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Is Jazz Dead? A Jazz Dialogue, Part IV

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 IV


Chuck Israels: The forms in jazz happen to be European forms – it doesn’t bother me that they’re European forms, it doesn’t make the music less American to me because we are filling those forms with content that is so completely of our American experience that it changes the feeling of the music.


Aaron Copland uses forms that a jazz musician might use and Aaron Copland doesn’t sound all that American. The jazz musician sounds much more American. But the very quality and sophistication of those forms gives an underpinning to the music without which it loses a lot. And you and I are deeply attached to those forms. And as soon as those forms go away, in popular music or jazz, there’s an impoverished system in which the music can hardly grow.


We’ve both experienced Miles Davis’ diminishing of those forms in the most popular jazz record – maybe the most popular jazz record that ever was – and what happened after that, when everyone else tried to copy that accomplishment that the subsequent recordings using those overly simplified forms were terribly less artistically successful than Miles’, and for you and me, those are not our favorite Miles Davis records, or our favorite records of any of those people.


David Berger: The difference between Kind of Blue and most subsequent imitations is that the musicians on that record are so steeped in the tradition – in the forms – that even when they play something based on simplified modal forms, they bring in all this knowledge.


Chuck: There’s an overlap.


David: Structured stuff that they did before, so it’s still highly complicated music and they’re superimposing the old forms over this newer concept.


Chuck: Question: Do you prefer that band playing Love For Sale to that band playing So What?


David: Love For Sale.


Chuck: Me too.


David: Because I don’t really – as a rule – don’t really like to wait a long time for change. I like interesting, subtle changes that go on rather than stasis, unless I’m meditating or sleeping.


Chuck: Okay, well you and I hear So What as static. Does that person who buys the record because it’s his first exposure to jazz experience the same stasis?


David: No, because they’re coming at it from an opposite experience with music. You and I are used to hearing music where the chords change every measure or every two beats, and now people hear music that maybe doesn’t even have chords, or it’s the same chord for five minutes, or it’s only two chords in the whole song. There have been so many years of that.


Chuck: Well, my question was more about what kind of an education is necessary to understand and take in more than one musical line at a time?


I’m coming back to what makes music live. And what are we doing, you and I, if we’re not creating a living music.


David: Well, the answer to the first part of the question is: I think two things are necessary to qualify as living music. One – a connection to the culture from which it comes, and number two is creation of new work. And so Beethoven is not living music because…


Chuck: Nobody’s creating new Beethoven.


David: That’s it. You just play the notes he created and the tradition from which it came went so far that it’s nothing remotely like that anymore. Jazz after the sixties went into hibernation. The record companies turned away from us, you couldn’t make a living in the clubs and there was no way to make a living with jazz anymore. But still popular music was close enough to jazz that they needed jazz musicians for certain kinds of popular music. They needed our skills, and so a lot of us were able to do some studio work to survive.


Chuck: A few popular musicians still need those skills. Paul Simon still hires jazz musicians.


David: Yes, music like Steely Dan and things like that, it’s not jazz but it uses jazz musicians. What happened to jazz in the 70s? After Coltrane’s death, Coltrane went so far, and then he’s got all those imitators who didn’t really further the development of the music. There was Joe Henderson and Wayne Shorter whose music is rooted in Coltrane’s contribution, but then musicians got into fusion – Miles getting into fusion and Weather Report and all that – is that jazz? Is that part of the jazz tradition?


Chuck: Not for me.


David: Not for me either, and it appears that when guys like Mark Gridley write jazz history books, there are chapters on fusion because they feel that explains to the audience where jazz went.


Chuck: Well, that’s where jazz musicians went.


David: Did they go there willingly? I didn’t.


Chuck: Well, no, I didn’t either. I mean, I didn’t go at all, but some may have. I think some went there willingly and produced things that I probably wasn’t interested in listening to then and will surely not be interested in listening to in the future.


David: People that we worked with – the Brecker brothers, for instance.


Chuck: Right, and Herbie [Hancock].


David: And fine players – yes, Herbie Hancock, sure. But that music for me lacks a spiritual base; it doesn’t connect me to…it doesn’t have the grace and the beauty of…certainly sexual experience or…it’s what we were talking about before – it lacks that. It’s, to me, jerky music that…


Chuck: When we were talking about my piece that I’m working on at home and trying to restore some grace to it, that I have some ideas that seem to fit in a funk piece and they’re better than most of those pieces.


David: My thing is: be careful. When I’m hired to write something like that, I do my best, and ultimately it’s never a piece that I wind up playing over a period of time. Even if we play it for a month, it never lives, whereas I have other pieces that I wrote 40 years ago that we still play today. But the funk pieces, we never play those anymore. They sound like popular music of the day.


Chuck: The rhythms in music that I like – that I love – all represent the rhythms of the large muscles of my body in ways that I would at least believe I would enjoy moving them. In other words, some of them are fantasies, I’m not a dancer, I’m not an athlete, I can’t do a pole vault, I can’t ski, I can’t shoot basketballs, I can’t hit a golf ball, certainly couldn’t hit a baseball (I could hit a softball once in a while), I’m not a tennis player, I can barely do any of those, but in the case of each of those activities, swimming or high-diving – and I haven’t even put this in the category of dance – but all of those human activities, when I see people doing them, they relate to the experience of my body and gravity, in a way that I would like to experience in my body.


