I am not averse to the jazz experience yet I believe that it is a highly intellectualised music that has been put on a pedestal it does not require or deserve, as some kind of higher music, a means of expression that reveals the naked emotions of the musician and reveals truths about the person the world the musician lives and works ins that somehow cannot be expressed in any other kind of music.
My first serious exposure to jazz came in the form of a box set of recordings from the Twenties and Thirties by the band leader Fletcher Henderson, called A Study in Frustration. My understanding was that Henderson had higher aspirations than merely leading a dance band but that he could not convince critics or the public. The music is mostly akin to the raucous, exciting sounds of the Louis Armstrong Hot Fives and Hot Sevens of the same period, yet there is also an arranged quality to it. Henderson's arrangers made structured dance music from the rough and ready improvisational ideas of New Orleans music and the Henderson band sounded like an improvisational, syncopate combo, but was infinitely more sophisticated than that. Anyhow, I loved the music that sounded somewhat chaotic yet always gelled and was terribly exciting. Amongst other greats, Henderson had employed Louis Armstrong and Coleman Hawkins, two innovators in their respective fields.
This box set was in the Stellenbosch municipal library. The library had other early jazz collections of music from New Orleans, Chicago and New York, a series of records forming and anthology of the recordings of Bix Beiderbecke, trumpeter and cornet player (the original template for the doomed young jazzman) as well as some of Duke Ellington's greatest hits. The latter did not impress me that much at the time, as I was into simple, rough music and Ellington's big band sound was far too sophisticated for my liking.
The one other interesting jazz album I remember borrowing from the municipal library was John Coltrane's A Love Supreme. Why the library had only this one Coltrane album beats me unless it was the expressed supposed spiritual content of the record that a librarian thought of as Christian jazz. Coltrane's name was familiar to me as a leading saxophone player but I knew very little else about him. This album consists of three rather long pieces, much longer than the short, sharp bursts of excitement I had experienced with Fletcher Henderson's band, that require a lot of work to understand and appreciate. It was an acquired taste for me and I almost forced myself to like this stuff because it was so way out of my comfort zone. It seemed to me that Coltrane wanted to make a virtue out of squeaks and squawks that sounded decidedly unmusical by stating that this was some kind of expression of a higher reality or of a quest for something deeply spiritual that went beyond mere proper music.
Then I wasted time on Grover Washington Jnr's Winelight album. This type of jazz lite is what I believe came to be included in that grouping of anodyne slop called "quiet storm" and intended for super romantics who love bear skin rugs in front of fireplaces, or maybe just people whose idea of good music is music that disappears into the background. I cannot believe that anyone would want to make this kind of useless, pointless, emotion free music, much less actually and willingly listening to it. If I remember correctly I got through perhaps two tracks before I realised this music would blow my mind in a way I would not want it blown, and took it off the turntable.
I feel much the same way about the music of Kenny G whose live album must be one of the most oxymoronic offerings ever. Who would want to pay to go listen to this guy? Who would want to make the effort to go out to hear this guy play?
I never got into buying jazz records until the early Nineties, as I was much more interested in rock, blues, funk and reggae. The firs jazz albums I ever bought were in fact a compilation of Louis Armstrong's Hot Five and Hot Sevens sides and a compilation of Django Reinhardt's hits. Both of these records featured the visceral, exciting sounds of what was once known as hot jazz. In the case of Louis Armstrong, in particular, I recognised that his trumpet solos sounded very much like the kind of guitar solos I liked in rock or blues and this gave me a closer connection, apart from the simple thrills of the energised music.
My mate Sean Rosenberg had a collection of jazz albums, mostly Miles Davis sides from the late Fifties and early Sixties and I had listened to some of them at his house, mostly out of curiosity, and none of them moved me very much. They were fine yet not exciting enough engage me.
In the early Nineties a local record company released a series of budget jazz compilations, for example by Coleman Hawkins, Wes Montgomery, Django Reinhardt, Dizzy Gillespie and others. My mate Flip Swiegers and I bought some of them. Mine were the Montgomery and Reinhardt records; his were the more conventional jazz sides. In due course, as I recollect, I gave him the records I'd bought on the premise that he would find more use for them, as he was very much into jazz and into learning how to play jazz guitar. The records kind of bored me and I was anyway more interested in buying CDs than records.
The Louis Armstrong and Reinhardt CDs were stolen from me in 1993 and I never replaced them, mostly because I could never again find those albums.
