donmopsick

Current appearances and short essays by jazz bassist Don Mopsick

The Jazz Orthodoxy

leave a comment »


[Note: This article first appeared in the American Rag. Below is a version from 2000 I posted on Jazz Corner’s Speakeasy. I also gathered and pasted the lively discussion below. It’s hard to believe that 13 years later, people are still having this argument, although there seems to be more interest in older jazz in general nowadays. I like to think that some of the credit for that goes to Jim Cullum and the Riverwalk Jazz public radio series (to which I contributed much energy), still on the air in most major US markets and Sirius/XM satellite radio. Another key figure in this revival has been Mat Domber and his Arbors Jazz label. You can see from my gig blog page that these days my opportunities to perform old-school jazz in Southwest Florida are limited to a few concerts and festivals.]

I first wrote about the Jazz Orthodoxy on the 16th of February 1998 in another forum. During that period, my time during the day was taken up with researching my Jewish genealogy and the history of the Jewish community of my ancestral town, Bobruisk, Belarus. For the previous sixth months, I had been learning the Yiddish language in order to complete the first English translation of a history of Bobruisk contained in the Memorial Book of that town.

The subject of Orthodoxy had been much in the news in 2000 with the candidacy of Sen. Joe Lieberman. Many Americans learned for the first time what it means to be an Orthodox Jew. Being a rather assimilated Jew myself, I had no clear picture of the place of Orthodoxy in Judaism until I began my study over two years ago. A very helpful reference book in this regard was Life Is With People: The Jewish Little-Town of Eastern Europe by Mark Zborowski, Elizabeth Herzog available here.

I learned that for about six hundred years, there was a vibrant Jewish civilization in Eastern Europe. Jews had their own culture, languages (Yiddish, which began evolving around 1000 AD; and of course Hebrew), cuisine, music, legal system, schools, and most of all, religion. Orthodoxy was by far the majority sect in the eastern part of the European Jewish world.

In short, there was a Jewish Nation in fact if not in real political terms. The Tsar even created geographic boundaries with the Pale of Settlement in the late 1700’s, intended to keep most of the newly Russian Jews from infiltrating eastward into the interior of Russia.

In Russia, Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine and Poland, Jewish civilization and culture had evaporated until very recently. The Tsars’ repression propelled many of us, my grandparents included, to America. For the Jews who remained, the Soviets successfully suppressed their religion and culture, the Nazis slaughtered 6 million of them, and the result was that after WWII, the Soviet Jewish remnant became almost completely assimilated into Russian culture. Beginning in the 70s and continuing to the present, Jews have abandoned Russia and the countries of the former Pale of Settlement, emigrating to America and Israel. Today there are very few Jews left in Bobruisk, for example, from a peak of about 70,000 in the 1970s. Some have returned to Poland, and a large, vibrant community has remained in Hungary.

During the course of my genealogy research, I came across quite a few of my cousins who were born in Bobruisk. I was astounded at how little the former Soviet Jews I met knew about their Jewish heritage. Only the elderly spoke Yiddish. Of course, a similar outcome happened in America, but American Jews assimilated voluntarily, not through edicts of the state. A small minority of American Jews chose to adhere to the classic Orthodoxy to varying degrees and stripes, and thankfully have had the Liberty to do so. The rest of us are largely cut off from a long past that is rapidly receding from memory.

During the period between the two world wars, there arose in America a vibrant classical popular culture with jazz music and dance at its creative center. Swinging jazz rhythms could be heard on phonograph records, radio programs, Broadway musicals, and movie soundtracks. The inspiration of Louis Armstrong, Bix Beiderbecke and others could be heard in scores of pop dance orchestras and their recordings. James Lincoln Collier (“Art vs. Commerce”) has compared American pop music to a mountain with jazz as its springhead, trickling down and informing all other styles “below” it.

Pop music has long since moved on to other realms: Folk, Metal, Delta Blues derivatives, Mowtown, Punk, Hip-hop, Techno, Disco, etc. The current audience for jazz has been estimated at about 3% of the entire American budget spent on entertainment. What is sold these days as “jazz” by the record companies is very different in style and form from that of the classic period. Unrecognizably so, according to the Jazz Orthodoxy…

The essential defining element of hot jazz in its classic period was the swinging or stomping rhythmic feel. By the time the Smooth Jazz movement took over, that feel had been totally abandoned in favor of the rhythms of Urban Soul and Hip-hop. Along the way, other traditional elements of the old jazz were gradually discarded: improvised ensemble playing, the natural sounds of the instruments, sliding blue notes, etc. The cult of Bop clichés became pre-eminent, stylizing and thereby limiting the melodic and rhythmic vocabulary. Other cults followed: John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman, Chick Corea.

