Like Young

Jazz has been attracting its first young audiences in decades -- but are they hearing a music without a future?

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YOUTH has become the most frequent topic of conversation in jazz. The talk concerns a crop of instrumentalists in their twenties and very early thirties, including the tenor saxophonists Joshua Redman and James Carter, the trumpeters Roy Hargrove and Nicholas Payton, the pianists Cyrus Chestnut and Jacky Terrasson, and the bassist Christian McBride, who are supposedly luring audiences their own age and younger to jazz.

This accent on youth could be interpreted as an effort to shake the blues of just a few years ago, when all anybody in jazz seemed to talk about was death. Sarah Vaughan died early in 1990, followed in less than three years , Stan Getz, Miles Davis, and Dizzy Gillespie. Along with grief, these deaths triggered panic that time might also be running out for jazz as a commercially viable form of music. Jazz was already short of marquee names when the nineties began; the loss of five more left what threatened to become a permanent void at the top of the bill.

Some New York­based critics blamed their city's club owners and the producers of the annual JVC Jazz Festival for having failed to groom successors to bebop's aging stars. JVC, in particular, was in danger of becoming an annual series of memorial concerts. Even so, the assumption that presenters of live music still turn the crank of the star-making machinery strikes me as naive.

Duke Ellington used to say that he was born in Newport, Rhode Island, in 1956. He meant reborn at that summer's Newport Jazz Festival, when an outbreak of dancing in the aisles during his band's performance of "Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue" helped to land him on the cover of Time. Most of today's major festivals are in Europe, though, and there are far too many of them for any single one to matter in quite the same way that Newport used to.

An increasing number of festivals defray their costs by subletting their stages to record companies for "An Afternoon With Blue Note" or "An Evening With Columbia." In most cases the entire festival might as well be programmed by record companies, because only performers who have a major label's publicity campaign behind them draw big crowds today. Word of mouth about a newcomer or a resurgent veteran can still begin at an overseas festival, in a New York nightclub, or occasionally in a favorable notice by an influential critic. But only the major labels have the juice to amplify such word of mouth into what broadcasters and newspaper and magazine editors traditionally unreceptive to jazz might recognize as a buzz. Once a buzz gets started, the role of everyone who hopes to win bigger numbers for jazz--including compliant critics--becomes to keep it going.

THE loudest buzz right now is about the above-named younger musicians, who are credited with bringing jazz back to life or--what might amount to the same thing--putting more warm bodies into the seats. It should come as no surprise that the most talked-about of them happen to record for the large companies. Joshua Redman may prove to be the most talented in the group; at twenty-seven, he's already far and away the most successful, with sales of each of his first three Warner Bros. albums having topped 100,000. Last fall DKNY Menswear (the designer Donna Karan's line of casual wear for "the urban guy who lives for the risk") outfitted Redman and his sidemen for their fifty-city tour to promote Spirit of the Moment: Live at the Village Vanguard (Warner Bros. 9 45923-2), Redman's fourth release. This was hailed as a breakthrough: pop stars who go on the road to promote their new albums can usually count on corporate sponsorship to offset the costs of their tours, but jazz performers are rarely so blessed.

With corporate underwriting taking the place of federal arts funding, we may soon see a new form of Social Darwinism: survival of the cutest. In addition to being photogenic, Redman is good copy twice over--as a second-generation jazz musician (his father is the tenor saxophonist Dewey Redman, formerly a sideman with Ornette Coleman and a member of Old and New Dreams), and even more so as a Harvard summa cum laude who passed up Yale Law School for a career in jazz.

