, but don’t fuss!) What happens if we all acclaim the jazz values of the non-improvised, non-swinging music of Miles Davis and Gil Evans?

Next thing you know, to swing, to shout, to play with any kind of abandon, will be vulgar and Out, ’Way Out. (Just pretend you don’t know it is already.)

Bill Russo: ‘I see jazz criticism and jazz musicians having increasing difficulty in avoiding racism. I see them almost always going along racial lines’

Russo introduces the subject of racism and frankly equates “the Coltrane camp” with “the primitive camp, the anti-white camp”:

“What I really see in this, to go further, is a horrible and horrifying separation between Negro and White, which has been to me an extremely painful part of the jazz world. I see the Negro being pushed into a posi­tion of maintaining the subjective, the primitive and the exciting. I see the white being pushed into the position of maintaining the scholarly, and the technical, and I don’t like to see this.

“I see jazz criticism and jazz musicians having increasing difficulty in avoiding racism. I see them almost always going along racial lines, and I’m thinking about the jazz musician. And I think that what really horrifies me about this is that I think it is the most debasing thing to a Negro imaginable. It has implications of great tragedy. It implies that the Negro has rhythm and the white man hasn’t. And Hodeir, in fact, stated almost that. And that to me is just incredibly painful.” About two pages later, George Russell puts the issue in a commendable perspective:

“I think the Negro has rightly maintained his influence in jazz as the most vital force because he’s always been the innovator, no matter what’s happened, and the pattern has been the same: The Negro would innovate, and the white musician would popu­larize and this would go down the levels. First, the sincere white musician, probably, would take it. And then the insincere musician would go down the levels. For instance, any day you can turn on the radio and hear a Jimmy Lunceford-type arrangement, and this we used to marvel at and dance to; now it’s behind a cigarette ad. It’s very popular.”

It is undoubtedly a galling thing for many white musicians that every im­portant innovation in jazz has been made by the Negro. If the values of demi-jazz can be established as superior, which they are in the process of being, then it may be that the Negro will con­form to a white conception of musical quality and lose the advantage or benefit of his heritage. This, of course, has been loosely used as an argument against “Europeanization” by many critics of “modern” jazz, but a glance at the scene today shows the Negro as artistically pre-eminent as he has ever been. Com­mercially successful popularizers like the Brubecks, Mannes and Previns have always had their racial and musical counterparts.

Jazz On A Summer’s Day: ‘Because much of the music is poor, it is sometimes hard to understand why everyone is so happy’

By a coincidence, a couple of films recently shown tend to shed some light on these differences. “Jazz On a Sum­mer’s Day” is an attractive film shot in gorgeous you-know-what at Newport in 1958. It is rather jolly, and only inter­mittently earnest. The many pretty gals with which the audience was salted will surely send young lechers to jazz festivals in increasing numbers. The shots of racing yachts are uplifting, but this vein of imagery unfortunately runs out halfway when night falls on the musical arena. Because much of the music is poor, it is sometimes hard to understand why everyone is so happy. Don’t let us influence you, but when you get to it, see if the real moment of truth does not come with Buck’s fierce, driving solo during Big Maybelle’s number. We suppose jazz can be a dainty, airy exercise, or rumtytum (thanks, Graham) for goodtime Charlies, but the essence seems to be spontaneous expression, something barely calculated though not necessarily wholly impro­vised, something intuitive in a familiar, situation (melody, chords and tempo), something given force and stress by articulation and intonation, something warmly filled with the human spirit which communicates and stirs. (Com­municates with whom? And at what level?)

The other, shorter film, “The Cry of Jazz”, was made in Chicago by some coloured students. It draws all kinds of parallels between the life of the Negro and jazz, and insists that only the Negro is really able to play it. Further, it suggests that since the circumstances and purposes behind its creation have now been irrevocably changed, jazz is virtually dead.

…if we can just get the idea considered that jazz might be dying … it might be pos­sible to enjoy its many admirable quali­ties peacefully, if briefly, without the constant threat of adulteration. The intellectuals might desert the sinking ship, too

We believe this thought has been long due for presentation in the U.S., where ofay critics and musicians alike march confidently along together, shoulder to shoulder, beneath the banners of Pro­gress and Refinement. But it isn’t, of course, to be expected that such a thought would be given expression by anyone engaged in making a living from jazz.

Mind you, we think notification of the death possibly premature. After all, jazz was created and nurtured by a few hundred musicians, and some of the many who still survive retain the gift of making it. Yet if we can just get the idea considered that jazz might be dying, that it isn’t in glorious health, that it might not live forever – well, that would be something! It might be pos­sible to enjoy its many admirable quali­ties peacefully, if briefly, without the constant threat of adulteration. The intellectuals might desert the sinking ship, too. And then we might not have to endure the phoney nonsense about jazz courses in colleges, or that bit about jazz diplomats and ambassadors warding off the wrath of unfriendly powers.

Right now, we have a short list of jazzmen (sic) we want to recommend as astronauts for early transmission into far-outer space. Heartless though that may seem, the mind has its reasons.