Lee B. Brown
Symposium: On Ken Burns’s “Jazz”
Lee B. Brown
JAZZ: AMERICA’S CLASSICAL MUSIC?1
iewers of Ken Burns’s third cultural epic “Jazz” probably fell into one of three categories.2 Some found it gripping. Some found it grating. Some found it both at once. The series has unforgettable moments: spectacular jitterbug sequences; Jimmy Lunceford’s horn men fanning their trumpet bells with hat mutes in sync; the close-up of the whirring cross-hand drumming of Art Blakey; the bitter-sweet glance Billie Holiday and Lester Young exchange in their last ﬁlmed appearance together; the occasional marriage of visuals to music. One riveting three minutes comes when the talking heads tune out, a 78-rpm disk of Louis Armstrong’s “West End Blues” is set spinning, and the thrilling notes pour out on a carousel of visual imagery—ﬁnally freeze-framing on the face of the young genius himself. On the downside, the series is massively repetitious. As a result of Burns’s decision to track two major ﬁgures—Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington—from cradle to grave, the same cuts of Armstrong appear again and again, no matter what the time frame. Some of the series’ commentators are particularly annoying—the ﬁddler of Burns’s Civil War series, Matt Glaser, for instance, with his fatuous theories
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about Louis Armstrong and Albert Einstein. And the documentary’s heavy load of social freight—by Wynton Marsalis, and his mentors Albert Murray and Stanley Crouch3—threatens to ﬂatten the music. The series is designed as informative entertainment, not Jazz 101. But Burns pays a price here, as he did in his documentary about baseball, in which not even the basics of the game, let alone any of the subtleties, were explained. In “Jazz” we get no explanation of what Jelly Roll Morton did to transform ragtime into jazz. (The series could easily have pressed Morton himself into service. With no sacriﬁce of his considerable charm, Morton did explain it, beautifully, in his recorded Library of Congress interviews.4) Although the swing era gets big billing, no attempt is made to explain how swing rhythm actually works, as contrasted with earlier practices. (I have watched swing drummer Panama Francis entertain a packed hall with a brief but riveting illustration of how it works.) As jazz history, the ﬁlm also has problems. Some legendary ﬁgures are resurrected unconvincingly. When Marsalis tells us what the legendary trumpet player Buddy Bolden sounded like, the illustrative offcamera trumpet is Marsalis’s, not Bolden’s, who embedded not one note in a record groove. Further, we face the tiresomely obvious problem of omissions. We hear nothing of Albert Ayler, Keith Jarrett, Sun Ra, Mildred Bailey, Benny Carter, Lennie Tristano, Erroll Garner, Eric Dolphy, Art Pepper, or Woody Herman. All we learn about Bill Evans—whose inﬂuence on jazz piano was huge—is that Miles Davis hired him even though he was white. Omissions are inevitable, of course. But there is a muted pattern to the exclusions. It was impossible for the series to avoid Benny Goodman, given his central role in the swing era. But white ﬁgures are too often either ignored or treated as alienated outsiders. We hear New York Times columnist Margo Jefferson opine that Bix Beiderbecke drank himself to death because he wasn’t allowed to play with black musicians. In fact, many of the greatest players—white and black—never played with musicians of their own caliber. Most ﬁgures covered in the ﬁlm are treated either with respect or with reverence. But things get nasty when matters turn to avant-gardists. Thus, Branford Marsalis—Wynton’s talented brother—singles out the volcanic pianist Cecil Taylor for a particularly hostile attack.5 Instead of explaining what Ornette Coleman meant by “free jazz,” Albert Murray tells us that jazz is, by deﬁnition, free music—and by implication, that Coleman’s concept must be fatuous. And Wynton has complained
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elsewhere about a jazz avant-garde retreat into what he calls “a labyrinth of increasingly indecipherable James Joyce-ian language . . . that nobody’s gonna want to read.”6 After a near-death-of-jazz episode, the series goes upbeat at the end by telling us how Marsalis gave the music a rebirth around 1980. We even get a Marsalis baby picture. In keeping with Marsalis’s importance for the Burns ﬁlm, a recent issue of The New Yorker prints a Barnes & Noble ad making a pitch for a retrospective survey of Marsalis’s jazz recordings based on the description of him as “the pre-eminent ﬁgure” in Ken Burns’s documentary.7