The songs of the Golden Age of popular songwriting are still performed by some contemporary jazz artists, although in a diluted form. One can still hear a limited number of evergreen songs by Gershwin, Porter, Berlin, Rogers and Hart, Kern, and others. The harmonies (and in some cases the melodies) are often altered to fit the newer, limited style. Modern jazz singers and instrumentalists are interested in performing only a small subset of the vast American Songbook, usually those that were recorded by the major gods of their Post Bop pantheon.

The Orthodox Jazz canon has been suppressed in the schools, stripped of its political respectability, Soviet-style. Jazz History educators tend to use the originators of Bop—Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie—as their starting points. The result is that young saxophonists (not clarinetists) are weaned on “Giant Steps” and “Milestones,” and not “King Porter Stomp,” “Star Dust,” or even “A String of Pearls.” The words “hip” and “unhip” are used as weapons to keep the young acolytes in line. As a result, several new generations have grown up knowing nothing of Orthodoxy, lacking the essential qualities of self-restraint, taste and swing. They have evolved onto today’s jazz fans and musicians, buying Kenny G records in mega-quantities and tuning into “Yanni at the Acropolis” on Public Television. A tiny subset of these jazz fans consider themselves among the “avant-garde,” extolling the virtues of “free jazz” as exemplified by Cecil Taylor, Archie Shepp, and Albert Ayler.

Jews have a word for heretics: “apikoyres,” derived from the Greek for “epicure,” or one who lives for the moment. From the point of view of the Orthodox, the Jewish world is today mostly heresy, and a small kernel of the Orthodox keep the flame alive in insular communities in Brooklyn, LA, and Israel. Similarly, the tiny world of the Classic Jazz Orthodoxy preserves its own values, keeps its own counsel, yet quixotically hopes for “discovery” and redemption by the masses.

In both the Jewish and Jazz worlds, the Modernists and Traditionalists have not been particularly interested in a dialog with each other, but some of the more enlightened Modernists are awakening to their true heritage, finally seeking it out and trying to come to terms and thereby connect with it. In jazz, this process is only just beginning.

Like all orthodoxies, the Jazz Orthodoxy is about tradition. Sometimes, just knowing about it can be enough.

Don Mopsick

Flame-Retardant Post Script for Jazz Corner: the above was written from the point of view of the Jazz Orthodoxy, of which I am a member. I also simultaneously consider myself a Jazz Heretic from this point of view. I’ve been lucky enough in my playing career to have performed on both sides of the fence. Some here would deny that this fence exists at all. Others out here in the trenches like me know better. I wish the fence weren’t there, but, there it is, tripping up performers and fans. Let’s tear down your fence, Mr. Gorbachev.

Old Post 12-14-2000 04:24 PM
Pete C

Ahh! The “moldy figs” rise again!! Yippee! Last time there was a significant revivalist movement, they bought Bunk Johnson a new set of teeth. Who gets the teeth this time? (Last time I checked Bob Wilber’s chops seemed in pretty fine fettle.)

Old Post 12-14-2000 05:20 PM
Don Mopsick

Heraclitus:

Proud to be moldy!

mop

Old Post 12-14-2000 06:03 PM
Gutbucket.

But Don, all shtetls aside, I really don’t get your leap from Bird & Diz to G & Yanni–I see no logic in that reasoning.

Old Post 12-14-2000 08:28 PM
FredC

Heraclitus hath spoke: >> The “moldy figs” rise again!! <<

If the realm encompassed by “moldy figistry” includes:
Louis
Barney Bigard
Bix
Berigan
Chu Berry
Eldridge
Hawkins
Benny Carter
Benny Goodman
Charlie Christian
Duke
Charlie Shavers
Prez
Oscar Peterson
Bobby Hackett
etc., etc.

Please can I be a moldy fig too?

Old Post 12-14-2000 08:46 PM
Heraclitus

Louis – He was for a while. Called bop “Chinese Music.” Eventually came round.Barney Bigard – naw
Bix – Nobody who came from Iowa could EVER be a moldy fig.
Berigan – Died just as the new sounds were coming out. I don’t think he would have signed on with the figs.
Chu Berry – Nope.
Eldridge – No way.
Hawkins – Are you kidding? Bean was a big supporter of bebop. Even hired Monk as his pianist.
Benny Carter – I don’t think so. Why did he hire all those boppers like Phil Woods for “Further Definitions.” Heck, if he was a fig, there would be no need for further definitions.
Benny Goodman – Nope. He went the bop route for a while. His heart wasn’t in it, though.
Charlie Christian – died before he could hear bop. Still, no way he would be a fig.
Duke – Figs don’t record with John Coltrane.
Charlie Shavers – plenty of bop lines played by Charlie
Prez – Pres would never put down a new trend in music. He had his own problems with figs insisting that the only proper way to play the tenor sax was like Bean. (Now Fletcher Henderson’s wife WAS a fig.)
Oscar Peterson – no way
Bobby Hackett – Well, probably. But he was such a sweet man I can’t hold it against him.

etc., etc. – Yup. Etc. Etc. was a hard core “moldy fig.”

