Last Hurrahs for Jazz Giants


March 20, 1993|By PATRICK ERCOLANO

It was around the time Miles died that my friend Quincey and Imade our pledge to see the giants before they all left.

Miles Davis passed away in 1991, and suddenly we realized more and more of the old jazz giants -- people we held as heroes, trailblazing geniuses of America's only home- grown art form -- were dying off.

In '90, Art Blakey, Dexter Gordon and Sarah Vaughan made their exits. The year before, Roy Eldridge. The year before that, Chet Baker and Gil Evans. The Eighties also saw the huge losses of Thelonious Monk, Count Basie, Benny Goodman, Earl Hines, Bill Evans, Cootie Williams and Philly Joe Jones, to name several. And 1993, less than three months done, has already taken Dizzy Gillespie and Billy Eckstine.

With the death of Miles, Quincey and I vowed we'd take every available opportunity to see the surviving giants whenever they played in the area. Just earlier this month, we bought tickets to see Sonny Rollins in Washington. I was forced to cancel because I had to work late that evening, but my friend went and returned with a rave review that had me smiling even as I shook my head with deep disappointment.

You might think this sounds a bit ghoulish -- checking out the 64-year-old Rollins, the 68-year-old Max Roach, the 70-year-old Tito Puente and others, for maybe the last time before they go to that big cutting contest in the sky. Yet for Quincey and me, and no doubt for countless other jazz fans who feel the same, this is a chance for us to pay homage to these heroes while they remain among us. We come not to mourn in advance but to say thanks in person for the pleasure of so much beautiful music forged from so much hard living.

Still, I don't deny the mood of celebration is touched with sadness. It's hard not to feel a bit sad when you notice there aren't that many of the old giants left. The ''Noted Jazz Artists'' section of the current ''World Almanac'' lists more who are deceased than among the quick. Naturally the balance will only continue to tilt away from the living.

By far the youngest performer on the ''Noted Jazz Artists'' list is Wynton Marsalis, the 32-year-old trumpeter and self-designated keeper of the flame. Indeed, he is the contemporary player most often described as the latest link in the chain that reaches back to names like Louis Armstrong and King Oliver.

Other young musicians -- Terrence Blanchard, the Harper Brothers, Marcus Roberts, Roy Hargrove, Joey DeFrancesco -- also are credited with helping to carry on the tradition. These presumed giants-to-be deserve praise, too, for they're musicians great technical skill and obvious reverence for the heritage from which they've sprung.

Maybe too much reverence. So much, that they threaten to mummify an art form made great by its sense of rebellion and danger, its constant pushing into the future while at the same time drawing on the past. Today's young, respectful jazz lions strike me as being too much of the past and not enough of the future. They can't be blamed for being big fans of the old masters, just as we in the audience are, but young artists cheat themselves and the rest of us by not being as daring and, yes, as slightly disdainful of the past as people like Miles, Monk and Charles Mingus were.

I'm not alone in this judgment, according to what other listeners say and write. Apparently I'm not the only person who hears Wynton Marsalis, for example, and thinks, ''This guy can definitely play, but isn't this basically the same sound Miles Davis created 30 years ago?'' (Fans of pop music, by the way, similarly wonder about the many derivative young rockers now on the scene.)

Is the song all played out? Is there nothing new under the sun?

I worry jazz has reached the point where it has become so proper, with its Lincoln Center concert series and its academic study programs, that it is about to develop the glass-encased aura of classical music. No one would wish on these young musicians the sort of suffering many bop players endured for the sake of their art. But with the improvement of the general lot of jazz performers and the increased respect the music gets from all quarters, it seems to have lost the edgy, soul-grabbing intensity that makes us play and replay scratchy LPs from long ago, while CDs by the new generation are rarely removed from their plastic boxes.

Meanwhile, Quincey and I will continue to visit with the aging giants whenever they come to town -- and sometimes with the young lions -- reveling in where jazz has been and where it still could go.

Patrick Ercolano writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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