[Author's Note: I am in the process of re-posting some of my previous blogs since they were lost in an 'act of God' by BlogSpot. Attempts to contact them to fix this were to no avail, so hence the re-posting. This is my very first blog originally written during the summer of 2009 after the death of Michael Jackson.]
Today here in LA I happened to overhear an announcer on 94.7 The Wave announce "we got some great jazz in store for you after this break, Greg Adams, Boney James and some straight ahead jazz with Lonnie Liston Smith! So stay tuned!" Also today, LA Weekly jazz writer, Brick Wahl sent a post out on Facebook saying that he just heard Kenny G on 88.1 KJZZ, supposedly the last bastion of straight-ahead jazz radio in America. Someone aptly responded to Brick's post saying, "Kenny G on KJZZ?? It's the sign of the apocalypse!" Indeed! And well said! Anybody with any understanding of music knows that what Boney James, Kenny G and Greg Adams are playing is as remote from jazz as the earth is from the center of our galaxy. And I like Lonnie Listen Smith as much as any music lover, but since when did his music become not only jazz (in the singular) but straight-ahead jazz? Come on! The problem is the changing of the guard in terms of a newer generation coming to the fore. Unfortunately, it seems like jazz to them is ANY kind of instrumental music. They can’t distinguish the variety of differences in music, because in their lifetime, music isn’t about the art of making great music. Its about money and conforming to formats that make a great deal of money through music. As a result of this emphasis on things extraneous to music, their ears have become sort of de-sensitized when it comes to music. To them, music by itself is not enough; there must be a gimmick of some sort: dancing, gangsterism or some other form of iconism. They never heard artists like Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, Donny Hathaway or James Brown in their prime, nor do they have musical artists of equal depth. They certainly never knew what it was like when Miles, Coltrane or Mingus walked the earth or they would know that Kenny G and them aren't playing jazz. And please let's get this straight: SMOOTH JAZZ AIN'T JAZZ. IT'S INSTRUMENTAL R&B. And that's cool! But that's what it is.
The Smooth Jazz Cognoscenti say that the roots of smooth jazz goes back to the fusion movement of the 1970s in an attempt to legitimize smooth jazz. But to me and my ears, the roots of all this is simply the making of money. As Bird said, "I can always tell when a man is playing for money." I think of the scene in the movie "Bird" where Bird snatches the horn out of an R&B saxophonist's hands and says "I just wanna see if this horn can play more than one note!" The problem we jazz enthusiasts have (and yes, I am not ashamed of the word ‘jazz’) is that for us, jazz is the highest form of music created by humankind. The highest evolution of the art of manipulating sound and vibration down through the ages, culminating with the emergence of jazz at the turn of the 20th century. Unencumbered with the racism that American whites had, the Europeans immediately understood and embraced jazz when they heard the first black artists perform on European soil like Sidney Bechet or James Reese Europe's bands when they arrived during World War I. For jazz is the perfect melding of the left brain (analytical and intellectual) with the right brain (emotion and creative). After all to master jazz, to even be in the ball park, you first have to have the musical understanding and technique of a classical instrumental virtuoso (left brain) and then have the ability to use that theoretical knowledge to create or make up what you feel in your heart (right brain) as pure musical expression of your own emotions moment after every moment as you play until you stop. The music is meant to be profound, because it is; -improvising and creating your own melodies as an expression of what each player held in their heart. The impact of that is that it always had the ability to move hearts. Now THAT'S challenging! Unlike these artists nowadays that people can take or leave, if you heard Billie Holiday, Nina Simone or Carmen McRae live I guarantee you truly would not, or could not just take or leave them! That's the kind of magic that's been lost.
Now, in the age of technology and computers, music and especially jazz isn't as magical as it once was because there is a whole generation of so-called artists lacking that kind of depth. It’s not their fault. For they been distracted away from that kind of perspective with the chase after the almighty dollar. It’s even divided artists amongst each other. The competitiveness over work, money and success has made it difficult for artists to enjoy each other’s work. Musicians today are over concerned with their own music to the point that they have little to no interest in each other’s work. An atmosphere of fear pervades among musicians that another artist who is as good may eclipse one’s own chances, so many won’t even acknowledge another’s work. Thus the development of the music stifles as it has for the past 20 years. Growth and evolution in music happens with the exchange of ideas among musicians and composers etc. This happened back in the day and is why there were not just great artists, but also many innovators among them. Their music is still vital today. Can we say that about today’s artists? That’s why the loss of Michael Jackson was so important. What might he had accomplished with his upcoming tour? However I’m afraid that even if he had created something innovative, people would lack the ears to appreciate it. The public today is more interested in Michael’s behavior and iconism than his music. Prior to his death, when’s the last time you heard talk of the greatness of his work? All you heard was criticism of his lifestyle and being weird. The man had to die for people to go back and listen to his work.
Yes, I remember a time when jazz was truly magical and important. When you said you were a musician, people didn’t look at you as if you were the scum of the earth. Back then, it seemed that every artist was magical and had something unique to say, no matter if it was jazz, pop, rock or country-western. Back then jazz was really something special. This would be back in the mid-60s. I had got my first subscription to DownBeat Magazine in 1964 when I was eight to fuel my listening sessions with my older brother's records. You couldn't even imagine the sounds and sense of those times, when giants like Miles, Trane, Wes and Mingus walked the earth! I'd look in the When and Where section of Downbeat and saw that these greats were actually out there performing. Man! Look at THESE cats: Duke, Pops, Coltrane, Miles, Bags, Hawk, Ella, Oscar Peterson, alive and a vital force in the world. You had Earl Fatha Hines, Count Basie. Jazz was a force for freedom in the world, breaking barriers down as it broke racial barriers that existed too long in our society up to that point. Even the white cats were cool: Pepper Adams (I mean, how much cooler can you get then him?), Bill Evans, Art Pepper, Dave Brubeck, Eddie Costa, Woody Herman. Such a magical time in music. We all took it for granted and thought it would always be like this. Boy were we wrong!
As I went to publish this, I was informed of the passing of writer/activist Iskandar Langalibalele to who I am dedicating this blog entry to in his memory. He would have liked this . . .