JULIUS Hemphill's Blue Boyé (Screwgun 70008), Arthur Blythe's Lenox Avenue Breakdown and Illusions (Koch Jazz KOC-CD-7871 and -7869), and the anthology Jazz Loft Sessions (Douglas Music ADC3) are recent reissues from the late 1970s -- a period I look back on as a fertile time for jazz, though not many other people do. Nobody argued with the writer and photographer William P. Gottlieb when he gave the name The Golden Age of Jazz to a 1979 collection of pictures he had taken of musicians in nightclubs and other natural habitats over a nine-year period beginning in 1939. The 1940s, after all, were a decade in which, as Gottlieb reminisced in his foreword, "big-band jazz -- mostly under the name swing -- reached its peak," "bop and other modern jazz forms developed," and audiences were still able to hear the earliest forms of jazz "played by legendary musicians who had started blowing way back when jazz first began." To top it off, jazz was truly popular in the 1940s, even if Gottlieb did exaggerate slightly in calling this "the only time when popularity and quality have coincided; when, for once, the most widely acclaimed music was the best music."

Like Gottlieb's memories, his assembled photographs were especially beguiling at a time when jazz was slowly rebounding from various setbacks in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Being a young jazz fan had begun to feel awfully lonely; I speak from experience, having started listening to jazz in 1964, as a high school senior. The writing was on the wall as early as 1957, in the Elvis Presley movie Jailhouse Rock. In one scene Presley's girlfriend (and business partner) takes the hero home to meet her upper-crust parents, who are gathered around the hi-fi with their other guests, listening to far-out jazz and debating how much atonality is too much. Asked his opinion as a professional musician, Presley sneers that he doesn't know what they're talking about and storms out the door.

In the mid-1950s acquiring a taste for "progressive" jazz, as exemplified by Stan Kenton and Dave Brubeck, or "cool" jazz, like that played by Jailhouse Rock's fictional Stubby Wrightmeyer (modeled on Shorty Rogers?), was virtually a rite of passage for a certain type of male college student with horn-rimmed glasses and intellectual aspirations. After the arrival of the Beatles that niche was filled by progressive rock.

By the mid-1960s, even if mainstream jazz was no longer a music of youthful rebellion, the jazz avant-garde could loudly claim to be the musical wing of a black political revolution. In his 1989 autobiography the trumpeter Miles Davis blamed the excesses of the avant-garde for the exodus of listeners from jazz -- a common opinion, even if Davis himself thought that what was variously called "avant-garde," "free jazz," "the new thing," and "the new black music" was an attempt by white critics to detour audiences from him.

I remember thinking at the time that the avant-garde was merely a scapegoat. Its squalling improvisations undeniably presented difficulty for many listeners, as did its equation with black power in the minds of many of its leading figures and their champions in the jazz press (the most demagogic of whom were black, despite what Davis later asked readers to believe). But avant-gardes are supposed to rub people the wrong way. The avant-garde presented jazz with exciting tonal and rhythmic possibilities.

The jazz rank and file rejected these possibilities, however, in favor of the avant-garde's skeletal harmonic frameworks and a depoliticized version of its nationalistic message -- almost as if to ensure boredom and white alienation. Too much jazz of the early 1970s consisted of what sounded like instrumental yodeling over a two-chord vamp, frequently accompanied by a lecture on the natural wonders of blackness, the confusing gist of which was likely to be that only blacks were culturally equipped to understand jazz and white people ought to be ashamed of themselves for not supporting it in greater numbers.

In emulation of John Coltrane, whose death, in 1967, had robbed jazz of the one figure respected by both the mainstream and the avant-garde, improvised solos became too long for even the most knowledgeable jazz fan to follow. Coltrane was an obsessive whose solos (unlike Louis Armstrong's or Charlie Parker's, or even Ornette Coleman's) were measured by the clock rather than by the chorus, sometimes running to forty minutes or longer. He seemed to have enough at stake in them, either musically or emotionally, that listeners felt they had something at stake too. There was little possibility, though, of a similar vicarious involvement in the colorless droning of the many horn players who followed Coltrane's example but lacked his vast knowledge of harmony -- and his charisma.

