I used to be a big basketball fan, and I even played basketball in college (of course, I went to a girl’s school). I remember when the Clippers played in Buffalo and were called the Braves, and when the Kings played in Kansas City and, decimated by injuries, had Ernie Grunfeld carefully walking the ball up the court for them in a memorable playoff run. I even remember a bit of the old ABA, and just this evening caught a few funny minutes of “Semi-Pro,” which captures that flavor and style pretty well. The title comes from that movie, the motivating quote player-coach-owner Jackie Moon uses for his franchise, the Flint Tropics. Flint Tropics . . .
So, everybody love everybody out there, please. I’m layin’ this out for you, people, because Matt Rubin at Twenty Dollars hates big band music (h/t Darcy James Argue). Now Matt can hate all he wants, it’s nothing I would argue with. It’s the reasoning, the apologies for the hating that I want to tackle. Rubin explains this all with a quasi-manifesto, a straw-man, a false dichotomy between ego-subverting precision and ego-celebrating improvisation, centered around a big-band with some commercial success, Gordon Goodwin’s Big Phat Band. Like him or not, and I frankly have never heard him, Goodwin can in no way objectively represent Jazz Big Band music, the genre has too much history and variety. And hating big band music while loving jazz is self-defeating, because jazz could not exist without the big band.
What on earth is wrong with precision? Precision is just as worthy a goal for an ensemble as chaos, and is generally a more musically effective one. The great, swinging bands of the 1930’s were incredibly precise, a dozen musicians or more could not swing without it. The precision of the horns arrayed on top of the fluid anticipation or laying back of a rhythm section is what makes Ellington, Basie, Goodman and Artie Shaw so physically propulsive. The ensemble attack and articulation has to work together or else it just sounds incoherent. What does not have to be precise is color, and it is the variety of personal color, and the space to paint it all in, that makes Ellington a marvel, and I disagree on matters of fact with how Rubin describes the Ellington band – it was not a band assembled from great, ego-based soloists, it was a band assembled from great musical personalities, not all of whom were great soloists, or who we even given much space to solo. Ellington was a great craftsman who emphasized his players strengths and hid their weaknesses. When Lester Young was in the Basie band, he was the star soloist, was given a lot of room, and that band played with the precision of a machine, and you cannot keep from tapping your foot when you hear them.
Rubin discusses the Miles Davis/Gil Evans records as exemplars of what he means, and those are great records. My favorite is “Porgy and Bess,” which is brilliant and beautiful, but it has a real flaw in it that, though brief, is always upsetting to the ear and experience, which is the imprecision of the ensemble on ‘Gone.’ Rubin also sees this music as pointing the way to a set of rules that will save big band music. He describes Evans’ technique as contrapuntal and writes “jazz composers must focus on counterpoint.” Well, only if they want to. Evans did not write counterpoint, he wrote polyphony, and even that not consistently. This is an important distinction; jazz is originally a polyphonic music. In Dixieland style, their are many voices playing at once, and a melody line can be passed around, doubled, commented on, answered, mocked. It’s fluid and horizontal, but it doesn’t pass as counterpoint, it doesn’t have the precision (yes, precision) that is inherent in counterpoint and it doesn’t develop harmonies the way counterpoint does. That’s fine. But Rubin wants counterpoint as a harmonic method. If a composer chooses that path, fine for them, but there’s plenty of ways to develop harmony and polyphony in jazz, all of them valid. It’s the results that matter.
Jazz harmony developed sophistication in the Be-Bop era, where polyphony was left to the old farts and harmony became vertical. Big band music became less popular, but didn’t die. There was a great Be-Bop big band after all, Dizzy Gillespie’s, and other important bands and leaders, including Gerry Mulligan’s and Stan Kenton’s. Kenton’s ‘City of Glass’ record is a completely different and fruitful argument about how to write for that ensemble. The big band has been essential in jazz pedagogy and also a way for talented musicians to actually get gigs and gain some professional experience. And composers still write for it. Rubin argues, also, that composers must write for soloists and individuals, and that not doing so is some offense against the essential ego of the musicians, and that by serving the composer and band-leader “indoctrinates” young musicians into . . . I’m not sure what, exactly. The pleasures and challenges of playing in an ensemble, of creating a sound together, of leaning to listen to others more than yourself? Big band jazz is music, not re-education camp.
There is more music being made than just that of Gordon Goodwin, and what I hear makes this hatred irrelevant; it escapes both Rubin’s diagnosis and remedy. There is Dave Holland’s group, which is funky, powerful, capable of great precision, counterpoint and just enough chaos for balance; Matthis Ruegg’s Vienna Art Orchestra which is old and new simultaneously, updating Jelly Roll Morton, Verdi and Satie into the post-Ornette world, and of course the exceptional music of Argue, which is polyphonic in a way that is much closer to Lutoslawski than King Oliver and absolutely shows both the trees and forest in a truly epansive way forward for big band music. I urge Rubin to see that forest too. There’s a lot of good music being made out there beyond what he finds so objectionable, and the cure he proscribes has no meaning if the patient isn’t sick.