A new essay collection extends an old journalistic tradition and clarifies the art of significant postmodern jazz artists.
By Jeff Cebulski
During the past month, the noted (and notorious) critic and essayist Stanley Crouch passed away. Crouch was known significantly for generating angst between him and his supporters (including Wynton Marsalis) and his detractors, essentially over what jazz means or how jazz should be represented. Crouch was a defender of blues and swing, what he considered authentic “Negro” (his preferred term) music. He had little time for more oblique renditions of modern jazz, which he considered “white” intrusions that disparaged his basic recognized elements. He was not exclusionary in that way, however; Joe Lovano, for example, was one of his favorites. It was all about form and representation, and criticism of performance was often—in his view—discriminatory against purveyors of classic music.
Crouch was academic and eloquent enough to receive even grudging respect from his own critics. One could say that without his support and patronization of bebop and blues-based jazz, the postmodern world might have left it behind. With Marsalis alongside, Crouch developed Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York City, a bastion of classic jazz styles before the 1960s. Still, Crouch was a thorn in the side of any progressive notions, especially if one considers the global influences the art form has experienced in the 21st century. All one has to do is look at performance lineups from the last five Newport Jazz Festivals to see it.
That’s why it’s important to have journalists and other writers around who help connect the general jazz audience to artists who represent some of the best efforts and extensions of jazz in this generation—people who have contributed significant new angles and approaches while manifesting respect and expertise in things like improvisation and syncopation. Crouch may have had little time for many of them, but we, fortunately, do.
In former decades, widely respected jazz writers like Ralph Gleason, Leonard Feather, Nat Hentoff, and Gene Lees wrote books that focused on jazz “cats” of the time, bringing their personalities together with their music, giving the non-musician jazz fan an introduction, connection, and education. If you go to a used book store that features music tomes, you can find these books left behind, outdated for the present tense. Sometimes they are a bit tedious and pedantic, as if the writer were celebrating just the ability to sit down with “cool” people and write about them. Sometimes one learns an important impetus to the music one loves. It was all hit or miss, but it did give rise to a journalism that brought performer closer to the audience, something that rose again during the classic rock age. Gleason, the noted West Coast writer, gained fame when he embraced the rising solo-infused performances of groups like Cream, where Clapton became the Sonny Rollins of rock guitar performers. Gleason’s acceptance of that music became a rallying cry for a new generation of writers who could then treat “progressive rock” music—and, later, the early fusion of Miles Davis—seriously.
Writers like Ben Ratliff, Nate Chinen, and Giovanni Russonello at the New York Times, as well as Chicagoans Neil Tesser, Howard Reich, Howard Mandel, Peter Margasak, and Aaron Cohen, among others, have penned concert and album reviews of the newer generation that has produced the most interesting compositions and genre-bending angles.
A new publication that represents for today what the former writers did is Make It New: Reshaping Jazz in the 21st Century, a collection of essays that delve into the thoughts and art of some of the most enticing postmodern musicians. The author, Bill Beuttler, represents, from a press perspective, the world from which a lot of current music evolves: the academic environment. Buettler, who has written for the Boston Globe and taught journalism at Boston University before teaching at Emerson College, brings the journalist’s eye and ear to his writing, which has been published in many magazines, including DownBeat, Jazz Times, JAZZIZ, and Esquire.
This is clearly a study of current established players: the pianist Jason Moran, pianist Vijay Iyer, alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa, the piano trio The Bad Plus (both old and new), altoist Miguel Zenon, multi-reedist Anat Cohen, keyboardist Robert Glasper, and bassist/vocalist Esperanza Spalding. One could argue that while this is an enlightened collection, some of these choices have become slightly dated; yet no one should disparage the influence each has had in the development and progression of jazz and its audience.
What Beuttler brings to the table is a shrewdly analytical approach to defining each artist in unique ways. Background, for example, is a major subject for each person, especially for players who come from cultures not typically associated with jazz. How they became engaged with jazz and then created their own niche remains a fascinating read. At the same time, Beuttler draws the reader into the world of each person, answering the question “What’s it like to be a jazz performer during these times?”—albeit pre-COVID.
That’s why the first chapter I read was on The Bad Plus, a trio that stalwartly built a loyal audience before one of its original members, the pianist and jazzologist Ethan Iverson, decided to leave. Iverson was then replaced with the equally talented but stylistically different Orrin Evans. It is rare for a book like this to chronicle an imposing change in an important group, but Buettler does it. Fortunately, the trio members, especially bassist Reid Anderson and drummer Dave King, are loquacious and intelligent talkers, taking us through the process of change and maintenance. This is a long but ultimately satisfying study of jazz in flux, worth the read.
