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Music Jazz -- Religious and Circus

Illustration by Gary Kelley

If not exactly a golden age, the seventies was a time of remarkable artistic ferment

by Francis Davis

(The online version of this article appears in three parts. Click here to go to part two or part three.)

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."

Discuss this article in Post & Riposte.

More on arts & culture in The Atlantic Monthly and Atlantic Unbound.

View an index of jazz articles from The Atlantic Monthly.

From Atlantic Unbound:

Interviews: "Jazz in the '90s -- Bebop and Beyond?" (July, 1996)
Francis Davis, author of Bebop and Nothingness: Jazz and Pop at the End of the Century, talks about jazz in the '90s -- its influences, rising stars, and prospects for the future.

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.

From the archives:

"Black and White Intertwined", by William H. Youngren (February, 1999)
A groundbreaking new history documents the rich collaboration between black and white players in the early decades of jazz.

Related links:

The American Jazz Symposium
The American Jazz Symposium provides exhaustive links to jazz-related Web sites and resources.

A site concerned with the "influence and presence of jazz music in 20th Century literature."

"Freejazz.org hosts The Free Jazz Discussion, which is a forum for people to debate, relate information, and express opinions about free jazz."

The Schomburg Center's Louis Armstrong Jazz Oral History Project
"Selected Clips from the Louis Armstrong Jazz Oral History Project"

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.


(The online version of this article appears in three parts. Click here to go to part two or part three.)

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

Illustration by Gary Kelley.

Copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; February 2000; Jazz -- Religious and Circus - 00.02; Volume 285, No. 2; page 88-94.