Barely approaching middle age, Marsalis has already cast several long shadows on the music scene, as a brilliant trumpet player of both jazz and classical music, as a composer, and as a man with a social agenda. Early results of his thinking were reﬂected in his CD releases—“Black Codes From the Underground,” for instance 8—in which he took on heavy issues about the political and social relationship between AfricanAmerican and the larger American culture. In his tenure as leader of the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, Marsalis began cranking up his version of the musical rights of black players and composers. The orchestra’s repertoire would be devoted to the music of Jelly Roll Morton, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Mingus, and others of similar stature— all African-American. The sole white name to turn up in the longish list was George Gershwin—hardly a central ﬁgure in jazz history. Journalists pointed out that the musicians who staffed LCJO were mainly black, and critics noticed that white composer-arrangers, such as Bill Challis or Gerry Mulligan, were unlikely to get much attention at Lincoln Center.9 In response to the loaded question, “Why are the best jazz musicians black?” Marsalis replied that black people invented the music and that “people who invent something are always the best thing at doing it.” If you “celebrate less accomplished musicians . . . you cheat yourself.”10 Statements of this sort were not calculated to make him popular everywhere. At ﬁrst glance, Marsalis’s position seems very close to that of another great Afrocentrist, Amiri Baraka.11 Like Baraka, Marsalis makes a great point of dualizing African-American musical practices and European ones, as in his complaint that the “intellectual community was always trying to imitate European music.”12 However, unless we look at
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important details, we can get a lopsided view of Marsalis’s perspective, for his presentation of jazz has been as deeply conservative as it was rebellious.13 When Lincoln Center players troop out on stage, they sport natty three-button suits or tuxedos—not the garb of avant-jazz men. A Lincoln Center website explains that Brooks Brothers is LCJO’s ofﬁcial suit supplier.14 These facts about fashion may seem superﬁcial, but they underscore Marsalis’s agenda—to reconceptualize jazz as serious music. This is in keeping with the views of his mentors. By comparison with jazz, Albert Murray describes popular arts as mere consumables, like McDonald’s hamburgers.15 Marsalis himself has kept up running diatribes against popular music, particularly hip-hop, and against the cultivation by mass media of adolescent musical tastes. Popular music, Marsalis says is “always improved by jazz.” Jazz, he has argued, “is a very intellectual thing.” It is “art music.”16 Sometimes, Marsalis has gone so far as to say that jazz was always distinct from popular music: Jazz, he has said rather incautiously, “was not a popular music—it was not evolved as dance music.”17 Early contacts between Lincoln Center and Marsalis were made by Alina Bloomgarden, who had heard about what she calls Marsalis’s “vision for the classicism of jazz, for wearing suits and jackets and dignifying performances.”18 The ﬁrst concerts at Lincoln Center in 1987 were framed under the rubric “Classical Jazz.”19 As Lincoln Center’s Chairman of the Board George Weisman explained it, this would be in keeping with the image of Lincoln Center “as a place where classics were presented.”20 Soon, Marsalis’s name was “inextricably linked with the notion of jazz as an indigenous classical music.”21 Marsalis sometimes accepts the phrase “jazz as the ultimate 20th century music.”22 But it was the “America’s classical music” formula that stuck, and best serves his purposes. Discussions of the concept even reached the ﬂoor of the U.S. Senate.23 Of course, not everyone joined in a chorus of approval.24 In due course, we shall review some of the reasons why. As a matter of history, the concept of jazz as a species of classical music predates both Marsalis and his mentors. We ﬁnd the theme in the slogans of one of the major jazz ﬁgures of the ’20s, white bandleader Paul Whiteman—whose role is delineated in the Burns ﬁlm. Billing himself as the “King of Jazz,” Whiteman’s aim was to turn what he regarded as unruly music into genuine concert fare. In his infamous words, he intended to “make a lady of jazz.”25 In retrospect, and in spite
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of the fact that Whiteman provided employment to notable jazz players of the era, he is almost universally regarded as one of the great waterersdown of jazz. Marsalis would surely want to distance himself from Whiteman’s perspective—if he can. Another potential mismatch would be Constant Lambert, who in the ’30s argued that it served Duke Ellington well to think of his music in terms of Grieg, Ravel, or Debussy. According to Lambert, Ellington is entirely dependent upon a “European harmonic framework.”26 This, of course, is at odds with Marsalis’s strong statements on such matters. If such perspectives offer no aid to Marsalis, they leave us with a question: What exactly is the substance of his idea of jazz as a form of classical music? The idea has been more recently associated—at least since 1980— with the Kennedy Center performer and educator, Billy Taylor, who even authored an essay titled “Jazz, America’s Classical Music.”27 Taylor’s views will prove to be a useful point of reference here. Now Marsalis is not a philosopher working out a tight critical position. He often shoots from the hip, and his views do shift. However, I want to consider what viable meaning might be attached to the “jazz as classical music” formula. In particular, how might it be useful to place jazz and classical music in the ordinary sense in a competitive relationship? The answer is not obvious, because calling jazz “classical” seems a little oxymoronic, given a polarization of musical America and musical Europe.