In the Eighties there was a Jazz Café in Woodstock and on Sunday nights the Base night club in Shortmarket Street offered a jazz club as well. I went to the Woodstock a couple of times, the first of which was the launch party of Andre Letoit's Ver Van Die Ou Kalahari album, and was a frequent attendee at the base on Sunday nights where the jazz tended to be the fusion sounds of The Genuines and Wired to the Floor, neither of which appealed to me all that much as jazz combos. There did not seem to be too many "normal" jazz ensembles in Cape Town.
Back in the late Seventies or early Eighties the Alphen Hotel in Constantia offered jazz on a Sunday afternoon and this was apparently a quite popular attraction, for the student crowd at least, on warm days. You could have a drink or two, relax and listen to jazz that was no doubt smooth, cool and anodyne. I never made that scene.
The other type of jazz that seemed to be popular, particularly as entertainment at popular events such as the Community Chest Carnival was the New Orleans style jazz of combos like The Riverboat Jazz Band who played their middle aged white guy versions of the type of thing Louis Armstrong's Hot Five or Hot Seven did so much better. The Riverboat Jazz band seemed to have fun and was adept at the ensemble interplay one expects from the New Orleans style, yet it seemed too studied and rehearsed. It did not sound as if these guys were really improvising. They had a songbook, with arrangements and stock phrases, and could only play what they had learnt to play. It was fun but not very interesting.
In about 1987 the Cape Town Jazz Club, or whatever it was called, moved from the upstairs room in Salt River to the Base in Shortmarket Street on Sunday nights. On Friday and Saturday nights the Base was home to an alternative crowd of hipsters who grooved to a mixture of African music, reggae and funk, with some soul thrown in for good measure. Back then liquor licenses for clubs were very strict and it was difficult running a club on a Sunday and sell liquor at the venue but somehow the Base managed to do it. The promise of jazz, though, meant that the Base mostly hosted fusion bands such as Wired to the Floor, which seemed to be the house band they there so often, and The Genuines. The best actual jazz came from the nights when Basil Coetzee's jazz mbaqanga group played or when Robbie Jansen's Heartbreakers played. Coetzee and Jansen were once part of the Dollar Brand / Abdullah Ibrahim group and were founder members of Sabenza, Coetzee's Cape Town inflected African jazz combo before musical or personal differences caused Jansen to form his own group.
Gavin Minter, of Wired to the Floor, has a gravelly voice reminiscent of Michael Bolton and his management probably wanted to position him in as a troubadour who could sing the hell out of soul jazz ballads, to make the commercial impact, and then play his brand of fusion jazz on stage to appease the diehard jazz fans. Wired to the Floor was a four piece with a guitarist who also operated and controlled, with his guitar connections, a series of keyboard sounds. The sound, apart from ballads like "My Cherie Amour", was Eighties jazz funk.
The Genuines was also a four piece that f featured Hilton Schilder, son of the Cape Town jazz legend Tony Schilder, and Ian Herman, probably one of the best drummers in South Africa at the time, and in the world. Their music was jazz based funk rock, also typical of the Eighties, mostly played at breakneck speed and versatility. The interesting difference was that the Genuines started incorporating Cape Town goema sounds as well, and in most sets had a separate little section where vocalist and bassist Mac McKenzie's father came on stage to play banjo on a couple of Cape Carnival styled tunes.
Jazz was, and still is, big on the Cape Flats but it tended to be jazz funk. The community out there want to be able to dance to their jazz. There was not, however, all that much "proper" acoustic jazz around in Cape Town.
The first time I experienced this was in about 1993 or 1994 at a curry house in Observatory where Quasimodo du Jazz played in the upstairs room on a Sunday night. This was a quartet led by a hunky saxophone player who interested Flip Swiegers sufficiently that he tried to book them into the floating restaurant Alabama, because he knew the owner, and then spun this whole fantasy of starting up a jazz radio station. This radio station, P4, did come into being but not through Flip and in any event was more into the Kenny G or Grover Washington Jnr. style of smooth jazz than the more challenging stuff and soon moved into general soul and R & B before it, too, became defunct.
Quasimodo du Jazz was your old-fashioned jazz combo that played music that was easy on the ear. I have no idea whether they were genius improvisers or just journeymen jazz students scuffling for a few bucks but I enjoyed the evening. Not that I went out of my way to seek out any other gigs they may have played.
The Green Dolphin restaurant in the V & A Waterfront has been a premier jazz spot in Cape Town for many years and was rivalled only by the defunct Manenberg's that started out in the CBD, failed, was resurrected in the Waterfront and failed again. I went to the Green Dolphin a couple of times with other people. On the last occasion the Tony Schilder trio play piano bar jazz. I was not paying much close attention but after about 90 minutes it seemed to me as if Schilder had been playing the same tune over and over. The craftsmanship may have been immaculate and consummate yet it bored the shit out of me. It really was not very entertaining and was specifically the type of jazz suitable only for providing some sort of gentle background noise in a room full of people who are drinking and chatting and who do not feel the need to concentrate on the music, as colourless as it was.
