Page One

a column by
Bill Shoemaker

Jazz was once a shambling illegitimate music; now, it is high art and national treasure. Jazz history is essentially the history of how that transformation occurred. The release of The Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz 40 years ago is a signal event in that history. Selected and annotated by the esteemed critic Martin Williams, then Director of the Smithsonian’s Jazz Program, the Collection had the weight of a papal bull. While many broadband jazz samplers had been issued since the inception of the LP, they tended to be light-touch single-disc introductions like I Like Jazz!, released on Columbia in 1955. Williams’ agenda was far more ambitious and consequential. For starters, the size and scope of the anthology was unprecedented. A boxed set of 6 discs and a 46-page large-format booklet – which not only provided a fine detailed thumbnail history of jazz and solid commentary on the selected tracks, but offered a sensible approach to how to listen to jazz – it was a package that placed the Collection and, implicitly, jazz itself in a high-end market niche with classical music. Comprised of 86 tracks licensed from over a dozen labels (including Columbia, whose Special Products division partnered with the Smithsonian on the project), the Collection was uniquely comprehensive, as Williams’ selections spanned composers from Scott Joplin to Ornette Coleman, pianists from Jelly Roll Morton to Cecil Taylor, and saxophonists from Sidney Bechet to John Coltrane.

In doing so, Williams established a canon of jazz recordings that continues to baseline, if not actively shape the discourse about jazz. Canons are necessary for an art form to be legitimized; the importance of Williams’ being produced by the Smithsonian Institution, the globally recognized custodian of American heritage, cannot be overstated in this regard: It is central to the initial impact of the Collection and its lasting influence. But, jazz canons become double-edged, a point well made by Tony Whyton in Beyond A Love Supreme: John Coltrane and the Legacy of an Album (Oxford University Press; 2013). While canons “promote a sense of timelessness through enduring beauty and provide subsequent generations with a benchmark from which to measure their progress and achievements,” they “also encourage singular readings of works;” subsequently, “the history of the music more frequently revolves around a set of iconic personalities, a pantheon of gods, or a metaphorical Mount Rushmore of jazz.”

The history of the Collection supports Whyton’s assertion. When it was first issued, Williams’ inclusion of – and authoritative commentary on – Coleman, Coltrane and Taylor was not just a potent validation of the avant-garde, it redefined the dynamism of the jazz tradition. By placing recordings like Louis Armstrong’s “West End Blues,” Thelonious Monk’s “Criss-Cross,” and Coleman’s “Free Jazz” on the same pedestal, Williams set enduring parameters for identifying and assessing historically important jazz. However, cracks inevitably appear in any monument, and the Collection is no exception. Williams’ use of the then-dominant Roots and Branches historical model made eminent sense in the early 1970s. It was a template effectively used by John Hammond for his From Spirituals to Swing concert and album (the album, first released in 1959, was coincidentally reissued as a 2-LP set on Vanguard in ‘73). Williams’ inclusion of post-Swing Era recordings notwithstanding, the main difference between Hammond’s and Williams’ historical narratives is Williams’ exclusive use of secular music to represent jazz’s precursors: Scott Joplin’s piano roll of “Maple Leaf Rag” (smartly followed by Morton’s 1938 Library of Congress-recorded version); Robert Johnson’s “Hellbound on My Trail” and Bessie Smith’s “St. Louis Blues” and “Lost Your Head Blues.” Williams’ omission of latter pinnacles of spiritually motivated jazz like Duke Ellington’s “Come Sunday” or Coltrane’s A Love Supreme is also noteworthy, given they were issued by labels he accessed for other tracks.

