The Jazz.com Blog
May 26, 2008 · 12 comments
Alan Kurtz, jazz.com's resident curmudgeon (who recently in this column has lobbed a contrarian salvo at the contrabass violin, debunked the new Golden Age of Jazz and rained on Record Store Day), now takes aim at his biggest target yet: Elvis. Readers are invited to share their own opinions by adding their comments below or emailing them to email@example.com. T.G.
It's been nearly five months since Herbie Hancock copped The Big One: Grammy's Album of the Year award for his Joni Mitchell tribute, River: The Joni Letters. Certainly the recognition was well deserved. Indeed, Jazz.com called River "a grand artistic statement."
Yet when considering Jazz Covers of Golden Oldies by Pop Icons, another pianist's tribute album, released just two weeks after River, may ultimately be more instructive than Hancock's Hollywood triumph. While Cyrus Chestnut's Cyrus Plays Elvis wasn't nominated for a Grammy, it was widely welcomed. Jazz.com's Ted Gioia, for example, observed that Elvis Presley had "soaked up the African-American music that was part of his hometown, Tupelo, Mississippi. But jazz players have rarely returned the favor. Cyrus Chestnut steps in to rectify matters with a whole CD devoted to Elvis."
Other reviewers were even more enthusiastic. Blogger Jim Harrington elevated Cyrus Plays Elvis to #3 on his list of 2007's top 10 jazz records. (River did not make the cut.) "A glorious batch of jazzy Elvis standards," Harrington raved. "Chestnut's lovely interpretations make these songs sound the equal of anything composed by Cole Porter or Hoagy Carmichael."
To the greybeards among us, however, connecting the dots between jazz and Elvis Presley requires enough torturously twisted geometry to have given Euclid a headache. To restate the obvious, Elvis "was not a jazz musician," as The Complete Idiot's Guide to Jazz (1999) helpfully explains. "He did not swing." The King himself once confessed, "I don't understand jazz."
Cue clip from MGM's Jailhouse Rock (1957), in which Elvis plays a sneering, surly, guitar-totin' ex-con fixin' to bust into the music biz. Lucky for him, his loutish animal magnetism attracts a young woman savvy in the ways of the record industry. She helps him tape a demo, introduces him to an unscrupulous executive (aren't they all?), and takes him home to meet her naively accepting, upper-middleclass parents, who are just then hosting a cocktail party. When Mom learns he's a musician fresh out of the penitentiary, she naturally assumes Elvis is a jazzman, and suggests that Dad spin the latest hepcat platter on their hi-fi. Cue imitation Gerry Mulligan Quartet with facsimile Chet Baker.
The music prompts a good-natured discussion by party guests, who, desiring to appear informed, bandy such terms as "altered chords" and "dissonance," dropping along the way such 1950s household names as Brubeck, Desmond and Lennie Tristano.
Mom, however, is a moldy fig. "Someday they'll make the cycle and get back to pure old Dixieland," she predicts. "I say atonality is just a passing phase in jazz music." She politely asks Elvis's opinion.
"Lady, I don't know what the hell you're talkin' about," snaps the boorish ex-con, who stalks out in a pique to pursue stardom, which of course is soon his—altered chords and dissonance be damned.
It's probably just as well that The Hick hated jazz. His embrace would've been the kiss of death. Eisenhower-era hipsters were as appalled by Presley's unsophistication as were the bluenoses scandalized by his vulgar sexuality. Jazz critic Leonard Feather, for one, judged that both jazz and pop music had been "dragged down considerably by the success of Elvis Presley and his ilk." And Leonard Feather, may he rest in peace, did not throw around the term ilk lightly.
Perhaps it's premature to conclude that Elvis and jazz remain a mismatch made in Hades. Amazon.com's sales figures, though, are sobering. In contrast to Herbie Hancock's River, ranked #101 in music, Cyrus Plays Elvis places a distant #59,152. Nor is there much evidence that Chestnut's example has been heeded. In fact, Cyrus Plays Elvis seems to have inspired the same number of followers as Benedictine Chimes of Westminster Play the Great Ballads of Elvis (Skylark Jazz, 1994). Which is to say, none.
Still, there must be something to the Elvis/Jazz nexus. Why else would Jazz Cruises LLC conduct THE ELVIS® CRUISE in full-charter luxury to the Caribbean every Labor Day weekend? In our tireless quest to follow the trail of investigative reportage wherever it leads, no matter the hardship, we intend to book passage (charged to our expense account). Perhaps onboard host Jerry Schilling, onetime member of the King's private entourage The Memphis Mafia, can tell us what Graceland's Godfather had to do with jazz. Then, donning our gold lamé jumpsuit, we can explain it to our penurious editor-in-chief as he skeptically examines our travel vouchers.
This blog entry posted by Alan Kurtz.