By most accounts, one of the oldest sources of the concept of the classical is the division of society according to rank. Another probably not-unrelated usage is the “classical” as pertaining to Greek and Latin antiquity. These usages feed into a more generalized meaning of “classical” as denoting the exemplary. However, “classical” also came to denote a style or category of artworks. As J. C. Fillmore states in a 19thcentury text on piano music the “term ‘classic’ is used in two senses.” In the one, it means “having permanent interest and value.” In the other it refers to “music written in a particular style.” Fillmore goes on to comment on the pair’s different stylistic markers. In classical music, “Beauty of Form” is ﬁrst and [emotional] “content” is subordinate. In romantic music, the priorities are reversed.28 Thus Haydn is classical, Chopin is romantic, etc. However, it wasn’t always clear which of the terms in the duality was supposed to get the honors, as we can see from
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a remark in 1820 by Lord Byron, writing to Goethe, that he perceived in Europe “a great struggle about what they call ‘Classical’ and [what they call] ‘Romantic.’”29 The classical connoted conformation with established rules, while the romantic entailed a willingness to break them—a willingness that was either applauded or condemned, depending on where one stood. Are these ideas of any use to Marsalis? Now and then commentators try to locate a classical-romantic contrast within the sphere of jazz.30 But Marsalis is not trying to make that kind of distinction. Going in a different direction, Martha Bayles experiments with the idea that jazz in general is romantic, not classical— which is not exactly the result Marsalis wants either. Anyway, Bayles immediately grants that her characterization is “speculative and imperfect.”31 On the other hand, Fillmore’s honoriﬁc usage of the label would not serve Marsalis’s purposes either, as we can see from considering some cases. To call Chanel No. 5 “a classic” is to say that it will always have a place, that it has not been improved upon. Speciﬁc jazz performances—like Coleman Hawkins’s ﬁrst recording of “Body and Soul”—are classics in this sense. But Marsalis’s point is not simply to single out individual cases. Of course, the concept of the classic in jazz also functions as a label for the entire early jazz era. (Consider the recorded collection of late ’20s jazz called Thesaurus of Classic Jazz.32) While the music contained in this collection undoubtedly has stylistic markers, it is dubbed “classic” partly as implying a state of the art that was putatively lost in jazz modernism. However, this familiar but limited usage would presumably not work either. In spite of the banner under which Marsalis ﬁrst presented the Lincoln Center jazz concerts, his ofﬁcial idea is to characterize the ﬁeld in general, not a contrast within it. (However, we shall revisit this matter in due course.) By the late 20th century, the conceptual landscape had changed. First, the stylistic markers of the classical—in contrast to the romantic— have almost disappeared. Correlatively, the phrase “classical music” has acquired extended musical reference. It now denotes concert, operatic, and liturgical music, not just from the 18th century, but from the romantic, modernist, and post-modernist eras as well. It is this usage that gives the “good music” radio station where I live its nickname— “Classical 89.7.”33 Part of the rationale for calling all this music “classical” undoubtedly depends on the tacit idea that several styles of concert music constitute chapters in a narrative that began with music
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dubbed “classical” in the narrower stylistic sense. And part of it consists in the implied claim—or hope—that this entire category of composed concert music has permanent value. The Marsalis project, then, is to frame a similarly general concept for jazz. So far, however, the characterization of jazz as “classical” seems abstract and unfounded. Let’s consider ways of making it more concrete. (i) Jazz as an entrenched tradition. Unlike other forms of popular music, but like classical European concert music, jazz is ﬁrmly entrenched in the American educational system, both in the grade and high schools and at the university level, where its methods, forms and history are instilled in new generations of students. (Marsalis is a vigorous supporter of these institutions. He routinely invites student jazz bands to Lincoln Center, where they compete with each other for honors.) Of course, these jazz programs complain that they still play second ﬁddle to classical concert music, and that they are the ones likely to take the ﬁrst hits in budget crunches. But on the whole, these institutions expand rather than contract. Far more than any other forms of popular music, jazz has established itself as a formal musical tradition. This ﬁts the analysis of Billy Taylor, who makes clear that one reason for calling jazz “classical” is that it is a “time-tested” musical type.34 (ii) Jazz as compositional. Another respect in which jazz could