The reason why the Roots and Branches model is now much less relevant than 40 years ago is that the tree became too top-heavy with branches representing sub-genres entailing everything from bluegrass to hip-hop. The Roots and Branches-based jazz narrative can be likened to a locust tree in this sense: To facilitate its rapid growth, the trunk hollows out; although the strength and density of the wood is well-known to anyone who has chain-sawed it, a hollowed truck and relatively young, shallow roots makes the tallest locusts among the first to fall in torrential storms. Even if money and politics are its main drivers, the crux of neo-conservative ideology most widely represented by Jazz at Lincoln Center and Ken Burns’ Jazz is the reassertion of not just the stability of the Roots and Branches model – make that Few Branches – but its necessity. If, as many believe, the tree has already fallen, and if, as Robert Wilson suggested with the sub-title of the CIVIL warS, a tree is best measured when it is down, then it is incumbent of critics of the neo-conservatives to tell the tale of the tape, so to speak. There’s no better place to start an examination of when and how jazz evolved beyond the Roots and Branches model than the Collection – and Williams’ commentary in particular.

For many, Williams continues to exemplify the ideal of a critic above the fray; while his Smithsonian office was in the National Museum of History and Technology, the iconic Smithsonian castle would have been more fitting, as Williams’ writings exude noble purpose, even kingly judiciousness. The grime of business is absent in his writings, his editorial products – which include the fabled Jazz Review and the still-useful Jazz Masters series of books he oversaw for MacMillan in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s – and his Smithsonian concert programming (he was the first in DC to present, among others, Taylor and Anthony Braxton). While his Jazz Review partnership with Nat Hentoff establishes that Williams was not a faction of one, it is arguable whether or not he played a substantial role in the “Lenox-Atlantic-Jazz Review Establishment” – a term coined by Joe Goldberg in his essay on Coleman that concludes his durable, Williams-edited Jazz Masters of the 50’s (sic), to describe the forces some journalists felt was foisting the idiosyncratic saxophonist and composer upon the public.

Goldberg’s use of “Establishment” is arguable; while Williams was an integral part of an influential circle of musicians, critics and producers, they operated closer to the fringe than the term implies. Still, there’s a glaring overlap of personae central to the three entities comprising the alleged cartel. Although it was a summer program that ran only from 1957 to 1960, The School of Jazz at Music Inn – aka the Lenox School of Jazz – left an indelible mark not only on jazz pedagogy, but on the articulation of jazz modernism. Led by The Modern Jazz Quartet’s John Lewis, the faculty included such Third Stream avatars as Jimmy Giuffre and Gunther Schuller, as well as a swath of prominent stylists including Lee Konitz and Max Roach. The student roster is a veritable Who’s Who of artists like Ran Blake, Don Ellis and Perry Robinson, who pushed the envelope throughout the 1960s and beyond. Yet, it is the roster of lecturers that yields the most intriguing name – Nesuhi Ertegun, co-founder of Atlantic Records (the MJQ’s label), who sat on a 1957 panel about recording issues and then gave another presentation in ‘58.

Undoubtedly, Lenox’s star pupil was Coleman, who attended the 1959 session ending less than 90 days before his historic New York roll-out at The Five Spot. Coleman’s music had caught Lewis’ ear on the recommendation of MJQ bassist Percy Heath, who had played on Coleman’s second Contemporary album, Tomorrow is the Question. The pianist quickly became what David Lee in his sharply pointed The Battle of the Five Spot: Ornette Coleman and the New York Jazz Field (The Mercury Press; 2006) called “the major consecrating force” backing the maverick saxophonist. Lewis was rather masterful in this role, lobbying Atlantic first to sign Coleman, and then arranging for the label – which had already recorded, but had not yet released, Coleman’s The Shape of Jazz to Come – to underwrite Lenox scholarships for both Coleman and his front line partner, trumpeter Don Cherry. Contemporaneously, Lewis persuaded the Monterey Jazz Festival to present Coleman as part of its second edition in early October, the month Coleman’s lightning rod-like album was released. The career-making pump that was Coleman’s Five Spot stand could not have been better primed.

