Last September the writer Howard Mandel organized a conference at Columbia University – Jazz in the Global Imagination – for some two dozen writers, researchers and radio hosts from Japan, Russia, Western Europe, Mexico, Canada and the U.S. The sheer reach of the project was typical of Mandel, who worked with George E. Lewis, director of Columbia’s jazz studies program, in developing the panels.
Seda Binsbasgil (with a Master of Business Administration degree from Louisiana State University) programs jazz on Turkish national radio in Istanbul. In that fascinating city, a crossroads of cultures, the interest in jazz, she explained, was largely among the intellectual elite.
Eugene Marlow, jazz composer and scholar at Baruch College in New York, discussed Shanghai’s music scene from his forthcoming book on jazz in China. Alain Derbez (despite his French surname), is a writer, musician and broadcaster in Veracruz who gave a flowing account of jazz in Mexico.
If a single theme pervaded the conference it was the struggle by musicians, producers and chroniclers of jazz for locations and audiences. Second to that was the complaint voiced by the European contingent that jazz from their wellsprings was as important as that performed by touring Americans; that U.S. programmers and critics should follow European jazz as seriously as they do American.
Sparking such cross-cultural dialogue was all of a piece for Mandel, an esteemed writer and president of the Jazz Journalists Association. During a coffee break, he articulated the icy concerns of recording labels amidst the free-fall in sales courtesy of the Web revolution and writers who face shrinking print outlets for coverage of the music:
“I’ve got a blog now,” Mandel grouses. With grim irony, he whispers: “This the world we are in.”
For a better sense of that world, visit www.jazzhouse.org, the JJA Web site, with links to the members’ online journal and information for general audiences.
I believe that writing about jazz is much harder than covering politics or literature. Interviewing musicians takes time. Conveying the beauty and complexities of the music is an art form more challenging than critical writing about literary criticism.
Mandel’s new book, Miles, Ornette, Cecil: Jazz Beyond Jazz is a sweeping account of avant-garde jazz, following the post-World War II currents through the sometimes overlapping careers, of trumpeter Miles Davis, saxophonist Ornette Coleman and pianist Cecil Taylor. Mandel casts a wide thematic net: “In retrospect, Jelly Roll Morton’s 1926 charts for his Red Hot Peppers easily stand as avant-garde; in terms of expansive, genre-defying concept and virtuosic realization, only a handful of chamber music or symphonic scores by Americans or Europeans in that era compare.”
I can hear Dr. Michael White clapping. He once told me how hard it was to find a local ensemble proficient in Morton’s complex compositions.
Mandel’s narrative is laced with cul-de-sacs on many jazz artists who push the boundaries, as well as on painters and writers, including Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg of the Beat era, whose words pulsed astride Bebop streams in jazz.
Covering the well-established parallels does slow the narrative; yet this is a wonderfully learned book, with profiles as thoughtful as Alfred Kazin’s on American writers. Mandel’s saga embraces jazz as a mirror on society: “Because there is, after all, only one entirety, only one same river in time and place, beginning to end. We are all in this together, extreme conservatives and unrepentant avant-gardists … Miles, Ornette and Cecil cast off assumptions that traditionalists cling to like security blankets in favor of perhaps starker or more ungainly yet defiantly beautiful evocations of music as they’ve conceived it, before the rest of us have.”
He writes of Taylor extending a tradition from Morton, Duke and Earl Hiles down through Monk, Bill Evans and Herbie Hancock: “All kept their hands on the ivories, typically chording mostly with the left and planting harmonic pins in the bottom registers, in the right making pretty or smart or robust figures usually with single-note runs. Sometimes they stretched their fingers to span an octave or more, tinkled grace notes way up top, struck chords in both hands … or [created] contrary motion or intricately close harmonies within the narrow confines of the black and white keys.”
The foreign critics at the Columbia conference have their own artists to add to that litany of those opening the confines. How many, of those Jazz lights we, insular Americans, know not. Yet as recording label founders and critics seek new outlets, the force of jazz will carry on. Mandel: “There will always be an avant-garde waiting to spring at us or waiting for us to delve into, as long as humans have the life to walk around a new corner or turn a new page.”