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Marching to Montgomery: The Cradle Did Rock

It was the Ecumenical Council, a hootenanny, a happening, and a revolution all rolled into one. And it happened in Montgomery, “Cradle of the Confederacy.”

A broken-down hipster, the Realist sticking out of his dungarees, marched alongside an Episcopal bishop clutching the Holy Bible. There were the kamikazes of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee — SNCC — in their blue-denim overalls, mud-caked boots, and rash helmets, next to middle-class housewives who won’t ride the subways after dark. There were nuns in flowing black habits arm in arm with jowly labor leaders who discriminate in their unions.

There were rabbis, junkies, schoolboys, actors, sharecroppers, intellectuals, maids, novelists, folk-singers, and politicians — 40,000 motives and 40,0000 people marching to Montgomery behind James Forman who hates the oppressor and Martin Luther King who loves the oppressed.

March on Washington

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New Generation

There were hundreds of high school and college youngsters — that new breed of revolutionary that has somehow grown up inside the bowels of prosperous America. There were kids who rioted against HUAC, vigiled against the Bomb, invaded Mississippi last summer, and turned Berkeley upside down. They are a new generation of insurgents, nourished not by Marx or Trotsky, but by Camus, Lenny Bruce, Bob Dylan, and SNCC. Their revolution is not against capitalism, but against what they deem to be the values of an enlightened America — Brotherhood Weeks, factories called colleges, desperation called success, and sex twice a week.

And there were thousands of clergymen symbolizing the revolution within a revolution — the nun with suntan cream on her face who marched all the way from Selma, priests, ministers, rabbis with yarmulkes. There was a huge sign: “Lutherans are Here Because Christ Cared.” Another read: “Kansas Mennonites Support Civil Rights.” And another: “SMU Marches for Freedom.”

On the streets of the Confederacy’s cradle that “coalition of conscience” Bayard Rustin and Michael Harrington have tried to will into existence materialized spontaneously. A line of marchers, strung out as far as the eye could see, sang “America the Beautiful” and made it sound like a revolutionary anthem.

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Sleepy Beginning

The day that was to end in triumph and tragedy began in sleepy whimsy at 4 a.m. last Thursday for the 104 participants in the Village Independent Democrats’ “Fly-In” as they pulled out of the West Side Airlines Terminal singing ironic songs about their pilgrimage.

They sang in spirited atonality that quickly disintegrated into anarchy songs like “Stars Fell on Alabama” and “I’m Alabamy Bound” and “Swanee” and “Dixie.”

“Al-a-bam-a, here I come,” roared Bill Tatum, “VIDers, don’t be late, open up that capitol gate. Alabama, here I come, right back where I started from … “

The “Welcome to Montgomery” sign at Dannelly Airport reinforced the ironic mood of the pilgrims, especially for those who noticed that billboard just outside the airport that read: “Get the U. S. out of the U. N. or get the U. N. out of the U. S.”

Within 20 minutes the small airport lounge became congested as flights from Boston and St. Louis also landed, disgorging eager, smiling, scrubbed middle-class faces, some on top of clerical collars.

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Minister’s Greeting

A white minister from Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) greeted new arrivals, urged them to leave the city “as soon as the rally is over because it will be dangerous,” and directed them to shuttle buses to the City of St. Jude, a Roman Catholic complex where the marchers had camped the night before. On the SCLC minister’s lapel was a button that said “GROW.” He explained it stood for “Get Rid of Wallace.”

At St. Jude the predominant mood was gaiety, as thousands upon thousands of visitors swelled the great serpentine line of march that coiled around the vast, muddy athletic field.

Small clusters sang freedom songs during the two hours it took for the whole line to unwind onto the streets towards the capitol, four miles away. The visitors sang off-key versions of better-known freedom songs, while local Negroes, led by either SNCC or SCLC staff members, sang raucous, sassy, taunting songs that came out of the Movement in Alabama’s Black Belt. A group of about 500 from St. Louis stood in a large circle, one small, Negro woman calling out chorus after chorus of “We Shall Overcome.”

Other demonstrators milled around the staging area like conventioneers, wearing name tags and introducing themselves to strangers, pronouncing their home towns with accents of pride — Montreal, Berkeley, Boston, Detroit — and their association with equal pride — ADA, the United Auto Workers, NAACP, the University of Virginia, the American Legion (Gramercy Park chapter).

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To the Capitol

At noon, under one of the day’s brief showers, the procession began to move out, with the bloody-shoed 300 who had marched all the way in the vanguard. With them were barefoot Joan Baez; James Baldwin, nervously smiling, just back from Scandinavia; the angelic looking Montgomery seamstress Rosa Parks, who ignited the mythic bus boycott a decade ago; and SNCC’s John Lewis, who walked the whole way from Selma and who had suffered head injuries on “Bloody Sunday” at the Alabama River Bridge. And there was Martin Luther King, to whom Negroes of the Black Belt now sing “Glory, Glory Hallelujah” and then kiss his hand.

The streets in the Negro slums of Montgomery were of mud and clay. There were row upon row of run-down shacks, with the very old, the very young, the unemployed sitting on porches.

The First Time

At first the non-marchers were timid and shy. It was as if shame made them look down rather than at the masses that surged past them. But slowly, they looked up, to wave, and when the marchers began to shout, “Join us, come on,” many accepted the invitation and probably protested their plight for the first time in their lives. Marching through the slums was like taking LSD for the soul.

One bent old woman ran off her porch and kissed a white marcher. Children, dirty and scrawny, ran alongside, singing the songs and chanting the slogans of freedom. A very old man, his cane resting between his legs, sat on his porch steps and wept.

About a mile from the capitol we reached the downtown section of Montgomery, with its banks, hotels, movies, stores, office buildings and clean asphalt streets. The sidewalks were almost deserted except for a sprinkling of hecklers and the federal troops at each intersection, standing at attention, their rifles at their sides.

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Traditional Gesture

But against the windows of the office buildings were pressed the white faces of the South. Some shook their heads “no” or gave the thumbs-down sign when the marchers waved at them. A beautiful woman of about 25 stood on the balcony of the Jefferson Davis Hotel, and when the demonstrators waved at her, this flower of Southern womanhood made the traditional obscene gesture of one finger up.

On the lawn of an elegant home a hunched, elderly maid stood in the midst of her sullen employers. She was smiling and waving a white handkerchief at the procession. One wonders what was happening in the minds of her employers at that moment.

Remarked Edward Koch, the Village Democratic leader: “Walking through the Negro section made me feel like I was walking through Paris again with the liberation army. The white section was what it must have been like marching through Germany.”

From the window of the Alabama Bible Society Building hung a blow up of the picture Senator Eastland introduced into the Congressional Record prior to the March on Washington to prove Martin Luther King was “part of the Communist conspiracy.” The photograph shows King at a rally in 1957 at the now-defunct leftist Highlander Folk School, which was burned by segregationists several years ago.

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Turns the Corner

Dexter Avenue is the eight-lane street that leads into the white stone capitol building. As the procession turned the corner of that final leg of the journey the marchers suddenly broke into “America the Beautiful” and sang it with a passion normally associated in the Movement with “We Shall Overcome.”

“America, America, God shed his grace on thee. And crown thy good with brotherhood, from sea to shining sea,” they sang. Hundreds of school children waving little American flag. Ahead loomed the dome of the capitol with its Alabama and Confederate flags blowing in the breeze.”By 2 p.m. all 40,000 marchers, including about 10,000 whites, arrived at the foot of the capitol and stretched out several blocks down Dexter Avenue. The symbolism of the scene was inescapable. At the spot where Jefferson Davis was inaugurated, where George Wallace shouted in his inaugural in 1961, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever,” the largest civil-rights demonstration in the history of the South sang “We Shall Overcome” — black and white, together — “We are not afraid today.”

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Ten Years Later

In the shadow of the red-brick Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, from whose pulpit Martin Luther King led the bus boycott 10 years earlier, the huge rally was turning into a kind of coronation of the 37-year old minister as spiritual leader of the nation.

“Who is your leader?” the Reverend Ralph Abernathy asked the throng. The answer swelled up. “Martin Luther King!” The only exceptions were veterans of SNCC, who yelled, “De Lawd of Slick.”But even that invidious distortion of SCLC was probably shouted as much in respect as in cynicism.

(The bitterness lurking in the background was based on the fact that SNCC, which had been alone in Dallas County since late 1962, had great difficulty working in harness with King after SCLC took over the Selma campaign in January. There had been serious disputes over strategy and tactics, since King’s basic goal is integration and SNCC’s is a revolution.)

After two hours of speeches by every major leader of the civil-rights movement, King was finally introduced to the crowd. Like the multitude in Washington in 1963, they had become fatigued and restless; many had been awake as long as 20 hours. Overhead, a helicopter and a Piper Cub circled noisily. Behind the platform two dozen green-helmeted Alabama conservation police guarded the steps of the capitol building. Behind them stood a number of members of the Alabama legislature.

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Then King began, his resonant voice and preacher’s alliterative rhythm slowly rousing the audience from boredom. From behind him on the platform came counterpoints of “Amen” and “Tell it, Brother” from other ministers.

In Washington he invoked the phrase, “I have a dream,” the way a blues singer repeats a key phrase. In Montgomery, facing the capitol, it was, “We are on the move now,” that became the launching pad for a series of crescendo-like thrusts.

“We are on the move now,” he said. “The burning of our churches will not deter us. We are on the move now. The bombing of our homes will not dissuade us. We are on the move now.”

Now the throng responded with shouts of “Yes, Lord,” and “Amen.”

“The beating of our clergymen will not divert us. We are on the move now. Yes, we are on the move now, and no wave of racism can stop us.”

King climaxed his speech by repeating four times with rising fervor, “Glory Glory Hallelujah.” And then the cooks, maids, and janitors were crying and cheering at the same time.

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Postlude

There were supposed to be 26 shuttle buses waiting after the rally to ferry demonstrators from the capitol to the airport five miles away. But 21 of the drivers called in sick, and for two hours thousands milled around in a muddy lot a block behind the capitol while fives buses tried to do all the work. There was pushing, shoving, and maneuvering each time a bus pulled in. Finally an SNCC worker with a walkie-talkie told the crowd, “Come on, you’re acting like kids. This ain’t the New York subway.”

By dusk, the troops had disappeared and the last handful, waiting unprotected in the lot, feeling fear for the first time during the day.

Chaos reigned at the airport. Hundreds sprawled on the lawn, picnicking, sleeping and singing. Huge lines pointed to the lavatories and phones; there were no snack counters. All outgoing flights were late.

After an hour’s delay on the VID flight was ready to be boarded, except that there was no ladder available. So for another hour, the 104 weary passengers stood in a cramped line, 20 yards away from the plane, while a ladder was searched – or, as some suspected, hidden.

Meanwhile, a few yards away, the dean of all civil rights leaders, 77-year old Asa Philip Randolph, had collapsed from exhaustion and Bayard Rustin and Michael Harrington tended him while dispatching friends to find a doctor. The Montgomery police seemed uninterested.

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“It’s my fault,” Rustin mumbled. “I never should have gotten him up at 2 a.m. and he never should have walked those four miles.”

At 10:45 New York time, the VID flight left the cradle of the Confederacy amid complaints to the Civil Aeronautics Board about the delay and caustic reflections on “Southern hospitality.” There was no singing on the flight back. Most of the passengers slept. A few talked about the future of the civil rights movement, agreeing at the outset that Montgomery was just a skirmish in a long war whose end still lies beyond the rim of history.

Steve Berger, an aide to reform Congressman Jonathan Bingham, said the new voting rights bill was “pretty bad and very poorly drawn.” Others, activists of the movement, thought no legislation could possibly deal with the specter of firing, beating, and murder that faces any Negro who tries to register in the Black Belt. Other militants spoke eagerly of the next battle – the continuing attempt to unseat the five Congressmen from Mississippi by the Freedom Democratic Party.

Elizabeth Sutherland, who works for SNCC in New York, sat reading a private legal memorandum on the proposed voting bill, pointing out all its flaws and loopholes. “I just hope the registrars don’t get their hands on this memo,” she said.