Jazz Review’s role in this is harder to pin down, art director Hsio Wen Shih’s double duty as Coleman’s manager at the time notwithstanding. Prior to Coleman arriving at Lenox, the magazine had run reviews of Something Else!!!! in both the May and July 1959 issues, commissioning blue-chip musicians to pen them. Given that most musicians balk at negatively criticizing others, it is fascinating how Quincy Jones and Art Farmer couch their respective views. Jones focuses on what he considers to be Coleman’s marginal tone control and questionable intonation, suggesting his is “a young voice – a voice before the voice changes.” In referring to Coleman’s attempts to get a voice-like quality in his playing, Jones says “he talks like a teenager might,” adding that “(a) teenager talks with not too much authority because he’s not really sure what he’s talking about. When Coleman does get authority, he’ll be able to say more and say it more deeply with less.” Farmer is equally tough; but he hands Coleman a fig leaf by opining that he was deliberately playing out of tune, citing the occasional use of quarter-tones in jazz for expressive purposes.

Subsequently, it’s a stretch to make Williams out to be a charter member of the cabal, or even a zealous convert who would compromise his editorial standards. Certainly, Williams’ liner notes for The Shape of Jazz to Come can be read as nothing short of the heralding of a new age, as he leads with the proclamation that “what Ornette Coleman is playing will affect the whole character of jazz music profoundly and persuasively;” but, far from foamy hype, Williams’ assessments are painstaking and plainspoken. Presumably, Williams drafted the piece at Lenox, as he quotes both Coleman and Schuller, who advised the album’s editing at the ‘59 session. Whereas Schuller’s comments seem tactical in pushing back against the naysayers – “(Coleman’s) musical inspiration operates in a world uncluttered by conventional bar lines, conventional chord changes, and conventional ways of blowing or fingering a saxophone” – Williams makes an easily digested case for Coleman’s innovations. In what probably was a paraphrasing of Coleman’s comments, Williams describes what should be considered a cornerstone statement of Coleman’s Harmolodic approach:

The basis of it is this: if you put a conventional chord symbol under my note, you limit the number of choices I have for my next note; if you do not, my melody may move freely in a far greater choice of directions.

If only associations are the standards for proving guilt, Williams was at worst a late arriving paladin; however, compromising critics remain chameleon-like, adapting their positions to reflect the market of the moment. When it came to Coleman, Williams remained steadfast in his advocacy long after the saxophonist’s place in history was secured. There’s no better evidence for this than his booklet commentary for the Collection. In 1973, Coleman had receded from the headlines; his relationship with Columbia Records ended with the ’72 release of Skies of America, a wildly acclaimed, album-length piece that featured the saxophonist with the London Symphony Orchestra – a record practically no one bought. There would be no new Coleman albums until 1976’s Dancing in Your Head (A&M), which introduced his electric Prime Time unit and featured a performance with the Moroccan Master Musicians of Jajouka. Even though Coleman was at a nadir in his career, Williams allotted running time in the Collection to Coleman’s music that was only matched by that given to the music of Morton, Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker and Monk.

A politically motivated critic curating the Collection in ‘73 would have reversed the amounts of LP space and booklet commentary given to Coleman and Coltrane. Even though he had died a half-dozen years before, Coltrane remained a towering figure; not only had a spate of posthumously issued Impulse albums kept Coltrane in the public’s ear, but his music was then actively championed by guitar gods like Mahavishnu John McLaughlin and Carlos Santana. Yet, the inclusion of Coleman’s “Lonely Woman,” “Congeniality,” and a meaty slice of the album-length “Free Jazz,” versus “Alabama,” the only Coltrane-led track in the Collection (the tenor titan is also heard on Miles Davis’ “So What”), accurately measures Williams’ long-held views on both artists. Unlike Hentoff, whose ardent support for Coltrane is evident in liner notes for albums spanning Giant Steps and Meditations, Williams was skeptical about Coltrane. In his citation about “So What,” Williams makes the refutable proclamation that Coltrane “spent the rest of his career exploring his response to this recording and his response to aspects of Ornette Coleman’s work,” citing A Love Supreme and Ascension as examples of the latter. A passage from Williams’ The Jazz Tradition offering insight into why the iconic A Love Supreme was not excerpted for the Collection:

The changes in his work may, of course have been signs of growth and, if they were, few important jazz improvisers have grown and developed as much as Coltrane did in so short a time. But, on the other hand, the changes may have been naive. Or they may have been signs of personal indecision or frustration ... Perhaps, if his music does not quite reach me as is has reached some others, the answer is that the gods he sought to invoke are not my gods.

