The Modern Standard: What Is It?

Inspired by Spring’s indecisiveness a couple weeks ago, I decided not to brave the wind and rain this particular day, but to do some season-inspired cleaning instead. Thumbing through my music library, I settled on some classic Blue Note repertoire to help me through my chores: Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers’ Three Blind Mice, to be specific.  As the gorgeous and fittingly titled Freddie Hubbard waltz “Up Jumped Spring” played, it got me to thinking about the layers of musical camaraderie jazz music has always had.  Not just the cooperative nature of performing the music, but also in terms of what music was performed.  The vast landscape of jazz repertoire which includes Blues, Tin Pan Alley songs, show tunes, and pop songs, is most enriched by original compositions from jazz musicians themselves, which through the social contexts of the music, became standards in their own right.  Songs from Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, and Wayne Shorter had become modern jazz standards of their times because of their popularity and exposure within the jazz community.  I then started focusing on today, and my experiences at jazz performances.  Yes, the headliner is playing his or her original work, and yes the band, on some occasions, may feature a tune or two from a bandmate, but what were the odds that they would play a tune by a musical peer beyond their own band?  Slim to none, as far as I could tell.  Which got me to thinking: What is the modern jazz standard?

I began looking through the several Real Books laying around the house.  I couldn’t seem to find a song that was written in the last twenty years or so included.  With the plethora of prolific writers in jazz over this span of time, I found it odd.  What does this mean?  I started asking musicians for their take on why songs aren’t becoming popularized within the genre, and how this could affect their mark in history, if at all.

“People are so ensconced with doing their own thing, and don’t realize that it helps the music when we promote each other’s songs.  It helps the mentality,” says trumpeter Jeremy Pelt.  “For a long time, people have regarded standards as the test of one’s mettle and that tradition has stood the test of time for years and years and it was also something that was meant to rope in somebody who hadn’t heard you before, so that was the paradigm of which all modern jazz players were based off of, before you get into your own thing.”

Doing one’s own thing has never been easier.  The collapse of crucial major jazz labels, and a shift in the art of record producing has birthed a DIY era of record making which, while incredibly liberating, also has its share of considerable consequences.  “What’s interesting about the industry in any musical [genre] is that years ago — and I mean in our time — it was special to make a record,” says Pelt, who has just released his ninth album, Soul; a gorgeous blues and ballads project.  “Nowadays, I could put together a record right now on my Mac Book in an hour.  I don’t need a label to do anything for me, I just put it together, get my Logic going, and put it right up on my website and I will have a bona fide record.  So, the change in the industry and the mentality is such that it’s not a special thing anymore, and that’s, in essence, what makes it very competitive, number one.  You would think it’s less competitive now, but it’s actually more competitive because nobody’s shit is special anymore.  It’s all very ego-driven, and I think that a lot of young composers are always in a rush to push their agenda, and everyone is guilty of it at some point.  I think that with me, I made it a conscious decision, after doing records of my own material, to really cast light on some of my comtemporaries’ songs.”  Pelt, who has one of the few long-established quintets in the business, has recorded the music of Anthony Wonsey, Myron Waldon and Eric Reed. “If there was something I was drawn to in a song, I would record it and I think that it benefits the community at large.  I think people are afraid to do it because they feel like it will take the spotlight away from their compositions, which is a valid feeling if you’re insecure like that, but realistically, it’s not like there’s a whole lot of spotlight on the [jazz] industry in general [laughs].”

Pianist Orrin Evans, who is bringing a sense of community back to the jazz scene with his big band, Captain Black, is one of the few bandleaders today proactively featuring original music of not only his peers, but his proteges alike. “There’s such a need now for branding,” says Evans, “that even if you sit down with the best publicist in the business now, the word that’s going to come up is ‘branding’.  If you sit down with a manager, everyone is talking about branding, and that whole package becomes so self-serving.  A lot of people, when they get that moment, it’s like, ‘I gotta play my music, and do my stuff.’  But I honestly believe that I can still be who I am by how I interpret other people’s music.  It doesn’t need to be my music.  Who I am isn’t all about my songs or how I play my music, but also how I interpret music.”