Although I love music and most types of music I have always had a particular pet hater for jazz fusion, in particular jazz/rock fusion or jazz/ funk fusion, based mostly on fusion music heard on the radio. One of the worst records I ever heard, and this takes into account Grover Washington Jnr., is a Billy Cobham album my mate Dan Lombard lent me in about 1981. I'd forgotten the name of the album and for many years I fondly believed that John McLaughlin was the guitarist on the record, but after googling Billy Cobham's discography, I now believe that the album might have been Cobham's début as leader in 1973, called Spectrum. The guitarist is Tommy Bolin, who later played for the James Gang and Deep Purple.
To be candid about it: this record offended my sensibilities from the almost the first note. It was not that I was a jazz purist and felt that this unholy noise was not jazz at all. I just did not like the frenetic, busy attack of Bolin, Cobham and Jan Hammer.
All the tunes were taken at a furious pace and each one sounded exactly like the previous one to the extent where I was not only irritated by the sound, which I disliked, but by the fact that these jazz guys could not vary the pace or add different textures to their work regardless of their no doubt advanced technical skills. I listened to the album once and never again and for years it has been the benchmark by which I measured my intense and enduring dislike of jazz fusion.
After Miles Davis broke new ground with Bitches Brew it suddenly seemed very logical for many musicians to go the fusion route, either (from the jazz side) to make some money the straight jazz environment could not provide or (from the rock perspective) to add some intellectual depth to a music that has always been seen as somewhat dumb. One of way of upping the progressive ante was to incorporate elements of classical music' the other way was to incorporate elements of jazz.
Various Miles Davis alumni founded bands like Weather Report, The Mahavishnu Orchestra and Return to Forever, all of which featured amazingly talented and technically able musicians and probably made amazingly complex music, yet all of which sucked when you came right down to it. There was zip visceral content for me and zero entertainment.
The Mahavishnu Orchestra, Return to Forever and Weather Report featured musicians who had played with Miles Davis when he embarked on the electric route that led to jazz fusion. All of a sudden jazz ventured into the highly commercial spheres of rock and funk and jazz musicians started making more money than ever before. No more smoky, dingy clubs; with the fusion thing large stages and massive publicity became the norm. Technical ability still counted for a lot and I guess a lot of geeks who would not necessarily have liked acoustic jazz too much could get off on the perception that they were listening to loud music that also had the cachet of being made by proper musicians who knew many, many chords, inversions, scales, modes and notes, where the basic rocker was supposed to get away with knowing just three or four chords, some riffs and a bunch of standard licks. These were the kind of guys who boasted about how awesome Mahavishnu Orchestra was purely because John McLaughlin was such a great guitarist.
I, on the other hand, loathed that type of technical virtuosity that seemed to have no emotional centre whatsoever; regardless of whatever pseudo-Zen utterances were made by the musicians, and absolutely hated jazz fusion with a passion that has been exceeded only by my loathing for the music of Phil Collins.
The Jazz Crusaders dropped the "crusaders" part of their name and also made commercially viable jazz lite and backed Randy Crawford and B B King. The part of Earth Wind & Fire's funk workouts that I heartily disliked was the jazzy horn charts I saw as coming straight from a big band jazz perspective. When Sting left the Police to pursue his solo career he made use of jazz as a root for his music, given that he was originally a jazz bassist. This meant that he may have made music that was more complex than the Police hits but that was also almost completely lacking in any interest for me. I absolutely hate the music of Phil Collins, whether with Genesis or on his own. He once drummed for a fusion band called Brand X and later led a big band of his own. Enough said. If Phil Collins thinks he can do jazz, especially commercially viable jazz, then jazz should just die.
Maybe I am a reactionary but I still like traditional jazz, whether it is based on the New Orleans template, or the mid-Fifties style acoustic style of an improvising bop, post bop, cool or soul jazz combo. Not all of the latter is that engaging though it is at least list enable.
I have read that the French group St Germain is the bestselling jazz group ever, especially with its Tourist album. I own Tourist, as it was recommended to me by Braam Botha, whose musical taste does not always gibe with mine but who has good taste nonetheless, especially in the more esoteric fields of music. Anyhow, I would not have thought of St Germaine as a jazz band at all. Tourist is an album of relaxed beats and samples (John Lee Hooker features) that I would have placed in the category of Moby's Play rather than with Kind of Blue, though the slow, deliberate tempos and ethereal horns makes St Germain bedfellows of Miles Davis. I guess this means that St Germain's music is yet another example of jazz fusion; this time the fusion is with the more contemporary modes of hip hop and ambient dance rather than rock or classical music. It seems that jazz can be brought to bear on just about any genre of music. At first jazz men took showbiz standards to jazz up and now they can take entire schools of music and incorporate those elements into their jazz and make it new.