And there was speculation about what would happen in the Black Belt now that the “civil rights tourists,” Dr. King, the federal troops, and the outside journalists were leaving and the Negroes were left alone to confront the Jim Clarks, the racist registrars, and those terrible faces that looked down from those windows.

When the plane landed at Kennedy Airport, its passengers were told it had already happened – murder. Nobody said anything memorable or poetic. They just cursed. ♦

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‘Paul Motian Plays MJQ’

A new Mosaic box, a recent Lincoln Center hat-tip, and now a week’s worth gigs led by the wily drummer–the bluesy poise of the Modern Jazz Quartet is still with us, no doubt. Motian’s view of repertory tilts towards the idiosyncratic–check those gorgeous Bird, Bud, and Broadway skews–so he’s got some kind of personalization planned. Can’t wait to hear Craig Taborn slipping into John Lewis’s tux.

May 18-22, 9 & 11 p.m., 2011

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Bush Impeachment Not Out of the Question

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Even as President Bush accuses the Democrats of imperiling national security by revealing his secret spying program both he and Vice President Cheney move closer to a serious confrontation with Congress over constitutional power. For the first time since their election in 2000, both face open rebuke in Congress. Impeachment may not be as far-fetched as it might at first seem.

Georgia Democratic congressman John Lewis said Bush should be impeached if he broke the law in authorizing spying on Americans. “It’s a very serious charge, but he violated the law,” said Lewis. “The president should abide by the law. He deliberately, systematically violated the law. He is not king, he is president.”

Cheney already is likely to face serious questioning and possible indictment for his role in the Plame leak case. He appears to have been the official who ordered his top aide, Scooter Libby, and possibly others to initiate the plot. Speculation is that the vice president may have to retire from office, perhaps citing health problems.

Tuesday, in a stopover in Pakistan, Cheney argued Bush administration was seeking broader executive powers in an era following Vietnam and Watergate — a period he described as “the nadir of the modern presidency in terms of authority and legitimacy.”

(Of course Cheney and other conservatives now in power long have argued for a return of all federal power to the states, and have vigorously opposed measures aimed at extending the reach of the presidency and federal government. So, his arguments now seem a bit bizarre.)

John E. Sununu, the Republican senator, from New Hampshire told the Washington Post, “The vice president may be the only person I know of that believes the executive has somehow lost power over the last 30 years.”

Bush is faced with an open split in Republican ranks in Congress, with Arlen Specter, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, calling for a joint investigation of Congress into the spy program. Both Nebraska’s Chuck Hagel and Maine’s Olympia Snowe are openly critical of the Bush plans.

Meanwhile James Robertson, a federal district judge sitting on the secret FISA court, resigned from that position. He gave no reason, but associates were quoted in the Washington Post this morning as saying he felt the spy program information might have been used to obtain FISA warrants. Colleen Kolla-Kotelly, the federal judge who chairs the panel expressed similar misgivings in 2004. “They just don’t know if the product of wiretaps were used for FISA warrants — to kind of cleanse the information,” one source told the paper. “What I’ve heard some of the judges say is they feel they’ve participated in a Potemkin court.”

Without saying so flat-out, West Virginia’s senior Democratic senator, Robert Byrd, this week set forth the case for impeachment:

“The President claims that these powers are within his role as Commander in Chief,” Byrd said in a December 19 statement. “Make no mistake, the powers granted to the Commander in Chief are specifically those as head of the Armed Forces. These warrantless searches are conducted not against a foreign power, but against unsuspecting and unknowing American citizens. They are conducted against individuals living on American soil, not in Iraq or Afghanistan. There is nothing within the powers granted in the Commander in Chief clause that grants the President the ability to conduct clandestine surveillance of American civilians. We must not allow such groundless, foolish claims to stand.

“The President claims a boundless authority through the resolution that authorized the war on those who perpetrated the September 11th attacks. But that resolution does not give the President unchecked power to spy on our own people. That resolution does not give the Administration the power to create covert prisons for secret prisoners. That resolution does not authorize the torture of prisoners to extract information from them. That resolution does not authorize running black-hole secret prisons in foreign countries to get around U.S. law. That resolution does not give the President the powers reserved only for kings and potentates.”

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Fleishedik and Milchedik

Jazz being human, it covets whatever it thinks it’s being denied. From Paul Whiteman and George Gershwin’s attempt to make an honest woman of it at Aeolian Hall in 1924 to Rahsaan Roland Kirk insisting its proper title was “Black Classical Music” in the ’60s, jazz craved respectability. Now that this has been achieved, at least in theory, what’s lacking isn’t just commercial viability but the perceived cultural relevance that comes in the bargain—the Bad Plus and techno beats, anyone?

I’m aware that there are several problems with my dichotomy. Jazz began losing its audience two generations ago, with the demise of the big bands and the growth of rhythm and blues; black audiences were defecting at such an alarming rate by the 1960s that much of that era’s nationalist rhetoric seemed compensatory. You could argue that third stream, an attempt to synthesize jazz and classical in the early 1960s spearheaded by John Lewis and Gunther Schuller, didn’t catch on because it bumped into free jazz and there was room for only one new movement. But third stream would have fizzled anyway, because soon musicians were plugging in to a different bunch of longhairs. Jazz’s present status as an art on the endangered-species list, worthy of institutional preservation, is limited to the canon; active players intent on setting their own rules are scuffling the same as before. Though my experience on funding panels open to both suggests that “jazz” composers have gained equal footing with their “classical” brethren (and may in fact have the upper hand), there aren’t enough dollars to go around—the city governments that have traditionally funded “serious” music are strapped, and Daddy E-Bucks was disinclined to endow orchestras even before the dotcom crash. So jazz finds itself wishing simultaneously for social relevance and recognition as a fine art, even though the two rarely go together. Maybe it’s always that way. Besides, except for the occasional Hazel Scott jazzing the classics to the delight of café swells (or more recently, Regina Carter playing Paganini’s violin), a rapprochement with classical music was never merely a bid for upward mobility anyway.

On the train the other night, I was reading a panel discussion on the future of jazz in which an unspoken concern seemed to be whether jazz had one. The panelists—a diverse group of instrumentalists and two critics—mostly agreed that the comely young female singers being featured on the covers of jazz magazines were upmarket pop acts and not jazz singers at all, if the standard is Billie Holiday. There was much talk about fusions. Though the consensus was that input from African and world musics was a promising development, a few panelists worried that by borrowing so many conventions from classical music and extolling composition over improvisation, jazz was in danger of fusing itself right out of existence.

These were hot topics on the panels at this year’s Jazz Educators convention, and will be at next year’s. But this was a panel assembled by Playboy in 1964 and included in Robert Walser’s 1999 Keeping Time: Readings in Jazz History. Plus ça change, huh? A notion that never goes away is that jazz risks losing its identity as well as its heritage—its blackness, ultimately —in any exchange with classical music. Referring to Duke Ellington, who made generous use of European amenities in works that portrayed the full scope of 20th-century African American life, Cecil Taylor once said, pointedly, “He doesn’t look European to me.” Ellington may be the best rebuttal to the sort of racial nativism that’s attached itself to jazz since bop, but he’s not the only one. On the Playboy panel, it was left to Dave Brubeck to state the obvious, that “the first written jazz form was the rag, and that was a copy of the European march.” Of course, this overlooks the blues. But Brubeck’s larger point has the ring of truth. Even if we discount ragtime (and I say we shouldn’t), the first jazz borrowed all its instrumentation except drums from Europe, along with its harmonic substructure. Why would anyone have expected it to stop there?

And almost from the beginning, the borrowing worked both ways. I had Walser’s anthology with me because I wanted to reread a piece written by the Swiss conductor Ernest Ansermet after hearing Will Marion Cook’s Southern Syncopated Orchestra and its star soloist, Sidney Bechet, in 1919. Regarded as the first work of serious jazz criticism despite its racial condescension and

Eurocentric frame of reference, Ansermet’s essay is often quoted to support the revisionist theory that Bechet, not Louis Armstrong, was the first great jazz improviser. “Their form is gripping, abrupt, harsh, with a brusque and pitiless ending like that of Bach’s Second Brandenberg Concerto,” Ansermet writes of Bechet’s solos. “[W]hat a moving thing it is to meet this black, fat boy with white teeth and narrow forehead, who is very glad one likes what he does, but can say nothing of his art, except that he follows his ‘own way’— and then one considers that perhaps his own way is the highway along which the whole world will swing tomorrow.”

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Works like Milhaud’s La Création du Monde and Krenek’s opera Jonny Spielt Auf seemed to fulfill that prophecy in short order. In the years following World War I, jazz was embraced as the voice of modernism by innumerable European composers, including many who hadn’t heard any; their idea of jazz was ragtime or Irving Berlin, but at least they were on the right trail. Stravinsky once complained that discussions of Russian music always focused on its revelations of Russian character, never on its merits as music. So it was with most early writing on jazz, which proceeded from the belief that America, syncopation, and the new century were synonyms. Jazz was the muse that would finally drag American culture out of Europe’s shadow. This never happened, at least with our classical music, in part because World War II filled our conservatories with European émigrés for whom jazz and pop were a vulgar distraction from the serious business of the 12-tone row. From that point on, with meaningful exceptions like Stravinsky’s Ebony Concerto for Woody Herman and David Schiff’s recent Four Sisters for Regina Carter (not yet commercially available, but the best thing she’s ever done, to judge from a concert tape), most of the overtures have come from the other side of the divide.

Third stream is today widely regarded as an aberration, and I, for one, am unable to hear those two words without recalling the Mencken-like critic (and Bix Beiderbecke biographer) Ralph Berton’s dismissal of the entire movement as Schuller and Lewis pissing in the same urinal. But third stream’s legacy becomes staggering if, in addition to Schuller’s variations on Monk’s “Criss Cross” and Lewis’s concerti grossi for the Modern Jazz Quartet, we stretch the definition backward and forward to include Scott Joplin’s Treemonisha, James P. Johnson’s “Harlem Suite” and “Yamakraw,” Ellington’s “Harlem” and “The Three Black Kings,” Mary Lou Williams’s “The Zodiac Suite,” Tadd Dameron’s “Fontainebleau,” Ralph Burns’s “Summer Sequence,” Bob Graettinger’s “City of Glass,” George Russell’s “All About Rosie,” Charles Mingus’s “Half Mast Inhibition” and “The Shoes of the Fisherman’s Wife,” Ornette Coleman’s “Forms and Feelings” and Skies of America, Hannibal Marvin Peterson’s “The Children of the Fire,” John Carter’s Castles of Ghana, Anthony Davis’s X, Uri Caine’s Mozart and Mahler adaptations, parts of Carla Bley’s Escalator Over the Hill, and all of Stan Getz and Eddie Sauter’s Focus, Miles Davis and Gil Evans’s Miles Ahead and Sketches of Spain, and Wayne Shorter’s Alegria.

Give me a longer deadline and more column inches and I swear I could name a few hundred more, not even counting comparable works by European jazz composers or curiosities like Bley’s “And Now the Queen” (after Stravinsky), Coltrane’s “Impressions” (after Ravel, by way of Morton Gould), Art Tatum’s finger-busting interpretations of Dvorak’s “Humoresque,” and Jelly Roll Morton’s tip of the cap to Chopin on “Dead Man’s Blues.” In his autobiography, Miles Davis said one inspiration for Kind of Blue was a thumb piano he heard behind an African ballet troupe. But those textures suggest he and Bill Evans were listening to a lot of Debussy. It’s easy to hear Sly and James Brown in Agharta and Pangaea; Miles said Stockhausen was also in the mix. When Wynton Marsalis first burst on the scene as a trumpeter with laurels in both jazz and classical music, he insisted on keeping the two apart, like fleishedik and milchedik. Lately, though, even he’s come around, with unorthodox works like Blood on the Fields and All Rise.

