Jazz as Art, Jazz as Cool

The Video/Audio below is an excerpt from the 11th show of my radio series Voices and Freedoms: A History of Jazz, based on my 1976 book of the same name.  This show focuses on the transition from Bop to Cool Jazz. The 16-part series played across the nation for five years in the late 70’s/early 80’ and holds its relevance—or is even more so—today than it was back then. The excerpts present about 6 to 10 minutes of the original 30-minute broadcasts. The link above takes you to information about the book and our plans to re-release it and provide access to the full-length original shows. Go HERE for a complete list of shows and links to all excerpts.


Show #11—Jazz as Art, Jazz as Cool—continued to look at Bop, especially the dissolution of the movement, though “dissolution” certainly overstates the case. The musical advances of Bop changed jazz forever.  They became staples, even cliches, of jazz playing and conceptualization even as many counter movements sprang us, sometimes borne of continuing hostility to Bop. The so-called Dixieland Revival was one of those movements, which attempted a pale throwback to the sounds of New Orleans jazz on the 1920’s and 30’s.

But Bop as a movement itself waned, in large part because of the death, at 34, of one of its principle founders, Charlie Parker.  Not only was he the most brilliant musical innovator of his time, the intense struggle and chaos of his life made him a cultural icon as well. His music and personality propelled jazz into the status of high art, something that often threatened the very survival of the music itself.  To paraphrase the great writer Ralph Ellison, no one tried harder than Charlie Parker to escape the role of entertainer. Louis Armstrong had created a kind of fake clownishness as part of his entertainer role, but in rejecting the entertainer’s role so intensely, Parker became something more primitive: a sacrificial lamb, a person who sacrificed himself on the altar of art for a higher cause.  Most probably didn’t really understand, but gravitated towards Parker’s agony anyway.

The movement that supplanted Bop was so-called Cool Jazz, but its relation to Bop and much of the jazz tradition was problematic from the start.  The eccentricities of Bop musicians—the goatees, the berets, the strange detachments—were taken up as mere style. You were a hipster now, and young musicians were accepted as artists if they wore that beret and said, “Cool, my man,” even if they could really barely play.  Parodying the artist’s withdrawal from the entertainer’s role was the hipster’s withdrawal from everything into a kind of cool vegetation. To be cool now meant to be socially uninvolved instead of stoic and calm in the face of trouble.

In many ways Bop was another attempt by Blacks to control the economic and cultural aspects of their music, but Cool Jazz, in moving away from the virtuosity and musical advances and complexities of Bop allowed more white musicians—a few of them great musicians, it must be said—to participate.  A more mainstream audience returned, but the music and that audience were much whiter.  This even though many of the leaders and inspirations for Cool Jazz were Black, in particular Miles Davis, and before him the great tenor man Lester Young.

I grew up listening to the Dave Brubeck Quarter, and still love lots of both him and Chet Baker. A good amount of great music came out of the Cool movement, but many other musicians went elsewhere. The original show ended by talking about and playing several tunes from two iconic musicians who were playing otherwise: Sonny Rollins and Clifford Brown.  Cool Jazz was centered on the West Coast and was often referred to as West Coast Jazz. The type of jazz Rollins and Brown played centered on the East and produced Soul or Funk Jazz and Hard Bop.  A battle of coasts was on, a battle not just over style but over where one located the roots and central traditions of jazz. In terms of hewing more closely to the blues and embracing the importance of voice—a central theme of my book and radio series—I’d have to say East Coast Jazz stayed closest to the vibrant, traditional roots of jazz.  When I wrote a tribute to Dave Brubeck upon his death in 2012 at age 92, I titled it “Un-Blue Jazz.”

Go to the Diversity Training and Teaching main page, and to a list of these radio show excerpts.

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The Lamb and the Rock

I preached the sermon below on the Second Sunday of Epiphany 2023, that being January 15th this year. It was all about names, and I begin by speaking about exercises I used to give my writing students. After ideas from some French writers—in particular Roland Barthes—I asked them to imagine that their names were not just names but had influenced the shape and course of their lives, that, in fact, in many ways we all somehow write our names into many of the things we do.  I give some examples, first using my own name, then the name of a student whose paper on this writing challenge I most remember. Her name was Kathleen Speck.  Another dimension of this challenge is to imagine that your first and last names somehow identify opposites that are the source of creative tensions that further defined you.  Kathleen, with the sense of cleanliness; Speck, a spot of dirt.  All this led to a tension I found in the namings contained in the main Scripture of the day: John 1: 29-42.

