Here, There & Everywhere: Artie Shaw and the Missing Prophets

By Don Heckman

The jazz commentators have been rattling their cages a lot lately over the subject of jazz’s possible demise. Or, if not that, its diminishing relevancy.  Reading the various takes on the subject — some upbeat, others dire – brought to mind a couple of perceptions about jazz that have come my way over the years.

The first traces back more than a decade to some time spent with Artie Shaw, the great jazz bandleader and clarinetist, At the time, the then eighty-something Shaw was living modestly in a flag lot house in Newbury Park, a far northwest suburb of Los Angeles.  Sitting in his workroom – which, like every other area in the house, was overflowing with books, we were talking about the very same subject: jazz’s possible demise and/or relevancy.

Artie Shaw

Shaw found a large drawing pad and pencil, and drew a straight, horizontal line from one side to the other.  “This,” he said, “represents the public’s receptivity to artistic creativity.”  Then he inserted some dates above the line, with a space between each: 1920, 1930, 1940, 1950, etc.  His point was obvious: that changing times didn’t necessarily produce any more openness to new ideas.

Then he drew another line, beginning around the 1920 mark at a point below the horizontal line, gradually ascending until it touched the horizontal line just beyond 1930.  It continued parallel and close to it until just past the 1940 point, at which it began to veer above and away from the horizontal line.  “This line,” he said, “represents the sophistication and creativity of jazz.  It starts below public understanding, gets together with it, and then moves up.”  Again, his point was obvious: jazz had begun at a relatively primitive level, moved up until – during the Swing years of the ‘30s and early ‘40s — it came into sync with the public’s level of understanding.

Shaw’s  overall premise was that the Swing years represented a golden era in which what jazz musicians wanted to play was what listeners – pop music listeners – wanted to hear.  And that the arrival of bebop in the ‘40s, with its emphasis upon growingly complex musical elements, took the jazz art beyond the general comprehension (and interest) of the larger public audience.  Shaw felt strongly about the concept, in part, because his own interests, as early as the late thirties, were expanding into areas beyond the comfortable environment of Swing.  And, although he wasn’t a bopper (even though his last recordings suggested he might have been, had he not given up his clarinet playing), he made it clear that the disparity between the jazz lines and the audience acceptability lines was one of the reasons for his early retirement.

One could make a case for the fact that there was also a period in the ‘50s and early ‘60s in which jazz and public receptivity again veered close to each other – think of the Dave Brubeck Quintet, Miles Davis’ recordings (especially the Gil Evans partnerships and Kind of Blue), soul jazz and the arrival of bossa nova.  But it’s hard to argue with Shaw’s premise that the evolution of jazz into an art music has placed it in a position – in terms of its potential for selling records and drawing audiences – similar to that of classical music.

St. Paul of Tarsus

The second perception was suggested to me by my good friend Bobby Colomby – former leader and drummer with Blood, Sweat & Tears, and current manager of trumpeter Chris Botti.  When we were having the conversation that never seems to die – “What’s up with jazz?” – he said,  “Well, if you want to start a religion, you’d better have a Messiah.”  And I responded, spontaneously, “Yeah, and a bunch of prophets, too.”

Without meaning to offend anyone’s religious beliefs, the analogy has some merit.  One could make a case for two or three jazz messiahs, and at least a dozen jazz prophets.  But their longevity doesn’t reach much beyond the period from 1930 to 1970.  A few are still active, but most of their messages have not changed in any significant fashion.  Some new potential prophets have arrived, but their messages – like those of Paul of Tarsus and St. Peter – have tended to be oriented more toward the beaurocracy rather than the creative evolution of jazz.

So what does all this mean – the disparity between what the audience wants to hear and what jazz players want to play; the absence of the prophetic artists who established the music’s fundamental premises?  I don’t have any easy answers.  Other than the fact that the art forms with real permanence – painting, classical music, dance, theatre, literature, film – have all passed through periods in which imaginative golden ages have alternated with fallow non-productivity.  Eras of wide popularity have come and gone, as have creative messiahs and prophets.

The improvisational art of jazz is still relatively young in comparison.  And it remains to be seen whether it has sufficient overall creative potential to produce the prophets and the popularity that will make it more than a one-century wonder.  With no evidence other than my own long term awareness of the music’s inherent possibilities, I believe it does.

To read more of Don Heckman’s “Here, There & Everywhere” posts, click here.

3 thoughts on “Here, There & Everywhere: Artie Shaw and the Missing Prophets

  1. Nice post. I agree with Shaw’s take on it, to a point. I also believe that all art forms go through these ebbs and flows. It’s the one’s that can weather the ebbs that stick around.

    I recently saw the documentary film “Icons Among Us: Jazz in the Present Tense”. The most salient point was made by writer Paul DeBarros who observed that music only resonates with the mainstream when people feel that it has “something obvious in the present culture they can connect it with.” From the 20’s up through the 60’s, maybe 70’s, jazz has obvious connections to the culture of the time. Since then, most jazz has not had these connections. It’s either been a rehashing of what has come before it (people still play bebop as if it’s 1946) or try to fuse it with other music.

    However, there are many artists out there these days who I believe are making an effort to connect the music to present culture. Many of them happen to be European. Many can be found at http://nextbop.com, a great site spotlighting many fine young musicians.

    Until we as jazz musicians find those connections to present culture, our music will continue to be on the margins. I don’t necessarily think that’s a band thing, but that’s a subject for another time…

    Jason
    htpp://oneworkingmusician.com

    Like

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