published in the
Libertarian Forum, July 1973.
Jazz Festival in New York 1973.
jazz is magnificently Old Culture, an exciting blend of European
melody and harmony with African rhythm, developed first in New
Orleans at the turn of the twentieth century. As such, it is as
far from the mindless cacophony of modern acid rock as it is possible
jazz always featured a small band, with drums, bass, banjo,
or piano providing the rhythmic framework (and the latter the
melody as well), the comet or trumpet asserting the lead melody,
the clarinet riding high above it and the trombone punching its
way below. Classic jazz was creative improvisation around the
lead melody, provided by the song being played. In classic jazz,
risk, and challenge were high: for the challenge was for the musician
to be creative and yet remain always within the framework of the
written song, and also to blend in harmoniously with the
other players. The danger is either to sink into non-creative
banality on the one hand (as Chicago "Dixieland" jazz generally
did to its New Orleans model), or, far worse, to abandon the melodic
framework altogether and thereby get lost in musical solipsism
swing of the late 1930's tended to do both, losing the creativity
of improvisation while getting lost in mindless riffs and solo
showboating for its own sake (e.g. the endless drum solos of Krupa
and Rich). Finally, at the end of World War II, jazz lost its
melody and harmony, and even its rhythm, altogether, and degenerated
into "bebop" and ultimately the nihilism of contemporary, or "modern"
great jazz requires great melodic songs at its base, the degeneration
of jazz after World War II went hand in hand with the degeneration
of the popular song, which finally descended into rock.
the great melodies, how could jazz remain anchored to a melodic
framework and thereby avoid descent into the anti-melodic abyss?
jazz, therefore, depended on playing the great tunes, either such
marvelous hymns as "Closer Walk to Thee" as with the New Orleans
bands, or the superb show tunes of Porter or Rodgers and Hart.
Hence, the inspired plan of the 1973 Newport-in-New York Jazz
Festival to put on "A Jazz Salute to American Song" (July 3) which
forced the numerous participants to return, at least in part,
to their melodic roots and play classic jazz once more.
"Jazz Salute" program was, inevitably, a mixed bag. It began with
an excellent Dixieland band, headed by the fine cornetist Jimmy
McPartland, and ably seconded by Art Hodes on the piano and Vic
Dickenson on trombone; playing Irving Berlin tunes, McPartland's
band was particularly good in a rousing rendition of "Alexander's
were followed by the great jazz pianist, Earl "Fatha" Hines, looking
remarkably young as he played notable tunes by Fats Waller, headed
by Hines' excellent jazz singing (of which there was alas too
little at the concert) of Waller's famous "Honeysuckle Rose."
Hines is not my favorite jazz pianist, since he plays not at all
lyrically but in great blocks of sound, but he was extremely interesting
special lagniappe was a duet played by Hines and the marvelously
breathy tenor saxophonist Illinois Jacquet, of Eubie Blake's "Memories
of You." (Blake, by the way, is a magnificent ragtime pianist
and composer, still playing at the age of 90, and still far more
powerful and forceful a ragtime and jazz pianist than several
men one-third his age put together.)
Porter was terribly slighted at the concert, first disparaged
stupidly by the promoter (who accused Porter of lacking "sentiment" read
cornball banality), and then raced through a few of his lesser
tunes by Teddi King, a poor singer, and perfunctory piano by Ellis
came by far the worst set of the concert, in which the great Duke
Ellington was butchered by the harsh screeching of R. Roland Kirk,
who played the tenor sax, the monzella, and the clarinet
simultaneously and badly; and by the tortured bellowing of Al
evening was quickly set back on course, however, as the
superb jazz pianist Barbara Carroll swung her way lightly and
lyrically through such marvelous Harold Arlen tunes as "Come Rain
or Come Shine," "As Long as I Live," and "Out of this World."
She was well assisted by singer Sylvia Sims. (But where oh where
was Lee Wiley, who even now with voice partly gone is far
and away the best female jazz singer extant? For
heartbreaking and magical jazz singing at its best, go back and
listen to Lee Wiley's record, made twenty-odd years ago, singing
Rodgers and Hart.) Miss Carroll is one of our finest jazz pianists,
and it was good to see her return to the musical scene.
famous jazz pianist Dave Brubeck then led his band through a rousing
rendition of great songs by Jimmy Van Heusen, including "Someone
in Love," "Rainy Day," and "It Could Happen to You."
Except for a tendency to lose the melody at times, there was happily
little trace of Brubeck's old modernism.
Modern Jazz Quartet then played a set of Gershwin melodies. The
MJQ was the best and most classical of early "bop" and "modern"
jazz, and there they were constrained by the Gershwin melodic
structure to play in their best manner of cool and sensuous elegance,
a manner insured by the playing of the famous Milt Jackson on
the vibes. It's too bad that the MJQ stuck to the corny Porgy
and Bess, which is not really vintage Gershwin (where, for example,
was the master's magnificent "But Not for Me"?) And they could
well scrap their harshly percussive drummer.
highly interesting set was the playing of the great Rodgers and
Hart (in the days before Rodgers was corrupted by the banal, left-liberal
sentimentality of Oscar Hammerstein), particularly two
of the greatest pop songs and show tunes ever written, "My Romance"
and "It Never Entered My Mind." The band was excellent, headed
by the creamy tenor sax of Stan Getz; unfortunately, the singer
was Mabel Mercer, who has enjoyed cult status in the fashionable
New York supper clubs, but has literally no voice at all, and
simply talks her lines. Still, Getz and the band made the playing
final set was an excellent one, with the delightful Marian McPartland
at the piano and Gerry Mulligan playing a sinuous and superb baritone
sax, as they played Alec Wilder's "It's So Peaceful In the Country,"
"When We're Young," and "I'll be Around When He's Gone."
All in all, an important reminder that jazz needs great melodies
to make it viable.