The unfolding drama of the Labour Party leadership contest provides a sorry spectacle of a beleaguered organisation suffering the additional indignities of infighting and disunity at the very moment when a show of solidarity is most needed. The history of the Labour Party is roughly contemporaneous with that of the many-faceted music identified as jazz, which itself has attracted the attention of many notable figures from both the left and right, from Eric Hobsbawm to Ken Clarke. As a consequence of its decline as a truly populist art form, jazz’s days as a political or cultural hot potato seem to be long past since some of the 20th century’s most loathsome totalitarians tried to ban it, and sadly such controversy as still attaches to it is more likely to be generated by infighting amongst the various factions who lay competing claim to the definition of what jazz actually is.
The first notable sign of disunity in the ranks of jazz fans came with their reaction to the explosive appearance of bebop in the 1940s. Not everyone appreciated the new style, including Louis Armstrong who publicly deplored “all them weird chords which don’t mean nothing” and declared that “people get tired of it because you got no melody to remember and no beat to dance to” – sentiments echoed by many anti-jazzniks ever since. As the pace of cultural change accelerated in the post-war years, jazz continued to evolve at ever-quickening pace, and controversy dogged its every step: amongst fans, critics and the players themselves. Amiri Baraka writing in his seminal work Blues People under the name Leroi Jones, was scathing about hard bop; Miles Davis was warned not to hire Coltrane as he ‘wasn’t playing nothing’; Davis in turn denounced Eric Dolphy , declaring ‘no-one else could sound that bad… next time I see him I’ll tread on his foot’; everyone stuck the boot into Ornette Coleman. How strange it now seems to read no less an authority than Down Beat magazine decrying the now-canonised Coltrane and Dolphy’s landmark Village Vanguard recordings as ‘anti-jazz’. Here in the UK we had Philip Larkin describing a Miles solo as a ‘passionless creep’, and the factionalist war between the ‘moderns’ and New-Orleans-trad-preferring ‘mouldy figs’ which culminated in the infamous jazz riots in Beaulieu in 1960. Hobsbawm himself writes of his difficulty in coming to terms with bebop.
Jazz’s bitterest internal battles were fought in the early 60s, and heralded its increasing marginalisation. The tide of rock music swept away audiences, clubs and careers, and players clustered into mutually exclusive camps of ‘fusion’, ‘free’ or ‘mainstream’. The 70s may have been the golden age in commercial terms for the jazz-rock elite, but there’s little in a Mahavishnu record that Duke Ellington would have identified as jazz, and they proved as susceptible as their prog-rock contemporaries to the chill wind of punk. Then, with the ascendance of Wynton Marsalis and his Lincoln Center empire, the controversy was re-ignited, to positive effect. At least by re-stating the primacy of the tradition, Marsalis contributed to an affirmation of jazz’s core values that went some way towards re-invigorating it as a cultural and commercial force. But he’s also proved to be a divisive figure to many in his inflexible insistence about what constitutes ‘real’ jazz.
If jazz means anything at all, it should surely stand for the way that a musical tradition can arise that can be strong enough to spread across the world, yet flexible enough to morph through time and across different cultures to become a truly global phenomenon. In this respect it’s similar to hip-hop, the music that supplanted it in the community from which it arose before becoming spreading worldwide. We inhabitants of Brighton-and-surrounding-areas are particularly well placed to show our support for the different manifestations of what jazz has become – from Love Supreme’s joyous multi-cultural celebration of the arcane and the commercial appearing side by side, to the unflinching dedication of the progressive artists featured in next weekend’s Brighton Alternative Jazz Festival, and from the upholding of the tradition as featured at Small’s to its re-defining by the cutting edge young players soon to appear in the upcoming New Generation Jazz season at the Verdict. In the spirit of Unity, get your tickets now!
The New Generation Jazz season at the Verdict in Brighton begins on Friday 30th October with Gary Crosby’s Groundation.
More details will appear in the next issue of SJM.
The Eddie Myer Quintet appear at The Verdict on Saturday 26th September.
Photo: Mike Guest