NEA and Jazz, Part 2

A minor correction from last week: I should have said “centered on” rather than “consisting of” when referring to the signature chromatic approach developed and codified by soprano saxophonist Dave Liebman. It distinguishes him from his contemporaries (Michael Brecker, Jerry Bergonzi, Steve Grossman) even when he plays on their principle instrument, the tenor saxophone.

I attended last year’s NEA Jazz Masters award ceremony when Liebman received his award. I couldn’t help but reflect on his early work with Elvin Jones, Miles Davis, and the first tour with his own collective group, Lookout Farm, during the 1970s. His playing was and is heavily influenced by John Coltrane’s legacy, but Liebman created a body of work that transcends that legacy and has offered a new direction in improvising, composing, and teaching that has been too underrated in the jazz academy and the corporate culture machine that hosted the ceremony. While this might be a result of pedigree (the term sounds odd, but it covers the difference between coming up through the “ranks” or being “placed”), a dichotomy in aesthetics is also involved. A comparison of two of jazz’s “Great Names,” Charlie Parker and the above mentioned John Coltrane, illustrates this well. Both were: improvising saxophone virtuosos whose work has sparked a reexamination of what is called American music; incessant practicers and studiers who learned everything they could about music (the younger Coltrane had more formal training); highly personal stylists who “piggybacked” on the work of previous masters; and continue to be, imitated widely. Both developed improvising strategies that made their work easily identifiable, even when compared with their imitators. But Parker drew on the outer world for his inspiration, quoting other musicians and popular songs in his solos, while Coltrane was inspired by his internal vision and arrived at a point where he pretty much stopped quoting anyone but himself. And while Parker mostly played in groups that performed in a “swing” tradition—playing over the chord changes of popular songs or on 12-bar blues, albeit with a high degree of harmonic sophistication, Coltrane formed groups that developed unique sonic environments, often playing music with few chords and very open (free) forms. Newcomers to Parker (except, possibly, Miles Davis) tended to play in his style and had little lasting effect on his playing, while newcomers to Coltrane (Albert Ayler, Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, Sun Ra, Archie Shepp, Pharoah Sanders) greatly influenced his approach and musical output. I see Liebman as an example of the Coltrane model, right down to quoting himself more often than quoting others. This might be why he has gone largely ignored, except by those who need to know what great saxophone playing is about: he’s a musician’s musician. So it’s great that he is recognized as a jazz master, but that was then…

Sadly, Charlie Haden, like Von Freeman, could not attend the January 10, 2012, NEA Jazz Masters award ceremony where his daughter, Petra, accepted his award for him. A short video collage prefaced each award recipient’s introduction. Haden’s emphasized his gentle, yet persistent, political activism. One got the idea that his entire career has been one long soulful commentary on the affairs of humanity. Journalist and past president of the Louis Armstrong Educational Foundation Stanley Crouch delivered Haden’s official introduction and used the bassist’s tone as a springboard to discuss his belief that “jazz provides a symbolic metaphor as an answer” to “this period that is very dehumanizing…cold…[and] mechanical.” Ostensibly, that metaphor is “the deep meaning of jazz, which is empathy,” which is one of Charlie Haden’s most salient qualities. Another and much more profound one, humility, was revealed in the acceptance speech Haden wrote for his daughter to read:

I learned at a very young age that music teaches you about life. When you’re in the midst of improvisation, there is no yesterday and no tomorrow—there is just the moment that you are in. In that beautiful moment, you experience your true insignificance to the rest of the universe. It is then, and only then, that you can experience your true significance.

When one considers that Haden was arrested for dedicating a performance of his “Song For Che” to the “Black peoples’ liberation movements in Mozambique and Angola and Guinea,” the phrase “courage of one’s convictions” comes to mind. Apply it to the Jazz Masters’ tool kit as one would cheese to a quesadilla. The next musical interlude, a duet performance of Dave Brubeck’s “In Your Own Sweet Way” by vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson and pianist Kenny Barron, exemplified this. Hutcherson, who now uses an oxygen tank to help him breathe, delivered a performance of the harmonically strict yet beautiful standard that held true to his roots as an avant-gardist and to his early work with Eric Dolphy. Many of his phrases seemed to begin on the “wrong” chord, but always deftly resolved to the “right” one (even when it wasn’t!). I was fortunate enough to work for Hutcherson during 1974, before I began touring with vibraphonist Cal Tjader. Then I saw the latter as a master lyricist and the former as a powerhouse (which he was). This performance, though, showed a sense of lyricism that embraces stark atonality and matched Barron’s deep respect for Brubeck’s chord progression. This was a command performance and the standing ovation, begun by the JALC orchestra, was well deserved.

In last week’s entry, I said I wouldn’t engage in a play-by-play listing of the Jazz Masters ceremony. It looks like that is what’s happening, though. So be it. It will probably be somewhat more provocative than the standard journalistic reportage, since the idea that this would be the last time an NEA Jazz Masters award would be given hung over the proceedings. Even though it turns out not to be the case, there is a very real possibility that the ceremony itself will be dispensed with. So this event was more about the soul of the music and its proponents than about who won and who didn’t. The messages delivered by the recipients, as well as by the planners and emcees, were sincere in their attempts to describe the value of this music as being more than mere entertainment, as transcending the profit motives of the very corporate sponsors who began marketing jazz in 1917. (That’s right, the music is only 95-years old.) Mark Lomanno, a pianist and scholar I had the pleasure of being a junior classmate of in Rutgers University’s Jazz History and Research Program, also attended the ceremony and put it well:

The arts are not just entertainment. Music, visual art, and poetry have all been the means by which the dispossessed, the marginalized, and the disadvantaged have expressed ideologies, preserved histories, educated communities, and cultivated understanding. Supporting the arts—not just through spending money, but also through personal and community action—does not have to be about personal indulgence and consumption, but could (and should!) be an opportunity to be a committed ally and advocate for those who might not have another means of expressing their ideas, their culture, and their visions.

Next week: Sheila Jordan and Jimmy Owens.

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