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Is Jazz Dead? A Jazz Dialogue, Part III

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 III


David Berger: 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.


Chuck Israels: Why did that happen?


David: Because things can get only so sophisticated, and then they get far enough away from popular music and the lowest common denominator of the uneducated public, and when it gets too sophisticated, which is what happened to jazz in the mid forties, the people look for something that everybody can understand without an education. It builds from there. That’s why jazz came along at the beginning of the twentieth century when European classical music had become too sophisticated for the average person to listen to.


Chuck: It still is.


David: It still is, yeah, and you can’t go back.


Chuck: Yeah, and the only relatively popular pieces by those who compose and create in the European classical style; the only ones that seem every once in a while to sell a few records of performances - like that Russian guy that writes that lame music, I can’t remember who that is – it’s weak music and I don’t quite understand how that -


David: Well, it’s music for another idiom, like film.


Chuck: Yeah.


David: John Williams writes in a romantic style; he borrows from Holst, he borrows from Prokofiev, and he borrows from The Rite Of Spring, but he’s not really forging new music. He’s just using that because it accompanies the film and is an established idiom for film music.


Chuck: Yeah, it’s scenery. It’s musical scenery; it isn’t a painting


David: Yes, he’s doing what Max Steiner did in the thirties, basically.


Chuck: Right. I don’t have anything against it, except I don’t ever think of it as…


David: It’s not stand-alone music.


Chuck: That’s right.


David: I wouldn’t go to a concert with that music, but when I watch those movies, it works.


Chuck: Oh of course, of course it works.


David: Well, it’s the same thing with popular music.   When people listen to those lyrics with that – whatever the music is to it – they have a reaction to it that they like, but if you separated out that music without the words, would people listen to that? I don’t think so. Would it be popular? How much instrumental music makes the top forty?


Chuck: Well, the instrumental music that has made the top forty has been offensive to me, mostly.


David: But has it made the top forty, or…


Chuck: Well, I’m thinking of…


David: I don’t know if it’s even top forty.


Chuck: Kenny G.


David: I don’t know. Does that make the top forty? Is that really that popular?


Chuck: I don’t know.


David: It’s popular compared to jazz, but is it popular compared to the top rappers of our day – or whoever are the most popular people…Jessica Simpson, or people like this.


Chuck: Well, it is certainly remarkable that in 1939, Coleman Hawkins’ Body And Soul was a hit record – that’s remarkable.


David: And even I can remember, in 1970, working – I had a summer job – and you know, a bunch of black people worked with me, an older generation, and then they were still talking about that record. Somebody who doesn’t know anything about music, and she’d be saying, “I just always loved that record. Give me Coleman Hawkins’ Body And Soul, it drives me crazy.” It lasted.


Chuck: And it’s remarkably sophisticated.


David: - Bean doesn’t even play the melody.


Chuck: Not only does he not play the melody of the song, but the melodies that he does play are…


David: Abstract!


Chuck: Abstract and organized in a meaningful, sophisticated way. In a way that can remind you of the best qualities that are in the history of music.


David: And raw emotion.

Chuck: Raw emotion and profound intellect.


David: The organization. It’s about the organization. And it’s spontaneous, so “one time only.” Not often in the history of Western music has a performance been improvised on this level. Something Wynton [Marsalis] has talked about – the difference between jazz and classical improvisation – yes, Mozart improvised, Beethoven improvised cadenzas, but they weren’t doing it in a conversational way the way we do in jazz. It was one person improvising and the other people just played their written out roles. You didn’t have two, three, five people improvising at once, like we do in jazz.


Chuck: It’s the most sophisticated system of group improvisation that I can imagine, and whenever I get involved with people who are dealing with aleatoric music and so-called classical people who are trying to compose improvisatory music or set that up in some way, it’s kindergarten compared to what jazz does.


David: Because they don’t have a tradition of hierarchy of rules of conduct. Maybe not rules…


Chuck: They are rules.


David: But we don’t learn them as rules. It’s like learning to behave and carrying on a conversation, you don’t talk when the other person’s talking, you listen and then you respond to that – we do this because it’s polite, and we have polite rules in jazz.


Chuck: It’s more than polite, it allows the conversation to continue.


David: And to progress, and to get to other levels. Without that we are stuck – one person does all the work and the other one doesn’t contribute, so it’s limited in scope and in how much it can grow. The beauty of jazz is it’s democracy in action. The more we can contribute of ourselves – of our true selves – to the ensemble, the better the ensemble is. That’s the dream of democracy, and why it attracts us, as opposed to a totalitarian state, where a small group of people decide for everybody, and the other people have no say. Of course they’re all going to walk in lock-step, and you can accomplish a lot of industrial things, but ultimately the fruit of the labor is tainted. And in jazz, we take the chance that it may stink a few times, and maybe most of the time, but there are going to be times when it really can succeed way beyond the boundaries of any other kind of music.


Chuck: You ever heard Guarneri Quartet play a late Beethoven quartet?


David: Yes.


Chuck: Do you have the sense that there’s an illusion of spontaneity in the music?


