Q and A

These are questions submitted by readers, and answered by Tom Hull.

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June 25, 2020

[Q] I read the latest Xgau Sez column where he talks about books on jazz and popular music. While I have closely followed his writing since the Village Voice days, I don't find his reviews on jazz, books or music, to be particularly insightful. So, I want to ask you, as a deep jazz guy, about some books on jazz that you see as important or have recently read.

I've read quite a few things on jazz and black music. The earliest were Samuel Charters, Country Blues; Amiri Baraka, Blues People; A.B. Spellman, Four Lives in the Bebop Business. The titles I've really thought impressive: So What by John Szwed; Kansas City Lightning by Stanley Crouch; Thelonious Monk by Robin Kelley. -- Tom Viti, Westwood, MA [2020-06-19]

[A] You're probably better read than I am. I'm a slow and awkward reader, but make up for it by persistence and having a pretty fair memory (or at least used to). I also cheat by poking around in reference books. I developed a system for reading history books by limiting myself to the front and back matter plus the footnotes, which is where proper historians would bury their personal opinions. Also, since 2001 I've prioritized reading about politics, economics, and history over music, science, technology, and other subjects I read extensively in earlier.

Most of what I know about jazz comes from record guides: The Penguin Guide (I have all eight editions) stands out, Gramophone Jazz Good CD Guide was pretty reliable, as was Tom Piazza's The Guide to Classic Recorded Jazz. I have several shelves of such things, mostly from the previous century -- production has really fallen off in this one. Gary Giddins' Visions of Jazz: The First Century is very good. (I own, but haven't read, his later Jazz written with Scott DeVeaux.) Whitney Balliett's American Musicians II is on my nearest shelf -- his Collected Works: A Journal of Jazz 1954-2000 looks familiar, but I'm not seeing a copy nearby. Philip Larkin's All What Jazz: A Record Diary was a personal favorite (not least because he indulged my then-current doubts about bebop). I can also recommend Allen Lowe's books, especially That Devilin' Tune: A Jazz History, 1900-1950. One more book I greatly enjoyed was Geoff Dyer's fictionalized But Beautiful: A Book About Jazz.

My reading in non-jazz is similar but even older. Two important books are Francis Davis' The History of the Blues: The Roots, the Music, the People, and Ned Sublette: Cuba and Its Music: From the First Drums to the Mambo.

[Q] I have two questions for you. One may be harder than the other.

1: What has become of James Carter? When The Real Quiet Storm came out I thought he was going to conquer the world. The show I attended when he was supporting Conversin' With the Elders remains one of the greatest concert experiences of my life. After that he put out recordings with varying degrees of interest and success until 2011 and then nothing until a live recording put out in 2019 that retraces previously covered ground. I miss him and could really use some fresh James Carter these days.

2: I was born in '62 and have clear memories of protests, social movements, uprisings, and riots from the late sixties on. Every decade since then has been filled with bias, inequality, injustice, and hatred and each time the social unrest has been called unprecedented with youth being singled out as the difference. Given humankind's history of inhumanity towards one another why should I believe it's different this time? -- Benjamin Barnes, Seattle, Wa, USA [2020-06-17]

[A] I saw Carter about the same time, and was duly impressed, although I doubt that particular show was anywhere near his peak. (For one thing, he spent an awful lot of time fussing with reeds.) His run from 1994's JC on the Set through the twin 2000 releases (Chasin' the Gypsy and Layin' in the Cut) was so brash, at once rooted in the tradition and bristling with fresh ideas, that I speculated at the time about how much more he might have done had he recorded for small labels like David Murray instead of majors like Atlantic. (Carter's first two albums were on DIW, but picked up for US distribution by Columbia, as were a couple -- but only a couple -- albums by Murray and David S. Ware.) He then went to Columbia, and after three years turned out a Billie Holiday concept album that was my first Jazz CG Dud of the Month, and he's rarely been heard from since. I don't really know what happened, but it seems like he's only to play for major labels -- he did manage three 2008-11 albums for Universal, and his only album since then appeared on Blue Note in 2019 -- and he's sworn off anything avant, touring mostly with organ. His side credits are also way down, although I recommend two records he did with the Dutch group De Nazaten: Skratyology (2009) and For Now (2011). One last note is that Craig Taborn, the pianist in his extraordinary 1990s quartet, is by now probably better known now than Carter is.

The second question is presumably meant as the harder one, but I'll give you a softer answer. I was born in 1950, so I grew up in a world where every movie and TV show led to a happy ending. It was a world when America's wealth even extended to humble working folk like my parents, who still had the Great Depression in memory. Before Lyndon Johnson Americanized the Vietnam War in 1965-66, the the 1960s movement (at least as viewed by well-heeled liberals) aimed to help lift both black and white Americans out of poverty, which necessarily meant ending the legal discrimination of Jim Crow. This might have ended happily with Johnson's "War on Poverty." One could also claim success stories for women and the environment, but Johnson's other war was ended not by enlightened liberal decision but by bitter defeat on the battle field. The new right grew out of denial of that debacle, first by blaming the antiwar protesters, then by expanding their culture war while loosening all restraints against the greed of the rich.

