Jazz in Search of Itself

by Larry Kart, Yale University Press

Like many anthologies of jazz criticism, Larry Kart’s Jazz in Search of Itself is organized in a roughly chronological manner–it takes on Louis Armstrong early and moves forward from there. Kart, now 62, wrote most of the pieces between 1968 and ’88, primarily for Down Beat and the Chicago Tribune, and he emerges as a passionate critic skilled at making razor-sharp assessments. Though he’s often discussing familiar figures, he frequently finds new ways to hear them. But a funny thing happens when Kart gets to the mid-80s, when trumpeter Wynton Marsalis was being hailed as the savior of jazz–his enthusiasm about the future of the genre palpably wanes.

Marsalis was the type of player Kart dubs a “neo-con”–a backward-thinking revivalist “transforming tradition into an immediate aesthetic virtue.” Rightly forecasting a proliferation of neo-cons, Kart, disheartened, began to step away from jazz criticism at the Tribune. “I could see–and I think it’s kind of proven to be the case–that most of the young jazz musicians who were going to keep coming along in wave after wave were going to be guys who were directly or indirectly in this vein, and were directly or indirectly corrupted by this process, whether it was a conscious choice or not,” he recently told me. “I couldn’t deal with it except by ringing the alarm bell, and newspapers don’t want that. It wasn’t like they were pointing a stern finger at me and saying, ‘You must . . .’ But I knew that the tolerance for me bringing up that issue on a regular basis wouldn’t be there.”

The introduction to the book helps explain his thinking. Discussing the numerous disciples of saxophonist Lester Young, Kart writes: “Any thought that jazz could be viewed from a safe, museum-like distance now seemed absurd; this was an art in which history was always happening, and it was happening to us.” To Kart’s mind, when jazz starts to romanticize its antecedents, rigidly emulate past accomplishments, and place less emphasis on personal investment, it ceases to be a living thing.

Many music journalists lose touch with new developments because they stop growing as listeners; they prefer to stick with the aesthetics and sounds they were interested in first. Kart had practical reasons to step away from criticism–covering concerts often left him with little time to spend with his son, and he was also diagnosed with an arrhythmia, which demanded a less strenuous routine. But he also felt that obligations as a critic at a daily newspaper weren’t compatible with his feelings about Marsalis and the phalanx of Armani-clad neoboppers who surged in his ideological wake.

Kart remained at the Tribune after he stopped writing about jazz, first at the books desk and then the Friday section, before retiring in 2002. Considering the jazz writers who have replaced him there–first editor Jack Fuller and then Howard Reich–Kart’s retirement has been doubly disappointing. Jazz in Search of Itself includes a handful of pieces Kart wrote after he stopped being a full-time critic, including his sublimely detailed, penetrating liner notes for The Complete Atlantic Recordings of Lennie Tristano, Lee Konitz, and Warne Marsh, released on Mosaic Records in 1997. But as he notes in the preface, the pieces in the book were written “because other people asked for them”–by his own admission he’s not a “knocker on doors.”

However, Kart says he’s lately been energized by players at the Hungry Brain, which for the past few years has been a haven for a new crop of locals. Searching for new vehicles of improvisation–from elaborate group arrangements to experiments with electronics–the musicians, as a scene, have given Kart a new optimism. He’s contemplated whether he should write again. “Does a guy who’s played the role that I did play and hasn’t turned into a zombie have kind of an obligation to keep doing it?” he asked when I spoke with him. “I think maybe I’ve been feeling that way.”

Although Kart began listening to jazz as a teenager, it wasn’t until he became a student at the University of Chicago in the 60s that his tastes matured, particularly when he heard the early work of the AACM–he caught informal performances by the likes of Roscoe Mitchell and Lester Bowie at the school’s Reynolds Club. His first piece of criticism was a brief essay he read onstage to musicians from the collective before one of their performances. In 1968, a year after he graduated, he took a job as an assistant editor at Down Beat, where he became a vocal booster of the AACM as well as a prolific writer on more mainstream jazz. He left the magazine a year later, over a salary dispute; in the mid-70s, a part-time job writing TV listings at the Tribune led to a full-time arts-writing position.