David: That’s the goal of playing any kind of music, is to make it sound at once inevitable and like it’s being improvised. It rarely happens. That’s what we aim for in jazz. Even when we’re in a big band situation, when we’re reading parts, we want it to have that quality as well. It should have the organization of being planned, but always should feel like it’s the moment of creation. So yes, that’s classical players’ responsibility too, that’s what they have to do.


Chuck: Well, in my thinking, the difference between the improvisation of timing and nuance and dynamics, pitch inflection, articulation, that go into a superb string quartet performance, and all those things plus the added liberties that are in the jazz system is only a matter of degree. But it’s a big degree.


David: That’s one degree. It’s the difference between reading a speech and making the speech up as you go along. The person who’s reading the speech hasn’t created the content! He’s just dealing with somebody else’s content.


Chuck: The jazz musician is not making up his speech. The jazz musician is filling in his outline. In other words, if you compare it to a speech-giver, that speech-giver must hit point A, point B, point C in time. He can digress, but not for long. He must come back to this point. There is an organization about jazz – successful jazz – that goes way beyond someone standing up – one person giving an extemporaneous speech. It’s a group endeavor.


David: Yes, but you can control the length of how many choruses you’re going to play, and you can control the content. You can get louder or softer.


Chuck: Well, so can the speech-giver. But the speech-giver can decide that the bridge is three-times as long, and we can’t. And the fact that we can’t control elements of organization in the music that are not only useful; they’re absolutely necessary to its success. We know so-called “free jazz” doesn’t work. We know it very well. We completely agree on what the shortcomings of that system are.


David: Lack of context.


Chuck: Yes, lack of context and…


David: Nothing to play off of.


Chuck: Right.


David: So, rhythms don’t mean anything if they’re out in space.


Chuck: So the form – the dictated form – is European musical form.


David: I still think within that form we’re creating the content; we’re not just giving the same speech with different words.


Chuck: Oh!


David: I think we’re doing much more than that. Dizzy Gillespie playing Sunny Side Of The Street is so much different than Tommy Dorsey’s guys playing Sunny Side Of The Street.


Chuck: I agree with that.


David: You know, the message is different. And it’s the same structure, it’s the same chords, it may even be the same length, I suppose. He’s playing one chorus, but it’s different from Roy Eldridge, and it’s different from Freddie Hubbard.


Chuck: Nothing I am saying takes away from the ability to fill these forms with a wide variety of artistic communication. The only thing I’m saying is: take away the form, and an essential element of organization goes away.

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  • Jack Siegel on

    The question is not weather or not jazz (or music in general) is dead. All music that ever was is probably still being performed to some degree. The real question is why are there so few people who appreciate and understand whatever genre of music is still out there, including jazz. I believe that the answer lies in our educational system. Music appreciation is not being taught beyond the degree of “listen to the Carnival Of The Animals. Wasn’t that nice? Now let’s listen to something else.” Students are not taught to appreciate and understand the melody, the harmony or the form. ABA form can be taught using the alphabet song. Jazz is not taught at all unless you play in the high school jazz band.
    If you go to a concert, classical or jazz, I believe that most of the crowd will be former high school music students. The rest of the audience will be their husbands or wives. The number of people who enjoy the arts are dwindling each year. People will not appreciate and support that which they know nothing about. To most people music is what they hear on the radio while driving to work.
    The original music was probably a cave man banging on a hollow log. If you go into a dance club and take away the melody, the chords, even the bass and leave nothing but the drums, most people probably will not even notice and just keep dancing. We have come full circle.
    It’s time for the educational system to step up to the plate. Without an appreciation and understanding of art and music, humanity will have lost a lot of it’s soul.

  • Andrew Homzy on

    This is a great conversation. A few points I’d like to interject:
    1) Forget about Kenny G – the rest of the world has.
    Kendrick Lamar (rapper), Kamasi Washington (sax), and Chris Botti (trumpet) are among the new pop entertainers who merit attention – and critical evaluation.
    2) Now that the the stranglehold on American musical tastes – dictated by radio & record companies – has been broken by the internet by youtube & Spotify/Apple Music, the public is forced to make their own discoveries. The full effect of this will take more time.
    3) Vocalist have dominated audience attention for a long time – even considering that no vocal compositions or vocalists have ever changed the course of music. However, watch out for Jacob Collier.
    4) In the past 50 years, Stevie Wonder and Prince, in their best moments, have transcended the parameters of entertainment and moved into the realm of Art. In so-called “Latin Music”, I would include Eddie Palmieri. To argue this fully, would require a dissertation with footnotes ~ All three have been inspired by jazz.
    5) One only needs to prove themselves a Genius but once. The same for an Artist.
    5) It’s generally agreed that major musical eras include Baroque (1600–1750), Classical (1750–1820) and Romantic (1810–1910). The Jazz Era is over – I say it ended with the death of Ellington – but would allow that Ken Burns’ documentary is a significant marker. However, all these kinds of music are still being played today – and, there are still composers writing in those idioms. Ergo, the musics are not dead.
    6) Visuals – film, dancers, vocalists, acrobatic instrumentalists, “multimedia” reduce, if not obliterate the thrust and impact of musical expression.
    7) Melody is paramount. Rhythm/Form and Harmony/Counterpoint/Orchestration are defining components which serve to support Melody. Lyrics don’t count for much – except, maybe, for inducing nostalgia.

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