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The Modern Standard: What Is It?

Angelika Beener
Staff Writer
angelikabeener[at]gmail.com / @alternate_takes

Inspired by spring’s indecisiveness a couple weeks ago, I decided not to brave the wind and rain this particular day, but to do some season-inspired cleaning instead. Thumbing through my music library, I settled on some classic Blue Note repertoire to help me through my chores: Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers’ Three Blind Mice, to be specific. As the gorgeous and fittingly titled Freddie Hubbard waltz “Up Jumped Spring” played, it got me to thinking about the layers of musical camaraderie jazz music has always had. Not just the cooperative nature of performing the music, but also in terms of what music was performed. The vast landscape of jazz repertoire which includes blues, Tin Pan Alley songs, show tunes, and pop songs, is most enriched by original compositions from jazz musicians themselves which, through the social contexts of the music, became standards in their own right. Songs from Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, and Wayne Shorter had become modern jazz standards of their times because of their popularity and exposure within the jazz community. I then started focusing on today, and my experiences at jazz performances. Yes, the headliner is playing his or her original work, and yes the band, on some occasions, may feature a tune or two from a bandmate, but what were the odds that they would play a tune by a musical peer beyond their own band? Slim to none, as far as I could tell. Which got me to thinking: What is the modern jazz standard?

I began looking through the several Real Books laying around the house. I couldn’t seem to find a song that was written in the last twenty years or so included. With the plethora of prolific writers in jazz over this span of time, I found it odd. What does this mean? I started asking musicians for their take on why songs aren’t becoming popularized within the genre, and how this could affect their mark in history, if at all.
“People are so ensconced with doing their own thing, and don’t realize that it helps the music when we promote each other’s songs. It helps the mentality,” says trumpeter Jeremy Pelt. “For a long time, people have regarded standards as the test of one’s mettle and that tradition has stood the test of time for years and years and it was also something that was meant to rope in somebody who hadn’t heard you before, so that was the paradigm of which all modern jazz players were based off of, before you get into your own thing.”

Doing one’s own thing has never been easier. The collapse of crucial major jazz labels, and a shift in the art of record producing has birthed a DIY era of record making which, while incredibly liberating, also has its share of considerable consequences. “What’s interesting about the industry in any musical [genre] is that years ago — and I mean in our time — it was special to make a record,” says Pelt, who has just released his ninth album, Soul-- a gorgeous blues and ballads project. “Nowadays, I could put together a record right now on my MacBook in an hour. I don’t need a label to do anything for me, I just put it together, get my Logic going, and put it right up on my website and I will have a bona fide record. So, the change in the industry and the mentality is such that it’s not a special thing anymore, and that’s, in essence, what makes it very competitive, number one. You would think it’s less competitive now, but it’s actually more competitive because nobody’s shit is special anymore. It’s all very ego-driven, and I think that a lot of young composers are always in a rush to push their agenda, and everyone is guilty of it at some point. I think that with me, I made it a conscious decision, after doing records of my own material, to really cast light on some of my comtemporaries’ songs.” Pelt, who has one of the few long-established quintets in the business, has recorded the music of Anthony Wonsey, Myron Waldon and Eric Reed. “If there was something I was drawn to in a song, I would record it and I think that it benefits the community at large. I think people are afraid to do it because they feel like it will take the spotlight away from their compositions, which is a valid feeling if you’re insecure like that, but realistically, it’s not like there’s a whole lot of spotlight on the [jazz] industry in general [laughs].”

Pianist Orrin Evans, who is bringing a sense of community back to the jazz scene with his big band, Captain Black, is one of the few bandleaders today proactively featuring original music of not only his peers, but his protégés alike. “There’s such a need now for branding,” says Evans, “that even if you sit down with the best publicist in the business now, the word that’s going to come up is ‘branding’. If you sit down with a manager, everyone is talking about branding, and that whole package becomes so self-serving. A lot of people, when they get that moment, it’s like, ‘I gotta play my music, and do my stuff.’ But I honestly believe that I can still be who I am by how I interpret other people’s music. It doesn’t need to be my music. Who I am isn’t all about my songs or how I play my music, but also how I interpret music.”