Evans, who paid tribute to his mentor, saxophonist Bobby Watson, on his 2010 release Faith In Action, believes firmly in honoring his influences while they are still here; a philosophy which jazz has struggled to reckon with for the last several decades.  The genre seems to be contented (for better or worse) between two musical polars: an homage-obsessed one, and the other which seems, at times, completely musically isolated.

Guitarist Mike Moreno illuminates another set of possibilities of why artists’ tunes aren’t making the rounds as they did years ago.  “Today, there are far less jazz musicians being asked to record albums within a constricted period of time by record companies. Years ago, more musicians had record contracts that required them to record more often, demanding more material. So the artists might have been looking for more material if they didn’t have enough tunes written themselves for their next date. And now, for some of us, we write far more tunes than we have a chance to record. So we always end up playing what we wrote and don’t really have time on the date or gig to play so many of our peers’ original music. But another big reason, I think, is that jazz tunes have become more labor intensive to learn. Most of the music written now by musicians of my generation requires some pretty heavy rehearsing.  And there just isn’t enough time most rehearsals to rehearse your own music, and then another person’s hard music too. It’s better to just go with a standard that everyone knows to break the monotony of reading on every song during a gig or record date. Usually after about eight original tunes the band members start to hint at, ‘Yeah, and we can just throw in some standard tunes in between these.’  There is far more reading going on, on gigs now. And since most gigs today are mostly one nighters as opposed to playing for weeks at a time at the same venue, as back in 40’s 50’s and 60’s, with less sets, the opportunity is just not there to play a wider range of repertoire on gigs. But regardless, an original tune back in the day was no more than 32 bars, with maybe an intro, then the head, solo on the melody form, head out. Now a four or five page tune is no surprise. And the road maps through the sections can be really tricky. There is only so much of that, you can put in front of the band each gig.”

Moreno recently released his stunning fourth album, Another Way (World Culture Music), which features all original compositions, but is known for his uncanny ability to interpret standards, and has released two standards albums on the Criss Cross label.  “Before the Real Books came out there was a good grace period that determined what should be in there. Classic records were already classic.  The Real Book didn’t make Monk’s music popular, for example. Who would decide what should go in the newer real books if the records haven’t had a chance to become something yet? It would be nice if there was something like it, but who would buy it? I’m not sure publishers are really interested in that. After all, who buys Real Books anyway? Students who don’t really have the ear yet to learn the tunes from recordings and also need a guide of what to learn from the history of the music, or local musicians that just play background gigs with standards that they haven’t committed to memory.  That market of consumer usually buys the first editions Real Books to learn and play the “standard standard” material at their gigs.  The more advanced musicians usually have already studied that material, and then when they do want to play more modern stuff just transcribe it themselves and write out the charts rather than spending the money on a entire book to get a few tunes out of it.  I don’t think Real Books with newer music would make very much money for publishing companies, especially with current access to artist websites, in which the artists have taken their music into their own hands.  Fans or musicians who really want a newer artist’s original sheet music can just go to that person’s website and purchase the tunes they want now, or write the artist personally saying, ‘Hey, I really love this one tune, or this record, can you send me the lead sheets?’ I get those emails all the time. But, you can’t do that to Cole Porter, Miles, Monk, or even someone still current like Wayne Shorter or Herbie.  But a lot of times my favorite tunes were not in Real Books. I always transcribed myself. It might be more profitable for publishers to just put out individual songbooks by current artists. Few already exist. But, I don’t see any publishing companies really wanting to jump at this anytime soon, maybe down the line sometime. Then it might have an effect on the scene overall, making the records of today that will end up as classics documented as such. I think it is still too early.”

It just may be.  Yet, to Moreno’s point about the way the music of Monk, for example, was already popularized pre-Real Book era, I could not help but think about why and how much of the reason had to do with community and the role musicians play in getting their peers’ music out into the world.

