Non-Jazz Update: Wynton Has His Say

Oh, this is too rich.  Regarding that fan who wanted his money back because Larry Ochs wasn’t jazzy enough — Wynton Marsalis has gotten involved.

Wynton’s people contacted The Guardian (UK newspaper) in hopes of contacting the fan.  The Guardian, of course, turned it around and wrote not one but two blog entries about it: Apparently the fan’s been found and will soon receive a crateload of Wynton’s music.

All of this is reopening wounds in the “What is jazz” debate, since Wynton is infamous for declaring what musics are and aren’t worthwhile — and he finds abstract jazz to be an “aren’t.”  I haven’t read his opinions extensively — and I should, because he’s quite knowledgeable — but I did get some exposure to his thinking back around 1987 or 1988, when I heard him slag on rap music during an evening talk.  He explained his position this way: The music you listen to can be an expression of what’s deep in your soul. And what does it say if all that’s in your soul is “boom, ba-DOOM. boom, ba-DOOM.”

He’s got a point. I’m not saying rap isn’t worthwhile — but neither is it the pinnacle of creativity. Fun music is OK, but you need to have something more meaningful in your life.  (Actually, I’d need to qualify the first part of that sentence. I tend to go all Wynton on American Idol and that whole style of plastic, overacted pop music.)

But does that argument carry into the realm of avant-garde jazz?  That’s where Wynton and I have to disagree, because I do find a richness of expression there that, to me, represents a worthwhile evolution of the jazz tradition.  The more extreme examples arguably don’t carry forward the jazz tradition, but neither do they try to.  My understanding is that Derek Bailey and his UK compatriots weren’t trying to create a next phase of jazz when they worked on non-idiomatic improvisation in the ’60s — in fact, they expressly said it wasn’t supposed to be jazz, didn’t they?

Getting back to the Wynton vs. “not-jazz” topic, his overture to this fan comes across as a slap in the face to the avant-garde, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t meant that way. The whole incident wasn’t even meant to be publicly known, Wynton’s people told The Guardian. (The moral being, watch yourself when you talk to a journalism outfit, even if you’re not talking to a reporter.) It’s more a nod from one purist to another.  Arrogant, to be sure, but you also have to admit it’s a nice gesture, probably made on a whim. I’m not as annoyed by this as I probably ought to be.