As I discussed in my previous post, “Art, Black Art, and Seriousness in Bebop,” Clive James laments in his recent book Cultural Amnesia that bebop led to a growing seriousness in jazz that led to the erosion of jazz’s popularity – a trend continued with those musicians who followed in the 1950s and 1960s. (I also discuss in that post what I find wrong with this formulation, both with regard to the supposed “seriousness” of bebop and the causal role of bebop in a decline in jazz’s popularity.)
In a similar vein, during the course of the 10th and final episode of Ken Burns’ documentary Jazz, as a variety of commentators discuss (mainly what they see as wrong with) jazz in the late 1960s and 1970s (with several interviewees especially attacking Miles Davis’ electric music and the music of Cecil Taylor – see my earlier post, “Vitriol and Jazz”), Wynton Marsalis claims that jazz just went away for a little while (until its reemergence in the 1980s, led by none other than Marsalis).
James and Marsalis are addressing different periods and different particular musicians. I suspect the two would strongly disagree on details. Where James is ambivalent about Charlie Parker and clearly doesn’t at all like the music of John Coltrane or Miles Davis in any period, Marsalis has no problems with Parker or Coltrane (e.g. the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra’s recording of Coltrane’s A Love Supreme under Marsalis’ direction – a recording I’m fond of, by the way – if I had to choose, I’d go with Coltrane’s original, but there’s no reason to choose) or much of Davis’ music.
Still, the form of their arguments is similar. Certain musicians (Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and the other beboppers or post-1969 Davis and the other producers of fusion jazz) began to make music that was too serious or too difficult or otherwise too different from the jazz tradition. The result was that the jazz audience significantly shrank or disappeared.
As I discussed in my earlier post, “Vitriol and Jazz,” my reaction to those who continue to bash fusion jazz or free jazz thirty or forty years after the fact is to get over it – if you don’t like Davis or Coltrane or Taylor or Ornette Colemen or Anthony Braxton or whoever, just don’t listen. James’ and Marsalis’ argument here, though, is a little different (and my reaction is a little different). For anyone who feels personally betrayed by the directions a musician takes – get over yourself, and maybe seek counseling. The argument of James and Marsalis is more that the beboppers or the fusion jazz players killed jazz by killing its audience.
My reaction to this is twofold: 1. That’s not true; and 2. So What?
1. There’s no doubt that the overall popularity of jazz began to wane over the course of the 1940s, but as I discussed in “Art, Black Art, and Seriousness in Bebop,” this decline in audience is correlated with rather than caused by bebop. For that matter, bebop wasn’t really swing’s main competitor (and so can’t really be blamed for its demise) – as James points out, bebop wasn’t dance music. It was largely art music (even if art music that was entertaining and had a sense of humor), where swing (even when practitioners like Duke Ellington had great concern for artistry) was largely dance music at the time. Instead, the loss of audience was to new forms of dance music – rhythm and blues and other forms of music that would form part of the roots of rock and roll, musical forms associated with the youth of the time, in contrast with swing which had been identified with youth but now more with those who had been young.
Further, a number of “difficult” or “serious” jazz albums over the following decades sold quite well. (That is, bebop and its successors didn’t have the audience that swing might have had in the 1930s and early 1940s, but “serious” jazz maintained a strong audience over a period of several decades.) James includes an amusing quotation attributed to Miles Davis in his essay on Davis. Davis said, “If I don’t like what they write, I get into my Ferrari and I drive away.” If he were alive today, I suspect that’s about how he’d react to arguments that his music was at all too difficult for audiences or that his music drove fans away from jazz. A number of albums by “difficult” artists have sold quite well: Davis’ Bitches Brew and Coltrane’s A Love Supreme are among the top selling jazz albums of all time. (I’ve read a variety of writers claim that one or the other is the top selling jazz album of all time, but I’ve also seen that claim made for a number of other records – the only thing that’s completely clear, given a lack of highly accurate sales records for jazz recordings, is that these albums and artists had and have a tremendous audience.)
Did jazz just go away for a little while in the 1970s? Hardly. Weather Report constantly toured and played to large, packed arenas, i.e. they had an audience comparable to that of major rock bands of the time. Other fusion groups, like Davis’ bands, Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters, Chick Corea and Return to Forever, also had large audiences.
I think that Marsalis is engaging in a bit of sleight of hand. I get the distinct impression that for him, fusion was not jazz. If you count it out, then jazz went away for a little while. (I don’t even think that’s accurate, as a number of “straightahead” jazz artists did well during the decade also.) This seems like sophistry to me, and the effect of defining jazz in narrow ways, and excluding anything that strays too far, is to limit the recognition of a variety of contemporary artists who are making interesting and exciting music.
2. Though neither explicitly says so, the thrust of the arguments put forth by James or Marsalis implies that size of audience and degree of popularity are a marker of artistic worth.
Certainly a musician has to be somewhat concerned with audience, at least any musician making a living from their music. But popularity and the aesthetic quality (both in the sense of the objective qualities of a work and its aesthetic worth) are separate issues. Likewise, obscurity is no mark of high or low aesthetic value in itself.
My main point in mentioning that albums like Bitches Brew or A Love Supreme are among the highest selling jazz albums of all time was simply to counter claims that the music of people like the beboppers or Davis or Coltrane led inevitably to a loss of popularity. However, high record sales don’t make these good recordings; nor, if they had sold poorly would they have been bad music on that count.
The high popularity of these recordings and of fusion jazz in the early 1970s is of anthropological or sociological interest as a cultural phenomenon. In terms of artistic merit, though, the recordings exist objectively as aesthetic objects independent of their high or low popularity.