Perhaps more important is the fact that each performer is clearly an established “veteran” of the art form. Strikingly, a quick research indicates that most of these people are in their 40s—the exceptions are King (50) and Spalding (35). The truth is that building a career in jazz usually takes years and years of persistent dedication, and the biographical/discographic bent Buettler lends to his reporting helps even the casual jazz fan to appreciate what it has taken for these talents to rise to their levels and influence.
Mahanthappa, for example, was one such person whose story I had not known. I met him briefly at Newport several years ago and found him to be friendly and forthcoming. Now, through Buettler’s effort, I know that he was born in Italy and eventually came of age in Boulder, Colorado, where his father was a physics professor at the University of Colorado. His evident mellifluence on the alto came not directly from Charlie Parker but from his transcribing what he heard on ’70s early smooth jazz albums, featuring players like Grover Washington Jr., David Sanborn, and the Brecker Brothers. Parker DID eventually have a cementing influence, leading him away from the big band influence of some schools and into Berklee in Boston. Turns out Mahanthappa later spent four important years in Chicago, earning a master’s degree at DePaul and teaching there and at Elmhurst University (formerly Elmhurst College), before getting another education via both the AACM and Von Freeman.
After recording a number of albums that attempted to fuse his South Asian heritage with modern jazz modes, a critically heralded album, Kinsmen, earned important attention in New York City. Turns out Mahanthappa gained a new fan: Stanley Crouch, who apparently recognized the Parkeresque energy and pulled Marsalis over to hear the new guy (this was 12 years ago) playing hard with drummer Marcus Gilmore, a favorite of Marsalis.
The rest is history, and you can read it in this book. For this writer, who has spent quality time programming jazz on radio programs, Buettler’s historical treatment in following recordings is particularly satisfying. If one is not aware of the breadth of performance for each musician, this book will clue you in. I now endeavor to get at least three albums on which Mahanthappa contributes as leader and sideman.
And then there’s this morsel from the chapter on Anat Cohen, one of three wildly talented siblings, whose story represents challenges she overcame to establish herself in an often sexist culture. In this case, the tidbit comes from a fellow performer, pianist Aaron Goldberg, who commented on the Cohens’ affection for the recordings of early jazz. Goldberg, according to Buettler, “credited Wynton Marsalis with blurring the distinction between old music—the jazz predating the rise of bebop in the 1940s—and new music.” If you have ever heard Anat play with her brothers Yuval (sax) and Avishai (trumpet), you may recognize their interactive facility, undeniably learned from listening to the old masters.
Something the late Mr. Crouch would approve of, no doubt.
It’s material like this that makes Buettler’s book worth reading. He threads relevant, ancillary material into his personality studies. For example, Cohen’s decision to create her own recording label, Anzic Records, becomes part of a short history of how jazz artists dealt with the changing market influenced by the evolution of streaming sites and major label decisions.
I could wax informative for each artist in every chapter, but suffice it for me to say that if you are indeed curious about the jazz artists listed here, you need to get your hands on Make It New. Even if these names are generally familiar, their stories and output are not, I’ll bet, for most. Given this time when we may have more time to dedicate ourselves to self-education, the stories and discoveries Buettler shares provide plenty of incentive to discover what has been all around us all this time.
After reading the book, I began to wish for more like this one, as personalities like Steve Coleman, Nicholas Payton, Maria Schneider, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Linda May Han Oh, Cécile McLorin Salvant, Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah, Brian Blade, and others could use coverage like the ones delivered by Buettler.
But Make It New is a good start, deserving of your support.
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Side note: If you haven’t latched onto Kurt Elling’s Porch Concerts on Facebook, I recommend you do so. In number 3 (of 4), the excellent John McLean plays pristine guitar accompaniment, especially during “You Send Me,” after Kurt performs a transcendent scat rendition of Monk’s “Epistrophy.” There’s an early sound glitch when the cameras switch, but stay with it. Elling will be playing a 25th anniversary concert series online from the Green Mill in October and November, so look for the link to purchase access.
“Jazz with Mr. C” is written by Jeff Cebulski, a jazz enthusiast and regular contributor to Chicago Jazz Magazine. Contact Jeff at firstname.lastname@example.org.