Jazz Icons: Heroes, Myths and the Jazz Tradition

July 29, 2010

What do they know of jazz, who only musicians know? A few months ago, these pages noticed with approval Harvey Cohen's sophisticated, culturally situated account of the life and work of Duke Ellington. I suspect Tony Whyton would also approve of Cohen's emphasis on the musician's milieu, and his book contains a thoughtful treatment of Ellington's work. But the principal argument of Jazz Icons is that jazz scholarship has suffered from its insistent focus on the lives and works of the music's "great men". We need to move on.

The icons in question are performers and performer/composers such as Ellington, Louis Armstrong and John Coltrane, whose mythical reputations depend on undoubted innovations in instrumental technique and ensemble leadership, but also on continuing support by critics and photographers (and Whyton makes some excellent points about the importance of jazz photography). Also vital in the myth-making process is a wealth of anecdotal reverence by fellow musicians, the subject of an interesting chapter here. Icons are, then, a product of reputation management, which is often supported by commercial as well as critical input, as Whyton illustrates with a case study of the marketing of Coltrane's recordings for the Impulse! label.

There is no question that the history, appreciation and marketing of jazz, and indeed the contemporary education in the form, has been constructed largely through the veneration of a couple of dozen outstanding individuals, almost all of them African-American men. This approach has brought with it cultural and political outcomes such as the assertion of a "canon": of great work by African-Americans that can be held to parallel the achievements of the similarly small number of men venerated as the principal innovators of European art music traditions. This has been vital in the development of American culture through and since the Civil Rights movement.

There are, however, a number of serious issues with this process of individualisation and canonisation. As Whyton points out, the approach tends to be frankly hagiographic, ignoring or even celebrating the more troubling aspects of various musicians' characters - for example, privileging a predatory heterosexual masculinity in biographies of Ellington (who may, in fact, have been bisexual), Charlie Parker and even the confessedly misogynist Miles Davis.

The emphasis on African-American men, while undeniably politically positive, denies space for the consideration of women's achievements in jazz (the composition and bandleading skills of Carla Bley, for example) as well as those of white American men such as Gerry Mulligan, not to mention Europeans like Jan Garbarek who are, according to critic Stuart Nicholson, now leading the music's evolution. The hagiographies also tend to ignore music seen as "not quite jazz", whether it is thought to be too commercial (some of Armstrong's work), too difficult to listen to (the last few recordings by Coltrane), or too influenced by rock (almost anything by Davis after about 1970).

Whyton concludes with a look at formal education in jazz, and it is here perhaps that the influence of the icons most needs attenuation. In a music dependent on ensemble interaction and improvisation rather than score-based discipline, a focus on individuals and their "works" (including improvisatory techniques) can be only an inexact parallel to classical music's lineage of composition. Meanwhile, this tradition is itself in receipt of radical deconstruction from recent classical musicology, in which the performance, rather than the score, is seen as the vital aspect of the realisation of the music.

If the cultural construction of the music - including the education of young musicians - is to move beyond the individualist mythology into a more pragmatic sense of collective achievement, then we will indeed need, as Whyton says, a far more critical engagement with the existing icons of jazz.

Jazz Icons: Heroes, Myths and the Jazz Tradition

By Tony Whyton. Cambridge University Press 230pp, £55.00. ISBN 9780521896450. Published 1 April 2010

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