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Is Jazz Dead? A Jazz Dialogue, Part V

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 V


Chuck Israels: If I’m exploring the broader aspects of popular music, I have to say that there are occasional elements of music which is sufficiently fluid and sufficiently heartbeat-like to satisfy a few of those needs to make me relate to it a little bit (not as much as jazz, I’m not making that argument), but there are some popular musics that are still alive, and most of them are country music things, but don’t put me in a corner and say that I’m comparing this to the sophistication of the best jazz.


David Berger: But the country music you’re referring to, is that pop-oriented country music that is based on rock n’ roll back-beat, or is it more traditional country music?


Chuck: More traditional.


David: Like Patsy Cline?


Chuck: More traditional country music, usually.


David: I figured that because, again, the relationship of rough and smooth: it hasn’t been disturbed in that music, whereas when country music tried to become more popular by embracing rock n’ roll, it lost that connection to the America that we knew growing up.


Chuck: Are we able to say categorically that the music that is normally defined as rock n roll cannot reach us? I’m talking about you and me right now - it cannot reach us with anything remotely approaching the depth of music that we would call swing-related? I think we are.


David: Well, I came to that realization when I was about twelve years old – maybe before that. It just seemed silly, it seemed like children’s music. It wasn’t as sophisticated as I was even at that age, so I had no interest in it. I could watch a television show that was well-crafted, like “Fathers Knows Best,” which is simplistic stuff, but at least it was done in a professional way by adults, whereas rock ’n’ roll at that time seemed to me to be either amateur music, or professionals trying to sound like amateurs. And it wasn’t satisfying to me. I just didn’t buy it. I think by that time I already heard enough classical music and jazz and popular music that was based on jazz, that anything that didn’t rise to that level of professionalism would seem tremendously unsatisfying.


Chuck: We’re going to narrow this down a little bit, now. You and I, we are narrowing it down because, considerations of harmonic sophistication and form aside, there is something we’re saying about the way the underlying pulse of the music is expressed, where you cross a line from music we cannot relate to into music we can relate to; music which affects us in a positive way and music which affects us in a negative way. And you and I have a deep sense of where that line is. I think there’s some overlap. I mean, I think there are things which exist in gospel music, black church music, in a few kinds of things where it’s more rigid than where we would normally like in our everyday experience, but…


David: …certainly more repetitive.


Chuck: Yeah, it’s not so bad. The feel of it itself is…


David: …there’s quite an overlap with jazz.


Chuck: Right, I think Ray Charles’ music is an example of some of the best of that, where it’s excellent music, we agree, we think the best of it is super high quality music, and the rhythm is not always expressed in ways that are deep in the jazz tradition.


David: Close enough.


Chuck: That’s what I think, it’s close enough. I agree it’s close enough.


David: And because of Ray Charles and people like that, they have brought a lot of those rhythms into jazz, in the whole – they used to call – funk or funky…the Horace Silver definition of funk. In the Fifties, what they originally called funk before that became back-beat funk; we’re talking about “hard bop” – what they called funk was church-related music that they brought into jazz. The difference between that music and bebop, is the introduction of that, and…


Chuck: …and the limitation and the exclusion of the amount of harmonic and melodic tension. A limitation of how much of that was included.


David: They smoothed out the music enough that it wasn’t so herky-jerky and the tempos were not as frantic. It’s getting back to more of the groove of the swing era in a sense, but with the knowledge of bebop, and more…the music of bebop was trying to rebel against the accessibility of swing and hard bop was bringing back the tunefulness and the regularity.


Chuck: And in some ways it was “softer” bop.


David: It was more easily accessible to regular people.


Chuck: More easily accessible to me.


David: Yes, well, I came to bebop first.


Chuck: I came to bebop first too


David: I don’t know. I grew up in the hard bop era, so I heard that music. That’s the music that I heard when I turned on the radio, and I instantly loved it – Horace Silver playing The Preacher – wow, it had all that churchy stuff, and it was a simple tune, and they played all the bebop stuff over it that I loved, and it was really comfortable-sounding, and I could do it. I couldn’t play Shaw ‘Nuff, but I could play The Preacher because the tempo was medium, and it was easy enough. It was what we did in junior high, we played The Preacher. And the rest of America had no idea what we were talking about.


