Sunday, June 05, 2005


Jazz hierarchies

Every jazz mythologist has to come to terms with the fact that the music's "Golden Age" was also an age that saw the best players of its generation destroyed by booze and drugs--Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, Lester Young ... the list goes on. But the best mythology can turn even tragedy into romance, and so it has been with the story of how drugs got into the bloodstream of jazz.

Here's a crude version of the often romanticized history of jazz and drugs: It begins by stressing that most beboppers got into dope in the 1940s and 1950s because they wanted to sound just like (or better than) Bird. Like Prometheus bringing fire to mere mortals, Parker brought junk to jazzmen. But the second half of this myth is a phoenix story: as jazz musicians began to realize that drugs were destructive rather than creative (so the story goes) they repented and rose from their ash trays. Braving Herculean tests of rehab, giants like Miles and Coltrane and Sonny Rollins lifted themselves out of addiction, proving once and for all that the jazzmen did not need the junk.

This basic mythology pervades popular jazz writing: it's unnoticeable most of the time because it is so taken for granted. For instance, I recently found it reproduced in Stanley Crouch's article on Sonny Rollins for the New Yorker. Crouch begins by telling the story of how a young Rollins took up the tenor saxophone hoping to sound like Coleman Hawkins, until he heard Bird and started trying to sound like Parker. But Parker, writes Crouch,
also brought with him the troubles of heroin. Just as musicians a generation earlier had smoked reefers when they found out that Louis Armstrong liked the stuff, so, now, did the members of the bebop movement follow Parker's self-destructive path. The result was disastrous, with many musicians dying young. Rollins said that he and his musical buddies from Sugar Hill foolishly thought that taking heroin "would make us play better."
Rollins himself was hooked until the mid-1950s, when he shook the habit after a rehabilitation program. After that, he played in one of the most influential and sparkling small bands of the period, led by Max Roach on drums and Clifford Brown on trumpet. Brown seems to have been universally beloved by his contemporaries, and he has become an almost virginal figure in jazz mythology because he steered clear of addiction. His talent also proved, according to the now standard legends of the period, that jazz did not need drugs.

Tragically, however, "Brownie" died in a car accident in 1956, while Rollins was still with the band. Yet Rollins' reputation continued to grow in the years following Brown's death. In rapid succession, he recorded Saxophone Colossus, Way Out West, and Freedom Suite, albums that are widely regarded as his finest achievements. Then Rollins hit another career wall, according to Crouch's story. But this time it was caused not by drugs, but by Rollins' perception that he was in competition with Trane:
Just when Rollins was becoming one of the leading figures in jazz, a new force emerged, in the form of John Coltrane, a tenor player from Philadelphia by way of North Carolina. Coltrane, who also struggled with drugs, was then in the process of leaving the Miles Davis Quintet. After playing with Monk at New York's Five Spot in 1957, Coltrane began to ascend very quickly, startling the jazz world with his innovative harmonic schemes and the complex originality of his phrasing. Before long, people were saying that Rollins had been left behind; he felt the slight profoundly.
In Crouch's account, that perceived slight sent Rollins spiraling into years of insecurity and eccentricity from which he did not recover until the mid-1960s. In 1959, Rollins added his own iconographic myth to jazz history by withdrawing from recording for a time, practicing his horn on the Williamsburg Bridge by the light of the old devil moon. Now, however, Rollins tells Crouch:
"I don't think that Coltrane was thinking about competing with me or had any bad feeling toward me, but I did start to resent him at one point and I feel very embarrassed by that now. When I was up on the bridge and he used to come by my place and see me, we were together. In fact, if I was uptight for money I could get a loan from him, or from Monk, and know that it would never end up in the gossip of the jazz world about how bad off Sonny was. They were real friends. But when I came down from the bridge I think I let his success and the attention that he was receiving get to me. It should never be like that. Never."
Reading Rollins' story made me suddenly notice something about the standard mythology of jazz and drugs: Writers now routinely ridicule the idea that drugs could have made jazz artists better (Rollins and company were thinking "foolishly," to borrow Crouch's adverb), but it is rare to see jazz critics questioning the competitive inner urge that supposedly sparked that foolish thinking. I wonder whether the fact that drug addiction is now seen as a jazz pathology has had the effect of shielding artistic competitiveness from criticism. The standard myths teach us not that artists shouldn't have tried to beat Parker; it's that they did not need drugs to do it. It was the drugs that were "self-destructive"; not the cocktail of reader polls and fickle critics that apparently sent Rollins up to the bridge.

