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Books & Authors -- July 1996

A Conversation With
Francis Davis

Wen Stephenson: In the introduction to your new book, Bebop and Nothingness, you acknowledge the pun in the title on Jean-Paul Sartre's Being and Nothingness. You caution against taking it too literally, but it's an intriguing title, and to someone who listens to and cares about the future of jazz, it might even be a little disturbing. What's behind the title?

Francis Davis Francis Davis: In the chapter on Art Pepper and Charlie Parker I talk about novels such as Chandler Brossard's Who Walk in Darkness, and John Clellon Holmes's Go!, in which the characters tend to be fallen intellectuals, American post-war existentialists. They're always going to parties where bop, which was then a very new music, is playing in the background. I make a joke about how these novels ought to be called Bebop and Nothingness. But I think beyond the joke there is also something about the role jazz once played in intellectual life that it no longer does.


"Like Young"
Is jazz showing its age? (From the July, 1996, issue of The Atlantic Monthly.)

Writing on jazz as it has appeared in The Atlantic since 1922.

A selective guide to jazz sites on the Web.

WS: By most accounts jazz is flourishing in the '90s. And yet, taken together, your current article and the introduction to Bebop and Nothingness read like a jeremiad on contemporary jazz -- you seem to say there's something hollow about the contemporary scene, that things just aren't like they used to be.

FD: In this case, you have people pretending that it is the way it used to be, that we're once again in a vital period like the 1950s or the early 1960s, which I certainly don't think is true. A necessary distinction -- not just with jazz but with any art form -- is that a period of great popularity isn't necessarily a period of great innovation. It's one of the contradictions of modern, corporate, technological society. Major labels at this point happen to be taking an interest in jazz, and they haven't always.

WS: If you were to pinpoint what's at the root of your disenchantment with contemporary jazz, would it be the jazz business? Or is it more the players themselves? Or the audience maybe?

FD: Oh . . . it's a combination of all those things. I think my problems with the audience might have something to do with my own sense of alienation. If I go to a concert and I'm supposed to be reviewing it, and I'm taking notes, I sometimes wind up jotting down as much about the audience as I do about the performers. I enjoy sitting toward the back where I can see not only the stage or the bandstand, but also the other people there. It's an interesting proposition: What does music mean to people? What does it signify to them? I remember seeing Joshua Redman a few years ago. It was a really good set and I enjoyed it, but it seemed to me that the audience there in the club -- which happened to lean toward middle-age and was predominantly white -- was feeling validated somehow by a young black player on stage playing this music that most of the guys there probably listened to in college thirty years ago. It's reassuring to people to think, "Oh, kids are still playing it."

And you know, the jazz business . . . I suppose the jazz business is a necessary evil.

WS: Has it changed in the last few years in a way that is not positive? How is the corporate jazz establishment different now than it was in previous eras?

FD: Well, I think major labels have found a way to market jazz, a way to pitch it to an audience. The price that's paid is that certain kinds of music are marginalized. And it's not just avant-garde jazz. Contemporary players who are playing in a pre-bop style get marginalized too. Recently, here in Philadelphia, I saw a wonderful concert with the cornetist Warren Vaché and the guitarist Howard Alden playing duets at an art museum. It was part of an ongoing festival, and it was billed as "Jazz of the 20s and 30s," or something like that. It was a wonderful concert, and I thought, If you say you are interested in jazz, how can you not be interested in these players? These are not far-out players; it's just that bebop has become synonymous with jazz.

WS: Is that how you would explain the popularity of some of the middle-aged or older musicians today who've had considerable commercial success, such as the saxophonists Joe Lovano and Joe Henderson? Do you chalk it up to the fact that bebop is the accepted, marketable style right now?

FD: Both Joe Lovano and Joe Henderson veer a little bit left of conventional bebop. But I think it's revealing that Henderson, Lovano -- Abbey Lincoln, the singer, would be another example -- have become popular because they're on major labels now. In the case of Joe Henderson, it's not like he disappeared and suddenly resurfaced in 1992, when Verve brought out that record of him doing Billy Strayhorn. He had records coming out all the time, generally not on easy-to-find labels, sometimes on European labels. I'm glad Henderson, Lovano, and Lincoln have found a larger audience. But it's because they have the push behind them. It makes you think of all the musicians who don't have the push behind them, who are just as good.