be considered similar to the music on my classical radio station will involve a potentially problematic narrowing of focus on the range of the jazz that qualiﬁes. We can broach this topic by a consideration of the jazz ﬁgure who takes the place of honor both at Lincoln Center and in the Burns ﬁlm—Duke Ellington. In 1965, Ellington was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in music but did not win it, a fact many regarded as a scandal. Almost as if to make up for the injustice, Marsalis did win a Pulitzer in 1997 for his oratorio Blood on the Fields. However, the award created a quiet furor. While some gave the piece kudos, others thought there was more music relevant to African-America in a single album track by Charlie Mingus than in the whole three hours of Marsalis’s piece.35 Now this didn’t imply that Marsalis’s critics were taking sides against Ellington’s music as well. More likely, they were marking a difference between the teacher and the student. Ellington’s compositions were devised with the speciﬁc jazzmen of his band in mind—and they included some of the greatest, most individualized players of all time.
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Marsalis’s pieces, by contrast, are played by skilled pasticheurs, whose jazz credentials have more to do with technical schooling than with real stylistic individualism—or so it has been claimed. No doubt, Marsalis would reject the characterization. However, in some of his important statements, he has presented a line of defense that moves in a different direction, namely, that in jazz, composition should lord it over soloistic individuality. And this brings us to a central idea in Marsalis’s thinking, which is not emphasized in the Burns ﬁlm— indeed quite the opposite. In the future, he says, we will see less and less stress in jazz on what many have thought to be its essence, improvisational soloing. Instead, Marsalis predicts, “there will be more emphasis put on presentation and composition.”36 (iii) Jazz, the American music. We can add further content to the concept by considering Marsalis’s whole idea, which is that jazz is America’s classical music. Again, Billy Taylor’s approach is helpful. For him, one of the markers of the classical is that a musical form is “indigenous.” Jazz is America’s indigenous music, since it is dredged from a “single experience of the consciousness of black people into a national music that expresses” it.37 In the context of the European concert tradition, this connotation of the term may seem strained. But Taylor reminds us of a standard use of the term denoting indigenous forms of music outside the European tradition. (Consider, for example, classical Iranian or Indian music.38) Marsalis would only need to adapt the suggestion to indigenous American music. Marsalis stresses the “America” theme both outside and inside the ﬁlm. For any music to be classically American, he is telling us, it must be the main expression of the American age and culture. And it must be African-American music, because our American struggles about race are deﬁnitive of us as a people. Albert Murray puts the point most boldly: “So far as culture is concerned, all Americans—black and white—are part-Negro.”39 Put less melodramatically, our American roots are essentially, not incidentally, bound up with our racial struggles. Jazz, Marsalis states in the ﬁlm, is a “gumbo,” in which America “negotiates” its racial “agendas.” The theme of “America” is important if Marsalis is to dissociate himself from other classicist interpretations of jazz, e.g., that of Constant Lambert. It is also important if we are to make sense of any idea of a competition between jazz and classical music, in the standard sense of the latter. Such competition depends, ﬁrst, upon the fact that the two share important features or roles. On the view we have developed, this
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condition may already be met. Both are time-tested musical forms, for instance. However, it is necessary to correctly place the respect in which they compete. Clearly, it is not Marsalis’s intention to criticize classical music on its own turf, so to say. Indeed, he is expansively enthusiastic about the European concert tradition. He sometimes speaks of both classical music—in that sense—and jazz as expressing “concepts about humanity and brotherhood.”40 But only an American musical form, as inﬂected by our racial struggles, should, in America, be digniﬁed by the label “classical.” What Marsalis is objecting to is European concert music as a model for our American music. “Every conservatory in America,” he says,
should change its curriculum, start including American music and quit using people like Aaron Copland as their true example of what American music is like.”41
In short, the music on my classical radio station doesn’t qualify as American music, while jazz does. Note that in this new use of the term “classical,” one can even catch a whiff of the early meaning of the term “classical” reviewed earlier, namely, “pertaining to antiquity.” We only need to spin the concept a little, so that we get “pertaining to our American past.”
