The Boxer, the Nostalgist and the Swinger

02.8.2005 | Tim Marchman | Music
From The Weekly Standard
Unforgivable Blackness The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson Wynton Marsalis Blue Note Records
Ivey-Divey by Don Byron Blue Note Records

WYNTON MARSALIS, ALWAYS MINDFUL of the relation between his own music and the jazz tradition, spends a great deal of effort promulgating his views of what qualifies for the jazz canon. This often civic-minded work has helped assure him a place in jazz history. But on the downside, his music, alternately excellent and frustrating, often seems a mere appendage to his public role as Keeper of the Jazz Flame.

Listening to Marsalis’s soundtrack to Ken Burns’s documentary Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson (which debuted on PBS this month), one hears yet more self-conscious political statement. The music has less to do with Jack Johnson, whose rise as a boxer happened to coincide with the rise of jazz, than the musical tradition Marsalis believes to have been brutally, irretrievably corrupted in the 1960s.

This is a shame. As music, Marsalis’s soundtrack is intriguing; as a reaction to the legacies of Jelly Roll Morton, Duke Ellington, and Miles Davis, the soundtrack is at best confused, at worst bizarre.

Marsalis’s frustration with Miles Davis, who also found inspiration in the life of Jack Johnson, has perhaps the most bearing on this soundtrack. In Marsalis’s curatorial work and his many public statements—such as those in Jazz, a Burns documentary that gave great attention to Marsalis and his views—he has reserved a special role for Davis as the villain of modern jazz. The great trumpeter’s hideous 1970s


decline, ending in devotion to a cramped electric jazz/rock hybrid, was not, according to Marsalis, the mere consequence of poor taste, vanity, and drug use. It was a complete betrayal, best understood as a deliberate choice to forgo the bright world of ritual and tradition, of Sidney Bechet and Lester Young and Art Tatum, in favor of indiscipline, popular appeal, and youth worship—the very dark forces that, according to Marsalis, would destroy jazz in the 1970s.

But the 1970s actually proved an extraordinarily fecund time for jazz. Titans like Ellington, Charles Mingus, and Earl Hines recorded their last great albums, while a generation of young veteran players like Toshiko Akiyoshi, Steve Lacy, and Mal Waldron matured and redefined everything from what a big band sounds like to the way Thelonious Monk compositions should be played. The notion of the 1970s as a time of cocaine-fueled free-jazzers sporting white-man’s afros and electric bassoons isn’t wholly inaccurate. But in the same spirit one could write off the 1930s as a time of graceless all-white big bands, the 1940s as a time of generic beboppers in porkpie hats, and the 1950s as a time of heroin-addled Left Coasters playing affectless cool jazz. To write off any time as the sum of its excesses is to make a mockery of what is valuable in each.

Another high point of the decade—and this is inconvenient for anyone who believes that Davis died as an artist when he discovered the electric guitar—is Davis’s own 1971 A Tribute to Jack Johnson. Even those confirmed in their distaste for his post-1960s output regard this as his last great record. Paranoid, violent, and monolithic, it essentially consists of two half-hour slabs of repetitive, stripped-down funk rhythm, electric guitar, and Davis’s most discursive trumpeting. This was the one time Davis’s vision of a true fusion of rock and jazz was realized, and it is a towering and monstrous achievement, recasting Johnson as an icon for the age of black power. Despite its blaring relevance to the Ken Burns documentary, Marsalis completely shuns A Tribute to Jack Johnson on his soundtrack, even as he references several farflung moments in jazz history that have nothing to do with Jack Johnson or his era.

Unforgivable Blackness is a weird kind of pastiche. The main style isn’t that of Johnson’s heyday, the first decade of the 20th century, but that of the 1920s. Closer listening reveals also an odd fascination with late-1950s Duke Ellington. Numbers like “Ghost in the House” have horn arrangements straight out of the Far East Suite or Anatomy of a Murder. “Deep Creek” sounds for all the world like a contemporary ensemble masquerading as one of Louis Armstrong’s 1920s small groups with Ellington sideman Johnny Hodges sitting in on saxophone. On another tune with an old-timey setting, “Fire in the Night,” Marsalis oddly channels early-1960s Davis on the trumpet.

The effect of all this anachronism is queer and unsettling, especially when one considers that most listeners, who have never heard of Jelly Roll Morton’s Red Hot Peppers or the Dixie Syncopators, will take this for a more or less faithful recreation of the music of Johnson’s times.

WHAT MAKES MARSALIS’S SOUNDTRACK even more idiosyncratic is the soft, rounded tones he imparts to 1920s jazz, which in fact was not gentle music at all. It was harsh, violent, and raucous. And it sounded like what it was—music played largely, though by no means exclusively, for thieves, pimps, and gamblers. There is nothing of this in Marsalis’s safe and reassuring vision. Whatever its technical proficiency, Unforgivable Blackness is inwardly directed music about Marsalis’s idyll of a world where a 60-year-old Duke Ellington does horn arrangements for a teenaged Louis Armstrong and his group to play in front


of tuxedoed gentlemen. However many plunger mutes, steel guitars, piano rags, and other old-timey touches it may involve, Marsalis’s is a vision of a closed circle in which jazz past feeds on jazz past, with nothing to say to the present. It evokes and longs for a past that never existed. In a word, it is nostalgist.

To hear the continuing relevance of the jazz tradition, one is better off turning to players every bit as obsessed with the past, but less fixated on stylistic conceits. Take Don Byron. A virtuoso of the clarinet, Byron has sometimes been tagged as a mere experimentalist, too interested in such esoterica as klezmer music or jazz-hip hop fusion to give full rein to his talents. His newest trio recording, Ivey-Divey, should put such complaints to rest. It is everything Unforgivable Blackness is not. Witty, spontaneous, and vibrant, it offers flexibility in place of rigidity, adventurousness in place of obedience, and group dynamics in place of one man’s peculiar vision.

The conceit of the album should give a hint of Byron’s ambition. Its first third is given over to a reinterpretation of a 1946 Lester Young trio session, including such warhorses as “I Cover The Waterfront” and “I Want To Be Happy.” The rest is a mixture of Byron’s own compositions and some Miles Davis numbers, including one from his famous Kind of Blue and another from Davis’s first electric album, In A Silent Way.

Despite these eclectic sources, the record sounds always and completely like Byron. Immensely fluent in all ranges of his horn, with a subtle appreciation of the contrasts and the interplay possible within a trio, Byron evokes hornmen from the pioneering Johnny Dodds to free-jazz maestro Eric Dolphy, without ever merely ventriloquizing. Styles and compositions are not superimposed on one another, or knowingly flashed, but kept at hand. Byron draws on a wider array of resources than Marsalis, and he puts them to better ends. This is a record meant to express moods and feelings, not an ideological attack on the supposed end of jazz.

IT’S A GOOD THING to have a man of Marsalis’s talents out there, railing on behalf of Young and Dodds and Count Basie and everyone else who may have been forgotten by an easily distracted world.

But there are subtler ends to which these men’s legacies can be put than advertising the fact that they have legacies. It’s the experimentalist Byron, no more talented or resourceful than Marsalis but significantly less stern, who proves himself their true heir. That fits. If there’s one thing with which jazz has nothing in common, it’s dogmatism.



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