WS: Who are some of the young musicians today who don't fit into the desired mold?

FD: There's a trumpet player named Dave Douglas -- I think he's in his early thirties -- whose work I really like. It may be unfair to call him the most promising musician to emerge in the last five to six years, because he's already quite accomplished as an instrumentalist, as a soloist, and as a composer. He's not on a major label. He's the same age as a lot of the people I'm writing about in the new piece, but his music doesn't fit the mold in the same way that theirs does. But it's very inventive, very individualistic stuff. It has a real body-warmth to it. He's someone to watch. There are others, too, but Dave Douglas is the one that really stands out.

WS: Let me ask you about the term bebop. I notice you refer to conventional bebop. I assume that when we talk about people playing bebop these days we don't mean they're playing the same kind of music that was being played in the mid- to late-1940s, but that it's a post-bop music, influenced by bebop and carrying forward the innovations that bebop brought. Is that what you mean?

FD: Exactly. In fact, most of the music that you hear now, if you were to relate it to a style of jazz of the past, would probably have more in common with hard bop.

WS: What period do you place hard bop?

FD: Generally it's placed in the mid- to late-1950s.

If you go back and listen to early bop, or early hard bop -- if you listen to Charlie Parker's early stuff, and Gillespie's early stuff, or you listen to the stuff Horace Silver did from around 1954 onward, which was the foundation of hard bop, or Clifford Brown and Max Roach, and so on -- you hear an edge in that music. That music sounds positively . . . oh . . . almost futuristic even now. It's all sharp angles. What can I tell you? The edges have been rounded off.

It's funny, sometimes it takes an older performer who was around when that music was new to make you realize how daring and experimental it was. Last week I heard a fantastic set by the alto saxophonist Frank Morgan. If I named the tunes he played you'd think, "Oh my God, it's such generic jazz." He played "Walkin'," the Miles Davis thing; he played "A Night in Tunisia"; "Hot House," which is Tadd Dameron's line, based on "What Is This Thing Called Love?" Things like that, but he was approaching the material with such fury and with such an edge that you could hear the difference. Sometimes, when you listen to those early bop records, like the early Savoys, you realize that was a young man's music, that was a hell-bent music. And now you have young men playing it who sound like premature old men. It's startling sometimes to hear somebody from that first generation play it when you're used to the people who came after them.

WS: You mentioned Charlie Parker, in the title piece of Bebop and Nothingness you say that listening to Parker "changes the way one hears what came before him and what came after him." There seems to be a tension between mastery of traditional forms (or what are now traditional forms) and the kind of rule-breaking that Parker had to do in order to be truly innovative. Is there a tension today between tradition and innovation? Or is it more between conformity and individuality?

FD: I think that's it exactly. It is a tension between conformity and individuality. But it's a very thin line. I don't think Charlie Parker, for example, thought, "I'm going to sound like nobody who came before me. I'm going to change the shape of jazz." It doesn't work quite that way. Nor did Ornette Coleman think that way -- he just happened to play the way he played.

But here's where the tension occurs between tradition and innovation: in Charlie Parker's time nobody thought that much about tradition. Jazz music itself wasn't that old. History wasn't yet a burden in jazz the way it is now. I think this is something that race complicates too, because you have a group of people in America whose past was erased -- whose past was denied them. It's important for them to invent a tradition. But tradition can be used as a bludgeon against innovation. There have always been conformist pressures in jazz, but this is especially true now. And with record companies entering the picture and promoting only certain kinds of jazz -- well, you know, this becomes even more of an inhibiting factor.

WS: You have to wonder, though, at this point in jazz history -- with everything that has been done already -- how you'd feel as a young jazz musician. Where else is there to go if not back into the tradition, to riff on the tradition, so to speak?

FD: Oh sure, but if you are going to go back to tradition, why limit it to bebop? There's plenty of stuff before bebop. There's great music by Jelly Roll Morton that's virtually unexplored by modern players. And the tradition also includes everything that happened after bop; it includes Ornette Coleman and everything that's happened since. There needs to be a sense of tradition as an ongoing thing.

