The Jazz.com Blog
January 20, 2008 · 2 comments
In the early days of modern jazz, the music media fueled the fires of conflict between fans of old jazz (who were ridiculed under the name of “moldy figs”) and those who preferred the sounds of bebop.
Of course, the musicians themselves rarely had much patience with this so-called “war between the generations.” Charlie Parker may have been lauded as the leader of the modernists, but Parker himself understood how much he owed to the masters of earlier decades. In a Blindfold Test, conducted by Leonard Feather, Parker lavishly praised Johnny Hodges, altoist with the Ellington band, declaring: “That record deserves all the stars you can muster.” In his solos, Parker would quote from Lester Young or Louis Armstrong or interpolate a phrase from a trad jazz warhorse such as “High Society.” Bird never recognized a generational divide.
The other revolutionaries of the era were no different. Dizzy Gillespie would acknowledge the influence of Roy Eldridge, just as Thelonious Monk would express admiration for James P. Johnson. From the perspective of the greatest artists, there was no war, only a whole tradition, different branches all springing from the same roots.
But the ideology of this supposed battle between the old and new has never completely gone away. In particular, the fans (and even some critics) were rarely as open-minded as the musicians themselves. This is changing – for some interesting reasons that I hope to explore in a future posting here – but not as rapidly as one might hope. As a result, the jazz world still shows some unfortunate divisions and barriers.
In particular, the world of traditional jazz continues to live a subterranean existence, with its own festivals, periodicals, venues and culture. Its leading practitioners rarely share the same stage with musicians versed in other jazz styles. And sometimes the exponents of this music feel – with some justification – that they are ignored by many of the institutions that support other styles of jazz. Why, they wonder, are trad jazz players – who celebrate and preserve the original sources of all later jazz styles -- themselves the least celebrated of jazz practitioners?
I once heard a trad jazz player sum it up succinctly. “People talk about cool jazz. Well, I think I’m stuck playing un-cool jazz.” Yet even the most fervent modernists could learn something from the great traditional jazz bands. Listen to the best of these ‘un-cool’ musicians, and you will find that they know how to construct a solo that tells a complete story. The very constraints of the early jazz idiom – which does not encourage fancy double-time licks, excessive chromaticism, or radical harmonic substitutions – force the performer to develop strong, musical phrases that cohere into a complete solo. Almost any aspiring jazz player would be a better soloist after apprenticing in a trad jazz band. But students coming up today might never get the chance, so big has the chasm grown between old and new in the jazz world.
For this reason, I especially admire cornetist and bandleader Jim Cullum. He not only demonstrates his artistry from the bandstand, but is also a great off-stage advocate for the early jazz heritage. Jim has found a way of using all the most modern media to celebrate the oldest type of jazz. He is on public radio – more than 150 stations -- and satellite radio. He shares his music via on-line video and one of the most frequently visited jazz web sites on the Internet (www.riverwalkjazz.org). He has one of the best organized email distribution lists in the jazz world. And Cullum may be playing songs from the 1920s, but that doesn’t prevent him from reaching out to the new generation via YouTube and MySpace. (Of course, much of the credit for this goes to Don Mopsick, who is both bassist and web wizard in the Cullum jazz universe.) For someone who doesn’t do email himself, Cullum gets high marks from the technology savvy.
We are indebted to both Jim and Don for giving us permission to reprint several articles. Today we are publishing three of Cullum’s first hand accounts of his life and times: ”Earliest Memories and the Hollywood Club; "The Jazz Disease"; and ”Why the Cornet?” At the same time, we are also reprinting (with the permission of Riverwalk Jazz), several other interesting pieces. Check out ”The Face of the Bass” by Don Mopsick; ”Play the Melody” by Don Mopsick; and ”Swingin’ Unplugged" by Don Mopsick.
This blog entry posted by Ted Gioia