“If you think about it, the Real Book hasn’t changed since probably 1993,” says Evans. “I haven’t bought one in a long time, but…that’s twenty years.  In that amount of time, we’ve had some monumental records, despite what people want to think or say.  We’ve got Crazy People Music from Branford [Marsalis], we’ve got Jason Moran’s records, Robert Glasper’s records, Kenny Kirkland’s records, which came out all within that time span.  Christian McBride’s first two records, during the time when the young lions — Roy Hargrove, Nicholas Payton — all of them had killing records, and you don’t see hardly any of those tunes in any of the Real/Fake books.  We have to keep playing the music.  Because if you stop playing it, for the next kids who come along, there’s no book.  I mean, granted, the reality is if we’re going to deal with it musically, all the old heads would say they should be learning it by ear anyway, but I’m talking about the business of it.  We’re not represented. Two decades of music is not represented in that book.”

“There isn’t really a linear sense of the scene in terms of progression, and in terms of community,” says saxophonist John Ellis, whose southern tinged Double-Wide quintet will be a part of the Newport Jazz Festival line-up this year.  People don’t necessarily  expectantly wait for so and so’s record, like they did for Miles.  We’re not connected to that era.  The people within the scene are disconnected from each other.  And I think all of that fracturing puts people in a whole different place.  I mean, that being said, I think Terence [Blanchard] has done a great job, very similar to Blakey, of showcasing his band members’ music.  I think there are isolated instances most certainly of that: of people building community within smaller groups.  When it comes to standards, for the most part, we’re talking about the Great American Songbook.  The ideal that there was a general, cultural knowledge of this music that jazz musicians interpreted, basically everybody knew those songs.”

“I mean, when I moved here there weren’t too many incubation bands in the first place that you could learn from,” adds Pelt, sighting the importance of musicians having experience not just playing music outside of their own, but also stretching out in bands beyond their own.  “Betty Carter was still alive but was getting ill, you still had Elvin Jones, we still have Roy Haynes, so there were a handful.  But there weren’t that many bands of that calibar to where you could get in and learn something.  So even now, fast forward almost fifteen years later, it’s like well now who is there really to play with?  And it forces today’s musicians to have to come up wtih their own situations because who else are they going to play with that they’re really going to learn from?”

“With the collapse of the major record label options for jazz for most people, it has made it such that everything is so diffused and spread out and then you juxtapose that with this incredible change of everything becoming institutionalized,” says Ellis who pointed out to me through an illustration about the cultural climate of jazz when the music was in Harlem, that the audience used to play such an important role in keeping the music contemporary and popular.  This begs the question: Who is the modern musician playing for?

“I think there is definitely something about Facebook and Twitter that makes people narcissistic, or encourages there inner narcissism, like everything I’m saying and doing is so important,” says Ellis. “Social networking…there is something sort of strangely anti-social about it, but on the other hand there is real potential to organize; it’s all about how we use it, I guess.  I do think there is some tension between this crazy connectivity and access to so much information and then how kind of isolating it all is.”

I guess there’s no easy or right answer or solution to the dilemma, and in fact the subject sheds more light on just how many achilles heels our musical community is plagued from. However, I do think we could benefit from more documenting and collective publishing of modern jazz compositions.  Collectivity has always made the music what it is.  The music being more than just the sum of its parts, as NPR producer Becca Pulliam said to me in a recent interview.  I just hope that by the time my son is in college, he’s learning the music of Jason Moran alongside the music of Art Blakey.  We can’t keep using the word “modern” to describe jazz, if we’re really referring to 1965.  That being said, I think at some point, it may be worthwhile to publish an updated book of modern compositions and start creating a rightful place for our generation in the spectrum of contributions.  There’s too much at stake to be overlooked in the end.

I welcome your thoughts on the matter.

Gil Noble: Jazz, Journalism, Lessons and Legacy

Rest in peace to the GREAT Gil Noble.  A last name such as yours could not be more befitting.  A great debt is owed you from not only the Black community, but the world.  What would journalism be without you?