Williams’ emphasis on Coltrane’s spiritual quest extends to his rather strange booklet entry about “Alabama,” which ends the anthology:

The performance begins as if with solemn meditation, moves to prayer, to hope, to affirmation, and ends again in prayer.

Asked if it concerned the “problems” of its date and some school children dead from a bomb, John Coltrane replied, “It represents, musically, something that I saw down there translated into music from inside me.”

And this, all this holy thing, was accomplished in a night club before an audience. It is in so many ways, then, a proper way to end this collection.

Williams’ comments about Coleman stand in stark contrast, as they are rooted in the music itself, not its spiritual or political motivations. He applies the term “microtones” to Coleman’s playing (and is most likely the first to do so); he emphasizes the sequential nature of Coleman’s solos, as represented by “Congeniality” (the piece that received the highest praise in Williams’ Shape notes); the use of a hambone rhythm in the excerpt from “Free Jazz,” replete with a reference to Julian Euell’s line that Coleman plays field hollers (a thread Williams’ initiated in his Shape notes about the relationship of Coleman’s music to country blues); and the polyphony Coleman’s approach promoted, generally. In the process, Williams uses what are, for him, rarely-employed superlatives like “magnificent” and “extraordinary.”

The issue here is not that Williams favored Coleman over Coltrane as the standard-bearer of the 1960s avant-garde – or Taylor for that matter; he is represented by only “Enter Evening” from Unit Structures, the track best suited to over-emphasize the influence of Stravinsky on the pianist, a thread begun in Schuller’s extensive review of Taylor recordings in Jazz Review – nor that Williams’ assessments may have been shaped by his affiliations: It is whether or not Williams’s placement of Coleman in the front row of the pantheon with Armstrong et al holds water.

Throughout his commentary, Williams’ approach in distinguishing jazz’s most profound practitioners is to explain their singular, transformative accomplishments, inevitably focusing on the formal properties of their most representative works. This often leads to his scales being tipped in favor of compositional structure and methods throughout his commentary, beginning with Morton. It makes sense that Williams would be most expansive about Morton’s piano style in the entry about Morton’s New Orleans-ized version of “Maple Leaf Rag,” in which he cites Morton’s swinging rhythms and the likening of the pianist’s right hand lines to the trumpet and clarinet in a polyphonic ensemble, and his left hand to the trombone and rhythm section. Yet, the solos by the likes of clarinetist Omer Simeon and trombonist Kid Ory in the three tracks by Morton’s Red Hot Peppers are only mentioned in passing, with nary an adjective ascribed to them. Instead, Williams zeroes in on the ragtime-rooted three-part structures of Morton’s compositions and his approach as an arranger, an emphasis that aligns Williams’ sensibility with that of Schuller.

There is a reason why composition and arrangements are not in the foreground of any discussion of Armstrong’s profound impact on jazz, tunes like “Weather Bird” notwithstanding – his overwhelming gifts as an improviser. Yet, Williams places some of the trumpeter’s hottest solos within a formalist context by invoking André Hodeir’s use of “paraphrase,” which the French critic had appropriated from the art of rhetoric. Granted, the term is on-point to describe Armstrong’s methods of spooling thematic variations in a given solo, even if the term all but snuffs the spark of invention that put Armstrong in a class by himself. In another example of his implicit view that improvisers have, at best, equal impact to that of composers and arrangers in the development of jazz before World War II, Williams places Armstrong at the birth of the Swing Era not because of his own music, but by virtue of his mid-‘20s hook-up with Fletcher Henderson’s band and its then chief composer and arranger, Don Redman.