David: Yes, you realize the human condition.


Chuck: That’s right, they are ideals. My human condition is: I can do a little dance, I can walk, I can run – even at this age – for a block or two, I can wave my arms in an attractive way, as a conductor and, beyond that, there’s an ideal of doing those things that my mind and spirit can embrace.


When I see the kinds of dances that can amuse me for a moment, that are not really human ideals but humans imitating machines, I am intrigued for a moment, but nothing of my body really wants to go that way for very long. And the fusion music that we’re talking about goes way over in the direction of machine-like motion rather than animal motion.


David: It’s more about rigidity than fluidity.


Chuck: Exactly.


David: And the music that we’re attracted to is about fluidity that uses rigidity as a counter just so that we can appreciate the fluidity more. We have moments of rigidity that are inserted.


Chuck: Would Joe Zawinul say the same about Weather Report music but that the proportions are different? That there’s still the fluidity over the top of it?


David: If he does, I would just say, they don’t represent real life. I don’t move around in jerky motions. I move in smooth motions, and every once in a while I have to do a jerky motion in order to…


Chuck: …accomplish something.


David: Yes, but it’s clearly in the one percent of the time. The majority of my life, my muscles are acting fluidly, otherwise I’m going to hurt myself. I think everybody’s like that; our bodies were designed that way. This whole thing just comes back to the idea of our heartbeat.


The constant heartbeat is what has to be the common denominator of all music. When music has got tempo, it has a constant beat because our heartbeat is the consistency in our lives, that’s what we relate to.


And so when you do music that is not in time, I can’t listen to that for a long time because it doesn’t relate to my life. It’s nice once in a while, but that regular heartbeat is pretty much why swing – the feeling of swing – is the musical equivalent of the feeling of life that you have when your body is in sync, when your heartbeat is regular and everything is working; you’re together in perfect synchronization in your body. Swing is the musical equivalent of that.


I don’t feel that in any kind of fusion music or funk music or whatever you want to call it, rap music, I don’t feel that. I feel a rigidity which is more like machines than human beings. So it doesn’t connect with me.


Chuck: We agree about this.

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  • Bill Dobbins on

    I’ve thoroughly enjoyed this conversation all the way from Part I, as well as the posts from all the readers. I especially appreciated Bill Crow’s simple and direct comment: “Is chess dead?” I also related immediately to Bevan Manson’s description of having to work with students, even those who are really interested in music, at a very basic level, starting with just the melody and form of a particular song, and making sure that this is clearly understood before going on to more subtle or complex aspects of the musical language. Like Bevan, I have found it necessary, since at least the last twenty years, to begin with the students I work with at a much more basic level than was necessary in the 1970s and 80s. I have realized that one of the main reasons for this, even apart from the fact that jazz is no longer a part of mainstream American music, is that the misuse of technology is conditioning people from infancy to experience discontinuity as normal.

    If we look at TV shows, movies and commercials from the 1950s, the framing and sequence of events proceeds, more often than not, in a manner that’s fairly close to how human life might be lived. Even in a thirty-second commercial, the action often takes place entirely in one room or space, with only a few sudden changes of camera angle, apart from panning, which the human eye does naturally. Today there are changes of camera angle, perspective, and even physical or geographical location every few seconds. Even what passes for ”the evening news” is now reduced to a few sound bites on relatively unrelated events, and commercials make up an ever-increasing percentage of airtime, both on radio and TV. These themes are treated in depth in the books “Amusing Ourselves to Death” and “Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology” by Neil Postman. It should be no surprise that young people, to whom discontinuity is the norm, will have great difficulty in trying to improvise a solo or writ a composition or arrangement that tells a story in a compelling manner.

    Since the days of the Kennedy assassination and the Viet Nam war, I have felt like America and, more recently, the entire world, have entered a new dark age. Fortunately, my wife, Daralene, discovered a book about the Dark Ages in European history that transformed my thinking about our times: “How the Irish Saved Civilization” by Thomas Cahill. The book tells the true story of how the freed slave, who later became known as Saint Patrick, journeyed from the fallen Roman empire to what is now known as Ireland, with the hope of spending his remaining years in solitude and meditation. However, he eventually became the leader of a group that made pilgrimages back to the land of the empire, visiting former libraries and repositories of culture. From these they gathered manuscripts and art objects that would have otherwise been used for kindling or would have simply deteriorated. They took these things back to Ireland to preserve them for future generations. Of course, there were many people in various locations who were doing similar work. Cahill’s point is that, without all the efforts of these cultural conservationists, there would have been no renaissance.

    My own perspective on whether or not jazz is dead is that, as long as there are groups of people who are learning the musical language of jazz, performing, composing and arranging music with this language and passing it on to young people, jazz will continue to live. Perhaps the audience may be limited to a fragment of one percent of the population. However, as long as there are true keepers of the flame, the music will continue, and may enjoy a wider audience if the human race manages to survive the results of the misuse of technology and our intentional dumbing down by the few corporations that control everything we see and hear (not to mention the politicians from whom we make our “selections” every couple of years). And, like the two of you, I’ll never give up in my attempt to pass the music on to whoever wants to keep it going. Stay tuned, sports fans!

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