Evans, who paid tribute to his mentor, saxophonist Bobby Watson, on his 2010 release Faith In Action, believes firmly in honoring his influences while they are still here; a philosophy which jazz has struggled to reckon with for the last several decades. The genre seems to be contented (for better or worse) between two musical polars: an homage-obsessed one, and the other which seems, at times, completely musically isolated.

Guitarist Mike Moreno illuminates another set of possibilities of why artists’ tunes aren’t making the rounds as they did years ago. “Today, there are far less jazz musicians being asked to record albums within a constricted period of time by record companies. Years ago, more musicians had record contracts that required them to record more often, demanding more material. So the artists might have been looking for more material if they didn’t have enough tunes written themselves for their next date. And now, for some of us, we write far more tunes than we have a chance to record. So we always end up playing what we wrote and don’t really have time on the date or gig to play so many of our peers’ original music. But another big reason, I think, is that jazz tunes have become more labor intensive to learn. Most of the music written now by musicians of my generation requires some pretty heavy rehearsing. And there just isn’t enough time [in] most rehearsals to rehearse your own music, and then another person’s hard music, too. It’s better to just go with a standard that everyone knows to break the monotony of reading on every song during a gig or record date. Usually after about eight original tunes the band members start to hint at, ‘Yeah, and we can just throw in some standard tunes in between these.’ There is far more reading going on, on gigs now. And since most gigs today are mostly one nighters as opposed to playing for weeks at a time at the same venue, as back in 40s 50s and 60s, with less sets, the opportunity is just not there to play a wider range of repertoire on gigs. But regardless, an original tune back in the day was no more than 32 bars, with maybe an intro, then the head, solo on the melody form, head out. Now a four or five page tune is no surprise. And the road maps through the sections can be really tricky. There is only so much of that you can put in front of the band each gig.”

Moreno recently released his stunning fourth album, Another Way (World Culture Music), which features all original compositions, but is known for his uncanny ability to interpret standards, and has released two standards albums on the Criss Cross label. “Before the Real Books came out there was a good grace period that determined what should be in there. Classic records were already classic. The Real Book didn’t make Monk’s music popular, for example. Who would decide what should go in the newer Real Books if the records haven’t had a chance to become something yet? It would be nice if there was something like it, but who would buy it? I’m not sure publishers are really interested in that. After all, who buys Real Bookis anyway? Students who don’t really have the ear yet to learn the tunes from recordings and also need a guide of what to learn from the history of the music, or local musicians that just play background gigs with standards that they haven’t committed to memory. That market of consumer usually buys the first editions Real Books to learn and play the “standard standard” material at their gigs. The more advanced musicians usually have already studied that material, and then when they do want to play more modern stuff, just transcribe it themselves and write out the charts rather than spending the money on a entire book to get a few tunes out of it. I don’t think Real Books with newer music would make very much money for publishing companies, especially with current access to artist websites, in which the artists have taken their music into their own hands. Fans or musicians who really want a newer artist’s original sheet music can just go to that person’s website and purchase the tunes they want now, or write the artist personally saying, ‘Hey, I really love this one tune, or this record, can you send me the lead sheets?’ I get those emails all the time. But, you can’t do that to Cole Porter, Miles, Monk, or even someone still current like Wayne Shorter or Herbie. But a lot of times my favorite tunes were not in Real Books. I always transcribed myself. It might be more profitable for publishers to just put out individual songbooks by current artists. Few already exist. But, I don’t see any publishing companies really wanting to jump at this anytime soon, maybe down the line sometime. Then it might have an effect on the scene overall, making the records of today that will end up as classics documented as such. I think it is still too early.”

It just may be. Yet, to Moreno’s point about the way the music of Monk, for example, was already popularized pre-Real Book era, I could not help but think about why and how much of the reason had to do with community and the role musicians play in getting their peers’ music out into the world.