The real reason for the dwindling audience, it seemed to me, was mainstream jazz, by then called hard bop, which borrowed unwisely from both free jazz and rock-and-roll. Envious of rock's greater popularity, many jazz musicians naively assumed that the way to compete with rock was to use its hardware. The most annoying thing about the electric keyboards and basses on so many jazz albums of the early 1970s is that they hardly ever serve an organic purpose; they are there because they were briefly fashionable, like the floppy hats and bushy sideburns the musicians are shown wearing on the covers.

THE gravest problem facing jazz may have been an unavoidable consequence of its rapid evolution, which paralleled that of European concert music but at several times the pace. In his 1955 book The Agony of Modern Music the critic Henry Pleasants had outraged the classical-music establishment by siding with concert audiences that shied away from serialism and the like. As Pleasants saw it, these supposedly philistine audiences were exhibiting good taste in rejecting a European art-music tradition that had already reached a dead end with Schoenberg. The truly creative music of the twentieth century was jazz, which to Pleasants meant the songs of Irving Berlin and George Gershwin as well as the improvised solos of such early jazz musicians as Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet. By 1969, when he published his next broadside, Serious Music -- and All That Jazz!, Pleasants had heard enough modern jazz, bebop and free, to know that jazz was experiencing its own agonies, largely as a consequence of severing its ties with pop.

Pleasants exaggerated the complexity of modern jazz and failed to take into account that by then pop meant rock-and-roll -- a form of music that had little in common rhythmically with jazz (a reason for the awkwardness of most "fusion," a hybrid of jazz and rock introduced by Miles Davis and others in the late sixties). Even so, Pleasants was right to accuse jazz of compounding the mistakes of "serious" music in endeavoring to be taken seriously. Jazz had begun to ask much of its audience without delivering much in return. Bebop increasingly offered pleasure only in the virtuosity (or, usually, subvirtuosity) of its leading players; free jazz sometimes perversely denied audiences even that, substituting first its energy and then a quasi-spiritual vibe that epitomized a questionable trend.

Worse than overserious, jazz was becoming pious. Jazz can amount to a religion for those fans whose dedication to it becomes a ruling passion in their lives, often to the amusement of their unconverted family and friends. But that isn't what I mean. An oppressive solemnity descended on the music itself, as musicians who embraced Islam or various alternative religions dragged their beliefs onstage with them, defining their music as simultaneously a manifestation of and a tribute to some higher power. Even fusion -- a style that in its studied resemblance to rock-and-roll might have been expected to prize irreverence -- suffered from piousness. Except for Miles Davis, who was a deity unto himself, every star of fusion seemed to give credit for his inspiration to one avatar of consciousness or another, whether it was the pianist Chick Corea with his L. Ron Hubbard or the guitarist Mahavishnu John McLaughlin with his Sri Chinmoy.

THINGS began looking up ever so slightly for jazz around the Bicentennial, and this upward trend -- perhaps identifiable as such only in retrospect -- lasted well into the eighties. Jazz remained commercially marginal; the signs of hope were in the music, not in its record sales or box-office receipts. No one burst onto the scene to alter the course of jazz almost single-handedly, as Louis Armstrong had in 1927, Charlie Parker in 1945, and Ornette Coleman in 1959, and the evidence began to suggest that no one ever would. In the absence of a new messiah the guiding principle became diversity -- always a sign of well-being in the arts, if perplexing to those conditioned to measure jazz's progress in terms of seismic disruptions.

The members of the Chicago-based Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians drifted almost en masse to New York, bringing with them ideas about the relationship between sound and silence which reanimated a moribund avant-garde. Ornette Coleman and the group Prime Time combined loopy funk polyrhythms with an arcane theory Coleman called "harmolodics," arriving at the first synthesis of jazz and rock that didn't smack of middle-aged panic or an attempt to make a quick buck. Dexter Gordon's triumphant return from Europe and Art Blakey's tireless leadership of the Jazz Messengers sparked a hard-bop revival, ultimately setting the stage for Wynton Marsalis. Art Pepper, released from prison in 1966, published Straight Life (1979), a scorching autobiography that drew attention to him as an unfairly neglected figure and to West Coast jazz of the 1950s as an unfairly maligned subgenre. Small-group swing, which had been swept aside for most of the 1960s and early 1970s, made an encouraging comeback -- or, to be more accurate, labels such as Pablo, Chiaroscuro, and Concord Jazz began recording it, filling a gap created by the major companies.

