That fetching 'new jazz' needs the right players
Veteran jazz-festival producer George Wein, in a somewhat risky move early last month, staged an all ''new jazz'' festival here, entitled ''New Directions in Sound and rhythm.'' Responding to jazz critics and musicians who have accused him over the years of dishing up a mere smattering of the new music in his other festivals, Mr. Wein planned a four-day series of concerts in the Los Angeles area intended to give voice exclusively to the more experimental side of jazz.
The importance of such an event cannot be overestimated. It has never been easy to sell avant-garde music - or avant-garde anything, for that matter. That this kind (or, more accurately, ''these kinds,'' since the music is truly multidirectional) of music, which is not readily accepted by a large audience, should have a chance to be heard broadly in a festival format is astonishing.
But this particular festival really missed the mark in many ways. This is not a criticism of the validity of Wein's idea, or a suggestion that the idea should not be tried again. It should be tried again, and again, and again as long as it is financially feasible to do so.
Although there was much music in these four days that was genuinely worthwhile (albeit needy of editing - but what avant-garde music doesn't need editing?), there was one glaring fault in the proceedings that disqualified this festival from really being representative of the new jazz. That fault lay in the decision as to which artists would perform in Los Angeles.
Wein left the production of the festival in the hands of Helene Cann and Marty Kahn of Outward Visions, a nonprofit new-music organization. Certainly Cann and Kahn are to be commended for their work in the new music, but unfortunately their choices were not fully representative either of the current trends or of the established and pivotal figures in the new jazz.
Defending his choices, Mr. Kahn said, ''I'm not crazy about the word jazz, and most of the musicians that I'm involved with are not fans of the word, either.'' On the other hand, ''All of them have been consciously influenced by the jazz tradition in their music,'' he affirmed.
The majority of the musicians who took part were black players from Chicago, and in most cases, members of AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Music), a Chicago-based organization. Without meaning to belittle the accomplishments either of AACM or the many fine musicians that have come out of Chicago, nevertheless one was left with the impression that the new music is virtually owned by them.
The only two groups that did not fit this Chicago-based-black-music mold were the Nikolais Dance Theater and performing artist Laurie Anderson, neither really having much, if anything, to do with jazz.
There was no one at all to represent the roots of the music - the important period in the early sixties when the Jazz Composers' Guild formed in New York and when Sam Rivers was playing pied piper to a sizable group of young avant-garde players, both black and white, in Boston. It would be different if these people weren't around any more, but they're not only around, they're still playing and contributing to new directions in jazz.
It's not so much a question of style - stylistically, those who were overlooked cover as much and as varied ground as Cann's and Kahn's choices. Experimental jazz by definition has always explored a variety of rhythmic, melodic, and ethnic forms. The point is that many of the players who were left out are major figures in the music by experience, reputation, and recorded output. In many cases they were groundbreakers in the movement. To stage a festival without including any of them is a little like doing a tribute to swing and leaving out Benny Goodman.
By far the most popular group in the festival was trumpeter Lester Bowie's ''neo-gospel'' group, awful as it was. This was undoubtedly because he resorted to such a simplistic approach - three gospel singers and a backup band offering some blatantly self-indulgent vocal histrionics, which the audiences ate up like cake and ice cream. What this has to do with anything new or experimental, one can only guess.
But among the practitioners of the new music who have found the recipe for making the avant-garde more palatable to the average listener without losing its sense of adventure was violinist Leroy Jenkins. The soft-spoken innovator brought his new group, ''Sting,'' to the festival - a six-piece ensemble of two violins, two guitars (electric and acoustic), bass, and drums. Jenkins and his group seemed to be able to move from the more traditional structures into the outer realms without losing a sense of continuity - a quality lacking in some of the other performances.
Among the other groups, the John Carter Quintet stood out, mostly for Carter's clarinet virtuosity and James Newton's excellent flute. Anthony Braxton (reeds), with Muhal Richard Abrams (piano), and ''Air,'' featuring Henry Threadgill on reeds and a silly instrument he invented called a ''hubkaphone'' - made of hubcaps and resembling a clothesline - had their moments, but could not be said to have addedanything outstanding to the festival.
The World Saxophone Quartet shared the bill the first night with Lester Bowie's group and funk guitarist James ''Blood'' Ulmer's trio (a thoroughly forgettable performance). Reedmen David Murray, Julius Hemphill, Oliver Lake, and Hamiett Bluiett have created a full, rhythmic sound with just the reed instruments, and they sounded tighter and more polished than they did at the big festival in New York last July.
To some extent, despite its narrowness, ''New Directions in Sound and Rhythm'' did help answer the question, ''Where is jazz going?'' The very presence of the Nikolais Dance Theater and Laurie Anderson let us know that jazz may be leaking over into other areas, becoming assimilated into various forms of avant-garde classical music, dance, and multimedia performances.
The question then arises, ''Will jazz lose some of its unique identity as a result?'' The work of the Art Ensemble of Chicago is a good example of how jazz can encompass a variety of new forms and still be jazz. This critically acclaimed group - founded by Roscoe Mitchell in 1967 - now consists of Mitchell on reeds and percussion, Lester Bowie on trumpet and flugelhorn, Malachi Favors Maghostut on bass and percussion, Joseph Jarman on woodwinds and percussion, and Famoudou Don Moye on drums and percussion. The general tone of the group was percussive.
They presented ''Great Black Music - Ancient to the Future'' in a setting that was both visually and aurally stimulating, dressed in everything from native African (complete with face paint) to American cook (Bowie's long white coat, accented by a pink-glitter tie). The stage was so filled with gongs, colorful drums, and ethnic percussion instruments that it resembled a marketplace that transformed itself into a three-ring circus when the music began.
And what music! Almost manic in its eclecticism, it ranges from Middle Eastern melodies to rock rhythms accentuated by whistles and bells, to one-chord funk vamps, to be-bop and Latin, to all-out cacophony, to minimalism. At one point the reeds picked up a four-note pattern that they repeated over and over with slight variations, eventually being joined by bass and drums and building to a frenzied pitch, which was quite compelling. In spite of all the playfulness (confetti throwing, and even a duet for soprano sax and clucking chicken!), the music had many moments of eloquence - these men play with conviction and authority, even though the overall effect sometimes seems a bit too random.
Groups like the Art Ensemble go a long way to establish the fact that the purists needn't panic. After all, jazz from its inception has always been a fusion of musical styles, a kind of sponge picking up various sounds and rhythms along its zigzagging course. Even those who feel that jazz died after be-bop and post be-bop, especially with the advent of jazz-rock and the electronic revolution, can be comforted by the fact that many of the newer groups incorporate bop into their ideas.
The trend seems to be great variety and fusions of sounds and styles, blurring the lines between classical and jazz, jazz and rock, pop and Latin, new wave and reggae, country and swing, and even multimedia visuals. It would be far too presumptuous to guess whether or not jazz will get lost in this morass of crossover styles. It seems to be the mission of the musicians themselves to preserve what they sense to be the essence of the music. Opinions vary on exactly what this is, but Ellington's aphorism still seems to hold true, as was evidenced by the enthusiastic audience response at this festival whenever one or another of the groups broke into a straight-ahead 4/4 - ''It Don't Mean a Thing, if it Ain't Got That Swing'' - at least somem of the time.