[Dixielandjazz] Another NY TIMES Jazz Review
barbonestreet at earthlink.net
Sat Oct 30 08:44:38 PDT 2004
Posted without comment, other than to read paragraph 4 and note the
following in context: "intended to display jazz's broad range, deep
ambition and, not incidentally, ready marketability."
More on that "ready marketability" tomorrow after we perform later tonight
at the Beaux Arts Ball in Philadelphia.
October 30, 2004 - CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK - NY TIMES
With Built-In Tension, Jazz Swings to the Past By EDWARD ROTHSTEIN
Ralph Ellison, who was lured away from the trumpet to become a writer, once
explained that in jazz there is a "cruel contradiction implicit in the art
form." It is a contradiction between the individual and the group, between
solitary assertion and collective cooperation.
A "true jazz moment," Ellison said, "springs from a contest in which each
artist challenges all the rest," in which the very nature of the player's
identity is at stake. That is the drama of solo riffs, of call-and-response
interchanges, of daring high-wire improvisations.
A different kind of cruel contradiction seemed to be on display on Thursday
night when Jazz at Lincoln Center continued its opening celebrations with a
concert called "Let Freedom Swing." (The program will be repeated tonight at
the Rose Theater.) This contradiction didn't come from within the music, but
from the purpose it was asked to serve.
Over the course of several weeks, the events at the new $128 million
performance complex etched into the high-gloss, high-priced mall of the Time
Warner Center at Columbus Circle, have been intended to display jazz's broad
range, deep ambition and, not incidentally, ready marketability.
But Wynton Marsalis, the jazz institution's artistic director, also wanted
to make a major political and social statement, calling the concert "A
Celebration of Human Rights and Social Justice" and deliberately scheduling
it just before Election Day.
So six new compositions were commissioned for the Lincoln Center Jazz
Orchestra, setting texts and speeches by Nelson Mandela, Archbishop Desmond
Tutu, Vaclav Havel, Lyndon B. Johnson, Eleanor Roosevelt, Robert F. Kennedy
and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The texts were recited by
celebrities: Morgan Freeman, Mario Van Peebles, Alfre Woodard, Glenn Close,
Patricia Clarkson, Keith David and the Rev. Dr. Calvin O. Butts III.
And while the composers themselves were less well known; they were, after
all, meant to write music in service to the ideas being expressed.
But this kind of devotion to the text or even an attempt to illuminate and
expand on the text - was missing through much of the concert. Rather as if a
trumpeter, called upon to improvise on a motif and to carry forward a
musical argument, ended up having very little fresh to add to the argument,
to what was already being said. That was certainly the case in the settings
of Mr. Mandela's and Archbishop Tutu's words by Darius Brubeck and Zim
Ngqawana, or Emil Viklicky's settings of words by Mr. Havel or Toshiko
Akiyoshi's settings of Mrs. Roosevelt.
The jazz orchestra was used more for mood and occasional punctuation than
Jimmy Heath's settings of Johnson's speeches were a bit more cogent (they
were introduced with some oblique electioneering by Mr. Marsalis, who
favorably compared Johnson to another president from Texas). But it wasn't
until hearing Darin Atwater's settings of Kennedy, that the evening's
ambitions even seemed plausible.
First, the Kennedy text - an address delivered to South African students in
1966 - had a very clear structure, while most of the other texts seemed
chosen in an eagerness to sound every political chord rather than to serve
dramatic or musical purposes. Mr. Atwater's muscular imagination also took
the idiom of the jazz orchestra, the manners of the ballad and the gestures
of swing, and smartly used them to comment on the words.
When Kennedy condemned moral expediency, the music seemed to flutter with
frivolity; his criticism of comfort was accompanied by sounds that sashayed
with indulgence. There were moments too in Billy Childs's settings of King's
words, when the ominous thrusts of the score or its expectant ecstasy
revealed how much more might have been possible.
But the sense of a cruel contradiction remained. It seemed as if more was
being asked than could be delivered, as if the texts would have been better
off standing on their own, as if their ideas of freedom, rights, liberty
could not be fully embodied in sound.
This seems strange because, as Ellison suggested, the idea of struggle and
the notion of individuality are inscribed in the very textures of jazz. And
the musical style, in all its incarnations, has achieved a liberating
reputation over the course of decades simply for sociological reasons: jazz
- its performance and its appeal - helped break down racial boundaries
through the first half of the 20th century. Even Mr. Marsalis, in his recent
book, "To a Young Jazz Musician," has emphasized the ways in which jazz is
an "act of rebellion," or the ways in which swing is "democracy made
So if the drama in jazz involves a confrontation between the collective and
the individual, if it reflects certain forms of organization and drama, why
shouldn't it be able to illuminate texts that do the same? Mr. Havel, after
all, prescribes inner freedom, the independence of reason and openness to
the deepest voice of one's own conscience. Kennedy celebrates achievements
wrought by individuals in trying conditions. King attacks the spirit of
alienation that splits an individual off from society.
But one problem is that the grandeur of so much jazz comes not from its
monumentality but from its individualism. And that is not the real message
of so many of these speeches. They are invoking large social forces and
making imposing social promises. Even in the best of stylistic
circumstances, this is not easy to represent in sound.
Narrated text accompanied by music is a genre fraught with risk anyway, and
is often maudlin or obvious (that includes Copland's classic "A Lincoln
Portrait.") It may also be, though, that musical styles really do have
different kinds of functions, their languages better suited to some
occasions rather than others.
They create societies in sound, each with its own favored meanings and
matters. A swing band or for that matter a Baroque dance suite might not,
for example, be the ideal accompaniments to affairs of state.
Did this concert, then, display a cruel contradiction, or was it just an
example of ambitions falling short? Did it display jazz's limitations or its
unfulfilled possibilities? One of Mr. Marsalis's goals at his new
institutional home may be to find out.
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