Stranded near the cornfield with the free jazz blues -- again
Dear, dear, and lack a day! What's a poor newspaper editor to do when his pals at SkyJazz entice him with fugitive performances by old favorites, lay an appetizing banquet of new artists and generally tantalize him by emphasizing that most distinctive of jazz traits -- possibility?

This newspaper editor went straight to the record shop in search of jazz sounds old and new, and he was prepared to spend like a drunken sailor.

'Tis a pity, however, that my fellow citizens in this semi-rural Ohio town can be classified by subscribing to one of three points of view: 1) Mantovani or Paul Mauriat (the debate rages) invented jazz -- the point of view held by most of the predominantly white folks hereabout; 2) the hip-hop genre is responsible for the popularization of jazz, in addition to its other cultural benefits, such as wearing clothing backward, pulling one's trousers so low on the hips as to offend modesty and pounding sharp metal objects through ones's lips, tongue, nipples -- the point of view held by many of the few young black people where I live and by the rich white kid wannabe's who put beans onto the plates of such lightweights as Kenny G and think they're listening to jazz; and 3) the jazz tradition is due the respect accorded the classical tradition and doesn't get it -- my point of view.

Accordingly, merchants stock their shelves with the dreck that will be bought by the local populace and have little, if any, interest in musical tradition that one can find in the record shops of large cities, where salespeople actually know something about the products they sell.

I had a hankering for some free jazz this week, and naturally went in search of Ornette Coleman sides. Zilch.

I changed my tactic and asked for Charles Mingus. Zip.

What about Sun Ra? Nada.

Cecil Taylor? Never heard of him.

All the sales folks were polite and got out the old Schwann catalogue and quite reasonably offered to special-order these crazy items about which I inquired, but I called a halt to the whole business and went home, dejected and feeling that I would never again hear progressive sounds outside the confines of my own music library.

But then I began making a list of all the hors d'oeuvres served up on SkyJazz and decided to make the best of it, because, in the free jazz movement alone, there is so much to explore that one could spend a career researching its nuances.

At the public library, I ran across a readable manual by one John Fordham entitled simply "Jazz" [Dorling Kindersley Inc., 1993] and leafed through the volume to the author's brief but informative take on free jazz. There I ran across some old acquaintances and was struck by Fordham's appealing approach to explaining the music to neophytes without alienating more experienced listeners. I found it difficult to disagree with his assessments of essential recordings, though I have my own favorites.

Here's some Fordham wisdom of choice. It's a good way to get started:

-- George Russell, "The Jazz Workshop" [RCA Victor, 1956]. Russell, as has been noted here before, is a major theoretician, but this recording predates the explosion of the free jazz controversy by at least two years. Added bonuses: Art Farmer on trumpet, Bill Evans on piano, Milt Hinton and Teddy Kotick on basses, and Paul Motian on drums.

-- Ornette Coleman, "Something Else!" [Contemporary, 1958] and "The Shape Of Jazz To Come" [Atlantic, 1959]. The first is the debut of Coleman as a mover and shaker and the second blew the ears off the boppers. A new direction in jazz was born and has survived, albeit less robustly than when the first waves of debate about its value to the jazz tradition broke upon the shores of listeners.

-- Charles Mingus, "Pithecanthropus Erectus" [Atlantic, 1956]. Fordham quite cannily recognizes the outer limits of Mingus' art and the composer's ability to launch soloists into the ether while retaining the firm groundings of blues and gospel. This album peeked over the skyline of tradition and surveyed the vistas of possibility for jazz music. It succeeds in every way as a revolutionary statement, a theoretical approach, and as good old funky soul with a thick meringue of experimentation.

-- Lennie Tristano and Tadd Dameron, "Crosscurrents" [Affinity, 1949]. Wow! And wow again! A full decade before the controversy that swirled around free jazz erupted, here were a pair of journeyman pianists who pointed the way. And dig this partial list of musicians from the Tristano sextet and the Dameron orchestra: Lee Konitz and Sahib Shihab, alto saxophones; Denzil Best and Kenny Clarke, drums; Fats Navarro and Miles Davis, trumpets; Kai Winding and J.J. Johnson, trombones; and Dexter Gordon, tenor sax.

So, instead of the nearly instant gratification I used to get from bringing home a brand new album and reading the liner notes as I discovered new musical territory, I've had to content myself with renewing old friendships via reading about a medium that basically defies writing. And I've had to recall, as I read about them, old familiar recordings no longer in my library.

I hold out the perhaps foolish hope that sound shop owners in the hinterlands will take the approach of their urban brethren and hire at least one expert on a genre other than the vaporous legions of "popular" artists to assist in ordering stock.

And that brings me to the Internet, but that's a topic for another day.