In the reading, John the Baptist first names Jesus the Lamb of God, and at the end Jesus names Simon, saying he will be called “Cephas,” meaning a stone or rock.  Imagine that as Christians our first name was “Lamb of God” and our last was “Cephas,” a rock.  What tensions are here, both within each name and between each of the names? I was thinking about the Scripture in a totally different way until Saturday morning when this direction impressed itself upon me, and the video below shows how I tried as best I could in the moment to flesh out the idea.  I don’t do so as I would have liked—especially in linking my daughter-in-law Desiree to her dad—so below I sketch out more of what I wanted to say. Thinking about what they have gone through lately finally led to the impression that I had to try to talk about names and ultimately their relationship to suffering.

It takes a while for me to get going, partly because I had to make announcements about workshops I’ll be presenting: one about race (called Becoming the Beloved Community), another on story telling. Then I talk about me and my family.

Steve Tolbert, 1953-2023

It was a very stressful ending to 2022 and beginning of 2023. Towards the end of a glorious Thanksgiving family reunion in Arizona, my son Aaron caught some of his daughter Grace’s lingering flu and became so sick I cancelled my flight back to Illinois, left Linda to lug back most of our baggage herself, and drove them the 400+ miles to their Riverside home. The family is suffering in other ways as well, but in Riverside I was surrounded by so much sickness I got sick myself: not flu or Covid but one of those intense colds that just hangs on and on.  Then on December 28th when I was just getting over it, I did something stupid that sent me crashing to the ground and giving me two fractures in my back—small ones, I was told, but fractures nonetheless. More than any of these, however, our family has been haunted by the passing of my daughter-in-law Desiree’s father, Steve Tolbert, who was such a radiant, central part of who we are as a family. Funny—he never lacked a comeback!—and willing to help in every situation.

In late October we got news that Steve had contracted pancreatic cancer, though, we were told, a rare, slow-growing form, the kind Steve Jobs had. It was a shock, but we were at least looking forward to five or more years with him, and by then hoping for newer therapies.  On December 12, however, we received word that he was unable to tolerate his pill-based therapy and that the cancer was beginning to spread rapidly.  He died less than a month later, on January 12th.  It was a torturous end before they put him into “comfort care” just a day before.  The drugs they gave calmed him, and this allowed Desiree and her mom Cindy some sacred time with him just hours before he passed in peace.  How thankful we were for this. But he was gone.  The Lamb of God and the two women closest to him, being with him in his suffering and helping him move beyond.

  OTHER SERMONS: “Sacred Doing,” “Pentecost Means No Supremacies,” “It’s Not What You Know But Who You Know,” “Searching for Prophets,” “Elijah: The Growth of a Prophet,” “Who Do You Stand With? A Sermon for Transfiguration Sunday,” “Three Things to Stop Saying,” “How Holy Was Jesus?” “Servants Know First,” “Everything’s OK?” “The Quiet After Easter,” “Theology and Race.”

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Climbing Bryan’s Mountain, 2022

I hadn’t been up on Bryan’s Mountain (Bell Rock) since June 14, 2020, something I explained in my 2021 entry in this series called “Climbing Bryan’s Mountain.”  There had been our pandemic, then a year of extreme fire danger, but now on Thanksgiving Day 2022, over 2 years and 5 months later, I was back, this time with 12 others.  It was our Thanksgiving reunion in Sedona, AZ, with Rick’s family, Aaron’s, and Daniel’s. The picture above is of me and Linda with the five Guzman grandchildren: from left, Grace, Josie, Micah, with Adderly and Julian, the youngest ones, in front.  Because of being in a wheelchair, Kari had to stay a level below, but 12 of us made it up to Bryan’s Tree. The picture below shows (from left) Linda, me, Grace, Aaron, Micah, Rick, Josie, Desiree, Daniel, Julian, Tara, and Adderly—a string of names representing the most precious parts of my world.

I wondered whether Bryan’s Tree would be alive at all, given the extreme drought of 2021 which took down hundreds of thousands of trees. But there it was, looking more bedraggled than I remembered, but still vital. This time, too, as the pictures show it held another surprise: the large yucca in front, which had always given it such a unique look, had sprouted, sending its century plant stalk way up in the air.  So the plant will eventually wither completely away, giving the whole complex of plants around Bryan’s Tree a wholly different look.  Change. Always change.  As it will be for each of us who showed up for this reunion.

