Purism in Jazz: Purism as the end of jazz history

The endPurism in jazz represents the idea of returning to the aesthetic, harmonic and melodic principles of the jazz period that starts with Ellington, Armstrong and ends with the emergence of free jazz in the late 1950s or early 1960s. This suggests the marking of this musical period of jazz as ‘the Golden Era’ and its consequent election as a new form of ‘Classical Music’. Ultimately purism represents a set of values with further political, historical and philosophical implications.

To purists the ‘free jazz’ or the ‘avant-garde’ scene reflects at best the musical saturation of jazz or at worse nihilists trying to destroy the music that gave them birth. (John A. Tynan, quoted in Walser, Robert (ed.) (1999) Keeping time: Readings in Jazz History, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 255). It is a fact that the free jazz movement put forward the request for social changes. The tendency to overcome musical conventions implied the questioning of social conventions. Free jazz used freedom of musical style as a direct analogue for freedom of personal expression mostly during the 1960s. The early 1960’s signaled the birth of ‘free jazz’ and for purists the end of ‘real jazz’. It was also at that time when a scientific crusade against the individual started to take place. This prepared the ideological ground for several self-appointed social prophets to formulate the future theories of the ‘end’.

Levi-Strauss declares that structuralism will displace humanism and Altuser that history is a process without a subject. Foucault declares that humans are nothing but dust in the wind and Lacan that anyone who seeks a radical vision, in reality needs a master. J. Lyotard declares the end of modernism and Horkhaimer the end of speech. Heidigger supports that philosophy has ended and Foukouyama declares the end of political history. All these views suggest a thoughtless worship of objectivity and reality. This is very obvious in jazz, where the reduction of certain people and compositions to historic and aesthetic reference points is very common. By the end of the 20th century all ideologies of the ‘end’ had been formulated. Music could not escape.

‘ Chaos often breeds life when order breeds habit’
Henry Adams

Wynton Marsalis is a widely acclaimed musician and artistic director of the Lincoln Centre, which is devoted to the formal education of what its members consider as ‘real jazz’. Wynton Marsalis has said that chaos is always out there. Check the interview here: He is implying that there is a danger which we should always be aware of. Feeling musically insecure is really in our interest. Isn’t this pretty much what’s happening in a broader social level? where a group of people in power declare the existence of a threat and then the same group guarantees our safety? As Martin writes radical innovators, however talented, are likely at first to be marginalized or condemned as incompetent, and almost inevitably attract the hostility of those whose sense of security –musical, psychological or economic- is derived from their acceptance of the aesthetic status quo. (Martin, J., Peter (2002) ‘Spontaneity and organisation’ in Cooke, Mervyn and David Horn (eds.) The Cambridge Companion to Jazz, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 138).

Writer and social critic Albert Murray Murray is the co-founder of the program and institution known as Jazz at Lincoln. He uses the word ‘chaos’ himself: art has to do with security against chaos. He further suggests that art is a movement against entropy. Its ends are sanity, purpose and delight. (Check Simon Weil’s article on the Lincoln Centre) Murray reveals the strong idea of musical determinism of the purists. Thus, music is something that happens ‘in order to…’ I tend to agree with Christopher Small who believes that there is no such thing in nature as a ‘purposeful’ sound. In his book Musicking Small writes: The idea of purpose is a human construct, and the idea of a purposeful sound, one that creates expectations in a listener….depends on the acceptance by those playing and those listening of a number of conventions…

Talking about these conventions is basically taking our stands on the broader political debate. In Murray’s mind music exists for a reason. This kind of causality is a fundamental element in the thought of jazz purists. Eventually purist musical communities take on a national role and duty and we end up dealing with the identification of the need to preserve and promote ‘real jazz’ with the need to preserve American social order. In a formal event in the White House in 1998 (you can read the whole speech here) Marsalis said: now, in our democratic way of living, our central concern is how to balance what we want to do with what needs to be done, and that’s a big concern. Of course what ‘needs to be done’ is certainly for someone else to decide.

