Wednesday, July 25, 2012


Jazz music, in my mind, is the ultimate music out there. Like I said—my mind—I am not trying to make that decision for anyone else. You do what you do and like what you like—it's all good.

In addition to enjoying the music immensely, I also have a great respect for the sensibilities of the musicians who put so much of their life into creating this music. Some musicians live this music 24/7 and show a dedication to it that musicians of other genres often do not when it comes to their craft. thing I don't care for is the way that some musicians are viewed by the “mainstream” cats. Also, the way they get overlooked by the major jazz press. What I am specifically talking about is jazz music that is mostly associated with “free jazz” or “avant garde” jazz.

We all know who the mainstream musicians are whom get all the attention...some obvious names include Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Wynton Marsalis, Terence Blanchard, Sonny Rollins, etc., not to mention musicians who are no longer with know the names..........

What got me to thinking about this? I was listening to a recording that features whom I consider to be one the the great bassists to play jazz music—Fred Hopkins (October 10, 1947 - January 7, 1999). Fred Hopkins mainly performed with bands associated with the avant garde movement, most prominent in the Henry Threadgill-led group “Air”, for which he performed on 11 recordings between 1975 and 1986. Other musicians that he became associated with include David Murray, Oliver Lake and Muhal Richard Abrams. Hopkins' sound is most characterized by a “thick” and “woodsy” sound (if that makes any sense). Typical of a bassist, he kept time as well as provided a sound foundation for the soloists and other lead musicians to follow, but unlike many bass players, had a very prominent voice such that his playing often moved to the forefront—while never getting in the way.

Don't get me wrong....I LOVE the music of those aforementioned “mainstreamers”, but I believe that the music of Hopkins and some of the others need to be given greater attention and respect. Maybe it's self-preservation, but the more mainstream musicians tend to not give credit to the likes of Hopkins, Threadgill, Murray, Arthur Blythe, etc. Possibly the finest flute player on the scene today is someone I'm sure most jazz fans have never heard of—Nicole Mitchell...why is she so relatively unknown? Again, she is not part of the mainstream; she is “out” as some would call it, but her music is no less valid than those who play “in”.

Adding to this attitude is jazz radio. Just turn on your typical jazz station in AnyCity, USA, and you're not likely to hear this “out” music. Or, if it's heard, it's most likely going to be at 2 or 3 o'clock in the morning, when few are listening. Ironically, the stations I have heard that are most likely to play this music are the NON-JAZZ stations, typically university stations that set aside a block of time dedicated to jazz, such as WREK here in Atlanta, GA, the station of Georgia Tech University. It's kind of strange to see that a station like this is more diverse than stations that call themselves “jazz” stations (such as WCLK, Clark Atlanta University, which almost NEVER plays “out” music).

So, next time you're in the mood for some jazz music, if you can, skip the mainstream. Seek out some of these names: Henry Threadgill, David Murray, Roscoe Mitchell, Nicole Mitchell, Arthur Blythe, Amina Claudine Myers, Cecil Taylor and the Art Ensemble of Chicago. I promise you, if you give it a chance—approach the music with an open mind, you WILL be rewarded. 

(A little Fred Hopkins anecdote—back in the late 80's I had the good fortune to see the David Murray Octet at a club in NYC's Greenwich Village, and Fred Hopkins was on between sets I got up to go to the restroom and happened to pass by Mr. Hopkins...I said “what's up man” and he told me “man you were making me nervous!” I asked why and he said “the way you were paying attention to my playing, I was afraid to mess up!”...we laughed about it, but I walked away, feeling that in some small way, I was part of the music of these great musicians...a moment I'll never forget!)

Monday, July 4, 2011

The "Smooth Jazz" Debate

Is Smooth Jazz...

 ...Jazz Music?

In 1964, United States Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, in his opinion regarding the alleged obscene nature of a French film called Les Amants (The Friends) in the case of Jacobellis v. Ohio, wrote the following statement:

"I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that."

You may ask, what does a Supreme Court Justice's opinion regarding pornography have to do with jazz?

Let's imagine that the subject of this matter was not a movie, but rather a musical performance, and the court was reviewing whether or not the performance qualified as jazz music. One could imagine the justice saying:

"I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I hear it, and the music involved in this case is not that (jazz)."

That in a nutshell sums up my feelings about music that I don't consider to be jazz music. I don't need to deeply analyze it, break it down, dissect it, etc. All I need to do is hear it, and I immediately know whether or not it is jazz music.