It is time to summarize and evaluate. Three basic characteristics license the characterization of jazz as America’s classical music: (1) The music is ﬁrmly entrenched as a family of forms and practices. It constitutes a formal musical tradition. (2) It is fundamentally compositional. (3) It is the deepest expression of our American roots. And we may add a further consideration, partly but not entirely founded on the foregoing: (4) The music has permanent interest and value. How do these claims fare? (1). In spite of its comparatively undeveloped status—alongside the hoary European-based musical tradition—it is hard to dispute the fact that jazz has become ﬁrmly institutionalized within the American educational system. However, this coin may have another side. Consider the complaint of Philadelphia columnist Nate Chinen, for instance, who criticized the decision of Temple University’s NPR radio station, WRTI (90.1FM), to add classical music to its previously all-jazz
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format. “As we declare jazz a national treasure,” Chinen complains, we are in danger of forgetting that it is a “living, breathing art form.” Chinen believes that the willingness of WRTI to make the change to which he objects reﬂects the current, misguided new tendency to “legitimize,” “institutionalize,” and, in effect, to embalm the music with “classical” respectability. Finally, he regards this trend as a reﬂection of the inﬂuential “America’s classical music” theme promoted at Lincoln Center.42 Whether we can blame Marsalis for a change in policy at a radio station or not, it’s hard to deny that there might be a real issue here. Is the high degree of individualism typical of jazz earlier in the 20th century consistent with the institutionalization of jazz in the schools— and at Lincoln Center? It’s not clear that it is. (2). A few theorists—but André Hodeir is the only one who comes to mind—may have taken the extreme position that jazz is not essentially improvisational.43 On this issue, Marsalis may be ﬂoating away on his own iceberg. The jazz pianist Brad Mehldau has argued that Marsalis’s decision to convert jazz into written music ironically puts him back on the European side of his original dichotomy. The “very language Marsalis uses,” Mehldau insists, is dependent on the very European ideals he supposedly rejects. As Mehldau sees the matter, Marsalis uses historical speculations to “legitimatize his agenda, even to predict the future,” and that his “approach is very Hegel/Marx, very European.”44 Given Marsalis’s earlier objections to the exaggerated use of European models for American music, the charge ought to sting, surely. And there is an additional historical irony here. The Pulitzer Prize had always excluded candidates that were not thoroughly compositional in character. Although Marsalis’s piece places limits on improvisation, he was probably able to win because that stricture had been relaxed by the time he was a candidate.45 Interestingly, it may not have been necessary for Marsalis to pick a ﬁght about this issue, for, as Billy Taylor notes in passing, there are established uses of “classical” that refer to improvisational music, e.g., the raga tradition of India.46 Of course, the sword is double-edged, for the result would appear to be that the concept of the “classical” is neutral as far as improvisation is concerned. Marsalis clearly favors the connotations of the local version of the label “classical music.” (3) It is beyond the scope of this paper to evaluate the third condition. Given that the problem of race may be far more deﬁnitive of the American essence than many would like to admit, the thesis is not
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so bizarre as it might seem at ﬁrst glance. On the other hand, its truth is far from self-evident. (4) In treating jazz as America’s classical music, we are ranking it as an exemplary type of music. Now this is not as wildly implausible as it might seem. Jazz sometimes rises to levels as exalted as can be found anywhere in American music—indeed, in any music. However, the claim being made here is that the music is exemplary in an American way. But to evaluate the claim with that qualiﬁcation would take us back to the issues addressed in (3) above. Let us now consider the package of ideas as a whole. Some discriminations that Marsalis makes do not seem reasonable. Consider his dismissive view of composers/arrangers such as Gil Evans, Eddie Sauter, and Ralph Burns, jazz ﬁgures Marsalis is likely to stamp “too European.”47 One suspects that these rejections are not based on principle, but on the fact that these men—unlike Ellington—are literally white. The question about his principles is whether they are capable of distancing Marsalis from perspectives he would reasonably repudiate—that of Paul Whiteman, for instance. But, after all, Whiteman’s repertoire did place more stress on arrangement and composition than upon improvisation. (His orchestra gave the premier of “Rhapsody in Blue.”) On the other side, Whiteman’s brand of jazzﬂavored concert pop could hardly be described as establishing a timetested tradition with permanent interest and value. Some of Marsalis’s rejection slips may be challenged even though they are principled ones. In his Afrocentric critique of American musical culture, Amiri Baraka treated jazz, ring shouts, blues, gospel music, and rhythm and blues as one family. Marsalis singles out jazz for special attention. But why should we marginalize African-American music other than jazz? If the argument is that only jazz has become institutionalized, we may, once again, wonder whether calling jazz “classical” is really such an honor after all. If the argument is that jazz is essentially compositional in nature, we would be falling back on the unconvincing claim discussed in (2) above. We tried initially to see the “jazz as classical music” theme as an inclusive one. However, as the theory plays out, it is obviously incapable of embracing the plurality of competing paradigms into which jazz has fragmented. (Indeed, the state of jazz nowadays unnervingly invites a Danto-style death-of-jazz analysis.) Alongside the Ellington tradition that Marsalis touts, we can identify these: classic jazz and Dixieland, nurtured mainly at specialized festival venues; repertory big-band