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Originally posted October, 2011

After 43 years on the air, last Sunday, ABC’s Like It Is came to a sudden and saddening end.  Emmy award winning producer and host Gil Noble suffered a stroke this past July, and the fate of the program had been subsequently undetermined.  The last episode, which re-aired yesterday, was hosted by ABC newscaster Lori Stokes and featured Noble’s daughter Lisa, Bill Cosby, Danny Glover, Al Sharpton, journalists Bill McCreary and Les Payne, and New York City Councilman Charles Barron, who praised Noble’s maverick style of journalism, having profiled political prisoners like Assata Shakur and Mumia Abu Jamal.  Noble, who has interviewed some of the most prolific figures in American history, from Adam Clayton Powell, to Muhammad Ali, to Bob Marley, is known for being one of the most provocative journalists of our time.  With Noble ultimately becoming unable to return to the public affairs program, ABC has created a replacement called Here and Now, which is receiving push back from the Black community for its seemingly half-hearted development.  There is also concern that the new program, while promising to pay particular interest to topics relevant to the Black community, will not be in the same raw spirit, which is Noble’s legacy.  If that’s to be so, it’s a real shame.  There has been no other program that has given voice to the totality of Black America — politics, current and public affairs, arts, culture and more — than Like It Is.  Further, I can’t think of a journalist more progressive, introspective, and passionate than Gil Noble.  He was also the first image of a Black journalist that I had ever seen, which made an indelible impression on my conscious and subconscious young mind. Growing up watching Like It Is every Sunday was as routine as afternoon football, church, or any other traditional Sunday activity.  Being part of a household which nurtured both the arts, and social and cultural awareness, Like It Is was a reflection of my real life lessons and experiences, particularly as it pertained to jazz.

Noble, an accomplished pianist who initially pursued a career in music, is an avid jazz lover.  He has been on the Board of Directors and involved with Jazz Foundation of America for many years, and he frequently showcased jazz musicians on his program. Unlike the comically short and incomprehensive interview segments that are so typical when it comes to jazz profiles on television, Noble would dedicate his entire program to the likes of Oscar Peterson, Sarah Vaughan, Dizzy Gillespie, Abbey Lincoln, Dr. Billy Taylor, Lena Horne, Max Roach, Carmen McRae, Erroll Garner, and Wynton Marsalis.  His narratives, in-depth and introspective, helped develop my broad view of how jazz musicians could be perceived beyond my own personal understanding.  Noble presented jazz in journalism from a vantage unlike anyone else.  He was not only a student and lover of jazz music but a strong advocate for young people having a solid education on the subject.

During his interview with jazz pioneer Sarah Vaughan, she takes him on a tour of her Newark, New Jersey home town, which included a stop by her elementary school.  The children playing in the school yard of the building gravitate toward the cameras, and chat it up with the host and his subject.  As they begin to walk away, Noble stops in his tracks and addresses the students through the school’s gate.  “Do you know who this lady is?,” he asks.  He then responds to the rounds of flat “No’s” with, “No?  That’s part of the problem, isn’t it?” Noble’s blunt yet eloquent scrutiny was his signature.  As he walks away he underscores, “If you don’t know who she is, when you go back to class, ask your music teacher who she is, and why she never told you about her.”

I may have been fortunate to have been exposed to the arts and jazz from a child, therefore enjoying the reinforcement on television, but it was not until adulthood that I realized how immensely crucial and precious this program was for that one example alone.  That the likes of this type of education was reaching a network television audience every week remains monumental.  So you can understand my elation to make his acquaintance about five years ago.

When trumpeter Charles Tolliver was preparing to release his big band album, With Love, he had a distinct vision for his project, down to the liner notes, which he implored Gil Noble to write.  Tolliver, who got his professional start through his friend and mentor, saxophonist Jackie McLean, wanted to pay homage in a personal way.  Noble grew up with McLean in the Sugar Hill section of Harlem, and they were best friends from childhood on.  Tolliver thought it would be most fitting and honorable if Noble would pen the notes for his Blue Note debut (which he did, beautifully).

Working on this album with Tolliver, I remember that blustery day, trekking up to ABC in the Lincoln Center vicinity to talk details with Mr. Noble and Mr. Tolliver.  There were full circle moments to go around that day, for both Tolliver and myself.  For me, meeting the man who inspired my perspective about jazz coverage in mainstream media, would prove life-changing.

We sat in a waiting area initially, and then we were brought into Noble’s office.  We waited about ten minutes for him to join us, during which time I timidly perused his immense library of books.  The room was adorned with African artifacts, artwork and posters, including the famed photo of 52nd Street nightlife in New York City, which was the hub for bebop in the 1940s.  When he entered the room, my stomach dropped.  He is a tall man, but his presence was ten times that of his height, though his demeanor is intensely quiet, similar to his on-air persona.  He sat disarmingly relaxed behind his desk, and Tolliver and I opened the conversation.

