Cover of Art Blakey‘Jazz - The Smithsonian Anthology,’ Out March 29 - NYTimes.com
By BEN RATLIFF
LOOK out: there’s a new jazz canon coming toward you. A boxed set of six discs to be released on March 29, it emanates from the Smithsonian Institution; it is called “Jazz: The Smithsonian Anthology.” It surveys jazz chronologically, from its complicated beginnings to its just as complicated near-present.
It was assembled by scholars and critics and broadcasters: serious names. It begins with a solo-piano composition by a Texas-born composer whose father had been a slave (Scott Joplin) and ends with a quartet track led by a Polish trumpeter (Tomasz Stanko) who loves Miles Davis. Text drips from the package, an essay for each of its 111 tracks.
You’re energized, right? Your heartbeat just picked up, your amygdala’s plumping out. You want to know what canons usually address: how and where the anthologizers claim jazz started, how they frame it now. And in the middle, how do they really feel about Coltrane, about late Billie Holiday and Lester Young, about Ahmad Jamal, Miles at the Plugged Nickel, Afro-Latinism, cool and free and fusion, live vs. studio, unsung heroes? More: Is jazz a musical language or a philosophy of action, or is it merely a genre, the art that descends from a body of recorded masterpieces? What’s its relation to race, or sensuality, or geography? And what is the deal with its rhythm sections — why do they sound so incredibly different every 15 years? What keeps the music changing? What makes it tick? What is jazz?
I am both invested in and sick of the subject, having written a kind of jazz-canon book myself, 10 years ago. So, caveat lector. But I ask rhetorically, because I’m still working it out: How could such a righteous cultural product, full of so many sublime parts, feel so cumulatively limp?
My first reaction was that maybe we’ve reached our limit, jazz-canon-wise. In the past one of the primary functions of projects like “Jazz: The Smithsonian Anthology” was simply to get this music in print, because in some cases you could not otherwise find it: probably not in your local record store or library, not on the radio, nowhere. Back then there was a causal link between a recording’s availability and the possibility of its influence. Now almost every recording ever made is buyable or poachable online: easy come, easy go, and therefore no music needs protection or special pleading. But that’s nonsense. There is still a need for cultural advocacy, even if the culture is easy to find. Meade Lux Lewis’s ferocious “Honky Tonk Train Blues,” on Disc 1 of this collection, was popular in its time and remains easy to locate online. Still, you’ll most likely never hear it unless someone points you there.
Then I wondered if maybe it’s no longer worth exploring what the new jazz reality — say, New York groups like the trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire’s or the drummer Dafnis Prieto’s, or the New York-Los Angeles band Kneebody — might have in common with King Oliver and Jelly Roll Morton. But of course that’s wrong too. The connections are there, the closer you listen: in instrumentation, in the compressed balance between composition and improvisation, in the spirit of revision. And all those new jazz musicians have studied the jazz tradition. They may run far and wide, but they know who their parents are.
But maybe the true problem is that “Jazz: The Smithsonian Anthology” isn’t really a canon at all. It’s a House of Representatives. What’s missing is its desire to be any more than a list, rather than an argument or a thesis.
It does not lack for facts, this hundred-dollar toolbox. It is not underinformed. It does more, for instance, with free jazz and Afro-Latin music than some others have done. It represents both popular taste and scholarly consensus. It is balanced in all things, even in its split between popular choices and critics’ favorites. So there’s Miles Davis’s “So What,” Bill Evans’s “Waltz for Debby,” Getz and Gilberto’s “Girl From Ipanema,” Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers’ “Moanin,’ ” etc. — as well as solid to questionable wild-card choices like the Clark Terry-Bob Brookmeyer Quintet’s “Haig & Haig,” Mary Lou Williams’s “Virgo” and Cab Calloway’s “Hard Times.” Its final disc stops at 2003 — a minor alarm, though I’m resigned to low hopes for the final chapters of these kinds of things. You’ll always disagree about the music of your own time.