While I find that this works perfectly for me, I cannot say that it's good enough for others. Especially those who assert that the music of the likes of Kenny G or Boney James is actually jazz music.

One thing I've found peculiar about the people who have this position is that they usually have little knowledge of jazz music and its history. This is not to put myself on some pedestal of having some great knowledge over them, but in conversations, it becomes clear that they really don't. These are the people who will reveal the extent of their jazz knowledge with a superficial statement such as “oh yeah, I've heard of Dizzy—wasn't he the one with the puffy jaws?” or will do something like incorrectly calling Bird a trumpet player.

These people are not aware of the evolution of the music -- the various styles it has gone through, the various movements, the seminal figures in the music and why they were important. All they know about jazz is that it's something that their dad or uncle likes to listen to.

These are the people who, upon finding out that I am an avid listener of jazz, will say “have you heard that Hidden Beach recording where they do jazz renditions of hip-hop tunes?” and are incredulous when I tell them that it's not in my collection.

Or, they will mention a specific artist, maybe saxophonist Richard Elliott or pianist Brian Culbertson, and are surprised that as a jazz fan, I don't listen to them. I may respond with “no, but I do listen to Geri Allen—she's my favorite pianist” and they invariably say with a blank face “who?”

So maybe I'll explain who she is, and give some names of current-day artists that I do listen to—David Sanchez, Wynton Marsalis, David Murray—just to name a few. They'll acknowledge hearing of “Winston” Marsalis, and his brother “Brandon” and say they are pretty good, but then say “I see, you like that old time stuff.”

I'll say, yes, I do like older music very much, and point out that I listen to Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Charles Mingus, Miles Davis and a bunch of others.

They'll assert that I listen to the OLD TIME stuff, but they listen to MODERN jazz: Dave Koz, Peter White, Fourplay, Pieces of a Dream, David Benoit, etc.

This is where it gets dicey. Over the years I have attempted to be delicate at this point, because more and more I try to avoid the inevitable argument that ensues. So I will say something like “don't get me wrong, I'm not saying those guys are no good, but it's not jazz music as far as I am concerned.”

Their comeback will be “well, you like the old stuff, but this is new jazz.” I'll respond with examples of new jazz: Roy Hargrove, Ravi Coltrane, Terence Blanchard or Gerald Clayton, and explain that they may THINK it's old stuff, but anyone who is aware and listens closely to their music would NOT confuse it with something recorded in the 50s or 60s.

“Well, if smooth jazz isn't jazz, what is it?” My response: “It's instrumental R&B” or “instrumental funk.”

This is where they become upset, because the feeling now is that I am dissing their music. In their mind, I am telling them that their music is not worthy of being called jazz music. They'll tell me that music can't be categorized or labeled (although ironically, that is exactly what they are doing). They'll say that jazz has so many forms and can't be pigeonholed – which is true to an extent – and that smooth jazz represents the “advancement” of the music.

I'll express that, to me, “smooth jazz” consists of some Lester Young or Johnny Hodges...yeah, those were some smooth cats! This is where their lack of jazz knowledge shows, as they have no idea who I am talking about.

This goes back and forth until we agree to disagree.


So, why do I have my belief that smooth jazz is not jazz music?

This is my attempt, as a non-musician, to describe why what is now called "smooth jazz" is not a form of jazz music.

My feeling on the subject is that when one ponders what is or what is not jazz music, the evolution of the music must be taken into consideration.

What do I mean by that? Well, the earliest form of jazz as we know it had its genesis when slaves in New Orleans were allowed to gather in Congo Square and they began to integrate Western instrumentation with music dominated by African rhythms. This eventually evolved into what is known as Dixieland music, which featured mainly brass instruments (because that is what could be carried in a marching band) and was marked by a good bit of free improvisation.

Subsequently there was the emergence of Swing music, via the big bands of the likes of Fletcher Henderson, Count Basie, Jay McShann and Duke Ellington. This big band music served the function of being the dance music of the day, so "swing" was very important and highly emphasized.