In fact, I think the person who is indirectly responsible for this emphasis on tradition, and he meant something quite else by it, was the critic Martin Williams, who published a book called The Jazz Tradition years ago. Williams, when he started writing in the 1950's, became a champion of two musicians in particular. The first was Jelly Roll Morton, whom Williams -- rightly so -- considered the first important jazz composer. The other was Ornette Coleman, who had just arrived on the scene in 1959 when Williams became his champion. So you had somebody arguing that the very earliest kind of jazz and the very latest were part of a continuum. It was a radical concept. But it's no longer a radical concept; it's a very conservative concept.

WS: Are you nostalgic for a time when there was a clear avant-garde in jazz?

FD: In some ways, yeah, inevitably I am. It has something to do with when I started to listen, around 1964 or 1965. The big news was what Coltrane was doing; the big news was Albert Ayler exploding on the scene. The rules were being broken and redefined every week it seemed. So I'm probably nostalgic for that in the same way that somebody who started to listen twenty years earlier would be nostalgic for a period when people danced to jazz music. In the piece I did on the tenor saxophonist Charles Gayle, who's a sort of underground free-jazz hero -- and whose music I happen to like very much -- I have gentle fun (shall we say) with some of his followers. They strike me as people who are really nostalgic for that period, and don't want to hear anything that isn't screaming shake-the-floor-of-heaven kind of jazz. If they hear something with a little bit of form, they think, "He's selling out." I'm not nostalgic in that way. But this is something I've been thinking about a lot.

WS: Is there a jazz establishment now that precludes there being a vital avant-garde?

FD: There's a point that I make in "Like Young" about some of the resentment toward Wynton Marsalis on the part of critics, coming as a result of Wynton's having usurped their authority to some extent. Wynton is, among other things, the most important jazz critic in America. He doesn't review records or concerts -- but he makes pronouncements and gives interviews that are read by far more people than would read my reviews or Stanley Crouch's pieces. In a way, it's the role of the critic to be the conservative, to point to what's new and say, "Yes, yes, but it's been done before . . . it hasn't been tested yet . . . these are our standards from years back." And it's the role of musicians to forget about all that and just plow ahead and make breakthroughs. But it's just the opposite now. The critics are the ones who really want something new to happen, and it's the musicians who are saying "No, no, no, we must adhere to tradition." It's an interesting turnabout and I'm not quite sure what it means.

Another way in which jazz is the opposite of the rest of the world: if you want to talk about inclusion, in the rest of the world, in academia, inclusion means bringing into the canon people who have been excluded from it, whether they be black, or Asian-American, or women writers, gay writers, and so on. In jazz, inclusion should mean acknowledging the contributions of white musicians and European musicians.

WS: What about the image of the white jazz musician as a kind of usurper -- taking the black, African-American tradition and appropriating it in a colonialistic or imperialistic way?

FD: The white musician traditionally has had a much greater chance of attaining popularity, because there is some element in which an audience wants to identify with the person on stage, or the person whose record they've just bought. It's not conscious racism, but I think white audiences have found it easier to identify with white musicians.

WS: That doesn't seem to be so much the case any longer, does it?

FD: Well, no . . . I don't think it is. And that's maybe another way in which everything has become inverted.

WS: Jazz has often had a fair amount of politics swirling around it -- whether or not it's self-consciously in the music -- but at one point in the introduction to Bebop and Nothingness you say that we may be fast approaching a day when jazz will be considered politically incorrect. What do you mean?

FD: It's that I think we're approaching a day when jazz will be seen as elitist. In fact, it already is. There are some people in academic and intellectual circles who are saying that improvisation is elitist and male. Which is silly because so much of the world's music, once you leave the U.S., once you leave North America, is improvised. You could argue the opposite. You could argue that composition is elitist and hierarchical, and so on. But these things are seen differently at different times.

But jazz is a very male pursuit -- let's face it. It's not only that there have been very few important women instrumentalists. There are more now, but they're still greatly outnumbered. I also think the emphasis on tradition has something to do with it.

WS: In Bebop and Nothingness you deal with many other forms of music outside the jazz mainstream, with figures on what you call the "well-populated fringes," as well as with popular music. What do you see in these other forms, and in pop especially, that are promising or at least interesting?

