June 2010

Still a Passing Fad

Jazz keeps on keeping on despite continued predictions of its demise


jazz, my l.a. Photo by William Claxton

Jazz musicians improvise for a living. In L.A.—as in the rest of the country, where fewer and fewer arts patrons seek jazz as a music of first choice—players improvise ways to find work.

Los Angeles has been important to jazz, and vice versa, since the music’s beginnings. New Orleans pianist Jelly Roll Morton, who once claimed to have invented jazz, performed on Watts’ Central Avenue in 1917, and when he died in 1941, he was buried in East L.A.

The first jazz record in California was made for an L.A. label in 1922 by New Orleans trombonist Kid Ory—who 40 years later played the Hollywood Bowl. (I was there.) Louis Armstrong, Kid Ory’s old combo-boss, who headlined the Cotton Club in Culver City in the early ’30s, also starred at the Hollywood Bowl, in ’62. (And I went backstage to get his autograph.) And it was here at the Palomar Ballroom in 1935 that Benny Goodman and his orchestra ushered in the Swing Era, making jazz America’s popular music for a generation.

When I was a kid, jazz was all over town. The biggest names—from Bill Evans to Miles Davis to Archie Shepp—worked at Shelly’s Manne-Hole on Cahuenga in Hollywood, at Donte’s on Lankershim in the Valley and at the Lighthouse in Hermosa Beach.

In retrospect, that was a golden age—though at the time, purists claimed jazz was in decline, despite (or because of) the fact you could hear it on AM and FM and see it on TV.

Now there are folks who say jazz is all but dead—and statistics seem to bear them out. According to a recent survey, jazz is listened to “often” by only 14 percent of Americans. (Classical didn’t fare much better.)

But if jazz’s audience is in decline, jazz itself seems hardier than ever. You can still find it all over the Southland—you just may have to look a little harder. Clearly visible are the mainstay clubs: Catalina Jazz Club, Charlie O’s, Vitello’s, Spazio.

Farther afield are such venues as Steamers in Fullerton and Cafe 322 in Sierra Madre, the latter a welcoming restaurant and bar where trumpeter Jack Sheldon, foregoing the comedy that has been part of his act for years, has recently been playing some of the best straight-ahead jazz of his career, backed by a superb rambunctious trio.

Once heard, jazz—with its improvisation within a structure, its tension within relaxation, its “sound of surprise”—is hard to give up.

And legends still come to town: May saw the Heath Brothers—“Tootie” and Jimmy—at Spazio. And the bill at this year’s Playboy Jazz Festival mixes international stars such as Chick Corea and Bobby Hutcherson with local luminaries, including the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra.

And then there are the joints that are disguised as high-culture palaces—Walt Disney Concert Hall, for instance, where in recent weeks and months, jazz artists of the highest caliber have taken part in a number of inventive gigs. Keith Jarrett unfurled an evening of uniquely rhythmic, rhapsodic, romantic pianistic flights, grunting in a manner that might have made the late Glenn Gould envious; singers Dee Dee Bridgewater and Al Jarreau did a night of dual solo concerts; and the West Coast, Left Coast festival hosted a session of that 1950s noble experiment of jazz and poetry, with pianist Jason Moran and writer Michael McClure trading fours and swapping stanzas.

L.A. has long offered more opportunities than most towns for jazz talents to survive. Film studios, especially, have used jazzmen to flavor their soundtracks since the late 1950s, when local talents, including Johnny Mandel and Henry Mancini, scored entire movies and TV shows with jazz.

Pop and rock artists have called on jazz players for half a century to spice up their records and shows. (Legendary Benny Carter was onstage at the Troubadour in 1974 as part of Maria Muldaur’s “Midnight at the Oasis” backup band.)

Such cross-pollination still occurs. Guitarist Nels Cline and his twin brother, Alex, a drummer, hung out at the Manne-Hole and the Lighthouse long before becoming half of Quartet Music in the 1990s. Since then, Nels has joined Wilco, and Alex has worked in academia. But they still play jazz, and each just put out an album on the Culver City label Cryptogramophone.

Once heard or played, jazz—with its expressive improvisation within a structure, its tension within relaxation, its (in the words of the late Whitney Balliett) “sound of surprise”—is hard to give up. “I just think people who do something different and more unbookable need to be able to do what they do,” Alex Cline told the Times’ Chris Barton, “because it’s part of the artistic vitality of not only the community here but the community worldwide.”

Jazz today, as always, is an amalgam of old and new. The longer it lasts, the more history there is to draw on. And young players are adept at blending what’s been said before with their own fresh statements.

A newer generation of musical adventurers doesn’t even need live venues. The San Fernando Valley–raised producer known as Flying Lotus (aka Steven Ellison)—nephew of the late Alice Coltrane, the harpist-composer widow of sax man John Coltrane—began by handmaking what one commentator dubbed “surrealistic hip-hop” tracks and airing them via YouTube and other new media. He now has an international following, and his latest disc, Cosmogramma, includes an homage to Alice and guest work by F.L.’s cousin, saxophonist Ravi Coltrane.

Jazz today, as always, is an amalgam of old and new. The longer it lasts, the more history there is to draw on.

Even as celestial jazz blends with visionary funk, the new assimilates the old. “With young players today,” says L.A. composer-bandleader-trumpeter Gerald Wilson, “you’ll find the inspiration has come from before them. They’re still playing some of the things the guys played back in the older days.”

Wilson, still creative at 91, is the dean of L.A. jazz. Born in Mississippi and raised in Michigan, he first came to Southern California in 1940 as a trumpet player in the Jimmie Lunceford orchestra. (“The number two band in the world at that time,” he says.) An L.A. resident since ’41, he still gives an audience what they want while staying true to the jazz tradition.

“In our jazz bands, we play a little rock, too,” says Wilson. “We play some rhythm and blues. We’re goin’ up there playin’ music, you know what I mean? It’s all there, together. I listen to the symphony all day long almost—KUSC. The point is, I can learn so much from that. They offer so much for us: Debussy, Ravel—such a wonderful writer—Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky, all of those guys.”

Wilson remembers seeing Stravinsky play at the Hollywood Bowl back in the 1950s. “Fabulous music,” he says. “Los Angeles is such a wonderful place to be.”

He himself has performed the Bowl many times and had his own music done by the L.A. Philharmonic. He taught at UCLA for 22 years, in a hall named for L.A. resident Arnold Schoenberg. And he took what he learned from classical music and put it to use in jazz.

“Lookin’ at Debussy’s ‘Clair de Lune,’ ” he says, “you’ll find the use of the minor nine and the major nines. Those are chords that are very prevalent in today’s modern music. Of course, today we have gone past that, a lot of us—we’ve gone into the thirteenths, with the augmented eleventh, which gives us a lot of harmony. The old days, they just used what they had: four-part mostly. Today, you get eight-part harmony, nine-part—just move on up the line!”

Like jazz in L.A., Wilson just won’t quit. Last year, with his ensemble of L.A. musicians (some of whom have been with him for 17 years), he recorded Detroit, a six-part original suite in homage to his earlier hometown—several critics named it one of 2009’s best jazz discs.

“I think jazz in L.A. is very healthy,” says Wilson, whose latest project is a work written to feature Wynton Marsalis on trumpet, a variation on a theme by Igor Stravinsky—that other longtime L.A. resident (1940–1969) who, once upon a time, is supposed to have referred to jazz as “a passing fad.”

TOM NOLAN is author of the just published Three Chords for Beauty’s Sake: The Life of Artie Shaw.