Amid fears that young musicians might bypass jazz for rock, there was an influx of fresh faces, including some, such as the trumpeter Warren Vaché and the tenor saxophonist Scott Hamilton, whose arrival made clear that not even styles of jazz perfected as long ago as the 1930s and early 1940s were in danger of extinction. The era's most valuable newcomers, however, were second-wave avant-gardists, including the trombonist George Lewis, the flutist James Newton, the pianist Anthony Davis, and the tenor saxophonists David Murray and Chico Freeman, for whom free jazz of the 1960s was merely a starting point -- a part of jazz history subject to revision and elaboration but no longer open to dispute.

The mid-1970s was the period during which "tradition" became a jazz buzzword, largely as a result of the avant-garde's efforts to demonstrate its lineage from earlier forms of jazz. Sun Ra and his Arkestra began to feature numbers that Fletcher Henderson and others had written for Henderson's band in the 1930s, and the alto saxophonist Henry Threadgill and his group Air reached all the way back to Scott Joplin and Jelly Roll Morton. At a time when it was practically a given that creativity entailed playing only original compositions, the saxophonists Archie Shepp, Anthony Braxton, and Arthur Blythe confounded listeners' expectations with relatively straightforward performances of bebop and popular standards. The message seemed to be that any tradition broad enough to encompass both ragtime and bebop was broad enough to encompass free jazz as well.

THE most surprising development was a shift in emphasis only somewhat presaged by these excursions into the jazz past. "Jazz is by its very nature a music of improvisation ... Therefore of invention ... Therefore of ongoing change," a writer named Ross Firestone fingersnapped in the opening paragraph of his liner notes for Wildflowers, a series of five LPs recorded amid much fanfare in the spring of 1976 at Studio Rivbea (not a studio at all but a performance space run by the tenor saxophonist Sam Rivers and his wife, Bea, in their lower-Manhattan loft). The notes for Jazz Loft Sessions, a single CD gleaned from those five LPs, omit Firestone's opening paragraph and begin instead with his reasonable observation that Studio Rivbea and other New York lofts afforded musicians of the late 1970s an opportunity to try new things in public, free from the pressures of nightclubs and concert halls. Their search was for expanded contexts in which to improvise -- that is, new ways of approaching the question of composition in jazz.

For all its sound and fury, the avant-garde of the 1960s had left the structure of jazz fundamentally unchanged. In free jazz as in bebop, a "tune" was something played at the beginning and repeated at the end, generally little more than harmonic scaffolding for improvised solos (and frequently not even that in free jazz, where reference to the tune's chord changes was optional). Beginning around 1976, in the work of the alto saxophonist Julius Hemphill and numerous others, including many of the players on Jazz Loft Sessions, composition and improvisation started to overlap -- the way they had, perhaps not coincidentally, on Jelly Roll Morton's recordings in the 1920s with his Red Hot Peppers and in Fletcher Henderson's and Duke Ellington's scores for their big bands.

For someone like Hemphill or Henry Threadgill, a "composition" could be a piece written out from beginning to end, with multiple themes and a limited amount of improvisation, or it could be nothing more than a riff. When it was only a riff, the riff was likely to turn up anywhere -- between solos and underneath them, but not necessarily at the beginning and end.

The turning point seemed to come with the release of Anthony Braxton's Unlike most of his peers in the jazz avant-garde, who recorded for a variety of domestic and European labels with limited studio budgets, Braxton was under contract to Arista, a mid-major (in the language of that day's record business) with the resources to indulge his grandest ambitions. Arista failed in its attempt to position Braxton as the most significant new voice in jazz since Ornette Coleman; not even the most intrepid record buyers knew what to make of a saxophonist who gave his compositions diagrammatic titles and whose newest release might well be an album of Stockhausenlike pieces for solo piano on which Braxton himself did not play a note.