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music, in the Kenton-Herman-Basie tradition; Afro-avant jazz in the style of Oliver Lake and David Murray; Latin jazz, in the style of Paquito d’Rivera; Chicago-style Afro-avant, typiﬁed by the late Lester Bowie; late-20th-century Chicago free-form jazz, à la Ken Vandermark; electrofunk; nouveau swing. The list could be extended, and if commercial viability were relevant to jazz’s stature, the hands-down winner would be the so-called “smooth” fusion jazz, to which entire radio networks are nowadays devoted. Marsalis’s constant complaints against fusion and “most of the avantgarde” have been documented.48 Now some of these kinds may be weeded out on the reasonable grounds that they probably do not have permanent interest and value.49 However, it is becoming clear that the rubric “Classical Jazz” under which Lincoln Center concerts were ﬁrst presented was not really a way of honoring jazz in general, but of promoting some of its more traditional forms. But maybe this is what we should expect of a perspective that hews so close to the familiar connotations of the term “classical.” Is not such a project in danger of saving the concept at the expense of the music it is intended to honor? A ﬁnal glance at Baraka’s harsh perspective is illuminating here. Baraka admits that Duke Ellington’s music stands out when contrasted with white big-band music by the likes of Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey, which he considers watered-down imitations.50 But he regards the less polished music of the early Count Basie as closer to the music’s roots than Ellington’s.51 So stated, this sounds like a judgment call with no broader implications. But consider the terms with which Baraka ampliﬁes his complaint. He goes on to describe Ellington’s music as “basically Europe-American,” a type of “entertainment” catering largely to “sensual white liberals.”52 It is mistakenly indentured, he says, to the “considerations and responsibilities of high art.”53 In other words, he sees Ellington’s music in almost the same terms as Constant Lambert saw it—but with negative rather than positive implications. So, Baraka would not be impressed by Marsalis’s image at Lincoln Center, where supposedly authentic black music draws primarily white customers into fancy concert halls. While we may disagree with Baraka’s severe opinion of Ellington’s music, he reminds us that Marsalis’s project makes a major assumption that could certainly be challenged, namely, that there is some single form of music that is both AfricanAmerican and classical. Indeed, why should we assume that there exists some single form of music that is American in any sense and also
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classical? Given our cultural mosaic, it may be unAmerican to single out one form of music as expressive of what “America” means. Note, however, that these objections may have implications for the opposite kind of elitism too. It is widely assumed that, even in America, the European concert-music tradition alone deserves the honors associated with the label “classical.” But why? Perhaps the throne should be vacated.
Because of his youth, Marsalis is one of the few people who can campaign against what he regards as the ﬂattening of musical culture by the commodity industry without coming across as an embittered representative of an older generation. Because of his race, he can even bring this to bear on the black musical industry. His eloquence brings to mind an unexpected correspondence. If I imagine exchanging Marsalis’s winsome grin for a longer face, I pull up an image of the conservative philosopher, Roger Scruton. I am thinking of the Scruton we ﬁnd fretting, toward the end of his book, The Aesthetics of Music, about a similar problem—how to save “musical culture.” True, there are discordances. Citing Nietzsche, Scruton asserts that culture in general “embodies the will” of an aristocratic class “to perpetuate its own distinction.” Culture declines, he says, when that class “succumbs to the equalizing tendency of the herd.”54 This hardly ﬁts Marsalis’s statement in the Burns ﬁlm that the blues comes “from a consciousness of those who are outside of something but [also] in the middle of it”—which is certainly no reference to an aristocracy. Nevertheless, Marsalis, like Scruton, speaks and acts as one trying to perpetuate the “distinction” of a musical aristocracy—as one defending what he regards as serious musical culture. Speaking personally, if I were in the magical business of saving cultures, I’m not sure that either Scruton’s or Marsalis’s paradigms would get my ﬁrst attention. Were I able to wave a wand and retrieve something, it might be the seething funkiness and unbuttoned vitality of Vine Street in Kansas City around 1937. For the culture that Marsalis wants to save, we have to shift the scene to the chic venues of Lincoln Center—a putative “development” that is full of enough ironies even to satisfy Hegel. What Lincoln Center can save may only be a parody of what’s gone forever.
