[10 or 15 years ago, my buddy, bassist and composer Chuck Israels was in
New York for a few days visiting. We discussed writing a book about
jazz. We sat around my coffee table in my living room one afternoon and
turned on a cassette recorder. I’ve divided the conversation into 6
parts to make it less imposing, or as Groucho Marx said, “Just the
right length to take into the bathroom .”]
Chuck Israels: Is jazz dead? It is a hydroponic plant or a hot-house flower; it’s disconnected from its roots because for many years, since the time in the late sixties when I felt it to be what I called “dying,” disconnected from its popular music roots and from the audience that could understand it because of its association with the music that they heard in more casual circumstances – more everyday circumstances – when that disconnect began to happen, the normal flow of nourishment into jazz was cut off.
David Berger: It’s more than that. It’s the disconnect from American life, in that jazz was the rhythm and the inflection of American speech patterns and was the music that was used in television and radio commercials for two generations. It was the rhythms of how people walked and spoke and moved, and it stopped being that. It started being, “That’s that funny old music that my parents listen to that I don’t want anything to do with because then I’ll be old like them; I’ll be over thirty.”
Chuck: How do you account for the exaggeratedly angular, purposefully graceless rhythms and movements of popular dancing at the moment and those things that appear in TV ads?
David: Yes. The whole idea of these jerky movements that go against our notions of beauty and grace are the opposite of ballet. And I don’t understand why anyone would find that attractive. I guess I am too old to understand; it is not of my generation. If I saw an attractive woman doing this, it wouldn’t attract me to her. To me, it’s the same thing as if she took out a cigarette and put it in her mouth. I’m not interested.
Chuck: Because that isn’t sexy.
David: It’s not; it’s the opposite of sexy.
Chuck: I felt the same way about the nightclub dancing in the seventies.
David: Oh, me too.
Chuck: I would see kids moving in ways that I wouldn’t want to see anyone move in sex. I couldn’t imagine that it had any…
David: Well, the correlation between art and sex is – once you lose that, you’ve lost the most basic impulse; the most basic human impulse is to procreate and when you lose that connection, the art is dead, hence the death of European classical music in the twentieth century.
Chuck: Now we’re circling back to an issue that’s critical - a question of what is living music - what defines a music that is actually alive? And you and I know something about that because we’ve been in it and we’ve seen it change remarkably.
David: And quickly.
Chuck: And devastatingly. And yet we cling to the values that were in the music when we were first exposed to it. It continues to have a lot of the same effect on us, but I think it does not have the same effect on most people.
David: I can’t really know nor can I understand why young people are attracted to jazz now. When I was a child and teenager, it was in the air; it was everywhere. Louis Armstrong was on the Ed Sullivan show on Sundays, as were Duke Ellington and Count Basie. Jazz was on television. It was all over the radio. The music spoke of the aspirations of our culture: what it meant to be an American, and our dreams for this country, and what democracy really meant, even though there were injustices in our society – grave injustices – the music spoke to ridding us of those injustices and to have that ideal world. Duke Ellington was talking about a world without racism.
Chuck: Without speaking about it.
David: He didn’t have to say it. The music – Black Beauty – that says it all. The music just taught us.
Chuck: People would argue that there are branches of contemporary, popular art that address these issues, and my argument is they address them bluntly, artlessly, and without an attractive quality to hold my attention.
David: Because it’s whining and complaining about what is, and not suggesting a world that could be and should be, and jazz was that world. When Coleman Hawkins played Body And Soul – it wasn’t the Body And Soul that was on the sheet music or that was in Broadway Shows; it was a Body And Soul that was about all of America; it wasn’t just white America. Even though the song was written by a white guy, Hawkins’ performance had the entire American experience and was about equality. Jazz has a desire to make everything equal and just.
Chuck: That’s an abstraction, but of course I completely concur.
David: You don’t have to state it. It’s because it’s so implicit in the music. It teaches us a lesson without us having to be told. That’s the beauty of it and that’s why it spread worldwide.