We had a great time, even an “epic time,” a phrase I kept hearing during our week together.  “That’s an epic shot,” I’d hear of a picture, or an “epic scene,” I’d hear when the grandkids got to dancing or singing together.  Our time, though, was shadowed by sickness, as Grace, our 11-year-old granddaughter, had come to Sedona sick and couldn’t fully participate in many things. Then her Dad, Aaron, got sick, so much so that I canceled my flight back to Illinois, sent Linda back lugging our two big suitcases herself, and drove them the 400 miles back to their Riverside, CA, home.  I caught their germs too. As I write I’m still dragging, just coming out of coughing and blowing my nose all the time, which is way better than Aaron’s fate. He wound up in a Riverside ER twice, though the second time asked to be picked up to avoid the 6-hour wait.  When I left he was barely coherent.  Now his wife Kari is going through a version of their sicknesses.  Back here in Illinois, Josie, Rick and Desiree’s daughter, is a little under the weather, but not too bad, while Julian, Dan and Tara’s son, seems a little puny but also not too bad.  All in all, it was a fairly good escape from illness.

And the time was more than worth it. A few times in the entries I’ve posted in “Climbing Bryan’s Mountain,” I’ve spoken of wanting to climb the mountain up to his tree with all the grandkids. Liam and Maddy, on Linda’s side of the family, had already been, as had Grace, and now all seven have been there. None of the grandkids ever met their Uncle Bryan in the flesh, only in the memories their parents and grandparents share with them and each other so often.  “Would he have loved us?” Micah once asked.  Yes. It’s one of the biggest things they will have missed out on in their lives, the wonderful, embracing love of Bryan Emmanuel Guzman.  Some of them carry the imprint of his name in theirs—Micah Breanne, Grace Emmanuelle, Julian Bryan—and now they’ve all stood by his tree on his mountain and looked out at the incredible beauty from there. It’s a place and a scene which has sustained me over the years. May it be so for them and all of us who gathered there Thanksgiving Day, 2022.

In 2007 Rick and Desiree started Bryan House (which became Emmanuel House, then The Neighbor Project) as a living memorial to Bryan. In 2016 Emmanuel House was named one of the “Top 100 Most Innovative” social change organizations in the world.

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On Not Thinking About What’s Missing

This is a short follow up to The Neighbor Project’s 2022 gala, held this past September 17th.  The “Starry Night”-themed evening gave us some wonderful food, a beautiful evening, and an encore performance from Gerald McClendon, aka The Soul Keeper.  In terms of fundraising, it was the most successful ever, with over $180,000 raised (and still counting).  And it also placed more emphasis than ever on the “stars” in The Neighbor Project staff and board, in its supporters, and especially in the people who enter its programs and strengthen not only their own financial positions but also the financial positions of the neighborhoods they live in.

Executive director Rick Guzman gave another wonderful video presentation, which you can see in the VIDEO BELOW.  He began with the stars on the staff and one of the stars on the Board of Directors, Avis Patterson Miller, who had a street named after her for her years of dedication to her East Side Aurora neighborhood. (See the picture above left.) The highlight of the presentation, as always, however, is when Rick returned to a theme central to the vision of the organization: the priority placed on program participants themselves.  In “Flipping the Hero Script,” the video talk he gave at last year’s gala, he made them the heroes of the stories The Neighbor Project staff and supporters were just helping them write.  For me, the highlight of this year’s talk was when he said that, “Unfortunately, community transformation is often thought of in terms of what needs to be brought into a neighborhood, what’s missing, what are deficits.”  The Neighbor Project is different because it thinks in terms of assets, what’s already there. And what’s there are the people who already live in the neighborhood.  That’s another way of saying the line that ends The Neighbor Project’s intro video, a video I was privileged to narrate.  That line went, “We’re taking back the city’s greatest asset: the people who already live there.” *  This year the gala’s theme made them the main stars of a Starry Night, a glitzy way of re-saying something similar.  I think the 2020 gala presentation said it best.  There Guzman spoke of “Every person’s God-given ability to contribute,” and how paying attention to otherwise marginalized and vulnerable populations would make those people into the real leaders the community needed, the people who would be the real drivers of change.

*  See that intro video Here or about halfway down the landing page of The Neighbor Project’s website.  See the original announcement for the 2022 gala.