You could call it the Wynton Marsalis factor. Every ten years or so, for a different set of reasons each time, cultural trendsetters rally behind one musician with whom they sense a bond and who then comes to symbolize jazz to the mass media. Before Marsalis it happened in turn to Dave Brubeck, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Keith Jarrett. Marsalis improbably combined youthful arrogance with an obeisance to tradition that bordered on ancestor worship; Columbia's success in marketing him persuaded the other majors that the trick to selling jazz was to play up its genealogy and long history of esoteric appeal even while attempting to demystify it by means of trim young figures in designer suits. Though unprecedented in recent memory, the election of a type of musician to carry the banner for jazz was probably inevitable, given the difficulty of finding another performer as charismatic as Marsalis and given the longstanding preference of magazine editors for pieces on jazz "trends," as opposed to on individual musicians.

At thirty-four, Marsalis is more visible than ever, what with his recent books and radio and television programs. But he doesn't sell as many albums as he used to, and tempting as it is to put the blame for this on a combination of overexposure and the ill will he has aroused as the artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center (he has been accused of cronyism, ageism, reverse racism, and narrow-mindedness in closing the doors of that establishment to reputed avant-gardists), I think there's another explanation--one entirely to Marsalis's credit as an artist unwilling to let his audience tell him who he is.

Marsalis initially won mass acceptance as a kind of substitute Miles Davis, and many of his fans were taken by surprise when his efforts to define himself as a composer led him to embrace New Orleans polyphony and Duke Ellington's talking horns. Marsalis's dance suites and extended compositions have been extremely uneven, but the problem with them from the standpoint of units sold may be that dance suites and extended compositions simply aren't what his fans expect from him or want from jazz. Marsalis's emphasis on composition has created an opening for Redman and the others. None has yet demonstrated much interest in larger forms, though many have inherited some of Marsalis's other traits, including his attitude toward tradition and innovation.

The animosity with which a lot of jazz critics regard Marsalis owes something to his having usurped their authority. His pronouncements on jazz in interviews and in occasional bylined articles carry more weight with readers than do those of any of us who write regularly about jazz (including even Albert Murray and Stanley Crouch, Marsalis's associates at Lincoln Center). And in turning thumbs down on most of the innovations in jazz since 1960--in vehemently insisting that it can't be jazz if it doesn't swing from beginning to end and explicitly refer to the blues--Marsalis has been telling disgruntled longtime listeners exactly what they were waiting to hear.

I used to believe that what scared most people away from jazz was their suspicion that they would be bored by it. In the case of much latter-day bebop, with its lineup of soloists running down the chords to no apparent purpose after stating a sketchy theme not to be heard again until the end, boredom is a reasonable response. The solution, I always thought, was to expose people to kinds of jazz in which composition and improvisation overlap, and in which something is going on in every measure. It wouldn't have to be Muhal Richard Abrams or Sun Ra or anything too far out; it could be Ellington or Charles Mingus or even Marsalis's score for the 1990 movie Tune In Tomorrow. But if new audiences are flocking to jazz on the heels of a generation of musicians who were themselves receptive to Marsalis's ideology at an impressionable age, I must be wrong. People who have never really listened to jazz want it to go on sounding the way they've been led to believe it should, so that they'll be able to recognize it in case they ever chance to hear any.

Longtime jazz listeners, for their part, want jazz to be as it was in the fifties and early sixties, when a devotion to jazz was still a sign of being hip. Iridium, a fairly new Manhattan club, features on its menu mixed drinks described as "retro cocktails." The adjective could also be applied to most of the music now heard in New York's front-line clubs--especially when the players on the bandstand are roughly the age that Miles Davis and John Coltrane are in those vintage black-and-whites on the walls of the Village Vanguard.

THE most evocative of all jazz photographs might be one taken by Art Kane for a 1959 issue of Esquire, showing fifty-seven musicians, famous and obscure, posed outside a brownstone on East 126th Street in Harlem. Inspired by the success of Jean Bach's lovely 1994 film , which examined both Kane's photograph and what else went on among the musicians that day, Life magazine last fall assembled ten of the twelve survivors to have their picture taken outside the same brownstone (now gutted and missing its cornice). By coincidence, it was the day of the Million Man March, when there was much talk on radio and television about the shortage of positive male role models in black communities. Some exemplary role models were on the steps in Harlem that day: dedicated artists and family men such as the tenor saxophonist Benny Golson, the trumpeter Art Farmer, the bassist Milt Hinton, and the pianist Hank Jones. Jazz could also offer inspiration in the stories of those musicians who reclaimed their lives from drugs (for every Charlie Parker there's a Sonny Rollins). That jazz goes virtually unmentioned in the national discourse on race underlines its diminished relevance to everyday African-American life.