Improvisers have also benefited from an immersion in the classics, even if their references are more difficult to identify. Jimmy Heath once told me that as young men in Philadelphia in the 1940s, he and Coltrane—aware of Charlie Parker’s fascination with the European modernists—spent countless hours examining scores in the free library, looking for ideas to elaborate on in their solos. According to the late Roland Hanna, the early boppers were especially keen on Scriabin for his daring with flatted fifths. The bebop era was also when young musicians who already knew their instruments began studying the aesthetics of improvisation and fine points of harmony with private teachers like Lennie Tristano, Dennis Sandole, and Stanford Gold. From this it was a short step to homemade systems of improvisation, like George Russell’s Lydian theory, Mary Lou Williams’s zoning, Ornette Coleman’s harmolodics, and who can keep track of how many others? Playing jazz was no longer just doing what came naturally—as if it ever was. Whereas pianists once swung the classics, today Keith Jarrett and Brad Mehldau often class the jazzers, turning unsuspecting pop tunes into Chopin or Liszt. On a brighter note, Ornette Coleman so loves Mozartian symmetry that he frequently sounds like a Texas bluesman wearing a powdered wig—phrased differently, “Dancing in Your Head” could be a minuet.

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I’ve dwelled on history because, of all today’s fusions, only jazz-and-classical has as much to draw from. I’d argue that third stream reached its peak not in its own erabut in the early 1980s, by which point the emphasis in what was still being called free jazz paradoxically shifted to composition, ultimately producing Anthony Davis’s X—not a jazz opera, whatever that might be, but a legitimate one in which jazz from ragtime to Coltrane and beyond played an integral part. Given the decelerated pace of jazz evolution, that period feels like just yesterday. Its strides forward and missteps are still being sorted out in clubs and concert halls (and on panels), even though Davis himself and others from his 1980s circle (their efforts color-coded as “jazz,” rather than Philip Glass or Meredith Monk’s “new music,” by everyone except the jazz police) have taken refuge in academia, alongside the post-serialists and dodecaphonists who don’t care if anybody listens—a luxury jazz has never been able to afford, and one it had better not covet. “If it sounds good, it is good,” Ellington preached, and even if it appalls aesthetic conservatives among the jazz faithful, who can be as scornful of relativism as the Christian right, his subjective criterion is the only one worth applying to future jazz-and-classical hybrids. There figure to be lots of them. When haven’t there been?

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Traveling Exhibit

Since its founding in 1846, the Smithsonian Institution has endeavored to be a portrait of mankind, and particularly a portrait of America. Its Web site calls the complex of museums “the mosaic that is our national identity.” In the late 1970s and ’80s, it became clear to many scholars that the mosaic was mostly white.

While the Smithsonian has since made efforts to diversify, critics say there is still a glaring omission—a museum dedicated exclusively to African Americans. Advocates of a museum note that jazz, segregation, and the civil rights movement are all seminal threads in the American tapestry and thus deserve a separate viewing. “It really is impossible to understand American history if you don’t understand the role of African Americans,” says Claudine Brown, director of arts and culture programs for the Nathan Cummings Foundation. “There is just no reason why this museum should not exist. . . . If people are not learning about the history of African Americans, they really aren’t learning American history.”

Should a handful of lawmakers have their way, the National Mall will one day be the home of that story. Last year, Representative John Lewis of Georgia, a Democrat who has championed a national African American museum for years, reached across the aisle for support. He shrewdly enlisted the aid of Congressman J.C. Watts, a Republican from Oklahoma, and Senator Sam Brownback, Republican of Kansas. The trio, along with Democratic senator Max Cleland of Georgia, pushed a bill through both chambers and garnered a signature from President Bush in December, creating the bureaucratic-sounding National Museum for African American History and Culture Plan for Action Presidential Commission.

Then the commission hit the road, asking local communities what they’d like to see in the museum. Last week the commission brought the show to Harlem’s Schomburg Center. The response was as varied as the crowd, which included everyone from academics and curators to engineers and architects eager to pitch in. They were particularly interested in unheralded heroes of African American history, such as veterans of the Korean War. Still, another issue kept coming up, just as it has in other cities. “In all three of the meetings, there has been an overwhelming feeling that the museum should talk about slavery and the Middle Passage,” says Brown, who’s also vice chair of the commission. “But people actually wanted numbers and data.”

For the Smithsonian, the devil has often been in the details. Before the town meetings began, much of the talk had been vague if well intentioned. “I hope the museum, when it’s built, will remind visitors of both the suffering and the triumph, the hurt that was overcome, the barriers that are being cast away,” Bush told reporters, shortly after he signed the bill into law. But the presidential committee must determine exactly how to represent some of the grim realities of African American history. The institution has had a hard road when attempting to address weighty subjects—particularly ones dealing with people of color.

It’s not been for lack of effort, however. As post-civil-rights multiculturalism began to grip the academy, it also gained a foothold in the Smithsonian. The result has been a more diverse staff and a re-appraising of many exhibits. The Museum of Natural History Africa Hall, for instance, was closed in 1993 so curators could update to a post-colonial view. In 1989, Congress authorized the building of the Native American Museum, and in 1987 the National Museum of American History opened “Field to Factory,” an exhibit exploring the migration of African Americans from the South to Northern cities.

Other attempts at multiculturalism have gone less swimmingly. In 1991, the National Museum of American Art opened an exhibit entitled “The West as America,” part of which questioned the impact of pioneers on Native Americans. Then Smithsonian secretary Robert Adams was summoned to Congress and tongue-lashed for allegedly pushing a leftist agenda. A year later the Smithsonian examined the impact of Columbus’s arrival in the Americas, and was met with similar accusations. It all paled in comparison to the dustup in 1995, when Martin O. Harwit, director of the National Air and Space Museum, was forced to resign over an exhibit that examined the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which veterans’ groups viewed as too sympathetic to the Japanese.

Lonnie Bunch, president of the Chicago Historical Society and former associate director for curatorial affairs at the National Museum of American History, says conflict emerges from the desire of museum professionals to create exhibits that don’t just celebrate but question, and at times, disturb. “When you do history it is nothing but controversy and ambiguity,” says Bunch. “Museums used to give simple answers to complex questions. But now what we want to do is tell fuller stories of history that include conflict, and when you do that you’re going to get controversy every time.”

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The idea of a national African American museum had generally been accepted, until Lewis introduced legislation for one in 1988. Before anyone could break ground, much less hang an exhibit, the debate disintegrated into several interest camps. Some argued that the proposed museum should not be under the Smithsonian’s rubric; others believed that the existence of a national facility would undercut local black museums around the country. Still others were angered that the museum was slated to be placed in the Arts and Industries Building—the second oldest building on the Mall.

Lewis was finally able to build a consensus in 1994, giving him a decent shot at having his bill passed, only to have North Carolina Republican Jesse Helms manipulate Senate rules and keep the measure from coming to a vote. When Congress reconvened, it was with a Republican majority that emphasized expense-slashing. An African American museum, an idea that had always been pushed by Democrats, was not on the agenda. “The thinking was that Congress was talking about a balanced budget,” says Claudine Brown, then project director for the African American Museum Project. “And so we were told that there would be no new projects until the budget was balanced.”

Yet museum advocates held out the prospect that Democrats could once again finagle control of Congress, and put the African American Museum back up for discussion. That control, with the exception of a two-year reprieve in the Senate, never came. Now it appears that if a museum is built, much of the important work will be done under the stewardship of a Republican-dominated government.

Taking note of the political realities, Lewis enlisted a more diverse coalition of allies than the corps of liberal academics who backed the project in 1991. The new panel includes whites, African Americans, scholars, businessmen, Democrats, and Republicans. “Some people think that Republicans are not interested in certain issues. I beg to differ,” says commission chair Bob Wright, who has long been active in the Republican Party. “John Lewis kept this issue alive. But it really has become a bipartisan effort. . . . I don’t think it’s a Republican or Democratic issue.”

Bipartisanship has its advantages. With Republican legislators co-sponsoring the effort, moving it through Congress should be substantially easier. It will not ease what is almost certain to be another intense debate over what the museum should look like and the conclusions it should draw about the country that so often played an ignominious role in African American history. Already the Holocaust museum has been mentioned as a model. “This museum, like the United States Holocaust Museum, should take the visitor through the different eras of the African American legacy,” said Brownback in a statement. “From slavery, the Emancipation Proclamation, the Reconstruction, and Exodus to Kansas, through the civil rights movement to present day and beyond.”

Brown notes that in almost every city, the Holocaust Museum comes up as a possible prototype for discussing the Middle Passage and slavery. “The feeling is that [the Holocaust Museum] is very effective, and we should be telling that part of our story with equal effectiveness,” says Brown. Assiduously researched and deftly assembled, the Holocaust Museum works to demonstrate the singular horror of the ghettos and concentration camps.

But there are critical differences between the Holocaust and the many travesties that dot the African American experience. First, the Holocaust did not happen on American soil. Second, few would romanticize it—there’s no Gone With the Wind for Nazi Germany. No descendants of the Nazis turned out to protest the museum’s depiction of Germany, unlike here, where descendants of Confederate soldiers serve in Congress and could take issue with the museum’s perspective on the Civil War.

The legacy of the South and the Confederacy has long been a sticking point in the American mind. Southern whites remembered an idyllic past that extolled admirable virtues like independence, rugged individualism, and chivalry. From the black perspective, the South is an Auschwitz—birthplace of Jim Crow, the Tuskeegee syphilis experiments, and the Rosewood massacre. Much of the South’s dark past is closer than we think. Latter-day segregationist Strom Thurmond, who once filibustered for a day in hopes of derailing a civil rights bill, is just now leaving the Senate.

Grappling with the horrors committed under the foreign Nazi regime is one thing. Grappling with America’s own native holocaust is quite another. “It is not possible to tour [the Holocaust Museum] . . . and not come away muttering, ‘How could they?’ ” recently wrote Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen recently. “A museum dedicated to African American history would produce the same result. It is not possible to see pictures of slaves in chains or the charred bodies of lynched men and not ask yourself, ‘How could they?’ But the ‘they’ in this case are not Germans or other Europeans. They are we.”

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These are weighty issues, ones that, for now, the presidential commissioners will not have to address. Content is not in their immediate purview. For now, the panel must deal with more mundane yet essential tasks, like nailing down a location and putting together a fundraising plan. While proponents of the museum are happy to see it progressing, the legislation signed by Bush does not guarantee the construction of a museum. Two of the bill’s sponsors won’t be present when Congress reconvenes—Senator Cleland lost his re-election bid and Representative Watts is retiring. Museum supporters are in a battle for space, as the National Park Service will not allow building past a certain point on the Mall. Furthermore, there are several other museum ideas being floated, including one dedicated to Hispanic Americans.

The presidential commissioners certainly have a vision for what they would like to see occur on the Mall. Wright argues that the vision should be inclusive, neither ignoring nor becoming weighed down by some of the darker aspects of American history. “I think that when you talk about history, you have to really talk about it as it was,” says Wright. “But the story of African Americans goes beyond just slavery.”

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NEWS & POLITICS ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES

Post-War Jazz: An Arbitrary Road Map

1970

Art Ensemble of Chicago, “Theme de Yoyo”

In perhaps the worst year ever for jazz records, two of the slyest of veteran swingers, Bobby Hackett and Vic Dickenson, played the hotel gig that eventually produced the album that launched Chiaroscuro; and the 15 or so sessions recorded by the little-known AEC in Europe began showing up stateside. The AEC’s antic score for an obscure French film (shown here for a nanosecond as Sophie’s Ways) treats Monteverdi to a second-line beat and, more predictively, ferments free and funk on “Theme de Yoyo.” Lester Bowie pushes trumpet tonality beyond Miles’s jurisdiction, proving along with reedmen Roscoe Mitchell and Joseph Jarman that this strangely theatrical troupe could be plenty pithy, while whitefaced bassist Malachi Favors and drummer Don Moye anticipate Shaft. For added measure, Fontella Bass croons, “Your fanny’s like two sperm whales floating down the Seine.” *Les Stances a Sophie (Universal Sound)


1971

Mary Lou Williams, “What’s Your Story, Morning Glory?”