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One ﬁnal bit of food for thought: PBS has just broadcast the European premiere of Marsalis’s ﬁrst full-scale work for symphony orchestra.55 The Ohio State University
1. I have learned much discussing the issues in this paper from Emily Foster, Ted Gracyk, Garry Hagberg, and Diana Raffman. 2. Jazz, a Film by Ken Burns, dir. Ken Burns, written by Geoffrey C. Ward, released on Public Television in 2001. Unless otherwise speciﬁed, all quotations are from identiﬁed persons speaking on camera in the Burns ﬁlm. 3. Marsalis is quite frank about his inﬂuences. See Wynton Marsalis and Frank Steward, Sweet Swing Blues on the Road (New York: Norton, 1994), pp. 116–17; and Ralph Wiley, Darkness Within—When Black People Should be Sacriﬁced (Again) (New York: One World Press, 1996), p. 205. 4. Recorded in 1938, and issued commercially in many forms since that time, this vast project is currently available in abridged form on four CDs (Rounder CD 1091–1094). 5. He describes Taylor’s music as “self-indulgent bullshit.” 6. Wynton Marsalis [and John Zorn], interview[s] with Bill Milkowsky, JazzTimes (March 2000): 36. 7. The New Yorker, August 20–27, 2001. 8. Columbia 468711, 1985. John Hammond, Richard DuPage, Frank Driggs. 9. For example, Gene Lees, “Jazz Black and White,” in his Cats of Any Color (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994). 10. Marsalis and Steward, Sweet Swing Blues, pp. 142–45. Marsalis appeals to Crouch as his authority. 11. Imamu Amiri Baraka (aka LeRoi Jones), Blues People—Negro Music in White America (New York: William Morrow, 1963). 12. Marsalis interview with Milkowsky, p. 35.
13. As the sympathetic critic Peter Watrous perceives. See his “Wynton Marsalis: Jazzman on the Run,” New York Times (Arts and Leisure), January 30, 2000. 14. Jazz at Lincoln Center website, January 2002 <http://www.jazzatlincolncenter.org/> And yes, they’re all men. The consolidation of black power in jazz has not yet challenged exclusionary attitudes toward women. 15. Albert Murray, in a presumed conversation with Wiley, Darkness Within, p. 209.
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16. Marsalis, in a presumed conversation with Howard Mandel, Future Jazz (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), pp. 18–19. 17. Lees, Cats of any Color, p. 228. Lees is citing Marsalis’s words in the December 1984 issue of Keynote Magazine, a publication of radio station WNCN. Lees cannot restrain himself from stamping the statement “nonsense.” 18. Alina Bloomgarden, in a presumed conversation with Leslie Gourse in the latter’s Wynton Marsalis: Skain’s Domain: A Biography (New York: Schirmer, 1999), p. 192. 19. 20. 21. Gourse, Wynton Marsalis, pp. 186, 199. George Weisman, in a presumed conversation with Gourse, Wynton Marsalis, p. 191. “Classical Jazz,” Clive Davis, The Wilson Quarterly XXI (1997): 60.