Old Post 12-14-2000 09:46 PM

FredC

>>etc., etc. – Yup. Etc. Etc. was a hard core “moldy fig.” <<

Then let Etc. Etc. be cast into the darkness, to dwell in the house of King Oliver and Frank Teschmacher forever!
;-))

Old Post 12-14-2000 09:59 PM
Don Mopsick

Pete C. wrote:

“But Don, all shtetls aside, I really don’t get your leap from Bird & Diz to G & Yanni–I see no logic in that reasoning.”

What I was getting at is that in the past, jazz educators, for the most part adhering to a Bop canon, have not done a good job of enabling the public to tell the difference between chicken salad and chicken sh*t, if G and Yanni’s sales figures are any evidence.

BUT, I see a change in the wind a-blowin,’ as more and more jazz educators finally understand the intellectual dishonesty (and bankruptcy) of ignoring or disparaging pre-WWII jazz styles.

This is why a lot of us of the mold fold are already cheering Ken Burns’ film, simply because of the fact that 7 of the 10 episodes are about jazz before WWII (The Golden Age). This in spite of the likelihood that there will be very few of today’s moldies included.

Whoops! I just realized I turned this into a Ken Burns thread. Damn!

mop

Old Post 12-15-2000 02:10 AM
Tom Storer

Mop,

Very interesting post!

“The cult of Bop clichés became pre-eminent, stylizing and limiting the melodic and rhythmic vocabulary.”

If you’re talking about clichés only, maybe; but can you really say that bebop was a reduction of melodic and rhythmic vocabulary in jazz? I couldn’t live without moldy jazz, but it seems to me the rhythmic and melodic choices of post-mold jazz are just as wide if not wider.

When arguing for or against a jazz style, all of us are guilty at times of pointing to the best of the style we’re rooting for, and the worst of the style we’re criticizing. Don’t forget that pre-WWII jazz had more than its fair share of cliché.

“jazz educators, for the most part adhering to a Bop canon, have not done a good job of enabling the public to tell the difference between chicken salad and chicken sh*t, if G and Yanni’s sales figures are any evidence.”

“The public” – the vast majority of those who buy Kenny G and Yanni records – have never come within 100 miles of a jazz educator! It ain’t their fault!

Old Post 12-15-2000 02:28 AM
Don Mopsick

Tom Storer wrote:

“If you’re talking about clichés only, maybe; but can you really say that bebop was a reduction of melodic and rhythmic vocabulary in jazz? I couldn’t live without moldy jazz, but it seems to me the rhythmic and melodic choices of post-mold jazz are just as wide if not wider.

“When arguing for or against a jazz style, all of us are guilty at times of pointing to the best of the style we’re rooting for, and the worst of the style we’re criticizing. Don’t forget that pre-WWII jazz had more than its fair share of cliché.”

True enough. The most tired Louie licks are just as stultifying as the endlessly repeated Bird solo fragments and Trane quotings one hears in the “Young Lions,” for example.

Rhythmically, I’m thinking mainly of the Bop and Post-Bop practice of building a jazz solo on series of eighth note passages, with very little rhythmic relief. You know the argument: technique for its own sake, not as the servant of swinging.

What you seem to “get” and many others don’t is that a jazz style does not have to be newer to be vital and creative. There are no important playwrights and composers writing today in the style of Shakespeare or Brahms, so why do we still study and revere the originals?

Jazz is different because the art of it resides in the mind of the creator ephemerally: the musician and the process itself becomes the work. So necessarily, study and reverence of Classic Jazz must come in the form of present-day blowing in that style and within those parameters.

Of course, this argument can and does apply to those blowing Bop and Post-Bop as well. My point is that from the moldy point of view, “modern” jazz holds no special claim on righteousness merely because it came after.

Here is a quote from the preface of a new book by Floyd Levin, Classic Jazz, a Personal View of the Music and the Musicians:

“For years, the most obtuse jazz critics have delighted in branding the art form that matured during the first four decades of this century as arcane, archaic, crude, obsolete, and merely a foundation on which “modern” jazz has been constructed…

“A curious literary trend attempts to promulgate the illogical theory that “latest” is synonymous with “best.” It is true that all forms of art undergo change. Jazz, too is an evolving form, and though gradual variations are inevitable, we should never completely forget the music’s cornerstones. While technical ability is essential, the vital elements are a sustained beat, combined spontaneous improvisations, and freedom to use imagination, ingenuity, and taste.

“True classicism, in every form of art, is always revered and never becomes obsolete…”

mop

Old Post 12-15-2000 10:48 AM
Tom Storer

Well said, by both you and Levin. Never say die!

Advertisements

Written by Don Mopsick

December 21, 2011 at 8:32 PM

Posted in Uncategorized

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: