Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Whale Puke, Drum Battle, Wynton Marsalis

By Ted Burke

Worse ad slogan for a new album happened in the late 60s when Columbia records released a debut effort from a band named Ambergris. Likely as it is that the band members liked the sound of the word--so Elysian Fields, so Ambrosian, so Strawberry Fieldsian, as the word traveled from the tip of the tripping tongue--without a hint of what it meant,some pot head in Columbia's' marketing department did their research and devised this catchy handle:
Ambergris Is Whale Puke.
I saw the ad in Rolling Stone, saw the album in a rack somewhere, and then witnessed the dust of history blow over the name, the album, and all traces that the band ever existed.

I remember reading in Rolling Stone in the early seventies of a drum battle between Elvin Jones and Ginger Baker. Baker, then touring and hyping his rather lead-footed bigband Airforce, had taken to baiting Jones, the usual young gun sass about his elder being over the hill, slowing down. Long story short, and hazy on the details on my part, there was a concert with the two of them in New York, culminating in a drum battle between Jones and Baker. Baker had his post-Cream hardware, double bass, double toms, double snares, double everything, and Jones had his regular kit, simple and to the point.

After some standard trade offs, you guessed it, Jones proceeded into rhythmic areas Baker couldn't follow him into: Baker received, to borrow from Howard Cosell describing a fighter just out-gloved by Ali, a drumming lesson. What Jones did on the drums was apparently beyond Bakers' nail hammering sensibility.

It was one of those write ups that made me wish I was there.


Wynton Marsalis plays a fine trumpet, but he when he's not on the band stand he's running his mouth about the finer points of jazz improvisation, a fine point to make , I think, but what makes the great musician an bothersome conversation starter is his implied premise that jazz has peaked, the form is fixed on it's technical merits, that what comes into as a musical element after the mid sixties, when fusion crackled through Miles Davis' horn, is merely exotic gimmickry and certainly not jazz at all. And this makes Marsalis a tad controversial.

Marsalis is a political conservative, a William Bennett sort who has his own 'Book of Virtues' agenda in his educational projects and with his directorship of the jazz program in Lincoln Center, and that I view his own music as less than the fiery blaze of Freddie Hubbard (a better trumpeter than Wynton, really) and less compositionaly textured than Ellington. But who says there has to be a consensus in the debate. To the degree that Marsalis has opened up the discussion to the larger culture, he has rendered a service to the state of jazz. To the extent that he has gotten alot of people's dander up, well, I think that is a good thing to, because in the hands of dusty musicologist moon lighting as critics, jazz has seemed a gasping, brittle artifact, like old furniture in a museum display, that one appreciated for it's former glory, for all it's accumulated history. Whatever stripe you happen to be, Marsalis implies, jazz is not past tense, it is not a thing of history, it is a living thing that has history.

The shame of it all is that Wynton Marsalis has come to represent everything a public considers to be the 'art'of jazz, and as he continues to proffer tame music, the adventurous stuff, the "out" playing that keeps the music alive remains unheard and alien to the curious listener.That there is an Jazz Canon that needs to be loved and preserved is not disputed, it's just that Marsalis acts as if all the innovation is now past tense. Maybe he believes it is. His style is conservative and chiseled after his heroes, Miles, Clark Terry, Clifford Brown. Their music, though, came as a result of extending their technique into areas that were unknown in the culture. Marsalis has done none of that. He is cheating himself, and boring the rest of us to death.

The distinction between an on-going spotlight between jazz musicians defining musical sensibilities amongst themselves, at work, and that of Marsalis discussing such things is that Marsalis has the spotlight, the media and the audience goes to him, and it is there where the debate, this debate begins. We disagree as the to the role of critics, but I think the ghettoizing of jazz is to laid precisely at the feet of white writers and intellectuals. Amiri Baraka is a great man and an important critic, and presented jazz as a continuous aesthetic of liberation, and correctly defined African American music as music about freedom and struggle, and the search for knew knowledge, the extension of the voice, the exploration of the soul into knew knowledge. As Baraka is an unapologetic socialist to this day, a brave and lonely vantage in an a culture that thinks a free-market can resolve permanent problems in the human condition, I don't think it accidental that his views are ignored, and frankly unknown to most. Marsalis William Bennett-ish view, that jazz should embody virtues conduce to conduct in a democratic society, is a valid one, and we may understand it's broader appeal, but real, neo-bop purism is needed in an art like jazz, as art, any art, cannot be remain a living thing, generation-to-generation, if the past is not known.Simply, Marsalis is part of generation of artists and intellectuals in the African American community who are no part of the mainstream dialogue in America.

For the ghettoization of jazz, my impression from reading Feather, Lees, Giddins, and Balliet, is the lack of lyricism in their prose, the lack of imagery in their description.The tendency--noticed over three decades of reading their stuff on and off in dailies and in journals--is that they approach jazz merely as a matter of technique and stylized virtuosity.Maybe this is the only way they could approach, maybe these were the blinders they couldn't remove, but the approach still reduced jazz to a sub-category of European music.The rise fo the black artist and intellectual into this conversation is to say, all matters being undecided, that jazz is not a sub category of anyone's music. This upsets a lot of people.I think it's one of the most interesting cultural debates going on in America at the present time.

Stanley Crouch, Albert Murray, Cornell West, bell hooks, Gerald Earley--these are actually first rate thinkers, agree or not with their conclusions, but the fact of the matter is that we need more high-profile cats like Marsalis, from every facet and corner of the black community, to debate , to clamor, and to insist on jazz being a great American art form they created, and thus claim their rights Americans. Again, Marsalis is not my favorite player, and I think his dalliance in two camps, classical and jazz, dilutes his performances in both, but he did get us arguing something that really matters.I will say it again, for that much, he deserves our thanks.

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