A reader writes:
I know this is unlikely to be a topic that garners much interest, but Benjamin Schwartz's recent review of Ted Giola's new book represents everything that's been wrong with jazz journalism since the 1980s. The theme here is all too familiar: "Is Jazz Dead?," "Jazz is Dead," "the End of Jazz," etc. etc. What all of these cookie-cutter articles have in common beside their total inaccuracy (jazz has plateaued for some time now while enjoying a substantial presence in university music departments across the country) is their indefensible cabining of jazz to the music produced pre-1960.
The Great American Songbook referred to by Schwartz is indeed a great cultural legacy of this country and gave jazz music some of its most vital material for the early years of its existence (great exceptions loom, such as Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk). But the ever-restless innovators who defined this artform were unwilling to confine their progress to the music of others. The period of 1960-1980 was marked by incredible artistic fertility.
If Schwartz is looking for a book of standards from this era, he will likely be frustrated (though Ken Vandermark may beg to differ with his Free Jazz Classics Vols. 1 – 4). Instead he will find that the musicians, building off of 1940s bebop, argued that jazz was fundamentally an improvisational artform. What would become canonized was the art of improvisation developed by such masters as Cecil Taylor, John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler and the Art Ensemble of Chicago, not to mention their European peers like Peter Brötzmann, Evan Parker, Derek Bailey, andthe ICP Orchestra.
Schwartz's failure to mention this aspect of the music is mystifying, but certainly convenient as it undermines his entire point. "How oh how," he laments, "can jazz ever progress without a new songbook?" Well, just as it has since the songbook became passé in the 1960s: through the creative improvisational forms that continue to place jazz at the forefront of the American (and international) avant-garde.
The "Songbook" is the basis of Jazz in that its songs have melodies and chord changes. Jazz musicians usually/basically play the melody (the "head") take turns improvising over the chord changes and then play the head again. The exceptions to this rule are where I find jazz most exciting, however. Take the Miles Davis Quintet's 1964 version of "My Funny Valentine" at Lincoln Center. The melody isn't really recognizably quoted until the end of George Coleman's (saxophone) solo. Our knowledge of how the song should sound informs the way we hear this version, but in this case the musicians' improvisation clearly transcends the composition. I think that this is frequently the case (albeit to a less obvious degree) when jazz musicians (and I am one, by the way) play standards to my greatest satisfaction.
To me, jazz is chiefly about improvisation, particularly the musicians and the meeting of their minds. It relies upon songs as starting points, as things to provide context and at least the expectation of structure. But – and this is my opinion – it's not really about the songs. I find that the lyrics to most standards make me want to gag and I rarely enjoy jazz singing (Ella and Sinatra have qualities as singers/musicians that, IMHO, can't be ignored by any musician. I've never gotten the Billie Holliday thing.) The chord changes to standards are more complex than basic "rock n' roll" changes but they're actually not too far off harmonically. In short, I find much of Hendrix's "Electric Ladyland" or the Band's "Music from Big Pink" to present more "sophistication" to "musically knowledgable adults" than the Broadway versions of many of the standards the quoted author praises.