Thursday, January 13, 2011

The Big Beat: The Dust of Everyday Life

It's now been five years since I fully fell for jazz. Oh, I had begun to explore it a lot earlier but it was mainly on the basis of curiosity and following the recommendations of guides such as The Virgin Encyclopedia of Sixities Music, which, thinking back on it now, placed vital works such as Kind of Blue, Giant Steps and The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady more within the context of the rock canon, thereby still keeping me at a distance from jazz itself. The figures that grabbed my attention early on even managed to fit nicely alongside the giants of rock as well - Davis was dark and fearless, a more talented, less sleazy Jim Morrison; Monk was iconoclastic and playful in the vein of Syd Barrett; Coltrane pretty much set the template for the doomed rock star, albeit one with a spiritual quest, making him a sort of love child of Johnny Cash and Kurt Cobain. These comparisons, of course, are nonsense but that's what the search for parallels can do to a guy: if we can't find actual similarities, then why not make them up?

The Big Beat brought these jazz as proto rock 'n' roll comparisons to a sudden end. Jazz was no longer operating in my mind as another kind of rock but as something altogether different and more exciting. The punk aesthetic that musical deficiencies can be made up for with attitude and desire went completely out the window. The passion that can occasionally make rock sound so vital was indeed present but so too was a musical intellectualism that I had never experienced before. It don't mean a thing if you can't play a thing...

I often blanche from discussing influences (something the bulk of rock critics hardly shy away from, as if something like Kick Out the Jams or Daydream Nation were to be justified solely on their impact on other artisits...come to think of it, they probably are) but it's worth mentioning just how important The Big Beat was for me. In the short term, it led to a huge Blue Note period that took up the bulk of 2006 and got me into Lee Morgan, Jackie McLean, Bud Powell, Tina Brooks, Don Cherry and Dexter Gordon. Soon, however, I began to rebel again the house that Rudy Van Gelder built and started exploring early swing and dixieland, a smattering of bop and onto West Coast cool which I'm currently interested in. Before Blakey, I had always figured that anything recorded prior to about 1950 sounded dated, unsophisticated, tacky and primitive. Attempts at listening to eminent figures such as Armstrong and Ellington left me disinterested; now, they're the mainstays of my entire collection. The Big Beat didn't simply open the door for everything that followed, it threw open the gates of jazz of all kinds, past, present and future. (I would never have given Lester Bowie's The Great Pretender or Wynton Marsalis' The Majesty of the Blues any kind of chance were it not for this great awakening of mine; dabbling ever so briefly into the throes of the ECM label was, however, as far into the present as I'm ever likely to go)

I had gotten into much wilder, seemingly more adventuresome works - On the Corner, Free Jazz - previously but that is beside the point. The reason A Love Supreme seems to appeal more to listeners with a rock background rather than jazz purists is that they tend to value passion and feeling above structure and proficiency and the bulk of the jazz you'll lible to find on a Rolling Stone 500 Greatest Albums list operate as surrogate rock records. Jazz appreciated as jazz begins here.

There is a famous story about how Art Blakey was out for a stroll and he happened upon a group of mourners at a local cemetry. He paid his respects to the deceased and then proceeded to tell everyone in attendance about his love for jazz. Apocryphal or not, this anecdote tells you all you need to know about what a tireless ambassador he was; listening to the Jazz Messengers turned me into one.

No comments: