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Advocating the Tradition

by David Robinson, Jr.

The first thing I tell my students before I play them, say, a King Oliver recording made more than nine decades ago, is that they cannot judge what they hear by 21st-century “standards”. By this I do not mean that the music is inferior to today’s. What I mean is that the early recordings were made under a different set of operating conditions; i.e., musical elements that we now take for granted were not yet part of the lexicon. Students must understand what the language was during the period they are listening to, and then learn to judge the player’s ability to speak that language eloquently.

Confronted with a recording that is devoid of flat ninths, extended 16th-note runs and tri-tone substitutions, and which may contain banjo, tuba, washboard or other “oddities”, many students react with laughter and are quick to dismiss it as something irrelevant. Irrelevant?, I say. Well then, check this out: Christian Scott, Esperanza Spalding, Vijay Iyer, Jason Moran, Ambrose Akinmusire—they’re all IRRELEVANT. Why? Because, see, Mr. Zork here is from 90 years in the future. He just parked his time machine outside the school, and he saw a sign saying “jazz rehearsal, room 3009”, so he came in to listen because he’s a big jazz fan, see. But after hearing a few bars he burst into laughter. He forgot—this is only the 2010s! The Musitron hasn’t even been invented yet! We’re still using those funny-sounding trumpets and sax-o-phones! Playing that old-timey sound from way back then! Hey man, only the old guys still play like that! Why not come to the year 2105 with me, he says, and I’ll show you what jazz really is!

The problem, of course, is that we live in a throwaway society. As we add new layers of development to our native culture, we feel somehow compelled to toss out the older layers. Consequently, the tradition of this country’s native musical art form has been allowed to become unfamiliar—and therefore strange-sounding—to today’s youth.

We don’t do this with European classical music, you know. Bach’s music is not considered merely an embryonic predecessor to Tchaikovsky’s, nor is either composer’s music dismissed today because of succeeding developments. Why should any art form’s value be dependent on its temporal instance? Suppose King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band had traveled back 90 years to antebellum America, and played for a dance. To the bewildered dancers, their music would have sounded like utter chaos. Similarly, if King Oliver could have listened to Christian Scott’s latest recording from today, would he have dug it? Unlikely. And if we were to take Mr. Zork up on his offer, what would be our reaction to his jazz? Yet none of these negative reactions diminishes the quality of the performances. The negative reactions are due to the fact that in each instance, the listeners are being confronted with a language that is not familiar. If the most eloquent, perfectly phrased Japanese Haiku poem sounds like gibberish to me, and I am unable to assign it any value, it is only because I do not know Japanese.

I am careful to point out to my students that I am not suggesting that all jazz of the 1920s (or any other era) is good. The common yardstick by which all styles of jazz—perhaps all of music—can be measured, it seems to me, is the degree to which a message has been successfully conveyed to the listener. Students must become sufficiently familiar with the language of the early styles of jazz to be able to make this kind of assessment. Remind your students that the jazz record-buyers of yesteryear did not react to their purchases with laughter; these recordings spoke to them. It is the instructor’s responsibility to accurately teach the students the elements that define the style(s) being listened to—that is, the basic building blocks from which the messages are being constructed.

One of the biggest stumbling blocks in this regard is the question of technique. While most pre-swing jazz styles are able to accommodate virtuoso performances, they do not, in the main, require such abilities. By contrast, the jazz styles with which today’s students are familiar—namely, postwar styles—generally place a high premium on speed, range, dexterity, breath control and other manifestations of technical prowess. Any recording in which these qualities are not readily apparent to the student is likely to be dismissed out-of-hand. I dissuade my students from making such a mistake by pointing out that when I listen to a jazz artist (and I do listen to all styles/eras/players), I do not insist that he/she show me incredible technique—only that he/she make me believe something. Advanced technical skills may enhance the artist’s ability to deliver his/her message, but it is not the only way the message may be delivered—and, often, it is not even the best way. Should we judge the value of, say, a recording by blues pianist Cripple Clarence Lofton by comparing his apparent level of technical ability to that of, say, Oscar Peterson? I think not.*

Still, we should not let students jump to the conclusion that early jazz and prodigious instrumental technique are somehow mutually exclusive. Louis Armstrong’s “West End Blues”, Jimmie Noone’s “I Know That You Know”, Jabbo Smith’s “Jazz Battle”, Jelly Roll Morton’s “Shreveport Stomp”, Louis’ and Sidney Bechet’s “Cakewalking Babies”, and countless other examples will dismantle this notion in a hurry.

I’ve also found it helpful to reinforce my own advocacy of traditional jazz with words from contemporary musicians whom the students know and respect. I clip such quotes as I find them, and hand out copies. Here are a few examples:

“We’re coming now into the time that the earliest jazz fits. This is the time of King Oliver and Jelly Roll Morton…For our music, we don’t have to keep inventing the wheel that we invented already. What we have to do is learn to play it.” —Wynton Marsalis

“All creative roads in jazz are through the tradition, not at the expense of the tradition. You even hear musicians saying sh** like ‘Well, Louis Armstrong was good in his day, but we live in modern times and blah, blah, blah.’ So: Mozart was good in his day but he’s not valid in a discussion of today? Really? Beethoven was pretty good in his time but he ain’t dealing with the sh** that guys are dealing with now? Really?!” —Branford Marsalis

“I never say ‘I like the older style’. It’s not an old style because I’m doing it right now. I’m trying to do it now. It’s swing. It’s trying to understand blues and rhythm and harmony and theme.” —Harry Connick Jr.

“My advice? Embrace the tradition. Don’t do like I did; I wasn’t really open to a lot of different kinds of jazz. I just wanted to listen to what my friends were listening to, and I think that’s great, but we can end up with a narrow view of things that way. So, be open. Listen to music from the 1920s and all the way up through ‘til now.” —Terrell Stafford

“Do whatever it is you want to do as a musician, but you don’t need to throw the jazz tradition under the bus. I’ve never understood why everybody wants to do something new instead of doing something good.” —Christian McBride

I am always careful to explain to my students that I seek only to add to their jazz skills, without subtracting anything. I want them to devote time and effort to learning traditional jazz, but I don’t want them to turn away from contemporary forms in the process. I want them to be well-rounded musicians who can play competently in all jazz styles. My mission is to convince them that playing within the tradition is hip; that they can be just as self-realized in an older style as in a newer one; and that the tradition still has plenty of room for creativity and evolution. I want them to learn the elements of the older styles and how to properly apply them in performance. My challenge to them is to avoid parody, or even slavish imitation, but to find their own voice within the style.

I believe that the traditional forms of jazz need and deserve a more prominent seat at the table, and therefore require the particular attention of jazz educators. Aggressive advocacy is the key.


*Long after I wrote this, I read on the internet an interview of the late Oscar Peterson by Jim Galloway, in which Peterson says: “When I sit down to play I think of everybody from Fats Waller, or Hank Jones, right back to Cripple Clarence Lofton if you want, and I have respect for that, and I will always have that respect.”

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