FD: I think the reason I still listen to as much pop as I do is that I've never outgrown my love of song. And sometimes that's an element that's missing in jazz -- the direct, immediate fulfillment of that love. You don't have to look to rock 'n roll for it; you can find it in Stephen Sondheim or in Sinatra or Tony Bennett. I don't follow pop the way I used to, because it's not for me anymore. It's not my battle cry, or whatever, the way it was when I was seventeen or eighteen. A lot of people listen to jazz -- and here's another way in which jazz is elitist -- a lot of people listen to jazz because they figure, "Well, I've outgrown pop, that's kids' stuff."

The pieces on pop that are in the book have some relation to jazz, even if it's not a very obvious relation. The pieces on rap and on Michael Jackson and Prince, for example, talk a lot about race -- a subject that's always germane to jazz.

WS: Is there anything in pop that you'd like to see rub off on jazz?

FD: This doesn't exactly answer that question, but I've been listening lately to a lot of ska. Last summer I happened to be in Santa Cruz and there was a Sunday night reggae show on the radio and the guy was playing mostly ska. It was like entering another world; I didn't know what I was hearing. This is something I'd like to write a piece on eventually, and I've since listened to a lot of the stuff. One of the interesting developments is that there are a number of American bands who are playing jazz tunes in ska versions, and not in a gimmicky way. There's a group comprised of various members of The Toasters and The Skatalites, called the New York Ska Jazz Ensemble that has one record out. They do really fun, inventive versions of Mingus tunes and Monk tunes that are re-conceived as ska and that work wonderfully. It's pretty infectious stuff, pretty irresistible. I think that if more jazz people listen to it they'd like it. I'd like to hear more jazz with a comparable sense of fun.

WS: How do you feel about certain movements like acid jazz, movements that bring in contemporary pop music and try to merge it with jazz? Hasn't that kind of fusion been part of the history of jazz? And do you think that pop or that other forms of music, other influences from outside Western culture, whatever they may be, may have a role to play in its future?

FD: Sure. I wouldn't dismiss anything out of hand. I haven't heard much in acid jazz that I find interesting. But I will single out someone, who I think comes under that heading -- at least in terms of the way he's marketed: a guitar player from San Francisco, who is in his late twenties, named Charlie Hunter. He's recorded two albums for Blue Note. He's a very interesting player. On his first Blue Note album he has a cover version of a Nirvana song called "Come As You Are" which is wonderful. He translates it very successfully into jazz without distorting what was good about the Nirvana song to begin with.

You know, jazz has absorbed whatever was around from the very beginning. You can argue that it's an African retention of some sort, but where does that harmonic system come from if not from the West? If not from what people refer to as Europe in the larger sense? So it absorbed that, and over the last twenty, thirty years, it's absorbed a lot of music -- including Eastern music. I don't think you can dismiss any style of jazz out of hand. I wasn't much of a fan of fusion in the '70s, but it yielded in an indirect way Ornette Coleman's harmolodic music -- Ornette Coleman's electric phase -- which is great stuff. Anything has the potential to yield good results.

WS: In "Like Young" you wonder whether these young jazz musicians are playing a music without a future. Do you think jazz has a future?

FD: It certainly has a future in a literal sense, in that people will always be playing something that is recognizable as jazz. I guess the question is, Will it remain vital? Or will it just become so hardened and so set that it just doesn't have much to offer people, aside from the not inconsequential pleasure of craftsmanship. I think that what chased me away as a kid was the idea that serious people listen to this music and people who know what's "good" listen to this music. But the future of any art form depends on a certain number of eighteen-year-olds in each generation deciding that something is fun and that they like it.

Francis Davis is the author of Bebop and Nothingness: Jazz and Pop at the End of the Century (1996) and The History of the Blues: The Roots, the Music, the People (1995) as well as two previous collections of essays on jazz, Outcats (1990) and In the Moment (1986). He is a contributing editor to The Atlantic Monthly and also writes for a variety of other publications, including The Village Voice and Stereo Review. A 1994 Pew Fellow in the Arts, he teaches at the University of Pennsylvania.

Wen Stephenson is the editorial director of new media at The Atlantic Monthly.

Copyright © 1996 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
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