22. Wynton Marsalis, interview with the American Academy of Achievement, January 8, 1991 < http://www.achievement.org/autodoc/page/mar0int-1>. 23. ”Art, Commerce and Race: The Controversial Debate on Music and Violence,” statement of Michael Eric Dyson before the Committee on Commerce, Science & Transportation, United States Senate, September 13, 2000, p. 9. 24. See, for example, Eric Deggans, “Jazz Washes Away the Dust of Everyday Life,” St. Petersburg Times Online, January 7, 2001 <http://www.sptimes.com/News/010701/Floridian /All_that_Ken_Burns_ja.shtml> 25. Geoffrey C. Ward and Ken Burns, Jazz—A History of America’s Music (New York: Knopf, 2000), p. 99. 26. Constant Lambert, Music Ho!—A Study of Music in Decline (New York: October House, 1967), pp. 178–88. In fairness, Lambert’s perspective is not as condescending as it seems. The foregoing text concerns what Lambert regarded as a 20th-century decline in “serious” music, by comparison with which some jazz actually stands out as superior. 27. William (“Billy”) Taylor, “Jazz, America’s Classical Music,” Black America Music Symposium 1985, ed. Willis Patterson. Spec. issue of Black Perspective in Music 14.1 (1986). Taylor speaks approvingly of Marsalis’s policies. See also Bradley Parker-Sparrow, “Billy Taylor Presents America’s Classical Music,” Downbeat, May, 1980. The phrase also appears as the title of Grover Sales, Jazz: America’s Classical Music (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1984). 28. John. C. Fillmore, Pianoforte Music: Its History, with Biographical Sketches and Critical Estimates of its Greatest Masters (New York: Townsend Mac Coun, 1884), pp. 95–96. 29. Letter to Goethe, October 14, 1820. Cited in The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1971), p. 468. 30. André Hodeir, Jazz—Its Evolution and Essence, trans. David Noakes (New York: Grove Press, 1956), Chapter V, in which Hodeir writes about the “romantic imagination” of Dickie Wells, a trombonist of the classic swing era. 31. Martha Bayles, “What’s Wrong with Being Classical?” Jazz, ed. Robert S. Fogarty. Spec. issue of The Antioch Review 57.3 (1999): 326. Bayles’s idea is that jazz is emotionally untrammeled, by comparison with classical music.
Philosophy and Literature
32. Thesaurus of Classic Jazz, four vinyl disks, ed. John Hammond, Richard DuPage, Frank Driggs. Columbia Records, C4L-18, 1959. 33. 34. WOSU-FM. Taylor, “Jazz, America’s Classical Music,” p. 24.
35. Gourse, Wynton Marsalis, pp. 266–67. See also my unfavorable review of a performance of Blood on the Fields, “David Murray Week Outdoes Marsalis, CJO,” The Other Paper, February 20–26, 1997. 36. 37. 38. 39. Marsalis interview with Milkowsky, p. 35. Taylor, “Jazz, America’s Classical Music,” p. 21. Taylor, “Jazz, America’s Classical Music,” p. 24. Albert Murray in a presumed conversation with Wiley, Darkness Within, p. 208.
40. Transcript of Wynton Marsalis interview with Billy Taylor, June 29, 1998, from the NPR series, “Billy Taylor’s Jazz at the Kennedy Center” <http://www.npr.org/programs /btaylor/archive/marsalis_w.html>. 41. Mandel, Future Jazz, p. 105.
42. Nate Chinen, “WRTI Adds Classical, a Jazz Listener Sounds Off,” CityPaperless Newsletter, Sept. 11–18, 1997 <http://citypaper.net/articles/091197/article022.shtml>. 43. 44. Hodeir, Jazz—Its Evolution and Essence, pp. 90, 236. “Letters,” JazzTimes 30 (June 2000): 18.
45. Gourse, Wynton Marsalis, p. 266. However, the matter is complex. It has often been claimed that the ofﬁcial objections to Ellington were masks for racism. 46. Taylor, “Jazz, America’s Classical Music,” p. 24.
47. Lees, Cats of any Color, p. 231, where Marsalis says as much about Gil Evans. Lees is citing a telephone interview with Wynton Marsalis by Tom Moon of The Detroit Free Press. Marsalis admits that his opinions echo those of Stanley Crouch. 48. Gourse, Wynton Marsalis, p. 221.
49. That brief success of the recent nouveau swing movement was largely a spin-off of the popularity of the ﬁlm Swingers and its California setting, the Brown Derby restaurant. 50. 51. 52. 53. Baraka, Blues People, p. 163. Baraka, Blues People, pp. 158, 183–84. Baraka, Blues People, pp. 159, 161. Baraka, Blues People, p. 222.
54. Roger Scruton, The Aesthetics of Music (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), p. 505. 55. All Rise. By Wynton Marsalis. Perf. Czech Philharmonic Orchestra and the Morgan State University Choir. PBS. WOSU, Columbus. 10 February 2002.