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The Jazz Singer | The Nation

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The Jazz Singer

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Most Americans don't like instrumental music. Just ask any radio station program director, any record label head, Nissan (which threw in the piano after sponsoring two years of the Thelonious Monk Institute gala on network TV) or any of the guys and dolls slouching down today's mean streets with Walkmans clipped onto their bobbing heads.

About the Author

Gene Santoro
A former working musician and Fulbright Scholar, Gene Santoro also covers film and jazz for the New York Daily News...

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Historically speaking, this has created some problems for jazz (current US music market share: under 3 percent). No matter how you slice it, jazz can hardly avoid being labeled a mostly instrumental music. What may be worse, it often insists on making you think. That's not so bad if you can dance to it--witness the Jazz Age, when Americans apparently liked the idea of jazz best.

And before you bring up Louis Armstrong: Yeah, he revolutionized music by outplaying Gabriel on cornet and reinventing the virtuoso, improvising solo that European classical music had lost, and he did it inside a new, home-grown musical format. But he became every American's Satchmo only after he opened his mouth to sing.

Even apparent exceptions like Duke Ellington--whose centennial this month has spilled over into the whole year to remind us how widely he should have been loved--really aren't. Duke wrote hit songs sung endlessly as pop fare by others. For the rest, his elegant charm, his iron will--touring 300-plus days a year for decades, including stops at roller rinks and aquacades--and his nonstop composing on trains and in hotels kept his name out there. Meanwhile, the steady stream of composer's royalties from his pop hits subsidized his beloved instrument, his orchestra.

Let's get really heretical. If John Coltrane hadn't hit with his exotic version of "My Favorite Things," a Broadway hit that every right-thinking American could hum by the time he tackled it (thanks to Julie Andrews), many folks who know his name but not his revolutionary music wouldn't know either one. With that tune, Trane was operating very much in the jazz tradition: Take the latest pop music and tweak it, move its parts around, adding jazz's inevitable irony as it undercuts or toys with pop's contrived innocence or sleek sophistication. Why is the irony inevitable? Because of jazz's historical role in our culture as a vehicle for the return of the repressed--even in a time, like now or the Jazz Age, when it's marketed as a lifestyle choice.

The notion here is that jazz has to sharpen its teeth on its far more successful sibling rivals in pop or risk becoming purely historical art music. The second choice hasn't exactly worked wonders for the European classical tradition's, uh, relevance or audience share. (Subtract the Titanic soundtrack from classical sales, and even jazz looks healthy. Of course, subtract Kenny G and all his clones from jazz sales, and jazz looks like the cottage industry it still actually is, lost and usually orphaned inside all those dysfunctional corporate entertainment megafamilies.)

Want more validation? Just ask Miles Davis, Trane's last boss, who took ditties like "Surrey With the Fringe on Top" and "Someday My Prince Will Come" and bent them with centripetal forces, sculpted them with surgical tools, subjected them to wind-tunnel velocities. Of course, he also crossed the line with 1969's Bitches Brew (Columbia). Davis had decided (as had many of his contemporaries, moving in different directions in the postwar era) that postbop jazz needed dramatic course corrections and new ideas. He sinned against jazz purists by believing that some of those ideas should come from contemporary rock and pop reimaginers like Jimi Hendrix, Sly Stone, Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson and Prince. He made Cyndi Lauper's haunting ballad "Time After Time" a concert staple--and a showstopper.

For these and other heresies, Davis was forever, and proudly, jazz's Prince of Darkness. Which brings me to Cassandra Wilson and our topic for today: If you want to find out what most Americans know about jazz, run down a list of jazz divas.

The genealogy of female jazz singers reaches back to Bessie Smith, who took blues out of juke joints and put it into vaudeville theaters. It snakes its way through the distinctly unbluesy Ella Fitzgerald, who otherwise followed Satchmo's lead and sang and improvised like a horn, and a bit later through Dinah Washington and Sarah Vaughan, who bridged postwar jazz and r&b. Thence it runs into the present-day motley crew. Talent aside, all divas have had a mission, historically speaking: to personalize and make audible (if not sexy) the music's often esoteric art for folks who short out on sax and piano solos unless they're trapped in supermarkets or elevators.

Enter Wilson, she of the smoky voice, languid phrasing, sharp chops and ear-opening aims. Working with astute producer Craig Street, she's fashioned two albums in recent years, Blue Light 'Til Dawn and New Moon Daughter (both on Blue Note), that blow apart the old jazz diva image--the one holding the microphone in front of a kickass big band or an intimate piano trio. Instead, they create a rural, bluesy atmosphere, a studio back porch of acoustic guitars and bass, gently persistent percussion and odd daubs of color, like a floating steel guitar or a skirling fiddle. The dense arrangements sway to allow improvised solos and ideas into radically revamped material ranging from Son House's raw country blues to The Monkees' "Last Train to Clarksville."

After all, this 40-something diva grew up on rock and blues, Joni Mitchell as well as Betty Carter. And like Miles Davis a generation ago, she's bent on redefining the interplay between contemporary pop and jazz. It's no accident she also produced her provocative new album, Traveling Miles.

With her back porch here accommodating guests like violin supremo Regina Carter, alto ace Steve Coleman and vibes hotshot Stefon Harris, as well as her usual atmospheric crew, Wilson has selected and revamped (sometimes radically) tunes from all over Davis's long and checkered history, including the evil postfusion days. There's no doubt this diva, whose gauzy, closed-eyes head shot fills the CD cover, can make Miles sexy in a whole new way for a whole new audience.

Traveling Miles opens with "Run the VooDoo Down," a funky, syncopated vamp laced with neopsychedelic touches and muscular bass, courtesy of ex-Davis sideman Dave Holland, that cycles around Wilson's never-exactly-repeated vocal incursions. "Seven Steps," a challenging set of musical hurdles, opens with Wilson's husky humming behind Carter's capering fiddle, then quotes Dizzy Gillespie's "Salt Peanuts" lick before breaking into a bop-style doubletime lope--and a spicy, spiky solo from Carter that underlines why she's got so many Gen-X-and-under fans. There's the reharmonized "Someday My Prince Will Come," complete with a yearning Carter solo. And don't forget Wayne Shorter's "ESP," written when he was in Davis's mid-sixties quintet, here retitled "Never Broken," given a Latin feel and characteristically filigreed with odd stringed things like mandocello and resophonic guitar, thus recalling how the sixties brought all kinds of odd ideas and instruments out of the American attic.

You get the drift. The results are fascinating and sure to be controversial. In fact, one of the first singles (for easy-listening, jazz-lite radio) is Wilson's deep-blue revision of Davis's version of Lauper's hit.

Amid an upsurge of Gen-X jazzers infusing hip-hop and trip-hop and other contemporary pop ideas into jazz, our current Prima Diva is claiming the mantle of one of its best-known instrumental stars, whose name is a byword because his parched, existential trumpet, so unmistakable, struck listeners with the impact of a human voice. Even Miles would have grinned.

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