In another dour year for jazz records, Circle united Chick Corea and Dave Holland (they said they hoped to escape fusion) with Anthony Braxton; Jimmy Rushing made his last stand, mobilizing a return of mainstream heroes; and Carla Bley waxed the “Overture” to Escalator Over the Hill. No less striking was the latest comeback by Williams, who, like Earl Hines, had been playing since the 1920s and still sounded unequivocally modern. After building a following at the Cookery, she romped deliriously through the Giants concert with Dizzy Gillespie and Bobby Hackett and four months later started work on a more meditative solo LP. She begins her best-known blues (even better known as the plagiarized pop hit “Black Coffee”) with a rhythmic vamp, then plays seven comely choruses that combine slow-drag blues panache with fresh chords and a subtly metronomic beat—her penultimate chorus is a knockout. *Nite Life (Chiaroscuro)


Ornette Coleman, “The Men Who Live in the White House”

Things looked up with Dave Holland’s Confer-ence of the Birds, Sonny Stitt’s Constellation, and, in St. Louis, Julius Hemphill’s self-produced Dogon A.D. But nothing could compare with Coleman’s first and—to date—only recorded symphony. The somewhat compromised album was completed in nine hours under constraints that forbade him from using his band along with the London Symphony, which was the initial idea; it was ultimately edited for time and divided into 21 episodes. Yet its power ferments. Nearing the final leg, the orchestra introduces a six-note variation on “The Good Life,” the gloriously ribald theme formerly called “School Work” and later adapted as “Theme From a Symphony” on the electrifying Dancing in Your Head (1975). Coleman’s alto is round and warm as he lifts off for a cadenza that mines that same motif with his shamanistic cry, fading with fragile vibrato, until the spacious harmonies of “Love Life” lead him to the final, rustic urgency of “Sunday in America.” *Skies of America (Columbia/Legacy)


1973

Cecil Taylor, “Spring of Two Blue-Js”

Taylor’s two magnificent Blue Note albums of 1966 were followed by a silence of nearly seven years, except for his collaboration with the Jazz Composers Association (and European concerts that weren’t issued here until much later). Then, within a year, he released Indent, a solo recital from Antioch, where he had been teaching, and the second set of a Town Hall concert dedicated to Ben Webster. The latter has two sections: an epic if largely romantic piano solo, which offers an improvisational coherence his earlier work only hints at, and a meditative quartet variation that captures him in transition before the darker, deeper textures that followed when he launched his sextet. This was bassist Sirone’s first recording with him and drummer Andrew Cyrille’s last; both are fully committed, as is Taylor’s most frequent collaborator, Jimmy Lyons, whose alto mirrors every pianistic conceit. *Spring of Two Blue-J’s (Unit Core/OP)


1974

Modern Jazz Quartet, “Django”

This was the piece that solidified international interest in its composer, John Lewis, and the MJQ in 1954, when Lewis, Milt Jackson, Percy Heath, and Kenny Clarke had been working together for nearly three years. It had been introduced at Clarke’s last session; he would soon leave and be replaced by Connie Kay. Two decades later, all four called it quits (until 1981, when they reunited as if they had been enjoying a long vacation). But first they gave a series of farewell concerts. Despite its cool formalism, the MJQ was at its best in the free fall of live recording, and their triumphant evening in New York provided a definitive version of the cortege written in memory of Django Reinhardt—as definitive as possible for a piece Lewis never stopped revising. Here all the elements of his skill and the MJQ’s interpretive power are as one: the evocative Gypsy feeling in the main theme, recalling the Adagio of Mendelssohn’s octet; the stout bass motif; the mixture of delicacy and force, discipline and spontaneity, tragedy and joy. *The Complete Last Concert (Atlantic)

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1975

The Revolutionary Ensemble, “Ponderous Planets”

Their first studio album was their last; the group disbanded in 1977, ending a six-year run—impressive considering its inability to crack the cult ceiling. TRE often replaced a staunch beat with a mere pulse, suggesting a fusion between classical and jazz practices. But the reflexive interplay between Leroy Jenkins’s spry violin, Sirone’s redwood-heavy bass (and expert arco technique), and Jerome Cooper’s fastidious, if often whimsical percussion was largely consonant and accessible, never more so than on Cooper’s by-no-means- ponderous opus. It begins with bowed strings and saw, achieves jazzy frisson with the entrance of plucked bass and cymbals, and finally, having made the case that impassioned improvisation can flourish without swing, swings like a mutha—in waltz time. A good year for Jenkins, who also introduced For Players Only, his daring Jazz Composers Orchestra spectacle. *The People’s Republic (Horizon/OP)


1976

Anthony Braxton, “Piece Three”

Not exactly typical Braxton, but then, what is? And who else would have tried something as wry and unexpected as this brazen send-up of a march—a piece, incidentally, that actually had everyone taking a position. The jubilant theme, which owes as much to the beer garden (dig that counter-theme by the reeds) as to military needs, modulates to a repeated oompah figure, as though stuck in a rut; into this berserk stasis Leo Smith comes a-burning, playing only those trumpet tones of no use in a march. A surprising interlude introduces the aggressive trombone of George Lewis, who enters with a droll tailgate slide and is soon ripping and snorting, followed by the waspish, perhaps quizzical clarinet of Braxton, who fights against another static riff. Suddenly, the march is restored like a beam of sunshine, as the ensemble waddles cheekily down the pike. *Creative Orchestra Music 1976 (Bluebird)


1977

Hank Jones, “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning”

Jazz records were bullish again, triggered by small labels that suited a horde of unknown talents from the West and Midwest, who also helped establish a loft alternative to nightclub venues. At the same time, there was an invasion of re-energized mainstreamers who required labels, too. Duets and trios were big: Jimmy Rowles serially encountered Al, Zoot, and Stan; McCoy Tyner and Tommy Flanagan tested diverse rhythm-makers; Konitz parleyed with Solal, Venuti with McKenna, and Hemphill with alter ego Roi Boye. Jones’s best albums were with Tony Williams and Ron Carter, but it was at a session with Milt Hinton and Bobby Rosengarden that he was talked into going one alone and produced this neglected masterpiece—his quintessential performance. After a laconic vamp, the unlikely melody suddenly spills down in broken chords, and is just as quickly dispensed with as Jones dives deep into its harmonies for a series of blues-driven variations that are infernally clever and utterly lovely. *The Trio (Chiaroscuro/OP)


1978

Sonny Rollins, “Autumn Nocturne”






Sonny Rollins
photo: Steve Maruta

Jazz’s preeminent concertizer disdains recording, where he usually keeps the lid on his id. So why not record all his concerts and cherry-pick them for albums? Maybe because the ferocity would alienate the faint of heart and leave no possibility at all for radio play. Happily, he does issue some live performances (meanwhile, his fans surreptitiously filch every note), preserving the most charismatic attack in the history of the tenor saxophone—a sound that, having already influenced the playing habits of two generations, reached extrovert heights in the mid ’70s. Indeed, not since “West End Blues” had there been a cadenza quite like this, which similarly begins on an odd note before plunging into a grove of euphoric convolutions. When Rollins finally attains the theme, after citations from “To a Wild Rose” and “Home Sweet Home,” plus two vocal yawps, the sensation of release is overwhelming. From that point, he exhales a whoosh of melody, radiant and raunchy all at once. *Silver City (Milestone)


1979

Bill Evans, “I Loves You Porgy”

A musical dybbuk took possession of him in the last two years of his life, unleashing fresh, unexpected powers. The superb new trio with bassist Marc Johnson and drummer Joe LaBarbara revitalized him, too, and he played with the visionary conviction of a 19th-century romantic. Yet few knew about it until after his death, when a stream of concert recordings revealed that the impetuous “My Romance” or the extended “Nardis” you may once have heard were, in fact, chronic parts of his repertoire. These rhapsodies didn’t quite dim the reverence for the old days but did put them in perspective: Paris ’79 was every bit as imposing as Vanguard ’61. His unaccompanied “I Loves You Porgy” trumps the celebrated 1968 Montreux version, from the wary opening tones and patented Evans harmonies and touch to the downright zealous digressions that follow. He’s captive to his own command. *The Paris Concert, Edition One (Blue Note)

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1980

World Saxophone Quartet, “I Heard That”

Sometimes simple does the trick. At 3:23, Hamiet Bluiett’s elementary blues could have fit on a 78, and it doesn’t waste a moment. Most of the WSQ specialties were polyphonic or contrapuntal, and encouraged collective improvisation; the most intricate were by Julius Hemhill and usually featured the quartet—himself, Bluiett, Oliver Lake, and the uncontainable David Murray, who also adapted some of his own best melodies. Here, Bluiett offers a showcase for Hemphill’s roiling alto, his huge blistering sound buoyed by precision stop-time chords, as he renovates old licks and bonds them with biting asides and turnbacks. Hemphill sustains the churchy signifying and technical élan that too often took a backseat to his composing, posing, japing. This LP was in the can for two years and yet it still seemed a breakthrough when released in late 1982. *Revue (Black Saint)


1981

Art Pepper, “Arthur’s Blues”

After 16 years of silence due to incarceration and drug addiction, one of the golden boys of 1950s L.A. came back in 1976 with a pressing need to be heard not only as a madly competitive altoist making up for lost years, but as a memoirist and nightclub seer. At first he battled his way through a Coltrane influence, but a year later the old facility returned, sharpened by a new urgency: Every solo was a bloodletting, whether backed with strings handsomely arranged by Bill Holman or loving piano by George Cables. The painstakingly slow but energetic quartet blues recorded a year before his death is typical: Throughout four choruses that Pepper plays before the piano and bass solos and three that he plays after, he constructs a narrative with barks, squeals, and 32nd-note asides, combining bravura technique, sheer guts, and a concerted purpose. *The Complete Galaxy Recordings (Galaxy)


1982

Air, “Do Tell”

The most durable cooperative after the Art Ensemble, Air achieved nonpareil equity among its members, who could—playing Joplin and Morton or originals—undermine the beat without forfeiting it. Each member possessed grit and wit. Steve McCall’s drums were plush and decisive, yet spare and understated. Fred Hopkins’s bass fused audacious power with mercuric reflexes. Henry Threadgill wrote most of the material and played reeds, flute, and, briefly, a contraption made of hubcaps. Like Arthur Blythe, whose “Sister Daisy” (same year, Elaborations) is another model of loft-era swing, Threadgill’s alto is ripe, raw, and focused; they had more in common with the restored Pepper than with the ’60s avant-gardists. “Do Tell” has a mellow A-theme and double-time B-theme; each man helps to shore up the backbeat pulse until Threadgill initiates a lusty climax. Air turned out to be a starter band for him, succeeded by such compound ensembles as Very Very Circus, Make a Move, and Zooid. *80 Degrees Below ’82 (Antilles)


1983

Craig Harris, “Blackwell”

In the year of James Blood Ulmer’s Odyssey, when harmolodics ran the gamut from Shannon Jackson’s Decoding Society to the acoustical Old and New Dreams, Harris’s overlooked tribute to pioneering drummer Ed Blackwell offers a more obscure link to Ornette. More pointedly, it serves as a reminder that the trombonist and composer, who made a splash a year earlier with his “Nigerian Sunset,” could conjure up insightful and inventive themes in a neoclassical mode. This one alternates tricky syncopations in eight and six, which support a growly, ripping, timbre-changing trombone solo by Harris, a taut and pointed one by tenor saxophonist George Adams, and—connecting them—an upbeat Cecil-like offering by pianist Donald Smith, all of them kept on track by Fred Hopkins and Charlie Persip, who italicize every beat. Harris is probably the only trombonist ever to double on didgeridoo. *Black Bone (Soul Note)


1984

Jack DeJohnette, “Third World Anthem”