Chuck: I agree, but I keep circling back to the question of: Is any kind of music that is not connected with daily life – popular life – can any of that music be said to be alive in the same way that a really popular music is? And then if we say that it cannot, and then we say that the definition of a living music is the music of the people of the time when they are listening to it, music created in their day-to-day commerce and social interaction, then the music – most of the music – that represents that now is so depressingly lacking in art, lacking in sophistication, lacking in grace, lacking in any saving quality that it represents…
David: It represents what America is today; not what America could be.
David: What America is today.
Chuck: And then, how do you take into account those few contemporary examples that are far better than that? There are always a few; there always will be a few, no matter how devastatingly bad the circumstances are, there are always one or two pop people that rise a little bit above that and get accepted. Jamie Cullum – I’ve told you about him. Have you-
David: No, I haven’t really checked him out much yet.
Chuck: He’s really good.
David: Well, when you say ‘really good’ are you talking about Thelonious Monk good?
Chuck: No, no. I’m not talking about Duke Ellington/Thelonious Monk good, but I’m talking about Louis Prima good. I’m talking about any of the…maybe better than Louis Prima good in terms of the…yeah, pretty high class. When I talk about that country singer – Lyle Lovett. There’s a guy who, when he sings good material, he has pretty good arrangements, is pretty sophisticated, -
David: But ultimately, in ten years, will you listen to those records?
Chuck: Probably not.
David: Okay, it’s like Blood Sweat and Tears in 19…well, whenever they were popular, in 1970 or something; 1969, when every cut on their record made it into the top ten on AM radio. My thoughts at the time were, “Wow, these guys, they’re jazz musicians who are playing rock ‘n roll and they’re extremely popular and this music is nicely arranged and very well performed, and two years later I couldn’t even listen to it. It was just like all the other pop music of that day – in the trashcan, you know, not interesting, no longer relevant.
Chuck: Is there any old pop music that you listen to with pleasure?
David: Billie Holiday.
David: Duke Ellington. This stuff was popular!
Chuck: No, I’m asking about non-jazz pop music.
Chuck: Every once in a while I will hear a record and I’ll think (you know, on some radio station), The Everly Brothers – you know those two guys?
David: Yeah, okay, I mean I hear that stuff and it’s okay for a minute. But it’s not like I’m gonna listen to it twice.
Chuck: Well, no.
David: You know, it just doesn’t have enough…it’s not enough art. There’s not enough depth to represent reality to me. It’s false. It’s the surface of life; it’s not life. Art needs to have a connection to reality. It’s like if you painted a picture of a lawn with grass and every blade of grass was just the same color green; the same shade—identical. It wouldn’t represent a real lawn, although, that’s the way it looks to us at a cursory glance.
Chuck: Right, it looks like Astroturf on a cursory glance
David: But Astroturf – that’s not grass.
Chuck: No, of course it’s not.
David: And that’s the difference; this stuff is like the Astroturf of music. The reason I’m drawn to classical music and jazz is because they represent the human experience in a deep and realistic way. It’s got the courage to say the negative things and the positive things, and in relationship, whereas popular music doesn’t do that – popular music pats people on the back and says, “Hey, you’re doin’ a great job!”
Chuck: Not always. I wish I knew more examples because I’m sure that someone of those people whom we would normally consider to be ignorant and to not have good taste, like that guy that talks on the CBS Sunday morning,
David: - Oh, the reviewer, Bill Flanigan.
Chuck: Yeah. That he would know some piece of material in which he would cite a song written that included those ideas in the lyrics – that included some sophisticated ideas and something more than superficial relationships. And we would have to accept that those things continue to exist – not very much – but from time to time; not nearly the way they used to, but that they emerge from time to time in the lyrics. What I don’t get is any corollary music that supports that.
David: Pop music in the fifties made a turn. It went from music where the music was the most important thing and the lyric supported the music; where music was primary, the lyrics were secondary- the music would stand by itself; the lyrics would not, to popular music where the music could not stand by itself; it was lyric-driven. It was notes put to the words.