Lament For The Living

Thelonious Monk would have turned 100 last month, but he didn’t because he’s dead….

The contemporary musicians are not only carving out new territory but entirely renegotiating the music’s relationship with the past, an absolute necessity if an art form is to stay away from decadence.



Thelonious Monk would have turned 100 last month, but he didn’t because he’s dead.

Monk is Monk, so every year throw a big listening party and dig one of the greats, a musician who was too big for jazz. The utterly sincere, idiosyncratic beauty and humor of his playing has an immediate, guiless appeal to listeners of every age and experience, and he’s one of the greatest composers of the 20th century, a Modernist for whom jazz is too limiting.

Such a grand birthdate calls for encomiums, and along with the annual birthday broadcast on WKCR came articles from Ethan Iverson and Fred Hersch. Music sections of some daily papers did their annual remember-the-dead-jazz-musicians-who’s-name-everyone-sorta-knows things, as did web pop outfits like Paste.

But I focus on Iverson and Hersch because they were given the opportunity to write about jazz in, respectively, the premiere magazine for the educated general reader, The New Yorker, and in the premiere literary magazine for the educated general reader, The Paris Review. The New Yorker is journalism with extensive and important critical interest in contemporary art, classical music, literature, dance, and film. The Paris Review publishes fiction, poetry, non-fiction, interviews with writers (an important kind of criticism), has a substantial focus contemporary visual arts, and on-line flirts with popular music.

But they have no interest in jazz made by the living, if they are interested in jazz at all. The Paris Review is essentially uninterested, which is their right, their taste is their taste. It does mark a devolution of the literary world’s interest in musical art, though—fifty years ago what was happening in jazz was important to writers.

(SIDEBAR: The Atlantic also published something on Monk, from one of their political writers. While I’m glad he mentioned some living musicians, I don’t understand how stuff like this happens. Okay, maybe they don’t have the budget to employ Francis Davis—one of the great jazz critics—but surely they can’t pay a freelancer? Actually, I feel the reason is not economic, but editorial, and not in the obvious ways—more on that below.)

The New Yorker is both a particularly important case due to its prominence and a particularly puzzling one, due to its own history and values. Whitney Balliett wrote for the magazine from 1954 to 1971, mainly about jazz. He engaged with what was happening, meaning what musicians were doing RIGHT NOW, including catching Miles Davis’ electrified and popified return. After he left, there were a handful of pieces on living jazz musicians, five or so, and that includes personal profiles of Esperanza Spaulding and Vijay Iyer, not actual evaluative criticism.

No, when jazz shows up in the magazine, its dead jazz, off recordings only. There’s not a live musician playing a gig or concert in sight. I am talking back of the book, I am talking criticism; there you’ll find out about the latest in books, art, dance, movies, and television. You’ll also find out, courtesy of Alex Ross, about what is happening RIGHT NOW in classical music.

You’ll also of late read there, and at Ross’ blog, about some jazz musicians;Tyshawn Sorey and Wadada Leo Smith. I’m pleasantly baffled by this, and also frustrated. Ross’ interest seems to have been stimulating by Henry Threadgill (one of the most sophisticated composers in new music well beyond jazz) winning a Pulitzer, and lately has been impressed with Sorey’s composing, which I have been raving about and promoting in one way or another for several years now.

Sorey, who just won a MacArthur, is known in jazz as one of the finest drummers on the scene. He’s also a new music composer who’s work, which has to do with space, silence, timbre, and all sorts of other post-Xenakis/post-Feldman values, is absolutely not jazz and is absolutely some of the best stuff happening in composition RIGHT NOW.

Smith also won a Pulitzer, for his brilliant Ten Freedom Summers, which seems to have impressed his wonderful work on Ross, who has been listening to the trumpeter’s new CD Solo – Reflections and Meditations on Monk. Yes, Monk again!, honored in the most important way, not by gazing at it captured in wax but by making it alive and relevant. Smith plays the man’s music and his own with exceptional logic and imagination, and I continue to be impressed by the sheer beauty and force of his sound.

(SIDEBAR: Threadgill, Sorey, and Smith are making the most vital and daring music in contemporary composition, unpredictable and full of energy, where most of everything I hear coming out of the academies—except for Sorey—is safe and self-satisfied. Ross’ writing about Sorey’s latest, and I would also direct you toward Alloy and his early that/not and Koan, which are gripping, beautiful, and stay beyond the edge of comprehension.)

So there’s a critic at The New Yorker listening to contemporary jazz. Unfortunately, he’s not a jazz critic and he’s not writing about jazz. Instead there’s Richard Brody occasionally writing about historical recordings from dead musicians, and guests like Iverson.