The drummer’s Special Edition was big on saxophonists, and the tidy alliance of a reed trio (suggesting the influence of World Saxophone Quartet), machine-gun stickwork, and Rufus Reid’s limber bass has a sharp state-of-the-art clarity. DeJohnette’s music usually employs multiple themes and time signatures. This one begins with a staccato rhythm and moves through a sequence of tantalizing melodies and backup figures, welling and waning like a train now approaching, now receding. The alto, tenor, and tuba solos are vividly self-assured. John Purcell, whose alto captures some of the radius of Arthur Blythe’s sound, welds short, acerbic phrases into a bold design; Howard Johnson, who doubles on baritone sax, lets loose a welter of double-time passages; and David Murray, whose woolly coilings on tenor personified the era, is enthused, funny, and succinct. *Album Album (ECM)

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1985

Benny Carter, “Lover Man”

The most quietly productive career in jazz began in the ’20s, when Carter helped formulate big band music and established a standard—rivaled only by Johnny Hodges—on alto saxophone; he later introduced his own suave orchestra, an introspective trumpet style, and major compositions, peaking in his seventh and eighth decades. His masterly “Lover Man” solo is a single chorus—32 bars; two minutes, 20 seconds—that, with glancing phrases and melodious arcs, stands as a defining, sui generis statement. After a poised theme recitation by trumpeter Joe Wilder and guitarist Ed Bickert, Carter enters as the embodiment of lucid invention, doubling up the slow tempo, pushing the beat, mixing mincing steps and flowing strides, disguising the melody with blues innuendos, taut riffs, and half-moon melodies. Too bad a subtler pianist than Gene Harris wasn’t on hand, but his glib soul-notes underscore Carter’s ingenuity. *A Gentleman and His Music (Concord Jazz)


1986

Wynton Marsalis, “Autumn Leaves”

Looking to Marsalis for deep feelings is as pointless as looking to Miles Davis for easy laughs. The nature of his virtuosity is to stand slightly above the chords and rhythmic change-ups, alighting in an expression of kinetic display. In a transitional juncture between the orthodox quintet that (along with classical side-trips) made his name and the self-conscious septet that fixed his direction, he appeared with just piano, bass, and drums, and revealed a lean, aspirate timbre that recalled Kenny Dorham rather than Miles, with whom he was widely compared. Even with a tune and speedy gait closely associated with Davis, he reveals a resolute inventiveness and stylish approach to time: The rhythm section gives the illusion of retarding the pulse, but Marsalis never flags during his seven hurtling turns, replete with raring turnbacks and rugged riffs, notably a 10-bar incursion in the fourth go-round. *Live at Blues Alley (Columbia)


1987

John Carter, “On a Country Road”

The last movement of the fourth of five suites in Roots and Folklore: Episodes in the Development of American Folk Music shows how much ground Carter—who taught public school for more than 30 years before committing himself to a career in music—could seed with relatively chaste material. At heart it’s a deceptively simple clarinet riff that burbles like a swallow yet requires consummate breath control, two-note chords, and register hopping. In a winning take on musique concrète, Carter employs a tape of his Uncle John telling a story; the cadences of John’s voice and his nephew’s appreciative laughter—not the tale—are what count. Fred Hopkins picks up on the clarinet riff and Andrew Cyrille (outstanding throughout the album) brings the rhythm home as the piece turns into a big-city blues, featuring growling choruses by trumpeter Bobby Bradford, who is then superseded by a harmonica solo, which, ipso facto, returns us to the country. *Fields (Gramavision)


1988

Don Pullen, “At the Cafe Centrale”

The year belonged to the 11-volume Cecil Taylor in Berlin ’88, despite its limited number and distribution—still the most extravagant single-artist achievement of the CD era. But another remarkable pianist associated with the outer fringe suggested a powerful rapprochement with the center, when he teamed with Gary Peacock and Tony Williams. Pullen had journeyed from ESP-Disk to backing pop singers to working for Charles Mingus to co-leading a successful quintet with saxophonist George Adams. He innovated a keyboard technique that obliged him to turn his palms up and rake the keys with his knuckles, while hewing to chordal boundaries and uncovering ecstatic melodies. His opening three choruses on “At the Cafe Centrale,” a symmetrical 48-bar flamenco stomp, are parsed in eight-bar segments, shadowed every step by Williams. The harmonic range is narrow, yet Pullen’s percussive attack abounds with colors. *New Beginnings (Blue Note)


1989

Muhal Richard Abrams, “Finditnow”

Guru to the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, Abrams relocated to New York in the ’70s and sent the pigeonholers racing for cover. With every recording and concert a discrete project, he produced an immensely varied tableau of works that range from basic blues (not least his homage to Muddy Waters) to cultured orchestration and new-music fusions, often with humor. Along the way, he emerged as a major force in the preservation of big band jazz—in this instance as played by 18 pieces that trace the instrumental food chain from glockenspiel to synthesizer. Muhal brings out the best in everyone as “Finditnow” blends unadorned swing (the indispensable Fred Hopkins and Andrew Cyrille), four- and eight-bar exchanges (best are Abrams’s piano and Warren Smith’s vibes), a tidy flute and soprano sax passage, a Bach-inspired cello interlude (Diedre Murray), and rare voicings for xylophone and trombones. *The Hearinga Suite (Black Saint)

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1990

Abbey Lincoln, “The World Is Falling Down”






Abbey Lincoln
photo: John Sann

It had been almost three decades since her last major record when a French-produced album (with perhaps the only unflattering photographs of her ever published) affirmed her return as a matchless singer and songwriter working a terrain bounded by Billie Holiday and Bob Dylan. The title track throbs with backbeat fidelity, a gospelly stoicism that all but disguises the originality of her four-plus-eight-bar verses and a lyric worth hearing. With empathic support from Charlie Haden and Billy Higgins, she articulates every word, jolting the phrase, “We’ll follow the breeze.” Yet Lincoln accounts for less than half of the Ron Carter-arranged performance. Clark Terry and Jackie McLean abstain from their trademark licks as they exchange 20-bar trumpet and alto solos, plus a chorus of fours and twos (Terry’s Schubertian insert is deft and telling), before she returns with the refrain: “The world is falling down, hold my hand.” *The World Is Falling Down (Verve).


1991

Joe Lovano, “Portrait of Jenny”

The only bona fide jazz star in years who enjoyed a serious big band apprenticeship, Lovano worked with Woody Herman and Mel Lewis, then shared center stage with guitarist Bill Frisell in Paul Motian’s alluring combos. His consistency as a saxophonist is matched by an evidently limitless fund of conceptual ideas—every album is something new. An impetuous modernist with a mile-long romantic streak, he’s an exceptional ballad player, aged and sagacious. His theme chorus on “Portrait of Jenny” recalls Coltrane, but for a warm, breathy vibrato that brings to mind Joe Henderson—who also had a breakthrough in 1991, playing Billy Strayhorn. Backed by pianist Michel Petrucciani, Dave Holland, and Ed Blackwell, Lovano totally stamps the song: the unwavering sustained note in the third bar; the trilling multiphonics as he comes out of his second bridge, propelled by Blackwell’s cymbals; the cadenza, gently underscored by Blackwell’s mallets. *From the Soul (Blue Note).


1992

David Murray, “Flowers for Albert”

He introduced this homage to Albert Ayler at his first performance in New York, in 1975. The 20-year-old then returned to Oakland long enough to drop out of college, and was back in a flash—a poster boy for what became known as the loft era, playing in every context, from unaccompanied tenor sax and bass clarinet to the greatly admired octet, followed by the big band, funk, rap, African percussion, etc. Murray may earn an entry in Guinness for the number of albums he’s made. A writer of engaging tunes and initiator of challenging projects (like an orchestral transcription of Paul Gonsalves’s 27-chorus solo on “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue”), he developed an immense network of collaborators. For his fourth big band album, he reconceived his mascot tune as a mirthful dance, conducted by longtime associate Butch Morris, with elatedly cranky solos by Murray, Craig Harris, and (in an especially diverting turn) trumpeter Hugh Ragin. Just when you think it’s winding down, Murray reappears for a two-minute cadenza that would’ve warmed Albert’s cockles—Gonsalves’s, too. *South of the Border (DIW).


1993

Lee Konitz, “Exposition”

If anyone rivals Murray in output and diversity, it’s the venerable Konitz, whose widely noted solos with the Claude Thornhill band in 1947 (when he was 20) established him as the altoist who didn’t sound like Bird. He was obviously the cool choice for Miles’s nonet, and subsequent projects with his former teacher, Lennie Tristano. A committed improviser who shuns clichés and was playing long and free before long-and-free was a movement, Konitz was inevitably tagged a musician’s musician, though his lilting if acidic timbre and casual swing, not to mention proto-repertory liberality, make him quite listener-friendly. Working with routine chord changes and like-minded fellows—clarinetist Jimmy Giuffre, pianist Paul Bley, bassist Gary Peacock—he makes “Exposition” a 19-minute meditation on instantaneous invention, conversational intrigue, and rhythmic equilibrium. *Rhapsody (Evidence).


1994

James Carter, “Take the A Train”

A reeds virtuoso who can play anything except subtle, Carter opened the year with a roar and closed it with a sigh—the former on behalf of eager little DIW (he looks like a jazz musician on the cover) and the latter for corporate stepchild Atlantic (he looks like a movie star). Both discs were mighty impressive, auguring his ability to make thematic albums. His raptor-like chomping of the Ellington band’s theme is a splendidly driven prank. Soloing for nearly eight minutes, he uses every avant-garde technique Coltrane, Dolphy, and the other anti-jazz felons had employed to wreak havoc on the shaken ’60s, only he swings like a madman and he never misses a chord. When he comes to ground, popping notes and closing with a screech, it’s OK to guffaw. Craig Taborn continues in the same riotous vein on piano; perhaps the only prototype for this pair is Byard and Kirk. *Jurassic Classics (DIW).

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1995

Randy Weston, “Tangier Bay”

In a solid year for records, connections with the Dark Continent were asserted in Hannibal Lokumbe’s African Portraits, a stately oratorio that begins before the middle passage and ends after 52nd Street (and Hannibal’s trumpet pyrotechnics), and circumnavigated in the unexpected techno-funk duets of Kenny Barron and Mino Cinelu’s Swamp Sally. Weston, a pioneer in African American (or Moroccan-Brooklyn) rapprochement, inducted the best working band of his life, called it African Rhythms, and resuscitated his treasured older pieces, some of which had been around since the ’50s. His seductive highflier “Tangier Bay”—A (16) A (16) B (16) C (a kind of eight-bar semicolon with first-beat drone chords)—opens with a suspenseful piano tableau by the composer, until a vamp fires the melody, stated by altoist Talib Kibwe with bebopping insouciance and plummy tone. Weston’s two choruses can afford to flaunt his love of Monk, because his reflections soon turn to signature phrases that are pure Weston. *Saga (Verve).