The protest movements from the late-1950s into the mid-1970s won all of their issues in principle, but failed to convert their intellectual victories into stable political power. This was largely due to distrust of unions -- who decided to give up organizing workers (especially in the South) after Taft-Hartley reduced their bargaining power -- and Cold War liberals, who had supported American effort to crush the working class abroad (and to start by purging American unions of so-called communists). Decades of Cold War propaganda promoting capitalism and religion eventually paid off for the right, and their power further eroded the social fabric of the nation, which leads us to now.

I see three major differences between protesters today and those in the 1960s: aside from the thin upper crust, America is in much worse shape today, with inequality even greater than before the New Deal, and grift and dishonesty at previously unimagined levels; the protesters today are campaigning for themselves, whereas in the 1960s many protesters were altruistic, hoping to help other people; Cold War ideology is bankrupt, having lost its threat and fear -- sure, the right's hysteria hasn't skipped a beat, but the reforms they so dread are practices western Europe and the US have long enjoyed (like Social Security and Medicare). I'm tempted to add a fourth one: that racism, while certainly still existing and not uncommon, is far less entrenched than it was in the 1960s, which is making it harder for Trump to orchestrate any sort of backlash than it was for Nixon and Reagan.

Most convincing to me is that it's clear to me that doubling down on the right only makes life worse -- directly for many, but indirectly even for the supposed winners. It may well be too late to reverse global warming, but nothing constructive can happen until the power of the right is broken. But then I grew up in a world that believed in happy endings. Young people who started out with stories like The Sopranos and Breaking Bad may have a darker view of their prospects. But at my age, this current reality isn't my problem much longer. It's theirs, and up to them to do something about it.

[Q] From his consistently high ratings, it would appear that David Murray is one of your favorite saxophonists. I do appreciate his attempt to combine older playing styles with the avant-garde, his many fusion experiments over the years as well as his prolific output in multiple aggregrations. I was wondering what about his output/playing makes him such a consistent standout in your rating system? -- Eugene Haston, Atlanta, GA [2020-06-17]

[A] Fair question, but one I'm not sure I can answer. I am aware that my favorite instrument is tenor sax, and not just for jazz. I loved the sax parts of early r&b records (and X-Ray Spex), and I've noted how artists like Bruce Springsteen and Merle Haggard used it to add a classic flair to their bands. The tenor is the horn which most closely matches the human voice, but with a richness of tone not even Sarah Vaughan can approximate. If I had to pick a pantheon of tenor saxophonists, it would probably go: Coleman Hawkins, Sonny Rollins, Ben Webster, John Coltrane, David Murray, Lester Young, Stan Getz, and while I could try to pick from three or four dozen more worthies, let's end with Albert Ayler for historical import. Murray is the youngest player on that list, which makes him the one who had the most opportunity to form his style as a synthesis of his forebears (although perhaps no more so than Rollins and Webster followed Hawkins, or Getz picked up from Young). Murray can be thought of as a synthesis of Webster and Ayler for an age where the avant-garde had become part of the tradition. Webster is best remembered today for his quaking vibrato on late ballads, but early on he was a brawler, nicknamed The Brute, and the main thing he did to Hawkins was to muscle it up. Murray is the most muscular player on the list. His only real rival in that regard was David S. Ware, who trailed Murray by a decade, despite being six years older. The connection to Ayler was even more obvious. Murray grew up in church, and Ayler was his epiphany, as "Flowers for Albert" made clear.

The other thing that should be mentioned is that Murray cut a lot of records. In my Guide, I list 78 records under Murray, plus 62 side credits (including 21 in World Saxophone Quartet). That's more than Rollins (76), Coltrane (63), Hawkins (49), Getz (46), or Dexter Gordon (42), and much more than anyone else on the list. Major American jazz labels had collapsed in the late 1960s, leaving avant-garde artists few outlets. Murray was one of the first to find outlets in Europe (Black Saint) and Japan (DIW), and those labels encouraged him to record a lot (21 Black Saint releases from 1978-93, 25 DIW 1988-98). This wasn't unprecedented -- Prestige in the late 1950s cranked out titles as quickly, which is why Rollins and Coltrane come close -- but the improvisational nature of free jazz added to interest in each unique encounter. (Ken Vandermark is the only tenor saxophonist in my database with more rated records than Murray: 117; Peter Brötzmann trails at 52, Evan Parker 38, but I've missed many more records by each).

Murray's recorded much less frequently since moving to Justin Time (1998-2009), and his records have more often depended on concepts, such as his albums with African and Caribbean musicians. The torrent slowed further in the last decade, just 4 albums on Motéma (2011-18). But he's still a commanding performer, with an instantly recognizable sound. At least he was in 2015's Perfection. He was less imposing but still terrific on this year's Kahil El'Zabar's Spirit Groove.

One last point: From the early 1970s on, most tenor saxophonists, especially in America, have sought to emulate Coltrane, and Murray was one of the few to buck that trend. One easy way to measure their influence is to note all the tenor players who have picked up soprano sax as a second instrument. Murray, on the other hand, went with the bass clarinet, which gave him a way to soften his sound.