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Is Jazz Dead? A Jazz Dialogue, Part II

David Berger

[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 .”]

Part II

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.


Chuck: Right.


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.


Chuck: Well...


David: Duke Ellington. This stuff was popular!


Chuck: No, I’m asking about non-jazz pop music.


David: No.


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.

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  • john fass morton on

    Andrea Motis? Never heard of her….I’m gobsmacked!! THANK YOU, Larry W. You have opened up a whole new world for me. Guess it’s time to decamp for Barcelona.

  • Bevan Manson on

    There are far too many large segments of the population in this country who don’t have an ear sophisticated enough to hear more than very rudimentary harmony and very basic (often de-based) musical form. The latter being the repetitive, musically poverty-stricken and mechanical AM radio pop representations of song form so prevalent now-a far cry from the Great American Songbook or the harmonies and forms of anyone from Duke Ellington to Dave Liebman. As Larry pointed out astutely above there is a teenage mentality in the media. That, combined with the reliance on video to music, lack of education, and a general tendency in society to sound bites and short attention spans, gives any serious music a tough road to work against. It’s about lack of exposure, especially to live music. But I have found hope in various places. Locally, here in Ventura County, I teach a course in jazz history at a college where most students have never heard jazz. But they have curiosity about it. Many sign up for the class. When I play a recording of a tune that is overtly melodic and expressive whether vocal or instrumental (anything from ‘West End Blues’ to ‘Waltz For Debby’ to (Scofield’s) ‘Eisenhower’), they get it-you can tell from their body language. Or, I can play Getz’s version of ‘Ipanema’ (many of them recognize the tune) and then sit down at the piano and play a harmonically different version of it, and they still get it. Longer forms than song form are a different question altogether. But starting them out on a basic blues form-I have them write their own blues lyrics- something from their own lives-words that must fit into the form-then a few weeks later they start to get what happens when a jazz soloist takes on that form for a number of choruses-they start to get it. In Taiwan, ear training and music study in general is mandated in childhood education. I can only think of how much more receptive, given the Ventura example, of where we would be in terms of the ear, if that was the case here.

  • Larry Weintraub on

    Okay, grew up in the 60’s and finished high school in ’73 and college in ’78. I loved jazz because my Dad played his Frank Sinatra, Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw records all the time. So I was digging it. I used to listen to a Jazz Program on WBAL in Baltimore called The Harley Show. That exposed me to a lot of different jazz guys.

    Now because of the social revolution that was going on and the don’t trust anyone over 30 mentality people my age or older thought that jazz was old folks music. Even if they liked a jazz artist they wouldn’t admit it. Some people were into protest music by Bob Dylan. You want to talk about protest music then listen to Billie Holiday sing “Strange Fruit.” We are still listening to Billie today. She was a big influence on Amy Winehouse. Who is listening to Bob Dylan today?
    In colleges today as part of the liberal arts core many students take a Jazz History class. This class actually turns people onto jazz. They accept the music at face value and do not think about their grandparents listening and dancing to it in 1940.

    The Jazz Ensemble and Jazz Combos are filled w/undergraduate and some Masters level students. They want to be there and are learning how to play the music. They are taught how to swing and how to use jazz articulations. Their concerts are usually filled by other students. But to be honest most of these students are writing a report on the concert. But still, at least they are being exposed to the music.

    Today in 2019 you have many “younger” players on the scene. Wynton and Branford are exposing a lot of people to jazz. As are guys like Scott Hamilton, Eric Alexander, Joshua Redmen, Warren and Alan Vache’, Harry Allen, Chris Potter, Semaus Blake and others.

    If jazz was given more exposure in the media, TV and the radio it would be more popular. But because of the teenage mentality of the media, jazz does not get the exposure here in the USA that it gets in Europe and Japan. In Europe people know about the artist and follow the music when it comes to their town.

    Look at Joan Chammoro and the wonderful things he has done developing young players. His protege’ Andrea Motis is all over Europe playing wonderful trumpet kind of in the style of Chet Baker. When she sings standards her phrasing is close to Billie Holiday. She is all of 24 years old.

    The style that seems to appeal to a lot of people is the Cool Jazz style. People love the sound of Chet Baker, Paul Desmond and Stan Getz. Even today those are the jazz records that sell.

    The owner of a record store here in Va Bch told me that he gets a lot of people coming in who say they do not like jazz. Then he puts on a Scott Hamilton CD or record on in his shop. All of a sudden the person likes Scott’s music and buys the CD. Why? Well Scott has a great sound, he plays in tune, he plays a lot of standards and his improvisation is very melodic.He does not play outside the changes.

    I myself was playing a gig at a party.I play similar to Scott/Getz/Zoot. So after the party a guy comes up to me and said that he normally does not like jazz. However he liked what we were playing. Well why was that. guess it i pretty much the same reason why the guy in the record shop liked the Scott Hamilton CD.

    What hurt jazz IMHO were things like Miles turning his back on the audience. The out sounds of the New Thing.Guys like Archie Shemp, Pharoh Sanders etc. (Although I have heard Pharoh play inside and he sounds really nice).

    IMHO I feel that guys like Wynton, Branford, Scott, Chris Potter etc are bringing people to jazz once they hear them play. The kids in good Jazz Ensembles help to spread the word about jazz just by they themselves playing it for their peers.

    Well I guess I said enough. Let’s just say that jazz is not dead. It’s very much alive and is being studied in schools.

    Thank you,
    Larry W

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