1996

Uri Caine, “Symphony No. 1, Third Movement”

Other places and tribal rites also came into view: John Zorn at Masada, Tiny Bell in the Balkans, Roy Hargrove in Cuba, Don Byron on the Lower East Side, Steve Turre on the beach. Caine labored over the persistently fashionable Gustav Mahler and reinvented him as a suppressed Jewish klezmer. Mahler’s soulful minor-key melodies, wrested from aggressive major-key opuses engender a provoking midrash from the downtown elite, including Byron, clarinet; Dave Douglas, trumpet; Joey Baron, drums; a hand-drumming cantor; and many more. The third-movement themes from the Titan are ideal for Caine, demanding to be played “mit parodie” and offering a wistful canon, a dance tune that might have served The Godfather, and crashing cymbals (Barron may be the most strenuous drummer since Shannon Jackson). Caine adds a funeral march, bombshell eruptions, oy vey moaning, shrieking textures, a touch of “Autumn Leaves,” and superlative solos by Byron and Douglas. *Primal Light (Winter & Winter)


1997

David S. Ware, “Logistic”

There are two themes. A short, repeated saxophone phrase sets off William Parker’s teeming arco bass and Susie Ibarra’s precise clickety-clack drumming; then an ascending hiccup figure leads to a galumphing melody, for which Matthew Shipp provides contrary piano chords, reminding us of the irony that strangely underscores the quartet’s “godspellized” bliss. Ware’s tenor had made an unforgettable impression in the ’70s and ’80s bands of Cecil Taylor and Andrew Cyrille, with its squalling timbre, its serrated edge—a sound that could rip phone books in half. If he often seems like a product of the Coltrane-Pharoah Sanders nexus, he is a phrasemaker of undeniable individuality, an avant-shocker whose control is never in doubt. Nor is the reach of his impulsively interactive quartet, or the freedom with which his bandmates head out for orbits of their own—alternative jazz of the past 20 years is unimaginable without Parker and Shipp. *Go See the World (Columbia)


1998

Tommy Flanagan, “Let’s”

Suddenly, it was about the old Turks: Dewey Redman, Cecil Taylor, and Elvin Jones recorded the mesmerizing Momentum Space, and John Lewis began preparing a stunning envoiÑEvolution, two volumes. Flanagan had been one of many gifted Bud Powell-influenced pianists in the ’50s. But not until the ’70s, after a decade as Ella Fitzgerald’s accompanist, did he create the trio that set him apart. He was now forging standards for group dynamics and discerning repertoire. Who else would have revived Thad Jones’s balmy caper? Based on standard AABA changes in a configuration that may have stimulated Coltrane’s “Mr. P.C.,” “Let’s” veers into an old-dark-house digression with blunt chords and hesitations. In this definitive version, Flanagan bodes the antic hay with a descending phrase that recalls a song from The Court Jester. Then he goes to the races for half a dozen express laps. Bassist Peter Washington and drummer Lewis Nash cover him like white on rice. *Sunset and the Mocking Bird (Blue Note)


1999

Keith Jarrett, “What Is This Thing Called Love?”

Piano trios were bearish: Barry Harris assumed ever greater subtleties, Roy Haynes created a thrilling context for Danilo Perez, Cyrus Chestnut solidified his following, and relative newcomersÑBill Charlap, Jason Moran, Jacky Terrasson, Brad MehldauÑearned their own. After years of somber and extensive keyboard meditations (standing firm against the Fender plague), Jarrett turned to standards and convened a trio of extrasensory instincts. Sometimes he failed to sustain his shiniest conceits, and one wished he had ducked out of a piece sooner. Yet in Paris, “What Is This Thing Called Love?” was by far the longest improvisation, and he never falters. He begins alone, a firm left hand girding lively embellishments played with an oscillating rhythm between baroque and bop. Gary Peacock’s bass knocks twice, followed by a shimmer of Jack DeJohnette’s cymbal, and very soon the trio levitates. *Whisper Not (ECM)

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2000

Ted Nash, “Première Rhapsodie”

The achievement of a Flanagan or Jarrett derives in large part from logging numberless miles on the road, inducing among the players a synergy that borders on clairvoyance. Yet some projects may be better off as one-shots, conceived for the studio. Nash, the soul of sideman dependability, presented this memorable quintet at at least one New York concert, but it survives as a recorded feat of genre-defying eclecticismÑa bright idea, brightly done. Debussy’s clarinet exercise is augmented by Nash’s resourceful voicings and an instrumentation that cannot help evoking tangents. Wyclife Gordon’s plunger trombone calls to mind Tyree Glenn’s fruitful stay with Ellington and proves that bygone techniques can be revitalized without pomo condescension, while Nash’s clarinet implies a rapprochement between France and Weimar and his tenor pushes at the parameters of free jazzÑto say nothing of evocations summoned by accordion, violin, and drums. *Sidewalk Meeting (Arabesque)


2001

Jason Moran, “The Sun at Midnight”

A student of Byard and protégé of altoist Greg Osby, who has mustered several important talents, Moran incarnates the state of a music that often seems weighed down by its own history. He has assimilated piano techniques of eight decades, from stride to free, devising a personal music that refuses to acknowledge stylistic prejudices. The past cannot suffocate him and musicians as varied as Stefon Harris, Mark Turner, Vijay Iyer, or the insatiably productive Matthew Shipp, among many others, because they’ve been there. Moran brought off a small miracle in specifically making common cause with the unwavering maverick Sam Rivers. His “The Sun at Midnight,” pretty in a stark and unsentimental way, is ideal for Rivers’s flute, which amplifies the melody, forging ahead like a scout, spotted every step by drummer Nasheet Waits, bassist Tarus Mateen, and Moran, whose spiky, luminous elaboration continues the mood right through to a pedaled crescendo that brings Rivers home for the reprise. You might think that an individual keyboard attack is no longer possible, but you would be wrong. *Black Stars (Blue Note)


Plus: New York Jazz Clubs, Concerts, and Festivals

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Brutality and Revival

Last year at this time I sermonized about the lack of consensus reflected in best-of-year record lists, and tried to pep myself up for the long haul of a jazz post-history in which no one had the stomach for—let alone expectations of—genius or innovation. Kind of Blue was the year’s bestselling jazz album, Louis Armstrong’s centenary was off to a shaky start, and Ken Burns’s Jazz was poised to change everything.

What a difference a year makes. Not that anything revolutionary took place, short of a dismantled Taliban and vanished surplus, yet jazz optimism grew throughout the year, triggered by responses to the PBS documentary (vitriolic criticism helped keep small-j jazz in the news) and underscored by the sparsely attended but inspiring “Made in America” 9/11 benefit. Kind of Blue continued its box office rule, Armstrong’s centenary was shamefully neglected by mass media, and the incredible rise in record sales following the Jazz broadcast could not be sustained, especially in a Bush economy, though the show’s long-term effect won’t be known for some time—dozens of anecdotes have been reported along the lines of one I heard from a man in a Midwestern bookstore, who told me that his 14-year-old came home from Tower with two CDs: Britney and Satchmo.

The jazz business is more than ever an oxymoron, so where are the signs of revival? Chiefly in the return of consensus. For the first time in several years, a handful of recordings roused an almost universal admiration—many of the faces make the best-of lists every year, but I discerned a fresh excitement this year, a shared have-you-heard-so-and-so enthusiasm regarding live performances as well as records. Admittedly, this was mostly a critics’ thing, but agreement of any sort is useful, even if it doesn’t affect profit margin. Not a seat could be found as Cecil Taylor reunited with Elvin Jones at the Blue Note, too many seats went begging at Lincoln Center’s tribute to Jimmy Heath, and neither event translated into record sales. Still, the first year of the new century effectively replaced wails of despair with many pleasures, even as it cleared the decks with a relentless barrage of deaths.

Necrologically, 2001 was brutal: Al Hibbler, Billy Higgins, Billy Mitchell, Brother Jack McDuff, Buddy Tate, Cal Collins, Chico O’Farrill, Etta Jones, Flip Phillips, Harold Land, Jack Elliot, Jerry Jerome, J.J. Johnson, Joe Henderson, John Collins, John Lewis, Larry Adler, Les Brown, Lorez Alexandria, Lou Levy, Makanda Ken McIntyre, Manny Albam, Moe Koffman, Norris Turney, Panama Francis, Ralph Burns, Spike Robinson, Susannah McCorkle, Tommy Flanagan. Also Anita Moore, Charles Ables, Frank Parker, Harold McKinney, Ike Cole, Janusz Zabieglin´ski, Jay Migliori, Nico Assumpção, Paul Hume, Peter Schmidli. Plus tangential figures, including Charles Trenet, Chet Atkins, Ernie K-Doe, Francis Bebey, George Harrison, John Lee Hooker. And key writers and producers: George T. Simon, Helen Oakley Dance, Jack Sohmer, Milt Gabler, Norman Granz.

One spot of good news on the mortality front. The new edition of the Grove Dictionary of Jazz includes a complete list of death dates as well as birth dates, and it appears that no one in jazz has ever died on March 14. True, many people are not listed in Grove, including anyone who played ragtime, but the inclusiveness is sufficient to warrant that jazz people get a free pass on March 14. Don’t screw it up.

Much good news on the recording front, despite the reported death of Atlantic and the AWOL status of Columbia. Too bad there was nothing from Wayne Shorter, whose two New York sightings were enough to establish his jazzman-of-the-year status. Jazz CDs may not sell, but tireless artists, incurably enthusiastic indies, and a few stalwart majors continue to turn them out, and this year was fat with discs that will, in time, very likely join the more remunerative world of reissues. In no particular order, excepting number one, these are the ones I return to with increasing faith.


1. JOHN LEWIS, Evolution II (Atlantic)

This time with a rhythm section and every bit the match of its 1999 predecessor. We will never again hear a keyboard touch like this, or as gloriously introverted a feeling for deep blues and saturated melody.

2. JASON MORAN, Black Stars (Blue Note)

Moran, at 26, has, like Lewis, that rarest of qualities—an unmistakable touch. His trio with Nasheet Waits and Tarus Mateen invents its future every time out, here stimulated by crafty Sam Rivers, who is himself roused by a production that keeps the tracks short. The solo Jaki Byard homage, “Out Front,” is like a cognac interlude.

3. LOUIS SCLAVIS L’Affrontement des Prétendants (ECM)

ECM also released the 1996 Les Violences de Rameau, focusing on Rameau’s last, long-buried opera, Les Boréades, and featuring the trombone of Yves Roberts, but lacking the edgy directness that makes Sclavis’s latest a jazz-qua-jazz breakthrough. Excepting Bruno Chevillon’s bass, he introduces a vital new quintet including a daunting if underused trumpeter, Jean-Luc Cappozzo, but Sclavis’s high-calorie tone—the richest bass clarinet sound since Dolphy—and varied voicing keep every track humming, especially the cortege, “Hommage à Lounés Màtoub,” written for the Algerian singer who was cut down a few years ago by a dozen assassins—it builds to an improbably affirmative whirling-dervish dance riff.

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4. DAVID S. WARE Corridors & Parallels (Aum Fidelity)

I disliked Lord of the Rings (never read the book), but since seeing it, I find that Matt Shipp’s electronic interludes remind me of the dark caves, and when Ware’s tenor arrives, finally, and rises to its full height, it’s like Gandalf knocking Christopher Lee on his ass. In other words, after five months, this album seems even grander than it did first time around.

5. MATTHEW SHIPP Expansion Power Release (hatOLOGY)

A series of appealing, mesmerizing ostinatos lifts this final string trio project into the rarefied world of ominous lyricism conjured by Bernard Herrmann—there’s plenty of rock and rumble and blues, but it’s the melodic gambits that do the come-hither thing.

6. TED NASH Sidewalk Meeting (Arabesque)

Placing his reeds in the unlikely setting of violin, accordion, and tuba produced a ripping new sound that avoids pastiche even when reexamining Ellington and Debussy—in fact, those are the high points, and more fun than you think possible, with Wycliffe Gordon doing the vocalized plunger work. Also, the year’s best album cover.

7. BALLIN’ THE JACK The Big Head (Knitting Factory)

In mostly short takes of 16 pieces by Ellington, Django, Hawkins, Ammons, and Leadbelly via Clifford Jordan, Matt Darriau, who wrote most of the charts and co-produced with George Schuller, zeroes in on the melodic hooks and riffs. This is the second go for a band that derives from Schuller’s Orange Then Blue, but with the irony turned up a notch and everyone pledged to les tout ensemble.

8. TRIO 3 Encounter (Passin’ Thru)

Oliver Lake, Andrew Cyrille, and Reggie Workman unite with a kind of loft-era thrift, and everything works—the energy level high, the affect sparkling yet controlled, and never a tossed-off moment. Lake’s sound is a saw with inch-long teeth and thoroughly fetching; I’d love to hear him commune with Lee Konitz.

9. LEE KONITZ Parallels (Chesky)

Speak of the devil. The ageless improviser, splendidly recorded at Saint Patrick’s, cuts deep swaths through two ballads and two originals, then explores the Tristano-era book with Mark Turner in the Warne Marsh role. In spontaneous “Star Eyes” variations and a smooth-as-satin “Subconscious Lee,” they achieve peace on earth.

