Two critics remember the past -- but ignore the avant garde JAZZ

October 13, 1991|By Michael Anft

As the era of MTV and assembly-line pop music marches on, sort of like a Felliniesque parade through a UFO-monitored ghost town, the notion of jazz becomes progressively more quaint.

Satellites, transmitters and cables may be enough to keep today's hipsters plugged into the monotonous landscape, but what of smoky and ambient speakeasys filled with live audiences and even -- gasp! -- live players who'd do anything but repeat last night's performance?

AAs pop culture and the rest of the world pass us by in our living rooms, jazz remains where it almost always has been: deep underground, beneath a culture that doesn't care enough to support it. The combined lack of recognition for America's first (some say only) formal contribution to the art world, and the loss of the days when dances featured live (and not recorded or parroted) music is enough to get an old jazzbo misty.

Which is to say that nostalgia is de rigueur for the longtime jazz buff these days.

As if to prove the point, Oxford University Press has released two offerings that demonstrate, with varying degrees of insight, the romance fanatics have with their favorite music -- and their many memories.

W. Royal Stokes' "The Jazz Scene" (247 pages; $22.95), despite its broad historical scope of 90 years, is the lesser of the two volumes. Although Mr. Stokes claims in the preface that his book "a sort of odyssey through almost a century of jazz" and "an informal history," it is too monodimensional to be adventurous and not nearly exhaustive enough to be definitive.

What it is, really, is a collection of the critic's memories (Mr. Stokes, a Silver Spring resident, has been covering jazz for a generation at the Washington Post) and interviews with dozens of jazz luminaries and Washington scene makers.

As with any reporter with pretensions to being an oral historian, Mr. Stokes is at his best as a facilitator: ask question, turn on

recorder, transcribe. He delivers sterling material on jazz/mob connections in Chicago (courtesy of Art Hodes and Wild Bill Davison), the Europeans' love of jazz and American indifference (Lester Bowie) and the musician's quest for individuality (Betty Carter).

The interviews sound as real and natural as the music they describe, but when Mr. Stokes starts writing, things get hairy. His penchant for hyperbole, for example: Saying the New Orleans sound "is as complete a summary of the human condition as any musical idiom has ever succeeded in creating" sounds as ridiculous as if the same thing were said of a Keith Jarrett piano marathon.

Still, "The Jazz Scene" is a decent fill-in-the-gaps quotefest for the already knowledgeable fan.

"Writing about an evanescent music like jazz is like trying to sculpt air," writes New Yorker jazz critic Whitney Balliett. "It is there, but you can't feel it, or smell it, or see it, and it keeps leaking through your fingers."

If that's the case, then his ethereal formations must be some of the most poignant there are. His elegant prose graces "Goodbyes and Other Messages: a Journal of Jazz, 1981-1990" (295 pages, $22.95).

Culled from Mr. Balliett's New Yorker columns during that period, "Goodbyes" is a retrospective by deadline. The live performances he covers have a timeless, you-are-there quality, which points up the durability of Mr. Balliett's observations.

Some comments cry out for citation. On Charlie Parker's trip west with Dizzy Gillespie's band: "It was the first bebop band to cross the Rockies, and it had the same effect as the arrival of the Spaniards: the natives were incredulous."

Mr. Balliett knows enough about arranging to explain evocatively Duke Ellington's composing process, enough about playing to celebrate the underappreciated (Bunny Berigan, Ben Webster, Jimmy Knepper), and more than enough about the late greats (Parker, Morton, Basie, et al.) to not only applaud their work, but to describe their character.

What you won't find in "Goodbyes" -- and Mr. Stokes is guilty of this, too -- is a comprehensive overview of new avant-gardists. In fact, while fusion conservatives like Pat Metheny and Larry Coryell, and reconstructionists like David Murray and Wynton Marsalis (and even worse, opportunists like David Sanborn) are mentioned, the current fringe isn't even given lip service.

Mr. Anft is a writer living in Baltimore.

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