If this helps to explain why the emergence of talented instrumentalists not much older than the members of Boyz II Men answers a prayer, it also raises the question of whether a player's race much matters at this point. All but a few of the younger musicians being pushed by major labels are black; this has created a backlash of sorts among white musicians, who feel left out.

The harshest critics of today's newcomers are not whites but musicians over forty who lament that they themselves were young too soon--a decade or so before Marsalis, when an unspoken grandfather clause was in effect at record companies and only old masters whose careers pre-dated rock-and-roll were eligible for jazz stardom. "The young lions," as everyone seems to call today's young musicians, are an easy sell to longtime jazz fans, who recall the seventies and early eighties with a shudder. Unlike their immediate elders, these newcomers don't have synthesizers in their closets to apologize for. Nor are they asked to atone for the excesses of the period, not so long ago, when cutting-edge jazz was associated with a black-separatist agenda. However much they revere the past, they're not tainted by its compromises, as musicians who actually lived through it tend to be.

Nobody resents these recent arrivals for making a splash. Instead they're resented for not making waves the way Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie did in the 1940s and young players have been counted on to do periodically ever since. (Even Marsalis stirred things up, albeit in his own way.) There are no Thelonious Monks or Ornette Colemans in this bunch--no innovators or woolly eccentrics among those we've heard from so far. In setting craftsmanship as their highest goal these neophytes remind me of such second-tier stars of the fifties and sixties as Blue Mitchell and Wynton Kelly--players whose modesty and good taste made them ideal sidemen but whose own record dates invariably lacked the dark corners and disfigurements of character that separate great music from merely good.

SOMETHING further inhibiting this latest generation is the idea that the future of their art form, as well as their own careers, rides on the commercial success of their CDs. In concert Roy Hargrove can be positively fiery, but his albums--including the recent Parker's Mood (Verve 314 527 907-2), a collection of tunes written by or associated with Charlie Parker which also features Christian McBride and the pianist Stephen Scott--have been cautious and bland. The same is true of Nicholas Payton, a prodigiously gifted trumpeter barely out of his teens whose work on From This Moment . . . (Verve 314 527 073-2) comes across as "mature" in all the wrong ways, owing to an overabundance of medium tempos and minor keys, plus the restraining effect of no fewer than three chording instruments (Mulgrew Miller's piano, Mark Whitfield's guitar, and Monty Croft's vibes).

Blandness and premature solemnity aren't among James Carter's worries. If anything, he would do well to calm down. Carter's main horn is tenor, but he's also proficient on a variety of other reeds and woodwinds, including soprano, alto, and baritone saxophones. He's the only one of the major-label young players with avant-garde credentials, having worked with Lester Bowie and the late Julius Hemphill, among others, before starting his own quartet. Because of this, he's regarded by many as a kind of gap sealer--a figure who deserves praise for drawing on both "inside" and "outside" approaches to improvisation. Carter might erupt in screams even on a ballad or a medium-tempo groove tune, his rhythm section suspending the beat as it pummels its instruments into cacophony. This lends an element of unpredictability to Carter's solos, but the problem is that his solos are always unpredictable in exactly the same way. I suspect that even those listeners who shun what used to be called free jazz for fear of just such episodes willingly go along with Carter because they know his paroxysms will be short-lived. Minus the thematic development that is possible in free improvisation, his farrago-like solos reduce thirty years of sonic exploration to a handy vocabulary of stock effects not much different from the honks and screams of the average rhythm-and-blues saxophonist of the 1950s.