10. HENRY THREADGILL Up Popped the Two Lips (Pi)

He simultaneously put out the modestly electric Make a Move’s Everybody’s Mouth’s a Book on the same label (the titles are phrases from a Threadgill poem), but I slightly prefer the debut of the acoustic Zooid, with galumphing tuba and oud, sinuous cello, and spacy Liberty Ellman guitar—by all means, “Do the Needful.”

11. FRED ANDERSON On the Run (Delmark)

Live at his own club, Anderson sustains interest with fragmented melodic figures that wax and wax, spurred by bass ostinatos and electrifying percussionist Hamid Drake for what may be the best album ever by the smoothest and most elusive of the AACM saxophonists.

12. BOB BELDEN Black Dahlia (Blue Note)

Sentimentalizing a 22-year-old casting-couch hooker and murder victim would seem to be a lost cause, but the result is so era-specific you can forget the backstory and make up your own; Belden, with a cast of 65—winds, strings, rhythm, Joe Lovano, Kevin Hays, a powerfully expressive Tim Hagans, and himself in the final elegy—melds Miles and Jerry Goldsmith to make his own enveloping noir soundtrack.

13. RONI BEN-HUR Anna’s Dance (Reservoir)

As eloquent as a cool breeze, this understated exercise in bebop equilibrium goes down so easy you might underestimate the magic—something only Barry Harris can effect. Ben-Hur, a guitarist with a low flame burning in every note, and Charles Davis, trading in his Sun Ra baritone for suave tenor, speak Harris’s lingo like natives.

14. AHMAD JAMAL Olympia 2000 (Dreyfus Jazz)

George Coleman and Jamal’s trio were psyched at this concert, within the borders of the leader’s punctilious arrangements—which seem all the more impressive for having to support a guest. After four fast-moving but expansive quartet ballads, the trio returns for two lessons in Jamalian dyNAMics.

15. DAVID MURRAY Like a Kiss That Never Ends (Justin Time)

A bringin’-it-all-back-home quartet set (Hicks, Drummond, Cyrille) that opens with a jaunty bebopping “Blues for Felix,” one of Murray’s best new pieces in years; the title tango, his only extravagant blowout; a gospel number; and a debonair bass clarinet version of Monk’s “Let’s Cool One,” complete with witty tongue-popping intro and asides—all cheer, no regrets.

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16. KENNY BARRON & REGINA CARTER Freefall (Verve)

More pure joy with Barron at his empathic best as Carter matures into a soloist of great panache. The material, from Romberg to Hodges to Sting plus originals, is cannily chosen, but the free-form stuff closes the sale—the title cut and a rumination that serendipitously turns into Shorter’s “Footsteps.”

17. MATT WILSON Arts and Crafts (Palmetto)

The exceptional young trumpet player Terrell Stafford continues to score mostly as a sideman—he lets you know instantly that Wilson’s trenchant “Lester” is not about Young, and then rises to the challenge of Bud Powell’s “Webb City.” Larry Goldings plays piano, happily (he’s the only one who thinks he does better on organ), while the fastidious leader and Dennis Irwin sustain a we’re-swinging-and-it-ain’t-no-big-deal merriment from top to finish. Extra points for reviving Ornette’s “Old Gospel.”

18. MARC RIBOT Saints (Atlantic)

I understand why Los Cubanos Postizos are the bigger draw, but I’ll take the idiosyncratic and mesmerizing solo recitals, of which this is the first since Don’t Blame Me. Every taut and quivering string is beautifully recorded as he connects Charley Patton to Duane Eddy in the name of Albert Ayler, burlesques Les Paul, impersonates sitar, koto, dobro, and Monk. Never a dull moment.

19. VIJAY IYER Panoptic Modes (Red Giant)

A gifted pianist with his own distinctive nail-hammering attack, Iyer makes an equally strong impression in the way he regroups his quartet, micromanaging each piece with ostinatos and unison phrasing, especially in tandem with the sanguine saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa, all of which says nothing about how open and entertaining the music is.

20. JOHN HOLLENBECK No Images (Blueshift)

This maddening CD makes a 25-minute Martin Luther King sermon on the “drum-major instinct,” backed by three blustery trombones and Hollenbeck’s drumming, unreasonably affecting. Tenor blowouts by Dave Liebman and Ellery Eskelin provide more conventional ballast.

21. ARCHIE SHEPP AND ROSWELL RUDD Live in New York (Verve)

Not quite the party it was in person, but the equation of boisterous Rudd, restored and plaintive Shepp, and Cyrille-Workman interplay is so poetically involving even Baraka sounds good.

I also admire Steve Turre’s TNT (Telarc), Leo Smith’s Red Sulphur Sky (Tzadik) and Golden Quartet (Tzadik), Roy Campbell’s It’s Krunch Time (Third Ear) and Ethnic Stew and Brew (Delmark), the Classical Jazz Quartet’s The Nutcracker (Vertical), Cyrus Chestnut’s Soul Food (Atlantic), Joe Lovano’s Flights of Fancy (Blue Note), William Parker & Hamid Drake’s Piercing the Veil (Aum Fidelity), Don Byron’s You Are #6 (Blue Note), D.D. Jackson’s Sigame (Justin Time), Scott Hamilton’s Jazz Signatures (Concord), Hugh Ragin’s Fanfare & Fiesta (Justin Time), Pat Martino’s Live at Yoshi’s (Blue Note), Warren Vache and Bill Charlap’s 2Gether (Nagel Heyer), Myra Melford and Marty Ehrlich’s Yet Can Spring (Arabesque).

Next time, 2001 singers and reissues.

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Here’s the Melody

Melody is the rarest of musical talents and the most treasured, which is one reason only a handful of 19th-century composers continue to speak to us. Those that do are true melodists as opposed to generic ones: preachers who hear a kind of songfulness no one else has heard rather than parishioners who elaborate on that approach, reducing inspiration to style. The former may be few, yet they seem to arrive in groups, carrying the ball for a paternal titan, as though waiting for a properly melodious climate—Mozart kicking off for Schubert, Mendelssohn, and Schumann; Verdi for Bizet, Tchaikovsky, and Puccini; Berlin for Kern, Rodgers, and Porter. This schema is simplistic, but it helps pass the time as we wait and wait and wait for melody’s return. Maybe Mark Chapman just frightened it away.

Jazz has been abundant in melody, or should I say improvisational lyrics. It produces far fewer Jelly Roll Mortons, Duke Ellingtons, and Thelonious Monks than Louis Armstrongs, Lester Youngs, and Charlie Parkers. A more melodious musician than Young never lived, but his genius is to be found in ad-lib solos, not in his handful of copyrighted tunes. Stan Getz was immensely lyrical, yet never wrote a single important tune. On the other hand, some players are more adept at melodious themes than at sustaining them in variations, most prominently John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman. At the present time, jazz is, inevitably, caught up in the same antimelodic vice as the rest of the musical landscape. So when we hear the real thing, it can be overwhelming.

Which leads me, as discussions of melody invariably do, to our greatest living melodist: John Lewis. Jazz at Lincoln Center presented him in a retrospective on January 18 and 21 called “Evolution: The Music of John Lewis,” a title that positioned the concert as part of a project that launched his superb Atlantic CDs, Evolution and Evolution II. I considered the former the best record of 1999, and still do, and would have rated the latter almost as high if its release date hadn’t spilled into 2001. The concert was just about perfect, an evening no one present is likely to forget; my inclination toward hyperbole is tempered only by the report of a reliable witness who says the second performance was even better.




Though he is 80 and has been ailing, he insisted on standing after alternate selections to discuss the genesis of the preceding piece and the one he was about to play.


Lewis, who practically reinvented jazz presentation in the postwar era, in and out of concert halls, is by nature decorous and formal. His manners are such that, though he is 80 and has been ailing, he insisted on standing after alternate selections to discuss the genesis of the preceding piece and the one he was about to play. The formality extended to the program, which included four piano solos, four duets with Wynton Marsalis, four trios with Percy Heath and Herlin Riley, and a full set of big band works, as Lewis conducted the Lincoln Center Jazz Band with Eric Reed on piano. The great paradox about Lewis, however, is that his moderation masks a ruefully blues-driven vivacity that proceeds inexorably from the strategies of his compositions. More than anyone else, he has combined jazz and classical techniques into an insoluble whole, and yet they often bring him to a terrain (cf. “Cain and Abel” or “Come Rain or Come Shine” on Evolution II) one is more likely to associate with Ray Charles.

The first piece was startling, though it was by far the most familiar. “Django” established Lewis as a composer and the Modern Jazz Quartet as a going concern, and he has rewired it repeatedly, each time underscoring different elements. On the Evolution CDs, he offers two versions so dissimilar a casual listener might not realize they were developed from the same piece. He played the version from the first CD at the concert and articulated it in such a way that, until I went back to the disc, I thought it was yet another recomposition. The chief conceit is a repeated four-note bass clef arpeggio capped with ringing single notes in the treble that state the melody. By underscoring the arpeggio at the concert, he heightened the arrangement’s drama. Lewis’s ease with rests and uncanny ability to speed or retard time so that it is ever so slightly askew until he sets it right again turns drama into a mode of suspense sustained through the jauntily evolved “That Afternoon in Paris” (“La Marseillaise” leads to “The Old Folks at Home”), “Trieste” (no longer a tango), and the haltingly comical “The Festivals.”

The duets with Marsalis began exuberantly with Lewis’s ingenious variation on “Sailor’s Hornpipe,” a piece fraught with fast turns and loops that both men navigated with aplomb, Marsalis employing only a few half-valve gambits to color a bright and consistently inventive solo. The more customary “DeLaunay’s Dilemma,” with its “I Got Rhythm” changes, was similarly empathic. Lewis and Marsalis have clearly spent many hours working together, and for some reason the erstwhile bebopper, especially on this piece, brought out the young neoclassicist’s swing—as opposed to bop—bias, evident in phrases more reminiscent of the generation of Roy Eldridge or Charlie Shavers than of Dizzy Gillespie or Miles Davis. On the sumptuous waltz “Skating in Central Park,” however, the trumpet player faltered on the last eight measures, as if striving for the composer’s understated lyricism but achieving only the guise of his gentility; he got his own back with an open-horn solo that at times recalled Ruby Braff, and on “Two Degrees East—Three Degrees West” wrestled between polite hesitancy and episodic bent-note wailing.

Gentility is a hard line to walk without falling into the straight and narrow, but the trio was too buoyant to worry about walking. From the first measures of “Blues in A Minor,” introduced by Percy Heath’s pizzicato and sparked into time by Herlin Riley’s brushes, it locked into the most jubilant groove of the evening, and continued to negotiate between parlor and porch on the exquisite, heartbreaking “December, Remember,” which adapts a theme from Lewis’s “In Memoriam.” That piece and the ever changing, ever radiant “For Ellington,” a piece with history and memory in its bones, were the evening’s flash points, underscoring why this performance was different from any other that evening in all the world’s jazz clubs: an unfettered genius for the melodic phrase, poignant and robust, forthright and shameless. Between those pieces, Lewis played his splendid transcription of Charlie Parker’s 1948 “Parker’s Mood,” on which Lewis made an early mark. The piano arrangement includes Parker’s intro, Lewis’s transition, Parker’s solo, Lewis’s solo, and then a new solo, and it’s a highlight of Evolution II.