I've been reading some chapters from But Beautiful: A Book about Jazz, which I read about months ago over at Sharp Sand. In the opening chapter, Geoff Dyer gives a haunting portrait of Lester Young's final days that deftly hints at the links between jazz's history with drugs and the music's constantly changing pecking order:
He lay down on the bed, making only a slight dip in the soft mattress, convinced he could feel himself shrinking, fading to nothing. Scattered over the floor were plates of food he had pecked at and left. He'd take a bite of this, a little of that and then head back to the window. He ate almost nothing but he still had his preferences when it came to food: Chinese was his favorite, that was the food he didn't eat most of. For a long time he'd lived on buttermilk and Cracker Jack but he'd even lost his taste for these. As he ate less he drank more: gin with a sherry chaster, Courvoisier and beer. He drank to dilute himself, to think himself down even more. ...

Hawk went the same way eventually. It was Hawk who made the tenor into a jazz instrument, defined the way it had to sound: big-bellied, full-throated, huge. Either you sounded like him or you sounded like nothing--which is exactly how folks thought Lester sounded with his wispy skating-on-air tone. Everybody bullied him to sound like Hawk or swap over to alto but he just tapped his head and said,

--There's things going on up here, man. Some of you guys are all belly. ...

Soon it was a straight choice: Pres or Hawk, Lester Young or Coleman Hawkins--two approaches. They couldn't have sounded or looked more different but they ended up the same way: swilled out and fading away. Hawk lived on lentils, booze, and Chinese food and wasted away, just like Pres was doing now.
I'm not trying to suggest some kind of causal connection between drug addiction and the constant comparison and hierarchy-making that goes on in jazz. But what Dyer points out is that both parts of jazz history can be and have been, to some extent, tragic. That's the sense I got from Rollins' comments, too, that there was a certain tragedy in the tendency of the jazz star-making machine to anoint the next Hawk or the next Pres or the next Trane or the next Saxophone Colossus. "It should never be like that. Never."

I'm not sure where I'm going with this line of thinking. I just think it's interesting that while the jazz intelligentsia now routinely lament the deadening effect of drugs on the music, there are few writers who would suggest that the competitiveness of the Golden Age also took its toll. Crouch certainly didn't come away from his interview with Rollins having learned that lesson. In an online interview at the New Yorker, this was the first question Crouch was asked:
BEN GREENMAN: Where does Sonny Rollins rank in the jazz pantheon?

STANLEY CROUCH: No. 1, along with Roy Haynes and Hank Jones.
Isn't that number-one-ism precisely what Rollins was implicitly calling into question? And doesn't Crouch realize how ridiculous this kind of thing sounds? (Sonny's No. 1, but so is Roy Haynes and Hank Jones and Pres and Hawk and ... Jazz fans are pantheists who only know how to talk like monotheists.)

Perhaps the number-one-ism is a harder myth to part with than the myth that drugs made Bird play better because it goes to the heart of the music's creation myths. Jazz was supposedly born in the "cutting" contests of New Orleans, with warring bands and musicians bringing their "axes" to competitions from which only one player would emerge victorious. I'd be the last to suggest that this kind of creative competition has not been hugely responsible for the development of the music I love. But if the benefits of that competitiveness are clear to every appreciative listener of a song like "Tenor Madness" (a "cutting contest" between Trane and Rollins), Rollins and Dyer have got me thinking about the costs.

One more thought before I step back and let the rhythm section carry me out. I wonder if one of the reasons so many curmudgeonly critics (like Crouch, for one) think that the Golden Age of jazz is over is precisely because today's jazz community does not seem to be driven, as it once was, by a quest to anoint the next Colossus. (There was a recent interview with the young tenor saxophonist Joshua Redman in the New York Times, now unfortunately behind the pay wall, in which Redman clearly revealed his love for the cutting contests of old. But the article also quoted from an essay by Redman in which he questioned the aesthetic value of the number-one-ism that is so endemic in traditionalist jazz writing.)

