Archive for Sunday, October 4, 1992


October 4, 1992


In these ideologically charged times when mainstream society's cultural assumptions face challenges from a variety of quarters, the notion of the canon has been thrust to the forefront of discussions centered on what "texts" should be taught, bought and enshrined in our schools, concert halls, theaters, museums and homes.

The dialectical battleground is drawn on the assumption that the advantaged position lies with the "establishment" forces, who have erected a dominant cultural wall protecting a panoply of canons consecrating bodies of artistic and literary works created almost exclusively by dead white males. At the fringe stand the disenfranchised, women and minorities, straining to be heard, seen and sanctified.

IT IS NO wonder, then, that in the quest for greater democratization and truly equal opportunity, such semi-sanctified canons as Mortimer J. Adler's Great Books program have been taken to task. The primary issue has to do with who wields the power for determining critera for canonical inclusion.

In contrast to a number of older artistic arenas beset by canonical wars, jazz, in spite of its relatively brief history, has tended to operate with a range of mostly flexible and open-ended canons. There is a canon of "great men" (and women, though largely confined to singers and pianists), the pantheon of jazz legends such as the innovators Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker and John Coltrane. And though an undercurrent of Crow Jim or reverse discrimination based on the presumption that only blacks can play "real" jazz occasionally roils beneath the surface, the canon of jazz greats includes by virtue of an overwhelming consensus of both blacks and whites such white players as Benny Goodman, Stan Getz and Jimmy Dorsey, whom Parker always named as a pivotal influence.

ANOTHER JAZZ canon consists of distinguished ensembles that includes big bands such as the Duke Ellington Orchestra and small groups like Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers. There's also the canon of "classic" jazz tunes, the so-called jazz standards such as Parker's "Scrapple from the Apple" and Coltrane's "Impressions" that constitute the genre's bedrock repertoire.

Today, the jazz canon has taken a technological turn due to the compact disc phenomenon. Indeed, the rush to reissue archival material has set in motion a range of questions having to do with prioritizing the "who" and "what" aspects of how much gets to the market and when. The world of jazz, in other words, is undergoing a massive re-canonization process.

AMAZINGLY, AS suggested by the cornucopia of reissues enumerated below, the decision-making has been remarkably fair and inclusive. And, as the authoritative liner notes emphasize, decisions about what gets released, and therefore re-canonized, have been underpinned by the force of previous canons, which though often informal, have nonetheless taken into primary account the valuations of the musicians themselves, as well as the critics, pundits and fans.

A JOHN COLTRANE RETROPSECTIVE: THE IMPULSE YEARS (GRP, GRD 3-119): In the late 1950s and early 1960s, tenor saxophonist John Coltrane (1926-1967), like Charlie Parker in the 1940s, almost single-handedly reconfigured jazzdom's basic improvisatory strategies. With Miles Davis, he capitalized on a modal approach that incorporated exotic, mid-Eastern scales. He also recast the soprano saxophone as a fully legitimate voice in modern jazz. And he developed a prodigious, scalular technique encapsulated in the descriptive phrase, "sheets of sounds."

In this three-disc set, we catch Coltrane's final years, 1961-1967, a tumultuous period of constant change when he was under contract to ABC Impulse. There are tracks such as the modal masterpiece "Impressions" with Coltrane's groundbreaking quartet featuring pianist McCoy Tyner, bassist Jimmy Garrison and drummer Elvin Jones. There also are contrasting samples of the profound collaborations with Duke Ellington, singer Johnny Hartman, and avant-gardist Eric Dolphy.

FOR THOSE just discovering Coltrane or just converting to the compact disc medium, this provocatively varied anthology is a perfect starting point. There are lush ballads such as "What's New?," laser-driven waltzes like "Chim Chim Cheree" and the powerfully devotional "A Love Supreme." Informative liners on the transcendent Coltrane are by David Wild.

THE HISTORY OF ART BLAKEY AND THE JAZZ MESSENGERS (Blue Note): Drummer Art Blakey (1923-1990) received early notoriety as a featured sideman with Fletcher Henderson, Billy Eckstine and Buddy DeFranco. By the late 1940s, he was firmly ensconced as a fixture in the protean bebop revolution then exploding along 52nd Street in the Big Apple. By 1954, he was helming the Jazz Messengers with pianist Horace Silver. And though Silver left to form his own group, the Blakey-led Messengers surged through the jazz world for a gaudy three-decade-plus run.

In this ebullient, three-disc survey of Blakey's oeuvre spanning 1947-1981, the shifting cast reads like a "who's who" of modern jazz. Alums of the University of Art Blakey heard to advantage here include saxophonists Lou Donaldson, Hank Mobley, Jackie McLean, Benny Golson, Wayne Shorter, Carter Jefferson, Bobby Watson, Billy Pierce and Branford Marsalis; trumpeters Clifford Brown, Kenny Dorham, Bill Hardman, Lee Morgan, Freddie Hubbard, Woody Shaw, Valery Ponomarev and Wynton Marsalis; trombonists Curtis Fuller and Robin Eubanks; pianists Sam Dockery, Bobby Timmons, Cedar Walton, Walter Davis, and James Williams; and bassists Curly Russell, Doug Watkins, Jymie Merritt, Denis Irwin, Reggie Workman and Mickey Bass.

IN EACH EDITION of Blakey's Jazz Messengers, the leader's understated thundering pushes everyone to the highest summits of spontaneous and creative risk-taking. A further dimension of the Messengers' status as an incubator of youthful jazz talent was Blakey's encouragement of his players' writing. Indeed, here, we hear the maiden voyages of such jazz standards as Timmons' "Dat Dere," Golson's "Blues March," Hubbard's "Up Jumped Spring" and Watson's "A Wheel Within a Wheel." The foot-tappin' gusto of Blakey's bands is lovingly chronicled in notes by jazz critic Ira Gitler.

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