Even so, Carter's virtues almost outweigh his faults. Though primarily influenced by John Coltrane, Wayne Shorter, and Sonny Rollins, today's tenor saxophonists have begun to investigate the work of a host of muscular and once overlooked players of the 1950s and 1960s, typified by the late Gene Ammons. Not for nothing were Ammons and others of this school (whose own role models were Arnett Cobb, Illinois Jacquet, and Ben Webster) frequently referred to as "tough" tenors. They turned up-tempo numbers into bloody brawls and more or less shadowed the melody on ballads, like a pulp detective tailing a beautiful woman he thinks he's falling in love with but doesn't quite trust. The style calls for a lot of swagger, and Carter might be the only young saxophonist who has the size for it. His best recorded performances in this vein, in which he displays an effortless swing rare for an improviser of any age, are his two versions of Duke Ellington's "The Stevedore's Serenade," one on The Real Quietstorm (Atlantic Jazz 82742) and the other on a promotional CD of duets with Cyrus Chestnut from early last year, which was distributed to journalists and radio stations but not released commercially.

--not a make-out album, despite its title and cover shot of Carter with his fiancée draped all over him--opens and closes with examples of Carter's graceful control of his baritone saxophone's upper register. He's such a talented musician that it becomes all the more frustrating when he screams gratuitously, when he taps the keys of his saxophone while breathing into it to produce a sound like that of a rusty pipe, when he slurps up to a note or holds a note for several measures--these are devices that can be put to imaginative use, but twenty-seven is awfully young for a musician to be falling back on them on nearly every number. Carter's most questionable trait may be his habit of interpolating familiar licks from Ellington, Gershwin, and Charlie Parker into solos in which they simply don't belong. Quoting can be an art; Dexter Gordon was a master at jimmying one song's chords until they fit the chords of another. His quotations were often delightful for being so off the wall. Carter's are merely patterns that fall easily under his fingers and help to kill time: musical equivalents of borrowing "To be or not to be" or "All the world's a stage." The one he ought to try is "To thine own self be true."

WHEN I saw Carter perform at the Montreal International Jazz Festival last summer, he strutted across the stage as if he were already a star, displaying an abundance of what a rock or hip-hop audience might call attitude. His playing was loopy, even by his own standards. My notes don't mention what he was wearing, but if I close my eyes and recall the spin and pop of his phrases, I can see him dressed to kill in a long-tailed yellow zoot suit and a feathered fedora, like Jim Carrey in The Mask. I kept expecting him to roll himself into a bouncing rubber ball, or to hiss with satisfaction, "Sssomebody ssstop me!" Carter seems that intent on turning himself into a special effect--though so much sanctimony now surrounds jazz that his insincerity is refreshing, in a curious sort of way. Carter's most recent release, Conversin' With the Elders (Atlantic Records ATL 82908), which features numbers by John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, and Lester Young, and also guest appearances by the tenor saxophonist and clarinetist Buddy Tate and the trumpeters Lester Bowie and Harry "Sweets"Edison, among others, casts Carter in a reverential role to which he doesn't seem very well suited.

Joshua Redman was another of the festival's headliners. I thought I sensed an element of rivalry between him and Carter even before hearing them go head to head on the soundtrack of Robert Altman's Kansas City (Verve 314 529 554-2) and reading an article on Carter in New York, in which he boasted of having taken Redman's measure in a bandstand showdown (and of having caught the eye of Redman's girlfriend). With Carter stealing some of his ink, Redman seems to be favoring a broader style of playing than he did just a few years ago. He, too, risks overdoing a few pet devices, the most annoying of which is the comic upper-register burp that he uses to end far too many of his lines--to the apparent delight of audiences.