The big band segment was filled with surprises, as pieces formerly conceived for brass or voice were amplified to accommodate reeds, which were so richly voiced one could not escape the feeling that orchestration was an aspect of Lewis’s gift that has gone underexploited. The orchestra began with “Animal Dance,” an excerpt from the ballet Original Sin, but came alive in four episodes from the once maligned suite, The Comedy. Lewis compared the improvisational traveling troupes of commedia dell’arte to jazz’s early territory bands, specifically the Young Family Band (as in Lester), and described each section vividly, priming the audience for the expressive aria with its dissonant note of dismay of “La Cantatrice” or the gorgeous, wide-open harmonies of “Piazza Novana.” Eric Reed was an ironic choice as pianist, since his busy Petersonian attack is the antithesis of Lewis’s, but he acquitted himself with panache, interpolating a neat Erroll Garner passage into “La Cantatrice.” The other soloist was Marsalis, who got to shout a bit, a prelude to his more memorable escapades on a stunning revision of “Three Little Feelings,” a triptych written to fill out Gunther Schuller’s Music for Brass that stole the LP. With Warren Smith and Wycliffe Gordon bouncing the first movement on timpani and tuba, respectively, Marsalis began his solo with a few decaying stabs of sound before going to town, more brazen than Miles Davis on the original, and more broadly romantic in the second movement, his dark growls entirely suitable to the ominous cast of the piece. A standing ovation brought an encore, but the enthusiasm mirrored not only Lewis’s achievement but that of Jazz at Lincoln Center, which this time got it exactly right. Even the acoustics behaved. And if you wanted more, as I did, there was Evolution II, which closes with an ur-Lewis transfiguration: the old standard “What Is This Thing Called Love?” turned into a forceful sprint that builds to a passage of stalwart block chords, every chorus filled with melodic gems the equal of the tune to which they invariably allude—melody on top of melody; melody, melody, and more melody.

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MJQ (1952–99) r.i.p.

The death of vibraharpist Milt Jackson on October 9, 1999, was a double loss for jazz, silencing a great jazz virtuoso and bringing to an end the 48-year run of the Modern Jazz Quartet. The MJQ’s windup was as quiet as its beginning on January 14, 1952. One might have expected great expressions of sorrow at the realization that there would be no more installments of the Swiss-watch telepathy perfected by the most durable chamber ensemble in jazz history. Created by Jackson, pianist and music director John Lewis, bassist Percy Heath, and drummer Kenny Clarke, it underwent only two personnel changes. In 1955, Clarke left and was replaced by Connie Kay, who served 39 years until his death in 1994 and was succeeded by Mickey Roker.

Most assessments of the MJQ focus on Lewis’s Afro-fugues “Vendome” and “Concorde,” his immortal elegy “Django,” and Jackson’s showstoppers “Bag’s Groove” and “Blues-ology.” But Lewis’s achievement is far greater than the Bach-commedia dell’arte orbit that got him the most attention. For one example, consider the MJQ’s neglected but exciting variations on the Latin tinge. On The Sheriff, powered by Kay’s elegant traps, the foursome sweetly swings bossa nova rhythms on Luis Bonfa’s “Carnival” and Villa-Lobos’s “Bachianas Brasileiras.” Collaboration, with guitarist Laurindo Almeida, expands on the Brazilian beat with renditions of Jobim’s “One Note Samba” and Lewis’s contrasting continental tango, “Trieste.”

A reverent reading of the Adagio from Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez bears comparison with the more celebrated version by Miles Davis and Gil Evans on Sketches of Spain.

Another undervalued dimension of the ensemble’s inventiveness is suggested by the sacred syncopations of Jackson’s Mahalia Jackson-inspired playing on the harmonically advanced version of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” retitled “The Spiritual,” on Live at the Lighthouse. A secular tangent of those rhythms emerges on Plastic Dreams, in the funky blues-boogalo “Dancing,” bringing to mind Connie Kay’s days with Ruth Brown and other Atlantic r&b performers.

On the other end of the socio- musical spectrum, consider Space, one of two little-known albums the MJQ made for Apple, the Beatles’ label; the diligent dissonances on two celestial tracks, “Visitor From Mars” and “Visitor From Venus,” articulated the political anxiety of the times. Like Ellington, Lewis synthesized world music into his jazz conception. “Under the Jasmine Tree,” introduced on the Apple album of that name, is an intricate interpretation of the Afro-Moorish rhythms of Morocco.

One of the great pleasures of the MJQ’s records is the opportunity they afford to track the development of its classics. Compare the studio recording of “Blues in B,” on Blues on Bach, with the electrifying live reading on Night at the Opera—the only recorded performance with Mickey Roker, then subbing for the ailing Kay. In a Crowd, recorded at the Monterey Jazz Festival in 1963, features supercharged performances of Lewis’s Gypsy melody “Winter Tale” and the title track, a stop-time blues riff that Lewis dedicated to Martin Luther King.

That shout-out to Dr. King was appropriate for a group as pioneering as the MJQ. Significantly, the MJQ worked much of its magic during the social breakthroughs of the Civil Rights era. In the mid ’50s, the group’s sonic séances had gone over the heads of club owners and patrons, so Lewis and company took their music to the most hallowed concert halls in America and Europe, employing a MarianAnderson-like dignity to breach many barriers. When they returned to clubs, the MJQ’s power over audiences was guaranteed. At the same time, Lewis helped innovate a musical lexicon that combined the principles of European classicism with jazz improvisation, as evidenced in Third Stream Music, in which the MJQ appears with the Beaux Arts Quartet. The MJQ’s impact is heard today in the work of Wynton Marsalis, Bobby McFerrin, the Kronos Quartet, Chick Corea, and many others.

For five decades, the Modern Jazz Quartet enchanted music lovers, proving that jazz could swing and sing with a complexity and elegance and—when called for—a funkiness (listen to the way Branford Marsalis samples “La Ronde Suite” in “Breakfast at Denny’s,” on Buckshot LeFonque) that covered all bets and was at home everywhere and with everyone.

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The Masters Have It

The arbitrariness of annual top-10s always becomes clearer the week after, when you look at other lists and think, damn, how did I forget that album and why haven’t I even heard this other one? Then again, maybe the most honest list you can come up with eschews research and second-guessing in favor of albums that instantly come to mind because you’ve returned to them time after time and filed them in that corner of your mind reserved for classics, or at least music you expect to live with more fully in the future. Every generation of critics is obliged to make cases for works neglected the first time around and puncture those that get a free ride on the wings of received wisdom. I don’t know how 1999 will stack up, but in the past my 10-bests usually ran to about 17 albums, while this year I wasn’t certain of reaching 10.

The fact that it was a grand year for reissues (a subject for later discussion, though in the interim do pick up Vanguard’s magnificent restoration of From Spirituals to Swing) and that most of the new albums that pleasured me were by musicians over 70, puts me in mind of the early and middle 1970s, when posthumous Ellington or unreleased Clifford Brown routinely aced out the living as we waited for Godot. Godot and friends finally arrived from the heartland (R.I.P. Lester Bowie, Julius Hemphill, Phillip Wilson, Fred Hopkins, Steve McCall, et al.), and something similar will break up the academic malaise of the present. For now, there are the masters, though fewer than last year (R.I.P. Harry Edison, Red Norvo, Milt Jackson, Art Farmer, et al.). Of 10 CDs that made the cut, three stand out—see 2 and 3 below. Of these, one dominates: CD of the year, John Lewis’s Evolution (Atlantic).

Only a pianist as mature, canny, and knowing as Lewis would have the nerve to play as few notes as he does in the 11 selections of this recital. Having winnowed his technique to an expressive core, he belongs to the tradition of Basie and Monk—rhythmically sublime, with an unmistakable touch, and positively wasteless. Evolution crosses the line between sonata and sonnet, its stray phrases and suspenseful caesuras ringing with images as specific as metaphors you keep turning over in the light. Though a 19th-century sensibility is apparent, everything Lewis plays suggests the imaginative rigors of a purebred jazz musician—in the voicings, in the ratio between composition and improvisation, in a swing that is vital even at the slowest tempos, and in an attack that encompasses much of the American keyboard tradition from rags and blues to boogie and bop and beyond.

I’m reminded of a passage in Moby Dick, when Ishmael remarks of Queequeg’s table manners, “But that was certainly very coolly done by him, and every one knows that in most people’s estimation to do anything coolly is to do it genteelly.” No one ever questioned Lewis’s gentility; indeed, it has been held against him. But his fastidiousness is so cool in the ’90s sense of the word, which comports with Melville’s, that he conveys an emotional authority rare in any art. Was there a wittier performance all year than the arrangement here of “Sweet Georgia Brown”? Or a more generously moving one than “For Ellington,” perhaps the track of the year? Or a more inventively reimagined one than his total rethinking of “Django”?

For all the improvisational electricity he generates, these pieces, so concisely arranged and played, have the lacquered finish of composition; you can imagine a classical pianist transcribing and interpreting them, though he would have to have awfully good time—Jean-Yves Thibaudet won’t do. But their real strength, what sets them apart, lies elsewhere. In a period devoid of melody, a genuine melodist like Lewis seems to have almost shamanistic powers. We are accustomed to calling anyone who can put together a hummable phrase lyrical. But Lewis is the real thing. He thinks tunefully, and whether he plays his own pieces (“Afternoon in Paris” and “Three Degrees East, Two Degrees West”) or standards (“September Song” and “Don’t Blame Me” get surprising facelifts), Lewis builds them from the ground up with winning melodies, often riveted with bravely considered rests. On top of that, every note rings like a chime: You don’t often see an audio engineer billed in the same size type as the artist and his producers, but E. Alan Silver has created a state-of-the-art disc.

2. Lee Konitz, Another Shade of Blue (Blue Note). How many contemporary musicians play solos that can withstand the scrutiny applied to those single-chorus jewels of the 78 era? At his best, Konitz can and does. What distinguishes this performance—a concert with pianist Brad Mehldau (far more engaging here than on his recent disc) and bassist Charlie Haden—is how long the great alto saxophonist can sustain his high-wire act. He offers a glossary of unhackneyed blues licks on the title track and flies in from Mars to open “What’s New?” If you’re put off by his tart tone, get over it. And don’t tell me about Motion—if somebody asks me to recommend a Konitz album, this will be the one.

3. Cecil Taylor, Elvin Jones, Dewey Redman, Momentum Space (Verve). A long-delayed reunion of sorts that lives up to its billing. Taylor’s triptych is thrilling.

4-6. Sam Rivers, Inspiration (RCA Victor); Chico O’Farrill, Heart of a Legend (Milestone); The Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, Thad Jones Legacy (New World). Three big-band projects, each brimming with the exhilaration exclusive to the form. Rivers had a week at Sweet Basil before making his, and it shows. The music is wonderfully schizoid; the dense voicings are dissonant, but the riffs and pithy solos are downright toasty. O’Farrill’s overdue sequel to the 1995 Pure Emotion is less ambitious but more entertaining, with guest soloists and the elation of an ensemble that has had a long spell at Birdland to get rigorous. Which makes the veteran VJO what—perfect? Just about. In making its case for Jones, it reclaims “Central Park North” from the banalities of funk, and goes ape on “Fingers”—jazz rep at its best.

7-8. Teri Thornton, I’ll Be Easy to Find (Verve); Abbey Lincoln, Wholly Earth (Verve). I also like the new vocal records by Carla Cook (Maxjazz), Denise Jannah (Blue Note), Laverne Butler (Maxjazz), Paula West (Noir), Tony Bennett (Columbia), and—about-face—Diana Krall (Verve). But these two are startling. Thornton was one of many Dinah Washington clones 40 years ago, but she has evolved a style entirely her own—keeping suspense with top notes you think will veer out of tune, but never do. Good tunes, good arrangements. The Lincoln initially put me off with the harmonizing on “And It’s Supposed to Be Love,” but overall she is dazzling and penetrating. She is the Billie Holiday of the fin de siècle, and Bobby Hutcherson is dreamy, too.

9. Joe Lovano and Greg Osby, Friendly Fire (Blue Note). No battle, but a meeting of minds. They seem determined to please each other, the originals are clever, and the Dolphy, Monk, and Coleman standards are way hip.

10. Uri Caine, The Sidewalks of New York: Tin Pan Alley (Winter & Winter). Okay, it’s not a jazz record, though jazz musicians are involved, including Caine (whose director credit is in teeny print inside the booklet), Don Byron, and Dave Douglas. A collage about the turn of the last century, it has sound effects, murmuring crowds, horse snorts, singing, monologues, a seven-minute reheasal for a four-minute “Some of These Days” (by a red-hot mama named Barbara Walker), “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” in Yiddish—a stew of ethnicities. Put aside 77 minutes to hear the whole thing, and it’s like a time capsule, rich with sentiment, never sentimental. Although, come to think of it, that’s even more true of Evolution.