Friday, September 25, 2009

Comfort Zones

Vijay Iyer, one of an inspiring young(ish) cadre of creative improvisers making inspiring music, posted a link on Facebook to this Wall Street Journal article giving Wynton Marsalis a generous, lotion-soaked tug job.

The article in turn inspired me to read up a little bit on Larry Blumenfeld. I knew I had seen his by line somewhere before, but I'm not (ahem) a regular reader of The Wall Street Journal. Turns out Blumenfeld is also "editor at large" for JazzIz magazine (not sure what editor-at-large means?) as well as a "regular contributor" to The Wall Street Journal. He's self-described as a "cultural journalist specializing in jazz," and as such I wonder how he could possibly have written the WSJ article with a straight face? The piece is thoroughly misguided. It unleashes some real howlers. Calling Ornette Coleman a "free-jazz avatar," (hyphen included), is absurd. Ornette Coleman is an American master, a stone cold American genius, a one-of-a-kind American iconoclast who has been making ridiculously beautiful music for decades. His composition for two improvising quartets called _Free Jazz_ was originally released nearly five decades ago (next year is the 50th anniversary) and has its own Wikipedia page. The term "free jazz" is thoroughly passe. To reduce Coleman to a cipher who still represents a movement that is 50 years old is really very bad music writing.

Blumenfeld also writes: "Mr. Coleman's engagement, which may nonetheless stretch some subscribers' comfort zones, is less aesthetic leap than show of strength." Precisely what sort of stretch for some subscribers' comfort zones will Mr. Coleman's engagement present? This is the sort of delicate writing that one used to (very occasionally) encounter in The New Yorker 35 freaking years ago. In my opinion, Wynton Marsalis is not fit to wash Mr. Coleman's underwear by hand. I realize reasonable people can disagree. It's just my opinion.

More importantly, Blumenfeld denies the importance of the still very much alive aesthetic, political and economic tensions in "jazz" since its entanglements in the culture wars of the late 1980s, yet uses broad distinctions that arose directly out of the exact same conflicts. Why call Ornette Coleman a "free-jazz avatar" and talk about comfort zones at all if "The so-called jazz wars of the 1990s, often focused on Mr. Marsalis's organization, now seem largely irrelevant"? Why use similarly superficial, glib and dismissive language referring to Cecil Taylor and John Zorn ("both avant-garde darlings")?

Quoting Blumenfeld at greater length:

"When saxophonist Ornette Coleman, a free-jazz avatar, opens Jazz at Lincoln Center's sixth season in its own space in the Time Warner Center on Sept. 26, some may interpret the booking as a widening of the mainstream-jazz credo long espoused by Mr. Marsalis ("Having the swing element and the blues at its center," he's often explained, "and heavy on improvisation"). But Mr. Marsalis presented a night of Mr. Coleman's compositions back in 2005, and inducted the saxophonist into the center's Hall of Fame last year. By now, Jazz at Lincoln Center, perhaps out of practicality as much as philosophy, has embraced a range of music that defies the conservative caricature..."

Again, I am left wondering in precisely what way Mr. Blumenfeld "specializes in jazz," if he can so thoroughly miss the very essential point of Ornette Coleman's music. For more than 50 years, Ornette Coleman's music has been entirely dedicated to the jazz credo espoused by Wynton Marsalis (never mind the execrable use of the term "mainstream," again reminding us that maybe the "so-called" jazz wars were actually significant somehow). Ornette Coleman has always made music "having the swing element and the blues at its center and heavy on improvisation." Perhaps this is precisely WHY Marsalis, ever-haughty and ever-condescending and ever-wrong-headed about the significance of jazz in American cultural history since 1959, "presented a night of Coleman's compositions back in 2005, and inducted the saxophonist (composer? innovator? revolutionary? aesthetic paradigm shifter???) into the center's Hall of Fame last year."

And I'd love to know more intimately what Dave Douglas was trying to say when he said:

""Has Jazz at Lincoln Center's promotion of jazz succeeded in assisting music and musicians? Without a doubt, yes," said trumpeter Dave Douglas, whose free-thinking approach has often been contrasted with Mr. Marsalis's in the jazz press, and who has performed at Rose Theater. "Has its strict genre boundaries and corporate image succeeded in silencing creative music and musicians? Without a doubt, no. On balance, the influence is overwhelmingly positive.""

This sounds like an abbreviated quotation to me. It also really buries some interesting critique just below the surface. Why hasn't Jazz at Lincoln Center's "strict genre boundaries and corporate image succeeded in silencing creative music and musicians"? Is it because the market for creative music and musicians in Europe and Japan remained very strong in spite of America's own abandonment of its own vital, progressive and ever-changing art form? Is it because a ton of dedicated people labored in the trenches at great personal sacrifice to keep the bodies and souls of creative musicians barely knit together? Is it because Jazz at Lincoln Center has been completely and totally irrelevant when the issue has been creative music and musicians? Or are there a host of other reasons that bear very close scrutiny and probably say a lot about the arts in America in general?

I could go on and on about Blumenfeld's fawning materialism (Marsalis in a "Lincoln Navigator," the JALC Orchestra "turning a profit three months a year," etc., etc.). Perhaps this fetishistic focus made the piece able to pass editorial muster at the WSJ, basically Fox News for the college educated?

If, like me, you need a soul-cleansing antidote to all of this, listen to the master himself. "free-jazz avatar" my ass. But watch out! Your comfort zone might get stretched! (check out the dudes in the audience at about 1:45 for some real comfort zone, haha).


Mixtape Jones said...

Well said, and well worth saying. I mean, I probably would have had difficulty mustering any eloquence beyond "Marsalis and the jazz press are a bunch of douches".

Chris Rich said...

Oh my god, there's Calvin and Bern, two of my friends. Both have been through hell. Calvin lost his son in a hit and run last summer and Bern struggles with a bed bug infestation in his crappy building but it seems to be over.

OC is his usual self. The way his neck blows out from his wind stream is stunning. Larry is an idiot.

Larry's crappy piece is seen by my more astute friends as a free crack at writing a prospectus for Jazz at Lincoln Center in the hope that wall street fat cats who destroyed our economy will toss Wynt a bone.

It is all smoke, mirrors, bullshit and sleaze. Show me the money.

Jason Crane said...

Hi Peter,

I came here via Chris Rich's site. I thoroughly enjoyed this piece, and have added you to my blog list. All the best,

Jason Crane
The Jazz Session

peter breslin said...

Thanks for stopping by Chris. I am very sorry to hear that G. Calvin Weston lost his son in a hit and run and that Bern Nix has been caught up in the re-emergence of the bed bug plague that seems to be sweeping the country. How terrible.

The stories of what great artists have to put up with in the US of A continue to break my heart. Meanwhile the "jazz journalists" perpetrate some of the most egregious classism, racism and just sheer idiotism of the past 30 years, and that, my friend, is *really saying something," considering.

Jason, I'll grab a minute to visit your site and add you in links when I get a chance. I have to check all my links, as I bet some no longer function.

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