JAZZ MUSIC: WHEN “BAD” BECAME THE BRAND

Great conversations with Glenn Sabin and Lee Mergner of Jazztimes Magazine in recent weeks.

Two important topics we’ve touched upon – the need for some real “stars” in today’s jazz world, and the question of “where’s the bad” when you need it?

Think about the jazz standouts of the Fifties and Sixties – Miles, Coltrane, Monk, Evans, Dexter, Chick, Blakey, Tatum, the list goes on and on and on. Now close your eyes and conjure up each of those performers in full-blown image. Remember the album covers. A young Miles on “Birth of the Cool.” Trane on “Blue Train.” Monk on “Solo” or “Underground.” Birth-of-the-Cool1Can’t you feel the intensity of those shots, the raw brilliance of expression that made you feel like you were there in the shadows, watching heroes along with the photographer, waiting for the sacred moment that the shutter would fire? Black-and-white 35mm film was made for those moments – freeze framing shots that drove nails of passion into the minds of not only jazz lovers worldwide, but jazz passersby – those who happened across the albums in record stores and knew nothing about the genre, but were still assaulted by something unique, powerful, sensual and raw that every cover exuded.

Those were our stars. And they remain our stars, primarily because precious few have come along to take their place, not only as musicians, but as artists, writers, players, performers, lovers and believers. Believers in the malleability of those 8 notes, and the tenseness of their sharp/flat step-siblings.

Maybe we don’t have any real “stars” these days because there’s no real anger in jazz anymore. The edgy temperaments that once defined so many of the early greats flamed high, then burned out. And somehow, the furnace never got re-lit. The embers went dark and the andirons grew brittle with the passing of time.

Which led to the second topic I discussed with Mergner – where’s the bad when you need it?

I’m talking about the air of danger, real or imagined, that created these iconic brands that have been with us for 40 or even 50 years, in some cases. True, the foundation was built on their ability to create, play and perform. But there was something else there – a palpable taste of darkness, wickedness, meanness and even malevolence at times. Not with every artist. Not with every producer. But in enough cases that you begin to realize those some of the images we revere may have been closer to photojournalism than we realized. Not staged, not arranged in a Leibovitz-like loft, not created by the labels, nor manipulated by the corporations. Not even brought on by the slide of the addictions. But something more – something “bad.”Coltrane

Was BAD the BRAND?

Today we see “Bad” as an intentional and calculated move. Rap stars commit felonies, deal, steal, murder, serve time…and die. Tupac, Biggie Smalls, Suge Knight, 50 Cent. A thousand others with enough cred to convince us they’re real. And yet, it’s a false realness. Just being “bad” by society’s standards doesn’t mean much anymore.

And the real question – is it enough to be a craftsman alone? Is it enough to play? Or does there have to be an electrical current of demonocity that powers your core? Something beyond the token posturing of “I’m a badass, don’t push me” that isn’t tied to financial gain?

I sometimes wonder if today’s jazz craftsmen have to live the often-damaged lives of our earlier heroes, in order to bring any semblance of meaning and relevance to the music they create today. If so, they’re failing miserably. Not that they aren’t psychologically, emotionally, physically shattered in their own ways. But 99% of us in the world can claim that.

I just want to know if the music becomes more meaningful only when the man becomes more meaningless?

Once upon a time, musicians became musicians because there was no other choice for them. Having money wasn’t the endgame. Wielding power was unlikely. There were those who literally couldn’t put down their horns without feeling weakened, diminished, damaged and lost.

Try this – name just one player today who falls into that category, someone who loses on ounce of lifeforce for every minute they’re not pouring music from their pores. Now wait, there are many, you may claim, but I’d challenge you on that. Why? Because, if they’re there, why are we not receiving that transmission through their photographs, their interviews, their recordings, for God’s sake?

Maybe I’m just babbling here. Maybe it wasn’t about the “Birth of the BAD.” After all, those days of the Fifties and Sixties are long gone. Maybe we just captured them on film and vinyl, but they’ll never come around again. If that’s the case, then we’re saying it was the “moment in time” that was the brand. Rare, fleeting, unrepeatable, but captured in our minds forever. Not the men, but the moment.

Bad or not, was it the moment?

More to come,

Nelson