The new Smithsonian anthology is fair minded, which is to say strangely anonymous. Though the essays are signed, one can’t be sure whether the signers chose the tracks, and you won’t find out how the anthologizers, individually or as a body, really feel about anything in particular. (The boxed set was created by an executive committee of five — the scholars David Baker, Jose Bowen, John Edward Hasse, Dan Morgenstern and Alyn Shipton — and 42 more on the advisory panel: 47 ! And that’s not including yet a few more writers, who wrote track notes.) It comes with no particular orientation or obsession; it can seem as if there’s little at stake.
It is chronological, which of course carries its own logic, if kind of a dull one. It contains a few inspired sequences, like its tour of the mid-’50s, winding through mostly nonobvious tracks from Chico Hamilton, Lucky Thompson, Sonny Rollins, Sun Ra, Nat King Cole and Ella Fitzgerald with Louis Armstrong. But in general the individual tracks don’t talk to one another much, or linger on an artist and take a stand; and while the boxed set represents styles and eras and trends, it seldom leads you toward deeper questions.
The act of listening to it can also elicit a retrospective sympathy for past canons, on page and disc and screen. For instance Charles Edward Smith’s in “The Jazz Record Book”; Marshall Stearns’s in “The Story of Jazz”; Joachim E. Berendt, Gunther Huesmann and Kevin Whitehead’s, in the second edition of Berendt’s “Jazz Book”; Ken Burns’s, in the television documentary and CD series “Jazz;” Allen Lowe’s “That Devilin’ Tune,” covering jazz up to 1951 in 36 discs and a book; and Gary Giddins’s and Scott Deveaux’s, in their judicious book-length history and CD-ROM project from 2010, also called “Jazz.”
All these had causes to defend or stories to tell: the development of jazz as a self-conscious art form; the centrality of the music’s prehistory; the importance of prescient or outlying musicians to jazz history; the role of jazz in healing America’s race trauma. But what the new anthology might make you miss the most is the object it has been designed to replace: “The Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz,” compiled in 1973 and revised in 1987 by the critic Martin Williams.
The American jazz-education movement was just taking shape when Williams’s “Smithsonian Collection” appeared, on six vinyl LPs. (It was eventually transferred to CD; it’s been out of print for a while.) The Williams anthology became standard for jazz-appreciation classes, and on first inspection it appeared only to help you demarcate a big story and save time. Stealthily, it also advanced theories. Williams, who died in 1992, could write as if he didn’t know what fun was. But he listened with great depth and vigor, and his canon had funk in its step.
It favored rhythmic innovation above all else. It had little time for singers. It acknowledged masterpieces, but not reflexively or out of obligation. It bestowed major real estate to a small group of creators — particularly Jelly Roll Morton, Armstrong, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk and Ornette Coleman — and gave John Coltrane an informed kind of short shrift. If you resented any of his grudges from his writing, you saw them carried over into the anthology. (He found Coltrane tedious and Ahmad Jamal shallow.)
Yet the Williams canon radiated a meta-consciousness of jazz as a creative act. It segued versions of the same song by different people; it knitted together Charlie Christian’s guitar solos from different takes of “Breakfast Feud” with the Benny Goodman Sextet into one long, five-chorus improvisation. And it really engaged with Charlie Parker, presenting pairs of alternate takes of “Embraceable You” and “Crazeology,” cutting them off after Parker’s solo, to demonstrate how true an improviser Parker was. This could seem fanciful or time wasting when telling a big story in a small space; but he picked his spots.
All of that was radical, if not even remix-oriented or bloggy before its time. He seemed to understand implicitly that canon making itself was an act of creativity and revision; that a survey of an art form wasn’t the same thing as a survey of its reception. In any case, Williams’s anthology was argued over because it was worth arguing over.
What I’m saying is: If ever there was a place for style to follow subject, for form to follow function, this is the place. A jazz anthology has got to have spark and tension and originality. In order for jazz to feel like an open subject, we need more challenging suppositions about it, whether they translate as pluralistic or exclusive. But perhaps this just can’t be done by committee. I’ve never heard good jazz from a 47-member band.
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