“If you think about it, The Real Book hasn’t changed since probably 1993,” says Evans. “I haven’t bought one in a long time, but…that’s twenty years. In that amount of time, we’ve had some monumental records, despite what people want to think or say. We’ve got Crazy People Music from Branford [Marsalis], we’ve got Jason Moran’s records, Robert Glasper’s records, Kenny Kirkland’s records, which came out all within that time span. Christian McBride’s first two records, during the time when the young lions — Roy Hargrove, Nicholas Payton — all of them had killing records, and you don’t see hardly any of those tunes in any of the Real/Fake books. We have to keep playing the music. Because if you stop playing it, for the next kids who come along, there’s no book. I mean, granted, the reality is if we’re going to deal with it musically, all the old heads would say they should be learning it by ear anyway, but I’m talking about the business of it. We’re not represented. Two decades of music is not represented in that book.”

“There isn’t really a linear sense of the scene in terms of progression, and in terms of community,” says saxophonist John Ellis, whose southern tinged Double-Wide quintet will be a part of the Newport Jazz Festival line-up this year. "People don’t necessarily expectantly wait for so and so’s record, like they did for Miles. We’re not connected to that era. The people within the scene are disconnected from each other. And I think all of that fracturing puts people in a whole different place. I mean, that being said, I think Terence [Blanchard] has done a great job, very similar to Blakey, of showcasing his band members’ music. I think there are isolated instances most certainly of that: of people building community within smaller groups. When it comes to standards, for the most part, we’re talking about the Great American Songbook. The ideal that there was a general, cultural knowledge of this music that jazz musicians interpreted, basically everybody knew those songs.”

“I mean, when I moved here there weren’t too many incubation bands in the first place that you could learn from,” adds Pelt, sighting the importance of musicians having experience not just playing music outside of their own, but also stretching out in bands beyond their own. “Betty Carter was still alive but was getting ill, you still had Elvin Jones, we still have Roy Haynes, so there were a handful. But there weren’t that many bands of that caliber to where you could get in and learn something. So even now, fast forward almost fifteen years later, it’s like well now who is there really to play with? And it forces today’s musicians to have to come up with their own situations because who else are they going to play with that they’re really going to learn from?”

“With the collapse of the major record label options for jazz for most people, it has made it such that everything is so diffused and spread out and then you juxtapose that with this incredible change of everything becoming institutionalized,” says Ellis who pointed out to me through an illustration about the cultural climate of jazz when the music was in Harlem, that the audience used to play such an important role in keeping the music contemporary and popular. This begs the question: Who is the modern musician playing for?

“I think there is definitely something about Facebook and Twitter that makes people narcissistic, or encourages their inner narcissism, like everything I’m saying and doing is so important,” says Ellis. “Social networking…there is something sort of strangely anti-social about it, but on the other hand there is real potential to organize; it’s all about how we use it, I guess. I do think there is some tension between this crazy connectivity and access to so much information and then how kind of isolating it all is.”

I guess there’s no easy or right answer or solution to the dilemma, and in fact the subject sheds more light on just how many achilles heels our musical community is plagued from. However, I do think we could benefit from more documenting and collective publishing of modern jazz compositions. Collectivity has always made the music what it is. The music being more than just the sum of its parts, as NPR producer Becca Pulliam said to me in a recent interview. I just hope that by the time my son is in college, he’s learning the music of Jason Moran alongside the music of Art Blakey. We can’t keep using the word “modern” to describe jazz, if we’re really referring to 1965. That being said, I think at some point, it may be worthwhile to publish an updated book of modern compositions and start creating a rightful place for our generation in the spectrum of contributions. There’s too much at stake to be overlooked in the end.

Angelika Beener is the creator of and writer for Alternate Takes, a progressive music blog which takes on jazz within a variety of social contexts. She is an award-winning producer and host with awards from The New York Association of Black Journalists and The Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Follow her on Twitter.