Letter from a jazz musician

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Dec 9 07:37:23 MST 2002


(One of the best things about publishing on the Internet is that it
opens up a more personalized form of communication that the print
culture discourages. Here's an example from my inbox this morning.)

Dear Louis:

I ran across some of your writings by accident today. I hope you don't
mind me responding while I sit here bored to tears at work. My take is
that of a jazz musician, composer, and generally apolitical creature
(this doesn't afford escape from thinking, though---much as sometimes
I'd like it to).

Much of what you say and the passion with which you say it reminds me of
arguments I often have with my friend Karen Taborn, a very (progressive)
politically committed person who's also an ex-jazz singer. I can't seem
to make her understand why I live my life according to the principle
that my best shot at having any impact at all on anyone is to make
beautiful music. But I will say for Karen that I respect her as a person
of action, not mere B.S. I would respect that even if she were in the
Klan (a tough sell for a black woman!).

It's weird, but I also find Wynton and Handsome Stanley useless and
tiresome---but for different reasons (or maybe they are the same
ultimately, for I guess you can say I despise their politics, but it's
more than that). Stanley Crouch's convenient right turn into
Conservative Street came about afte ryears of not hearing even the sound
of one hand clapping as he shilled for the 'avant-garde' in jazz, not to
mention his utter failure as a drummer (It boggles the mind what brand
of art, if any, a man like him could be capable of making). Eventually,
because he so obviously craves power, he saw Wynton come on the scene
with some perfect coat tails to ride on (some musicians view it the
other way around, but I've yet to talk to even one, black, white, or
green, that either has any use for either one or counts Wynton as an
influence or favorite---whatever grudging respect everyone, me included,
has for his technique. Almost every jazz musician out there acknowledges
Tom Harrell as the leading trumpet talent out there today (besides a
leading compositional voice and general music explorer), but because of
Tom's more reserved nature (in contrast to Wynton's arrogant
force-feeding of his opinion and general cornball persona to the public)
and possibly because so much of his time is spent battling mental and
physical afflictions and mostly because he, like me, feels his life is
much better spent making music than chin music, the media annoints
Wynton the genius of jazz. Not to hear the musicians tell it---but no
one ever thinks to ask us---though many can form full sentences and a
few are even rumored to have opposable thumbs! Tom's fame has come
slowly, through hard work, and at a cost: the non-jazz media's attention
on him has been mostly because of schizophrenia. I myself mostly let all
this go, recognizing it as the amusing sideshow it is compared to what's
important in life, and go on my way doing what I have to do to survive
and grow artistically. I've long given up hopes of any recognition and
only want to work, so I spend my time trying to facilitate that. I'm
sure it's occured to a thinking man like yourself that perhaps this is
why artists and people in general seem apolitical----it's not even that
we are, we're just too damn busy surviving, and probably don't have much
energy left over except in the pursuit of a few chuckles and diversions.
I figure that if the vox popular wants Reagan, Bush, et al., I'll preach
my little sermon to whoever's left NOT worshipping at the altar of
stupidity. That's actually a poor choice of words, I don't mean to be
preachy---only to hone and work with quality, use my talents to be a
'salesman for good songs' and try to be only human in life and music. I
don't much like self-indulgent art, and the only thing perhaps more
boring than that is insularity. THIS is what turns people away from jazz
in droves, NOT any political or social winds, but the self-absorption of
the practitioners, and the refusal of too many to realize that
entertainment isn't a dirty word. I mean I grew up on Ed Sullivan and
the Hollywood palace, etc. during a time when movies made you cry and
stars were larger than life. These people were larger than life, and
maybe had gargantuan egos, but in an important way they realized their
role as diverters and entertiners---even the brilliant ones like Richard
Burton. The line between art and entertainment was more blurred
then---as it was in jazz once. I'm NOT saying we should go back to the
time before bebop. With bebop the music made a hell of a lot of
progress, and I'm for progress, and try to make it myself. But it seems
that after the 40s, jazz somehow 'lost its cherry'---and the music of
Lester Young, Charlie Christian, and others you've mentioned was sweeter
and more innocent somehow---and also more in love with melody. Bird was
one of the most melodic musicians---don't get me wrong. But since that
time, and especially with the advent of the LP where records could be
longer, it was the end of a certain kind of discipline (say it quickly
and move on)and the beginning of a certain self-indulgence in too many
cases that has repelled a lot of listeners. Also, as a professed
leftist, you may agree that jazz was a much stronger social force even
up through the 60s---especially in black communities. Why? The music
spoke to and came from the people. I think you made this point in some
of your discussion. The reason Wynton and his crowd have no effect on
young kids of color of lesser means has less to do with politics than
the fact that his music and especially his academic approach to music
says nothing to them. (The one thing I happen to respect him for is that
he goes out and talks to kids about jazz. If only had some fucking
SOUL....he could turn everyone on, like Louis Armstrong, without
uttering one stuffy, corny syllable.) Like it or not, (I don't, I
can'tstand it or the sick culture that comes with it) rap is today what
jazz once was in the 'hood'---the music of the people. And jazz
musicians have no one to blame but themselves. When they play from the
heart people always have and always will respond. But I have to say I
found your comment that jazz is 'marking time' as offensive and
simplistic as the comments about 'white jazz'. It's 2002 going on 2003.
Can we finally get past this sort of tiresome thinking?

Pretty please?

Regarding Woody Allen: I don't live inside the man's head and don't
presume to talk for him and frankly neither should you or anyone else.
I'm not thrilled with the movies he makes these days either, but I saw
both "Wild Man Blues" (which features two colleagues in the band
onstage) and "Sweet and Lowdown" (my guitar partner James Chirillo was
on the soundtrack and another guitarist, Eddie Diehl, was a 'consultant
to the orginal project in the 70s). In fact I was watching "Sweet
and...." today. At least it's a movie about a jazz guitarist. No one
ever makes those. (I think there was a guitarist character in "Paris
Blues", besides "Sweet Smell of Success", but those were laughable
cliches, in my opinion. Anyway, this was ABOUT a jazz guitarist. I
myself got through more than ten minutes because of Allen's basic craft
as a storyteller and also because I must admit it's fun to fantasize
about being Orpheus---the kind of musician women stop in their tracks
over, and even gangsters cry when they hear. I'm trying to remenber what
you said about Charlie Christian and why he would have been a better
subject. Nah, most film makers would screw that one up, focussing on his
partying and whoring and early demise. How much you want to bet? I say
this fresh from reading yet another 'image pimping' and cliche-serving
'biography' of a jazz musician: "Deep in a Dream" by James Gavin, about
Chet Baker---and about as unfortunate as "Let's Get Lost", which came
out around 11 years ago and also was about substance abuse rather than
substance---and music. As long as people want bullshit like this, there
will be a fresh supply. But at least Woody's movies are entertaining.
Also, for what it's worth, as much as I respect Clint Eastwood, one
major thing that screwed up "Bird" was it's preachiness. If he would
just have shut up and let the story tell itself.....That's probably also
jazz's best hope, at least to me.

Well, I have gone on. Hope it wasn't boring. You did touch some nerves,
always a good thing I think. I'll just end by saying my music---and
music in general--is much more succinct than this note.

Speaks louder, too.

Best,

J.F.

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