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The Boston Phoenix Tom Piazza

"Blues Up and Down: Jazz in Our Time."

By Jon Garelick

BLUES UP AND DOWN: JAZZ IN OUR TIME, by Tom Piazza. St. Martin's Press, 194 pages, $21.95.

NOVEMBER 24, 1997:  Even before Cab Calloway called bebop "Chinese music," jazz, with its accelerated stylistic developments, has been an internecine battleground. Those battles -- what Tom Piazza calls "the Jazz Wars" -- are the subject of his oddly shaped collection of essays, Blues Up and Down: Jazz in Our Time. There are a few early pieces (1979 and '80) from before Piazza's self-imposed seven-year break from writing about jazz. There are some fine later pieces on a variety of topics (the Carter Family, Art Tatum, indie record labels) from the New York Times and elsewhere. But the heart of the book, including the long introductions to previously published pieces, addresses the controversy surrounding trumpeter/composer Wynton Marsalis.

Marsalis has had a confrontational way with the press since he emerged as a young virtuoso in the '80s, and he's fanned the flames in the '90s as artistic director of the Jazz at Lincoln Center program. The controversy this time is not about a music rushing blindly ahead, but clinging steadfastly to its roots. Marsalis, his critics have argued, is obsessed with jazz's past to the exclusion of any new developments. His work, and the work sponsored by JALC (often his own commissioned pieces), has lacked a contemporary voice. There have been more extreme charges as well (including anti-white racism at JALC), but most of them come down to one musician's succinct gripe: "This is the first time I've seen the music go backwards."

Piazza makes a strong case for Marsalis (bolstered by the musician's recent Pulitzer Prize, the first for a jazz composition). He points out that after rock and roll, '60s "free jazz," and '70s jazz-rock fusion, jazz needed some consolidation and codification. He decries innovation for its own sake, and points out that innovators like Charlie Parker and John Coltrane "came along in periods when there were many musicians conversant with the basic language." That language was in danger of being lost, Piazza argues, until Marsalis reasserted the fundamentals: swing, the blues, and instrumental mastery, plus a preference for ensemble balance and detail as opposed to solo stamina. The results have been stunning. The jazz scene today is filled with young musicians inspired by Marsalis, and he's restored it as a viable art form among young blacks -- both on the bandstand and in the audience.

But Piazza overstates his case. Apart from passing mention of a few innovators like Muhal Richard Abrams, David Murray, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, and Air, Piazza pretty much discounts the whole avant-garde of the '60s, '70s, and early '80s. This, even though every virtue he attributes to the Young Turks of Wynton-land can be applied doubly to these older players. They, too, are musicians who studied the tradition, who placed a new emphasis on ensemble balance, who often demanded of themselves a mastery of a wide array of instruments. An early David Murray piece was titled "Bechet's Bounce." Avant-garders Roswell Rudd and Steve Lacy once formed a band that played Thelonious Monk compositions exclusively.

Piazza also discounts white swing players like Scott Hamilton, Chris Flory, and Warren Vache as "anachronisms, members of a consciously retro movement rather than players bent on reimagining the idiom for themselves." But that argument can just as easily be applied to many of Piazza's beloved Wyntonites. In addition, Piazza writes off the '60s "New Thing" players who "began to see their job description as being to express the rage that was supposedly the defining characteristic of black American culture." I don't know if "rage" was a "job description" for New Thing players, and maybe it wasn't a "defining characteristic" of black culture at that time, but Archie Shepp's "Attica Blues" seems a mild response to the state-ordered massacre for which it's named.

Too often Piazza generalizes about critics without citing specifics. He talks about unnamed "jazz is feeling" reviewers who romanticize the idea of the black jazz musician as "noble savage" and have no respect for either technique or tradition. But jazz critics are a nerdy bunch, and since the days of Hugues Panassié and Marshall Stearns, they (we) have pretty much been eggheads one and all. Contrary to Piazza's argument, these writers have historically taken it upon themselves to legitimize jazz to skeptics as a serious art form.

Piazza has great descriptive skill; not many critics can bring such insight to the work of both Bud Powell and the Carter Family. He's written The Guide to Classic Recorded Jazz and a book of short stories with music-related themes. Maybe next time out he'll temper his anxiety about the jazz wars, listen to some of his old David Murray Octet records, and write a serious study of the music of Wynton Marsalis. After all is said and done, Wynton's music deserves it, and Piazza is obviously the man for the job.


Jon Garelick is associate arts editor of the Boston Phoenix. He often writes about jazz.


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