We talked about music, and Charles’ project, but mostly about Jackie.  J-Mac, as he was nicknamed, had just passed away, and I could see the sadness in Noble’s eyes as he spoke of him.  The loss of his best friend was obviously hard, and the vacancy in Noble’s heart was transparent.  Noble talked about their childhood, their adventures together as teenagers, and he spoke specifically about the way drugs plagued the lives and careers of so many jazz musicians, and how McLean, who suffered from and conquered drug addiction, educated him about the music industry, as it related to the fragility of growing up Black in that era.  It was a conversation that I will never, ever, ever forget.  Getting a one-one-one education from someone as brilliant and wise as Noble, in the presence of a jazz master in Charles Tolliver, discussing a jazz giant in Jackie McLean was an experience I don’t think many are fortunate to have.  Yet now more than ever, these experiences are crucial. The climate of mainstream jazz journalism (and especially criticism) today is not only broadly monochromatic and misguidedly audacious, as usual, but technological advances give voice to virtually anyone who feels like being an authority on jazz, which isn’t always a good thing.  (Examples: Writers who haven’t lived as many years as some artists have had professional careers making proclamations about who is and isn’t innovative, or telling off the Black community of jazz musicians, blaming them for why they are being left out of the dialogue.)

[Taking a deep breath].

Additionally, writers seem to be writing for other writers, rather than using their platforms to work in tandem with the music and nurture a community at large which — fathom this — actually gives a damn.  The dangerous duo of ego and lack of diversity remains the affliction that keeps journalism in jazz from reaching full potential.  Too many journalists in jazz have traditionally put themselves in front of the artists, and ahead of the music. Moreover, there is still a severe lack of proportion when it comes to editorial and coverage of African American jazz musicians.  This subject itself highlights the unfortunate division within jazz as it pertains to race, with Blacks and Whites largely on total opposite ends on the matter. However, if the spectrum of journalists reflected the diversity of the musicians playing this music, we would have a much better representation of the music overall. Balance is crucial, and autonomy in jazz journalism is ridiculous.

What watching Gil Noble all of these years, and having that candid and personal conversation with him has taught me is infinite.  But in more specific terms, what it taught me is that as a writer, especially a writer of color, I have to be passionate about truth.

Your allowance of my elaboration, please.

Tim Soter/WireImage

The beauty of being a writer, or of performing any artistic expression, is freedom.  In that freedom, there is the allowance to see, hear, feel and interpret things as one wishes.  It is truly liberating, and as a writer, I am the last one to impose the gall that I so detest in journalism on other writers.  In other words, “Do you.”  But what I am saying is that as a Black person, writing about a Black art form, which is mainly analyzed, critiqued and examined through the scope of White men, I have a duty beyond being poetic or incitable. There is another level of responsibility, and here lies the essence of Noble’s genius.  His depictions of artists were always supported with a social contextualization (let’s go back to his doubling-back to those students with that message about Sarah Vaughan).  Jazz is one art form that cannot be written about it a bubble, because it is distinctively intertwined with a culture.  Why this is a concept that is resisted and resented in journalism is bewildering to me.

But thank goodness for Gil Noble.  He is my hero.  Acutely informed, with an immense amount of integrity and creativity, he has laid the groundwork that I can only hope to aspire to build upon.  His passion for jazz and politics, and his ability to create a television program which successfully married these subjects for all audiences, for decades, is most inspiring.  Most importantly, his convictions spoke through his journalism, but his journalism did not speak through his convictions.  He didn’t have to spend time identifying who he is to his audience…it’s eloquently obvious in everything he produced.  That’s class.

It is my hope that Like It Is will remain on the air somehow (perhaps through syndication, a-hem, a-hem, BET and TV1, step up).  Most importantly, I hope his wish for the program’s archives to be utilized in schools comes to fruition. It is a sorely needed narrative.

Interestingly, Like It Is debuted just two months after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, and was largely inspired by this event.  The last broadcast of Like It Is aired on the same day as Dr. King’s memorial dedication.