Braxton's affiliation with Arista enabled him to write for and perform with large ensembles, and he caught his most ardent admirers by surprise with two numbers on Creative Orchestra Music 1976. Both were saddled with titles that looked like the doodles of a daydreaming physicist. One, described by Braxton in his notes as an exercise in "repetition structure" and as having been inspired by Duke Ellington, borrowed Ellington's harmonic tapestry to make a ballad inlaid with countermelodies more dissonant than his, but not by much. Less than two years after Ellington's death, when tributes to him abounded, this one did more than echo his orchestra's sound; it demonstrated his continued relevance to composers working in idioms far removed from the dance band.

The album's other winner was a midwestern circus march -- authentic three-ring music replete with tuba, glockenspiel, bass drum, and improvised solos that sounded as though they were being executed by acrobats atop the high wire. In the movie My Left Foot, Daniel Day-Lewis, as the Irish writer and painter Christy Brown, tells a questioner, "There are only two kinds of painting -- religious and the circus." The same goes for art in general, including jazz. Having reached a dead end with religion in the early part of the decade, the jazz avant-garde of the late 1970s gave itself and its listeners a break by unexpectedly opting for the circus.

Francis Davis is a contributing editor of The Atlantic. He is at work on a book about John Coltrane.

Illustration by Gary Kelley.

The Atlantic Monthly; February 2000; Jazz -- Religious and Circus - 00.02 (Part Two); Volume 285, No. 2; page 88-94.

the jazz critic John S. Wilson observed, "For most of us, the Golden Age of Jazz turns out to be the time when we first discovered the music." This may be true, but by the time people my age began listening to jazz, a lengthy history, available through recordings, had become a considerable part of its lure.

A problem with recordings, as with other means of reproduction, is that they permit nostalgia without memory. Starting with those fans of the 1940s who believed that the only jazz worthy of the name was the freewheeling style played in New Orleans before 1927 or so, there have always been jazz-record collectors obsessed with memories they feel cheated out of by having been born too late. This tendency is most pronounced among listeners who fell in love with jazz in the same bleak period I did -- a time darkened by Coltrane's death, Miles Davis's defection to fusion (followed by that of his star sidemen), and the inactivity, for a few years each, of Davis, Sonny Rollins, Charles Mingus, Ornette Coleman, and Thelonious Monk -- not just marquee names but musicians to whom others looked for direction. We and the listeners who discovered jazz ten years later listened to the seventies avant-garde with our minds made up that things would never again be as good as they once were.

Another problem is that almost nobody remembers anything about the 1970s very fondly, partly because the 1960s were a tough act to follow. Yet the 1970s were a time of great artistic ferment, especially in the popular arts. The collapse of the Hollywood studio system enabled Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola to bring their movies to the screen with minimal commercial interference (though test screenings and the millions made by Star Wars and its sequels put an end to that). The original cast of Saturday Night Live broadened the horizons of television sketch comedy. In classical music the composers Steve Reich and Philip Glass made tonality and rhythm and a large vision of the world acceptable again, after several decades of composers who made minute adjustments to the twelve-tone scale. (That Reich and Glass were supposed to be "minimalists" was one of the decade's delicious ironies.) In pop, disco sparked what may prove to have been the last national dance craze, and punk and New Wave set the tone for most of today's alternative rock. Yet all that anyone seems to remember about the 1970s is the sexual promiscuity and the polyester (it was the decade that fashion forgot).

In the years since, jazz has experienced what we are told is a commercial renaissance, but that isn't necessarily the same thing as an artistic rebirth. Most of the performers on Jazz Loft Sessions are still active, working along the same lines they were pursuing in the 1970s. Their influence is most apparent in the music of John Zorn, Dave Douglas, Bobby Previte, and others associated with New York's downtown avant-garde scene.

But the avant-garde has become marginalized again, and everyone on the business end of jazz seems happier with it safely out of sight. In keeping with what seems to be the spirit of the times, Billboard now features two jazz sales charts: "jazz/contemporary" for smooth jazz and fusion, and "jazz" for everything else -- an arrangement that doesn't leave much room for experimentation. To me, this doesn't seem to be an especially exciting time for jazz, though there may be young people just now discovering it, and going to hear it in out-of-the-way places, who will one day look back on this as its golden age. I hope so.

Francis Davis is a contributing editor of The Atlantic. He is at work on a book about John Coltrane.

Illustration by Gary Kelley.

The Atlantic Monthly; February 2000; Jazz -- Religious and Circus - 00.02 (Part Three); Volume 285, No. 2; page 88-94.