A rigorous analyst, Kart peered into the musical systems of some of the great jazz personalities–his notes on the Tristano-Konitz-Marsh box represent probably the most trenchant yet specific breakdown of the complex rhythmic concepts in Tristano’s piano playing ever written. He also took to task musicians most writers wouldn’t think of criticizing, and he did so with panache and, often, humor, explaining what didn’t work with as much clarity and color as what did. Discussing pianist Oscar Peterson, he writes:

“When Peterson shifts into high gear, which is where he likes to be, I hear little more than a series of hammered-out riffs–the kind of brief, streamlined phrases that were so rhythmically intoxicating in the hands of the 1930s Basie band or guitarist Charlie Christian. But riffs are seldom interesting in themselves. Instead they are the musical equivalent of iron filings, meaningful only when they are shaped into larger designs by the magnetic force of swing. You won’t find much design in Peterson’s music. Gobbling up the tune, the keyboard, and the listener’s ear and nerves, his riffs come at you like a pool of piranhas–an assault so compulsive that your only choices are escape or surrender.”

A passionate fan of saxophonist Ornette Coleman, in a review of a 1982 concert Kart questions the effectiveness of Coleman’s electric band, Prime Time: “And here the unison concept, which always has been at the core of his music, became an almost frightening unity–as though a herd of elephants had formed a conga line, then broken into the Lindy Hop.”

In the introduction to Jazz in Search of Itself, Kart has the guts to admit when he was wrong, or at least misguided, and he updates pieces on Cecil Taylor and Bill Evans with postscripts pointing out the flaws in his thinking. But he remains certain about the correctness of his initial assessments in the section titled “The Neo-Con Game.” It opens with a 1969 review of a random assortment of jazz records by European and Australian musicians that vividly illustrates how they mimicked American jazz. (Most of the artists he discusses remain obscure, but with remarkable foresight he praised Dutch reedist and composer Willem Breuker, a key player in the potent Dutch jazz scene who didn’t get much U.S. exposure until the mid-70s.) For Kart, a fervent believer in the power of jazz as a means of personal expression, that sort of copycat methodology was the ultimate affront. That sets the stage for him to discuss Marsalis, who doesn’t have geography as an excuse.

Kart is generous in his praise of the trumpeter’s astonishing technical mastery but assails his conception of a jazz artist. Dressing down his 1985 album, Black Codes (From the Underground), Kart writes:

“Indeed, his otherwise admirable desire to embrace the entire jazz trumpet tradition seems to have transformed the typical Marsalis solo into a kind of musical seance–as though each phrase he plays has so many sources in the music’s past that this outweighs whatever meaning those notes might have to Marsalis in the here and now.”

Kart includes five pieces on Marsalis written between 1983 and ’86, and his anger grows with each one. But he unleashes the most bile in a new piece, where he brutally compares Marsalis to 1920s and ’30s bandleader Paul Whiteman: “Thus the tuxedoed Whiteman, wielding his baton like Toscanini; Marsalis the articulate whiz kid, equally at home with Miles Davis and Haydn and foe of rap and hip-hop.”

In the final section of the book, “Alone Together,” Kart looks at aspects of jazz culture in the world at large: jazz references in the work of Jack Kerouac, the idea of jazz as an art of rebellion, and, in a wonderful piece about singer Anita O’Day, the reputation of substance abuse in the genre. The section closes with a 1986 article about jazz education: to Kart, the institutionalization of jazz has been as responsible as anything for creating today’s cookie-cutter musician. But even in the midst of the critique, he presciently identifies two of today’s stronger players: saxophonist Donny McCaslin and drummer Ben Perowsky–both teenagers attending the Berklee College of Music at the time.

Though he hasn’t written regularly for more than a decade, Kart says his passion for the genre hasn’t ebbed. “I haven’t stopped thinking or caring,” he told me. “And I did, on several occasions when asked, continue to write about it with whatever I brought to it before, maybe even better. But the tires weren’t touching except at those times.” With any luck, interest in this superb book will get those wheels back on the ground more often.