The country turned away from that music; it didn’t matter, it was too late. America was so far from that music, but it wasn’t dead yet. And I’ll tell you why it wasn’t dead, because people were making records of their new tunes, Horace Silver, and every week there’d be a new Art Blakey, Horace Silver, Benny Golson or Miles Davis or whoever, they made these records and they put their new tunes on the record. Even youngsters like Herbie Hancock, we learned the tunes on his records. He was still a jazz musician at that time. Every record they all put out, we learned all those tunes. Those were the new tunes that you had to learn if you were a jazz musician. And that stopped happening very soon after, in the late sixties.


Chuck: No one learns anybody else’s tunes now.


David: That’s it. They haven’t learned anybody else’s tunes in forty years. Jazz musicians listen to records that are more than forty years old and copy that. How can you call that living music?


Chuck: I can’t think of a record I’ve listened to, besides yours…I haven’t heard Lovano’s octet record although I did watch a couple of things on Youtube that were pretty good. What have I listened to since Bill Evans, since I liked Bill Evans? Basically that was 1966. I’m trying to think of what jazz happened since 1966 that we love.


David: Well, that stood the test of time.


Chuck: That was not a rhetorical question; that was a real question. Do you? Can you think of anything?


David: I can’t say much, because there were things that I liked when they happened at the moment, and those were fleeting like popular music, it sounded like popular music versus Chick Corea who put his “Return to Forever” group together with Joe Farrell, one of my heroes. And I was attracted to that music, it was Latin-based stuff, and to me when I hear that now, it sounds like popular music.


Chuck: La Fiesta.


David: La Fiesta. To me, that sounds like pop music. I don’t want to play those pieces, I don’t want to listen to them. But that’s me. Many of my contemporaries, they’ve built their whole careers on that, and I don’t feel a connection to it.


Chuck: No. Yeah, well, I do and I don’t. I mean, I feel a tenuous emotional connection. It’s not real deep.


David: I can listen to that stuff. I’m enough of a jazz musician that I can listen to all that stuff and more modern stuff and understand it and know what they’re doing, but it doesn’t make me pat my foot like when I hear Lester Young play with Count Basie.


Chuck: Yep.


David: I don’t get that…as Jimmy Maxwell used to say, it doesn’t make me wanna wiggle my hands, shake my ass and holler. It doesn’t do that.


Chuck: Well, okay, is that a musical criteria?


David: I have to have…


Chuck: You have to have some of that, right?


David: I have to…yeah.


Chuck: The Bartok Romanian Dances …they make me want to do that, and that’s not…it’s not swing.


David: Right. Rite of Spring – I’m not going to sit still when I hear The Rite of Spring.


Chuck: Right. So it’s not entirely only the expression of those rhythms in the jazz way – we love the jazz way, it’s our native way – but that’s not the only thing that works.


David: Jazz music makes me move in a way that Americans move. It’s natural to me. When I hear The Rite of Spring, I don’t move that way. I find it invigorating and exciting, but I don’t really want to get up and dance to it. In the same way that if I go to one of my relatives’ bar mitzvahs or weddings, and they all dance a “Hora,” I’m not a person that’s going to get up and do the “Hora.” That’s not my music.


Chuck: No, me either.

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  • Kenny Berger on

    I think one big factor that has shaped the tastes of the pop music audience is American culture’s increasing disdain for concepts like professionalism and just plain competence. The seeds of this were planted in the early days of rock&roll and reached their zenith with the hippie movement and its built in suspicion of any art which required the pros to have more talent and to have done more homework than the amateurs, as if the idea of putting in the time to do something really well rendered the artist;s work inherently dishonest. The belief was that your skill level didn’t matter as long you “mean it” which always makes me fondly recall Phil Woods saying “I don’t care about the beauty of your soul if you can’t play the saxophone”. The progressively reduced attention span of the pop culture audience was created very methodically and deliberately by the corporations that control production of mass media, reaching its nadir in the current situation in which the average pop music consumer can’t even sit and listen to a two and a half minute track without the addition of an accompanying video. I believe this plays a huge role in creating a citizenry that can be manipulated into buying or voting for whichever shiny object grabs their attention at the moment so these issues have a scope well beyond jazz.

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