Is it jazz, or is it Jacuzzi?
Tony Cennamo's voice is as familiar to New England jazz fans as the stars of ``discs and data'' he offers five nights a week on public radio (Boston University's WBUR) -- and discusses further as a teacher at Emerson College. What are some of his reflections on the scene as the new year begins? AS always, one thing leads to another, and in my life as a communicator, producer, teacher, and writer I've learned to be prepared, especially for being at the right place at the right time. It has happened once or twice. The opportunity to write this piece allows me to vent in print what is on the tip of my candid tongue. Before I forget, thanks for the opportunity.
Once a year I don my producer's hat to begin a talent hunt for the March jazz festival in Boston. The time is nigh. It is an arduous task that gives me great pleasure, and some pain. I listen to tapes and visit recommended groups, soloists, and singers. Many call, but few are chosen, to paraphrase the New Testament. When there is a single artist or a group of musicians that do have the talent, the satisfaction is immense.
Rebecca Parris is an example, destined to be a major star. Recently I was asked to write a brief liner note for her first album. The lines came swiftly. `` . . . Rebecca Parris is a singer-interpreter . . . .'' Although she is not a great innovator, ``. . . her showmanship mixing with her musicality likens her to Louis, Dizzy, and Lester Bowie. . . .''
The analogy is not so distant if you consider the three trumpet players and their careers. Louis Armstrong recorded the first important jazz sides in the late '20s with the ``Hot Five'' and ``Hot Seven.'' He wrote the jazz language with his bravura trumpet style and his influence on everyone from singers and pianists to big bands and other horn players. He took chances every time he put the cornet to his lips. Dizzy Gillespie, likewise, influenced scores of others as he made great changes in the music. He, too, expanded the jazz language, finding new ways to incorporate the polyrhythms of West Africa with the sophisticated music of be-bop. Finally, Lester Bowie bridges the past and the future with his trumpet savvy, combining and stretching traditional jazz with the avant-garde through his membership in the Art Ensemble of Chicago. Louie, Dizzy, and Lester are all innovators and are all great entertainers. Like them, Rebecca is a talented, bravura kook.
On the other side of the jazz coin, and in my broadcasts and lectures, I've often spoken with disdain of ``repertory'' groups. In most cases they neither understand nor are capable of playing the once innovative music they are set up to preserve. We've recently been deluged with vocal-based groups that play the music of the '30s, '40s, and '50s. In one set they will perform Glenn Miller, Duke Ellington, Lambert, Hendricks & Ross, and Benny Goodman, making it sound as if it all came from one old vault in Tin Pan Alley. Other groups come closer to the truth but are still mainly imitative, even in their solos.
To get really carried away with the notion of imitation as jazz, listen to pianist Lou Stein's recordings of transcribed Art Tatum solos. Someone should have told Mr. Stein that these precious Art Tatum sides are available. Chopin was never recorded, so we are privileged to hear the recorded interpretations of Mauricio Pollino. Tatum recorded Tatum.
When are repertory groups acceptable? We do have a local example in the work of Orange Then Blue. The name is contracted from a Charles Mingus opus called ``Orange Was the Color of Her Dress Then Silk Blue.'' The philosophy of the group is to play the music of Mingus, Ornette Coleman, and Gil Evans in an interpretive way. The solos are long, and the arrangements are originals written by the band members. These works are a development of the music of the aforementioned masters.
Facsimile in art can be enjoyable; it is refreshing that some people have the good taste to display a replica Picasso sketch or a Degas ballerina; however, they are not the real thing, and the reproductions are merely household ornaments, a bit more aesthetic than a ``Home Sweet Home'' plaque.
Did you ever notice that 99 percent of the repertory groups are white? Most new forms of jazz music are initiated by black musicians. White players (with few exceptions) copy, black musicians invent! The veteran black members of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band play the music of their lives, and the Savoy Sultans perpetuate jazz as they played it a few decades ago. I have yet to hear a group of young blacks play in a Dixieland style or copy Basie arrangements or, for that matter, duplicate Charlie Parker records. For sociological and political reasons the nature of the music is synonymous with change, and with development, not parroting.
It is no wonder the jazz art changes constantly. Africans were forced to change continents, change languages, change religions. Later in the 20th century the black artist was forced to change his music as fast as it was stolen from him. Include in those thefts ``cakewalk,'' ``minstrel,'' ``ragtime,'' and ``swing.'' There is certainly evidence of white players with inventive powers. There are Mick Goodrick, Chick Corea, Joanne Brackeen. They, like black conceptualizers, are forming a synthesis and establishing music that retains ties with the black traditions.
Club owners, concert producers, record promoters, are interested in numbers. They keep pushing the ``safe'' artists: Buddy Rich, Maynard Ferguson, Spyro Gyra, Grover Washington, Al Jarreau, and these are successful, while Ted Curson, Kenny Baron, Dewey Redman, James Williams, The Fringe, Names, and Jimmy Mosher have trouble filling local clubs. (Cheers for those club owners and bookers who stick out their financial necks weekly to bring us some of the most talented players in jazz.) Meanwhile, George Winston fills Symphony Hall with his nonjazz, nonrhythm, lukewarm, Jacuzzi-inspired piano offerings.
Often I'm asked to define jazz, as I've just described this nonjazz music. Jazz is Monk, Ornette, Duke, Bird, Dizzy, Miles, Trane, Toshiko, Pee Wee Russell, and Gil Evans, Mingus the imaginative, the juices flowing, not the bland, the watered down, the whitewash, of a thousand Xeroxed copies. Jazz is not safe and doesn't hide in Symphony Hall. It is Betty Carter strutting, Sheila Jordan crowing, Phil Woods tongue slapping, and Carla Bley barking at the moon. It is not creamy, organized to death, studiofied music pushed through a million volts, by hundreds of buttons through tapes and tracks. Yet it is Lyle Mays's grand piano coupled with synthesizer and assorted attachments to do wondrous things as Mark Johnson bows and plucks his 17th-century bass, and Jamie Haddad blends rhythms of the East with Kenny Clarke in one glorious amalgam. Jazz is Orange Then Blue, it is Rebecca Parris, and a good time!