Jazz at Lincoln Center

By John Corbett

Among the many beefs that have been lodged against New York’s multimillion-dollar Jazz at Lincoln Center program and its artistic director, Wynton Marsalis, is one that says the orchestra doesn’t hire enough white musicians. This is, to my mind, the most defensible of Marsalis’s sins. After all, nobody ever told Stan Kenton or Buddy Rich they weren’t employing enough black players. But as George Lewis astutely said to me a few years ago: “What you do have to give Wynton and those guys credit for is insisting that black people should have a very important voice in outlining what African-American culture is all about. I think that’s a good thing to do. But then I have a pretty expanded view of what the African-American tradition can be. I’ve learned from some really amazing individuals representing a pretty diverse take.”

Lewis, a longtime member of Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, has never actually played under the auspices of Jazz at Lincoln Center. He’s too involved with nonmainstream and even nonjazz activities–that is, too “out”–to warrant Marsalis’s consideration. Which is too bad, since Lewis is also one of the finest jazz trombonists alive. That’s the worst of Jazz at Lincoln Center’s offenses: its narrow, conservative definition of jazz and, by extension, jazz musicians.

In fact Wynton Marsalis’s major contribution to jazz will most likely be neither his music (which though Pulitzer- and Grammy-winning is not exceptional in any way) nor his trumpet playing (which is sometimes wonderful but rarely heard in a stimulating context) but his insistence–articulated through the Jazz at Lincoln Center’s concerts, its many educational programs, and his own TV and radio shows–that jazz is a historically specific art form that reached its limits with Ornette Coleman in the early 60s. Thereafter it has been subject to “denigration,” “dilution,” “degeneration,” and “corruption” by fusion (which Marsalis says “has one thing in common with hermaphrodites…sterility”) and free and creative musics (whose practitioners Marsalis calls “the primitive frauds”). In case you think he can’t be serious, consider his statement that “as the Third Reich proved, determined corruption can lead to catastrophic events.” To ward off corruption, Marsalis implies, one must have a sense of purity. The Third Reich certainly had some ideas about that.

Say someone asks you to define classical music. If you’re reasonably well-informed, you know this is a frivolous request–it refers to too wide a range of possibilities for a succinct and complete response. There’s no litmus test that plainchant, Bach, Beethoven, Scriabin, Webern, Glass, and Xenakis would all pass. Yet trying to define jazz is for some reason regarded by many in the era of Jazz at Lincoln Center as a legitimate line of inquiry. Indeed, Stanley Crouch (who constitutes, with writer Albert Murray, Jazz at Lincoln Center’s brain trust) has suggested a test of his own, a list of the four “essentials” of the idiom: swing, the romantic ballad, Afro-Hispanic rhythms, and the blues. This is both woefully narrow and impossibly broad: What is blues, then? What is swing? What happened to improvisation, another oft-cited component? And innovation and experimentation, two processes that are arguably integral to any living music–how important are they to “jazz”? Last year the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra addressed the criticism that it is hopelessly stuck in the past by mounting a program called “All Jazz Is Modern,” thereby sweeping the issue of innovation under the rug in one rhetorical swoop.

Without a microscopically detailed set of sociohistorically informed footnotes, no four-point aesthetic program can sufficiently describe a polyglot cultural product like jazz. This is like asking for an adequate four-point definition of an animal. It’s alive–but so is a plant. It reproduces through sexual processes–unless it’s a planarian. And so on. Such lists are more effectively applied to narrower questions, like “What is a mammal?” Asking definitive questions about subgenres–what is modal jazz? what is small-group swing? what is free jazz?–is a more fruitful endeavor than asking what jazz is. And any answer must leave some wiggle room: even one of the prime indicators that an animal is a mammal–live birth–finds an exception in the platypus.

Jazz is full of platypuses–creatures that are neither bird nor beast. Take the work of Anthony Braxton, some of which is unquestionably jazz (like his Charlie Parker repertory project), some of which is probably best thought of as contemporary classical (like his Composition no. 147 as recorded by the Ensemble Modern), and some of which straddles the line (like his recent Ghost Trance projects or his outstanding body of quartet music). “The jazz musicians say it is not jazz and the classical musicians say it is not classical,” Braxton lamented in never-printed liner notes for his 1968 record For Alto, and nothing’s changed. Braxton has been actively excluded from Jazz at Lincoln Center activities, as has Cecil Taylor, another platypus who’s always discussed by the Jazz at Lincoln Center pundits as being “too European,” which means too white and too classical. This sort of thinking makes the definition too narrow even for some of Marsalis’s own heroes: Duke Ellington, whose centenary will be celebrated extensively by Jazz at Lincoln Center next year, cited connections to European music, expressed openness to experimentation with arranging and instrumental technique, and had a profound disdain for the word jazz.

Ironically Crouch was once a vehement pro-Cecil advocate who named the piano innovator in context with Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk, Fats Waller, Erroll Garner, Horace Silver, and Ellington. In the mid-70s Crouch was also a serviceable free-jazz drummer with reedman David Murray, and Marsalis himself played shoulder to shoulder with nemesis Lester Bowie in a precursor to Bowie’s Brass Fantasy. After the young trumpeter signed with Columbia, started dressing in money suits, and adopted his Satchmo-like lecturing tone, he simply expunged that line from his bulging resume. Unfortunately for Crouch, before he turned tail he’d made LPs with Murray and gone on record as an outspoken supporter of vanguard jazz.

It’s possible that both men had creative-music experiences that keenly revealed to them some deficiency in the medium, but if you’re a cynic, their intense rejection of all things impure can look an awful lot like a strangely violent repudiation of personal history. (This summer after the New York Jazz Awards, at which Crouch served as a presenter, he actually punched Jazz Journalists Association president Howard Mandel, who had reproached him for dissing one of the nominees, avant-garde pianist Matthew Shipp, from the podium.) Perhaps each man felt he had to formulate a narrow definition of jazz to create a stronger identity or illuminate a lucrative career path. The problem is that the music is bigger than even the most puffed-up and prickly ideologue.

The solution is not to throw up our hands in exasperation and admit that everything’s jazz. But determining who’s asking what jazz is and why tells you a great deal about the answer he’ll find. At Jazz at Lincoln Center the definition has market ramifications: if you define the product you can sell it more effectively. The group’s extensive pedagogical programs seem to have the same goal: create an “educated” consumer who will buy what you’re selling. But to try to find a set of unifying musical properties in King Oliver and Don Cherry–both of whom pass the Crouch test–is to ignore the wide stylistic net jazz can cast, and to teach jazz as an exclusive set of aesthetic principles distorts the music’s history.

Jazz is a dynamic process, not a fixed category. Inclusivity is one of its strengths. It was “corrupt” in its earliest incarnations–nobody warned Jelly Roll Morton to shake off those “degenerate” Spanish influences. It’s an intense admixture of European, African, African-American, and Latin musics that has incorporated elements of folk, pop, classical, and experimental; it’s in no need of aesthetic cleansing. The trouble with Jazz at Lincoln Center is not that it promulgates a very specific sensibility–that’s any presenter’s right. And Marsalis, Crouch, and company have the right to use terms like craft and tradition as polemical weapons. But they cannot insist that the sensibility they prefer covers the entirety of what we can or should think of as jazz.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration by Russ Ando.