Read through the liner notes of any album put out in the 1950s and you'll see references to how the players on the date rated in the most recent Downbeat poll. Nowadays, few listeners pay attention to such polls, and the overall importance of "cutting" seems to be in decline. The big-ticket concerts now do not share the concept of "Tenor Madness"--pitting two giants against each other. Rather, they are reunion concerts or intergenerational concerts. In short, the voices (like those of Crouch and the Marsalis brothers) that are confident enough to say some newcomer is "No. 1" in an Olympian "pantheon" of contemporary artists are becoming increasingly rarer. I'm not sure, though, that this means jazz is dead. Maybe, instead, it's finally got some room to breath.

Collective Improvisation:
Interesting post - the cutting contests, battles on the bandstand, the concept of ratings and who was better than who was definitely a much bigger part of jazz culture in the past.

What I don't think I would agree with is the connection you make between that part of the culture and drug and alcohol addiction. Obviously pressures of all kind lead people to seek self-medication, whether it is the loneliness of touring, racism, not making enough money or not ranking high enough in a Downbeat poll. I'm sure a lot more jazz musicians than the famous junkies we all have heard about that tried drugs, but personality types, genes and circumstance all influence who gets addicted.

My impression from many years of reading was many musicians tried drugs, specifically heroin, to fit in more than that they expected it to be magic and allow them to play as fast as Charlie Parker. (And if they did - wouldn't you only need to try it once or twice to realize it doesn't work?)

I haven't spent much time thinking about the "best" or who would win what battle, even on records where that is the theme. I'm also not very interested in sports - maybe people who are also prefer their art to be ranked and feature contest. I'd guess that if you take a look at people's favorite (not "best" - but most listened to) jazz records, the cutting contest variety aren't up there. Sure they are fun to listen to, would be more fun to see live, but part of it seems like a gimmick to entertain or put on a poster - like doing a duck walk on the bar while playing a sax solo.

In terms of culture today - art is ranked by money. How much a painting sold for auction. Or with movies the box office numbers are listed everywhere, something that is relatively recent. If jazz was bigger, I'd guess the record sales, Billboard charts, etc would replace the polls and rankings of the past. Maybe money is a better ranking system - as I don't think too many people think that Revenge of the Sith or Jessica Simpson is artistically the best movie or album of the year.

Posted by Wayne Bremser

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 6/06/2005 03:02:00 PM : Permalink  

Thanks for the comment, and the link to your excellent site! I definitely didn't want to imply a causal relationship between competitiveness and drugs. I just think that the competitive aspect of the music's history is bittersweet and can have its tragic side too. But the way that jazz mythologists deal with the problem of the drugs is by romanticizing it and making the will to play better the cause for using. That "solves" the drug problem by making it explainable in flattering terms, but in doing so, it leaves unchallenged the necessity of sounding similar to or better than the nearest jazz colossus.

Maybe you're right that I'm overestimating how many writers attribute the rise of heroin to the desire to sound like Bird. That might just be a Crouch/Ken Burns/Wynton Marsalis line. 

Posted by Caleb

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 6/07/2005 06:07:00 PM : Permalink  

Another thing I was thinking about regarding this topic - it's my impression it was always trumpet player versus trumpet player. Or "Best Drummer" and that kind of thing. Wonder if this impression is correct and whether or not it was broader "best soloist" "best composer"... 

Posted by Wayne Bremser

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 6/10/2005 07:55:00 PM : Permalink  

You're right, it does seem to be instrument-specific. The only other thing I can think of are "big band" meetings like Duke Meets Count Basie. 

Posted by Caleb

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 6/10/2005 10:31:00 PM : Permalink  

In an earlier Golden Age, Bix drank himself to death. There is also the possibility to consider that Jazz attracts the mad: perhaps Bix, but certainly Leon Rappolo and Buddy Bolden, went insane. 

Posted by dearieme

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 6/15/2005 10:42:00 AM : Permalink  

FYI, I included this post in the latest History Carnival . 

Posted by Mar

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 6/15/2005 12:17:00 PM : Permalink  

Excellent post.

Here's an interesting link in response to somebody's comment that "Jazz attracts the mad."

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 5/12/2006 12:02:00 PM : Permalink  

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