The other critics don’t draw a line at 1959 and ignore everything that came after. If they did, the magazine would be a laughing stock, we’d have to invent an entirely new word to describe such a set of out-of-touch fuddy-duddies. That this is not the case, and that there is no jazz criticism, is an editorial decision: David Remnick has no interest in contemporary jazz, and its possible he may not know it exists.

That impoverishes readers, and also musicians. Life is for the living, so are gigs and cash, and what makes life so onerous for most contemporary jazz musicians (unless they have a steady teaching/touring/session gig) is the media, or lack thereof. This all matters.

We live in the same era with Jason Moran, Vijay Iyer (and by the way Moran and Iyer are the finest Monk players RIGHT NOW, why did no one think of soliciting an article from them?), Mary Halvorson, Steve Lehman, Roscoe Mitchell, Nik Bärtsch, Kris Davis, Fay Vincent, Smith, Threadgill, Brandon Ross, Darcy James Argue, Eve Risser, Jonah Parzen-Johnson … I mean, HOLY SHIT! You can get a substantial idea of where a lot of the music is at RIGHT NOW just through Iyer’s excellent new ECM CD, Far From Over. For the music, this is an age of gold forged by the bronze, iron, and steel made by the great musicians of the past.

But those musicians are past. Yes, by all means, enjoy the pleasures of Bird and Monk and Ellington, because those are the pleasures of genius. They are also known. Like listening to that favorite recording of the “Eroica,” we not only know the music but we know the album, every note in every second. “Ko-Ko” is not going to change. Our moods may vary when we put on Kind of Blue, but the music is going to be exactly the same, every time. Every. Single. Time.

What more can we say about it? How much more must we honor the dead? Yes, acknowledge the dead, build on their achievments. But it is atavistic to spend so much time fondling metaphorical reliquaries and so little in on what the living are doing.

The contemporary musicians are not only carving out new territory but entirely renegotiating the music’s relationship with the past, an absolute necessity if an art form is to stay away from decadence.

The grants and foundation money preserve the music as something that puts the cult in culture. Its akin to the careful preservation of the last speakers of an obscure language.

But this is a living, changing language. We get none of in the general media-hype. Poetry didn’t stop with Homer and jazz didn’t end with Monk.

Jazz needs and deserves some attention from the general audience. In a country with 300 million people, surely a great jazz record could sell 30,000 copies, instead of just 3,000. But the general audience never hears anything about what’s going on in jazz because their media is only feeding them mummies.

Yes, there are magazines like Downbeat, Jazziz, The Wire, depending on whether you swing left, right, or straight down the middle. These are for fans of jazz and other creative musics, and by definition are speciality magazines: the general public has no idea what’s in Downbeat.

When the stars align, when the music and the marketing come together, boosted by a personal story, general interest media notices someone is playing jazz and declares that Kamasi Washington/Joey Alexander/Skinny Puppy are going to save a music they had forgotten exists. Its a tautology and a solipsism in one!

This is the definition of ignorance: that if they don’t know about it, it can’t possibly exist.

And so the general public only reads about the past and the occasional false Messiah, and they get a worldview that says jazz packed up it’s horns and retired after the release of Kind of Blue. The rest is just old guys playing old music in a kind of tableaux vivante of anthropology, and once in a while there’s someone who is revolutionary because they play jazz of a later vintage, like the ‘60s or ‘70s.

This is personal to me because jazz is at the heart of my musical being—not like those songs I loved when I was a kid, like “Play That Funky Music” that are permanently stuck in the pleasure centers, but in the mix of values and possibilities that so far has kept my own creative fire lit. Jazz is one of the few things that is fundamentally based on a mix of abstract art and immediate, popular, physical appeal, something that I think is vital—make profound art that communicates in the most straight-forward way, and don’t forget the fun.

This is also personal because these magazines are giving work to people who already have work (most egregiously in the Atlantic), an indirect way of redistributing income upward. Because I need work, and I can write about jazz. My need for work is so dire that every day it appears more likely that I will actually have to stop writing about music. I mock myself with the fantasy of being the jazz critic at The New Yorker. And it is mockery because if the editors ever became interested in regular jazz criticism (my capacity for optimism gets me into trouble), they would not turn to me—I didn’t go to an Ivy League school and I don’t know people in publishing.

But even on my tiny, shrinking personal island, I care about the living. It would be a small, beautiful thing to once in a while see the media gaze turn toward the contemporary greats.

Author: gtra1n

I'm a composer and musician, and I write about music—I do that here, for the New York Classical Review, at the Brooklyn Rail (I edit the music section there) and any place else that will have me, like New Music Box and Music & Literature. I also wrote the Miles Davis' Bitches Brew book in the 33 1/3 series.