In Ellington, Williams found the optimum, synergistic mix of leadership, composition and arrangement, and improvisation in a single person. Like Morton, Ellington struck “the perfect balance of what is written ahead of time and what can be ad-libbed in performance, what is up to the individual and what the ensemble contributes, what makes an effective part and what makes a continuous, encompassing, subsuming whole.” Williams rightly points out the virtues of soloists like Bubber Miley, Cootie Williams and Ben Webster, but always in the context of their service to the composition, a tact best illustrated by Williams’ thorough breakdown of the structures of “East St. Louis Toodle –Oo” and “Harlem Air Shaft.” Tellingly, Williams has little to say about Ellington the pianist beyond name checks of the stride pianists who were early influences. Of the eight Ellington tracks included in the Collection, four were recorded by the Blanton-Webster band of 1940-2 and four by prior line ups; subsequently, Williams’ commentary omits any mention of Ellington’s post-war long form pieces and the Sacred Concerts.

Like Armstrong, Parker’s legacy is primarily that of an improviser; even though he penned enduring, technically treacherous pieces, Williams focuses single-mindedly on Parker’s solos, about which Williams has much to say that is useful in understanding Parker’s revolutionary quantum leap. Still, the nomenclature of classical music seeps into Williams’ commentary, such as his observation that some of Parker’s best solos are based on “imitation” and the development of “motives” (italics Williams’); more generally, they “have a rare sense of order, based on a constructive contrast of brief, rhythmically terse phrases alternating with long, flowing bursts of melody.” It is therefore intriguing that most of the commentary devoted to “Klacktoveedsedsteen” quotes Hodeir on the melodic and rhythmic “discontinuity” of Parker’s solo, which, in Hodeir’s view, was the source of much, if not all of what was new in the saxophonist’s work.

Equally intriguing is how Williams juxtaposes remarks by Hodeir and Schuller in the commentary on Monk, the subject of some of both critics’ most trenchant writings. Williams would have been derelict if he did not quote Schuller’s well-known watershed analysis of “Criss-Cross,” which elevates the piece on purely compositional terms, divorced from jazz’s roots in mood-setting songs and tunes, as its materials are stated and developed “in much the way that an abstract painter will work with specific nonobjective patterns.” Yet, Williams’ most instructive annotation about Monk is the inclusion – some would say collision – of insights by Schuller and Hodeir about Monk’s 1957 solo reading of “I Should Care;” while Schuller notes that Monk’s approach to such standards is a continuous “extracting and paring down to the essence of each melody and harmony,” Hodeir refers to the performance as an “acid bath,” “a series of impulses that disregard the bar lines, pulverize the musical tissue and yet preserve intact ...’jazz feeling.’”

Williams’ consistency was not of the hobgoblins-of-little-minds variety; instead it was gently fundamental and encompassing, open to small tweaks, if not wholesale revision (his expanded Collection of [date] being the case in point). Considering his comments on jazz’s Mt. Rushmore figures in isolation, it is clear how Williams concluded on long-held criteria that Coleman was the logical newest step in jazz’s decades-long trajectory. And while Williams’ praise of artists from Count Basie to Sonny Rollins is well-grounded, he reigns in his enthusiasm, as if in acknowledgement that only so many heads can fit on the mountain side. The idea that truly transformative genius visits only a few artists over the course of decades is at the core of Williams’ gravity; and Williams’ gravity is at the core of the game-changing impact of the Collection. While Williams wrote many sterling essays and liner notes, the booklet for the Collection is really all one needs to ascertain that his best trait as a critic was not his encyclopedic knowledge or his prose style, but his temperament, which instilled in the lay reader the assurance that his verdicts were reliably true. Williams was jazz criticism’s Walter Cronkite, whose sign-off – “And that’s the way it is ...” – could easily have been Williams’.

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