On Spirit of the Moment, which was recorded last March, Redman sounds much as he did in Montreal. The average new jazz CD is too long: though consumers seem to like the idea of an hour or more of music at a pop, the playing time practically ensures inconsistency--especially on the part of younger performers who haven't yet learned to pace themselves. Spirit of the Moment's two discs clock in at almost two and a half hours, and this is more than enough time to showcase Redman's obvious gifts. The most notable of these might be his admirable sense of up-tempo melodic continuity ("Slapstick" is the best of several examples), his success at forming a band in his own image (the drummer Brian Blade is especially tuned in to him), and his increasing maturity as a balladeer. Such a generous helping of Redman also serves to expose the derivative nature of many of his solos. His debt to Sonny Rollins is plain on Jule Styne's "Just in Time," from Bells Are Ringing. When Rollins recorded the song, he was having fun with a show tune; Redman is playing Rollins, and setting the bar far too high for either him or us to have much fun. Critics used to chide Branford Marsalis for mimicking a different tenor player on every number. His Zelig-like approach is now standard among younger players. Oddly enough, it's on Spirit of the Moment's most Coltrane-influenced performance--"Dialogue," a modal folksong-like dirge similar to Coltrane's "Alabama"--that Redman gives promise of finding his own voice, in his elegant and suspenseful shadow play with the rhythm section.

"Dialogue" first appeared on Redman's 1994 studio album MoodSwing, which also featured a tune called "Chill," a syncopated finger-snapper that drew a cheer of recognition from Redman's audience in Montreal. "Chill" is a cleverly constructed tune, funky and relaxed, much like something Horace Silver or Bobby Timmons might have written in the early 1960s, but with a bridge that goes all the way back to Lionel Hampton's swing-era anthem "Flying Home." On first hearing "Chill," I thought the bridge was the reason that Redman's melody struck me as so familiar, but in Montreal, I realized how similar the tune's cadences are to those of an obscure pop song I doubt Redman has ever heard.

THAT song is André Previn and Paul Francis Webster's "Like Young," a track from Perry Como's 1961 album Young at Heart which resurfaced a few years ago on Rhino/Word Beat's The Beat Generation, a likably goofy multi-disc set aimed at people whose serious interest in Allen Ginsberg and On the Road doesn't preclude an affection for Maynard G. Krebs and Route 66. Webster's lyrics have the clueless, middle-aged Como flipping for a girl who "goes where all the angry young men go," "recites poetry," and "drinks coffee with café espresso." She's got Como feeling "like young," but he's really just showing his age.

Jazz is showing its age too, or else why would there now be such a preoccupation with youth? Charlie Parker was twenty-five when he recorded "Ko Ko" and "Now's the Time"; he was dead at thirty-four, Wynton Marsalis's age now. Ornette Coleman was twenty-nine and not considered especially young when he caught the world by surprise with The Shape of Jazz to Come, in 1959. There have always been young jazz musicians, but only lately has anyone made a fuss over them just for being young--instead of for auguring change.

Are more young people listening to jazz because they can identify with Redman and the others? From what I've noticed, the answer is yes only if you count as young dating couples in their late twenties and early thirties. I've been to shows where the youngest people in the house were on the bandstand. In allowing itself to become so strongly identified with its past, jazz may be bargaining away its future. Positioning jazz as a sane acoustic alternative to raucous, mechanized pop might be an effective short-term sales strategy, but doesn't all this sanctimony about "tradition" and the emphasis on boilerplate bebop send a message to teenagers and college students that jazz offers absolutely nothing of interest to them? And isn't whatever the form of music that rings someone's bells at eighteen or nineteen likely to remain his or her music of choice for life?

Something else to worry about is what happens if today's whiz kids fail to sell albums in numbers sufficient to justify the generous advances that record companies are giving them (Jacky Terrasson, for example, is rumored to have signed with Blue Note for $100,000). The majors are likely to take this as evidence that jazz just doesn't sell. It wouldn't be the first time they've arrived at this conclusion and then turned it into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Illustration by J. D. King

The Atlantic Monthly; July 1996; Like Young; Volume 278, No. 1; pages 92-98.