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Be-Bop, Re-Bop: Bop

The Video/Audio below is an excerpt from the 10th show of my radio series Voices and Freedoms: A History of Jazz, based on my 1976 book of the same name.  This focuses on one of the greatest revolutions in jazz: the “Bop” music of the 1940’s. The 16-part series played across the nation for five years in the late 70’s/early 80’ and holds its relevance—or is even more so—today than it was back then. The excerpts present about 6 to 10 minutes of the original 30-minute broadcasts. The link above takes you to information about the book and our plans to re-release it and provide access to the full-length original shows. Go HERE for a complete list of shows and links to all excerpts.


John Birks “Dizzy” Gillespie

The early to late 40’s probably saw the greatest revolution in jazz. Many called it “Modern Jazz,” but to most the “new” music was called Be-Bop, or Re-Bop, or just Bop.  Jazz emerged, first, as a music of astonishing complexity, and virtuosity…and speed.  In the musical excerpts I was able to fit in to the excerpt below, you’ll notice the astonishing flurry of notes played by Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, and in Gillespie’s big band number “Things to Come,” the playing is so fast and volcanic you’ll think the band could blow itself up at any moment.  Along with this musical shift towards speed, complexity, and virtuosity, the very function of jazz began to change.  Charlie Parker in particular was determined that jazz be a music to listen to, to hold up as an art comparable to European concert music in its respectability and seriousness.

Jazz had come so much out of Black musical traditions that were seen as low down.  It had come out of bars.  It was a good time music, something to romance and dance to.  We shouldn’t forget that many people did love to dance to Charlie Parker’s music, and that he loved playing dances and got energy and inspiration from doing so, but he had his sights on supposedly higher things.  It was a bold and dangerous move, something that seemed to add more burden to an already troubled life.  If jazz now began to be seen more as an “art music” than a music serving a whole range of functions, would it survive, would it be cut off from its audience and from many Black musical traditions out of which it had come and which seemed always to provide so much of its vitality and relevance?

Louis Armstrong, one of the brightest lights of “old school” jazz opposed Bop.  Though he and Dizzy Gillespie privately expressed admiration for each other work, Armstrong was reported to have said that Bop was based on malice.  The musicians now, he said, were mainly interested in “cutting,” shaming each other musically, and so producing a music with no melody you can hum, no beat you can dance to, so now there’s less work and everyone is poor again.

In fact, the famous jam sessions organized by Gillespie and Thelonius Monk* at Minton’s in New York City, were sometimes seen as sessions devised to keep no-talent guys out, to overwhelm them with difficult chords, and virtuosity they couldn’t match.

Charlie Parker

The excerpt below takes pains to show that many of Bop’s musical innovations—particularly its growing harmonic complexity and the continuing subdivision of the musical beat—come straight out of musical forces present in jazz from the very beginning, especially in Black musical traditions. I want to emphasize here that this effort to keep no-talent guys out also does.  I have said that what keeps this radio series relevant—perhaps more relevant today than when it was first released—is the degree to which issues of race always shadow my history of this music.  Keeping no-talent guys out is also a vital continuation of the Black effort to keep their music from being stolen, because many of these “no-talent guys” were white.  Now they were faced with a music so complex and fast, they couldn’t just write it down, and it was so full of virtuosity they just couldn’t play it.  There’s a story, perhaps apocryphal, that Miles Davis said a Bop lick that did become generally used and popular had words to it, too, and those words were “white mf’s.”  Every time you hear that lick played by a white band, he supposedly said, you can just smile.  In earlier times—in Ragtime, in imitations of New Orleans jazz—the effort to retain ownership failed so miserably that it often seemed that Blacks were following in the footsteps of the white musicians who had just popularized the music that they—Blacks—had created.  It happened with Bop, too, eventually, but not to the extent it had happened earlier.  It was more successful at keeping Black music Black, but the price may have been too high.  It threatened to cut off jazz once again from the American musical mainstream.  It spawned a counter movement, Cool Jazz, that made it easier for whites to participate in: that is, to steal.

Go to the Diversity Training and Teaching main page, and to a list of these radio show excerpts. *Also, the excerpt below focuses mostly on Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. Among those mentioned in the full show were these co-creators of Bop: pianist Thelonius Monk (mentioned above), drummers Kenny Clarke and Max Roach, and guitarist Charlie Christian. Of course there were many more.

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