Over the years I have read a lot about music and have bought a lot of books about music, mostly on the topic of rock, but I have taken note of the lives of the major jazzmen and the developments since the beginnings of jazz and the modern innovators, who have returned to the acoustic tradition as a reaction against the egregious commercialism of fusion. I own a biography of Miles Davis as well as book on the making of Kind of Blue, and a couple of collections of the writing of Garry Giddins, and there are references to jazz and its practitioners in various other books I own.
Jazz is therefore not completely beyond my ken. It is simply a music I have to date not made an effort to collect. I bought Kind of Blue in December 2011 simply because I could get it for R40 at a second hand book store in Montagu and because I knew it was meant to be a classic jazz album and thought it would be interesting to listen to at last. In close succession thereafter I got hold of MP3 versions of Sketches of Spain (the follow up to Kind of Blue) and On The Corner, recorded some 13 years after Kind of Blue. These three albums illustrate a cross section of the music of Miles Davis, from small group improvisation to big band arrangements to radical electric funk avant garde probably unlike anything released at the time. Of the three albums, only On The Corner hits home. It demands the attention and engagement of the listener the other two more ordinary records do not
From the first minute to the last it pulls you in, refuses to let go and does not let up until you are wrung dry. This is what I call a desert island disc. Much more so than Kind of Blue, never mind how popular that album is.
Jazz went mainstream in die Fifties when less discerning listeners could latch on to the cool sounds of the West Coast school and went highly commercial when jazz funk and jazz rock reached out to the masses who could now either dance to a contemporary version of jazz or could believe that it was sophisticated and intellectually superior to listen to rock supposedly elevated by the jazz infusion. In the late Eighties there was a reaction, from younger musicians and some old school guys, who returned to the acoustic, purist roots and eschewed flashy, overtly commercial trappings and made music that was more intimate and apparently no less compelling or commercial.
I read about all that stuff and none of it ever appealed to me, certainly not on paper and not very much when I heard it.
The North Sea Jazz Festival came to Cape Town in the Nineties, post 1994 and has since mutated into the Cape Town Jazz Festival. Ti is a big thing for Cape Town each year, with a free teaser concert on Greenmarket Square proceeding the festival weekend. At first the festival was at the Good Hope Centre but since the Cape Town Convention Centre became available as a venue, the festival has been held there. The performances attract a sizable crowd and I would imagine the festival has kept going because it is consistently successful and because it is a cultural showcase for the city and for South Africa.
I have not had one single iota of desire to attend this jazz festival. From a casual glance at the line ups it has always seemed to me that the weight is towards divas and commercial funky or smooth jazz of a kind that is no doubt regarded as highly sophisticated yet leaves me utterly cold. The endless virtuosity of jazz musicians sometimes simply irritates and the crowd pleasing vocalisation of the divas grates. The festival is a showbiz event with all the concomitant showbiz pretentions. I would much rather listen to an interesting small combo in an intimate space, if I were to make an effort to go out to catch live jazz.
One of the most distressing jazz evenings I ever experienced was at a dinner at Marco's African Place where a small jazz band backed a vocalist who provided dinner entertainment of sorts by running through a series of jazz standards in a less than engaging fashion. I cannot complain that the band did not know their stuff or that the singer had a bad voice. The effect was simply of a professional group doing their professional thing with no real heart, soul or fire. There was absolutely no excitement in the music. I felt sorry for the entertainers who probably do this kind of gig night after night and never manage to rise above this desultory level. The weird thing was that the audience consistently showed appreciation for this tired bouquet of perfunctory standards as if they were at Carnegie Hall listening to the Modern Jazz Quartet backing Ella Fitzgerald. The terrible aspect of the show was not that it was bad, it was simply useless technical adequacy.
That is the major flaw in jazz. The musicians are technically able yet seldom manage to surmount the obstacle of that technical skill often is to the goal of making music that is visceral enough to make a mark. I am not a musician and the chord shapes or inversions mean little to me, regardless of how clever or sophisticated they may be. I listen to a performance and if it is not appealing on a gut level, the technique means nothing. Virtuosity is not necessarily an advantage or even a desirable attribute in music if it is the only positive a performance has going for it. The emotional pull of a piece of music, the visceral punch of it, is what makes it worthwhile and memorable.
That is why On The Corner is the best Miles Davis album I have ever heard.