Marsalis added: (…) in other words, ‘I’ versus ‘we’. Jazz musicians on bandstands around the world struggle with this nightly, and believe me, it’s a great struggle. Because you want to play loud and you want to play long solos. So does everybody else on the bandstand. Ironically, the individual-society battle is brought up again as a major constituent of the jazz purist thought. Marsalis refers to ‘I’ (individual) and ‘we’ (society) like they are in a perpetual battle. What is meant by ‘we’ is the American Nation obviously, and this is a clear political angle. Marsalis’ approach introduces an ethnocentricity, obviously related with the aversion of the purists to free jazz that is supposed to have been contaminated by elements of Eurocentricism. The declaration of jazz as ‘America’s classical music’ is now self-explanatory.

The average jazz listener as consumer of a ‘quality’ product, is contributing to the reproduction of the ‘genius’ concept. As Ake says: (…) these listeners marveled at the ability of jazz musicians to vary, embellish and invent melodic lines, seemingly effortlessly and out of thin air. Those same milieus had also come to view select painters, poets, writers and especially musicians as artists, separate from and seemingly above the rest of humanity. (Ake, David (2002) ‘Learning jazz, teaching jazz’ in Cooke, Mervyn and David Horn (eds.) The Cambridge Companion to Jazz, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 255). Perfectionism is the genuine by-product of the musical canon and the reflection of idealising gifted personalities and musical masterpieces.

Ellington’s manager advised his clients to sell Ellington as a great artist, a musical genius whose unique style and individual theories of harmony have created a new music. Sell his orchestra as a class attraction. (Cooke, Mervyn (2002) ‘Jazz among the classics’ in The Cambridge Companion to Jazz, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 172). Although purists are deeply suspicious of the commercial potential of fusion, their intentions depend on the market laws because of their will to promote jazz as serious and prestigious music. It seems that they are not keen on the idea that jazz could be approached like pop music, which is of course what happened with the more successful 1970’s albums of people like Miles Davis and Weather Report. Marsalis is clear about that in one of his interviews when asked about Miles Davis (you can read it here) saying I was especially inspired by his earlier music, before 1969.

It is also worth noting that during the past years a new type of purist commentator on jazz has emerged, insisting that jazz has to be all about spontaneity and African-American influences, and has nothing to do with classical structure (pre-composition). The neo-purist perception actually detests what the old purists value. It puts forward aspects of origin and authenticity, instead of structure and classical criteria. Both views represent opposite poles of jazz appreciation, but they share an element of narrow and restricted outlook, both suggesting a different set of ideas about ‘what jazz is’.

The canonisation of compositions and performances brings up important implications. Ellington’s music for example has been the easiest type of jazz to canonize, since it close to classical music in its techniques and aesthetic. Those who seek to canonize it tend not to recognize that the Ellington band never played their music the same way twice, so someone cannot say that a particular recording or score of an Ellington composition is ‘definitive’ or ‘authentic’.

Conversely, the new Afro-centric purists are no doubt perplexed because arguably, the great Duke Ellington produced a kind of music, which by their definition is not really ‘jazz’ at all! The whole question of the status of the jazz recording as an artefact is worth considering about, especially where recordings preserve live spontaneous performances, which were never intended to be listened to more than once. It follows that someone cannot make something canonic without listening to it more than once.

Finally, the purist views that regard some idioms musically inferior, eventually manage to justify the equivalent elitism of classical music circles that declare the decadence of jazz as a musical genre. As Derek Scott says the argument over high and low art, a familiar component of elitist and mass-culture views, is ironically repeated within the very areas of music which are so often attacked as being low. (Scott, Derek (2000) ‘Introduction. Music, Culture and Society: Changes in Perspective’ in Scott, Derek (ed.) Music, Culture and Society. A Reader, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 2).

Jazz has always been a hybrid music and there is no reason why it can’t continue to be.


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