Out of this swing era emerged many great soloists, such as Dexter Gordon, Coleman Hawkins, Charlie Parker, Lester Young, Dizzy Gillespie and Johnny Hodges. Some of these musicians, most prominently Dizzy and Bird, had a desire to be increasingly innovative and as a result they developed bebop, a music that was seen by some as more "cerebral", and less geared towards dancing. It was during this era that great virtuosic skills were emphasized, as it often demanded a fast, blazing pace. This era also introduced us to the composing genius of Thelonious Monk who within the genre of bebop, introduced his own unique style and sound.

Subsequent to the bebop era, a slower and softer style evolved, known as "cool", heralded by Miles Davis' "The Birth of The Cool" and epitomized by the most popular jazz recording of all-time, Davis' "Kind of Blue." It was probably during this time that white musicians had their greatest impact upon the music.

After this era there was the introduction of a harder-swinging and more soulful style of music, known as hard-bop and and later post-bop. This music "swung harder" than the cool jazz that preceded it and was also heavily influence by the "feel" of soul music. The music was definitely Afro-Centric and is best characterized by what is known as the "Blue Note Sound." Guys like Lee Morgan, Dexter Gordon, Johnny Griffin, Joe Henderson, Horace Silver, Art Blakey and Hank Mobley were among its prominent figures. Their goal, in my opinion, was to emphasize a swinging and soulful groove while maintaining the "cerebral" aspects of the music introduced during the bebop period.

Throughout these eras (beginning with bebop), Miles Davis was a prominent figure. His small band with Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter had an emphasis on deep, introspective solos, but was less influenced by the "soulful" aspects of hard bop. Around this same time, John Coltrane, who came to prominence in Monk's band and later on in Davis' cool-era band, branched out on his own, and like the music of Miles, became very introspective, eventually to a greater extent, and reached its zenith with his recording, "A Love Supreme." His music became, by some descriptions, increasingly self-indulgent and was marked by extremely long solos. Also was the development of "free jazz," it's most notable progenitor being Ornette Coleman, which had less emphasis on obvious rhythms and swing. Coltrane, an early collaborator with Coleman, also began playing a more "free" style of music along with guys like Eric Dolphy, and during this time were many questions about whether the music was actually "jazz" music.

Miles, with a constant desire to change, began to incorporate electric instrumentation and elements of rock music, which were introduced with his recording "Bitches Brew." Some say that this was the first "fusion" record and the music began to be less and less recognizable as jazz and more influenced by rock and roll.

Through this time, mainly during the 70s, there remained guys like Dexter Gordon, Woody Shaw, Art Blakey and Roland Kirk who continued to play what was called "straight-ahead jazz"--mainly hard or post-bop music. There also were a group of guys, such as David Murray, Arthur Blythe and Henry Threadgill, who were heavily influenced by free-jazz while often remaining within the jazz idiom.

The music at this point had mostly lost what remained of its popularity and became relatively obscure until the early 80s, when Wynton Marsalis took the music world by storm. There we saw the "young lions" who initially seemed to emulate the jazz of the 60s, but eventually modernized the music into the jazz that we know today, continually created by artists such as Terence Blanchard, Geri Allen, Roy Hargrove and Branford Marsalis.


I wrote the above because hopefully it shows that music such as Boney James' or Wayman Tisdale's is not part of that evolution of jazz that I described above.

It did not evolve or progress out of any of the styles mentioned--Dixieland, swing, bebop, cool, hard-bop, post-bop, free-jazz, or straight-ahead.

Yes, it may borrow some elements such as improvisational solos, but in reality their music evolves out of R&B and funk. In essence, it is simply some soul-influenced music that is often mistaken for jazz simply because it is instrumental music that features solos.

Nonetheless, the smooth jazz advocates will no doubt disagree with me. I'd be interested in hearing from you and would like to see your reasons as to why you believe that I am wrong. Of course, I'd like to hear from those who agree as well!

Monday, June 6, 2011

Redemption for the Atlanta Jazz Festival! (An open letter to the Atlanta Jazz Festival)

Sean Jones Quintet

City of Atlanta:
Honorable Kasim Reed, Mayor

Camille Russell Love, Director
City of Atlanta Office of Cultural Affairs

Atlanta Jazz Festival Staff:
Nnena U. Nchege
Festival Manager

Kim Hutchens
Grant Development Officer (Sponsorships)

Tiffani Bryant
Project Supervisor, Art in Education

Monica Prothro
Project Supervisor, Contracts for Arts Services

A couple of years ago, I wrote an open letter to the Atlanta Jazz Festival out of concern for what I perceived to be a festival that was, for the most part, “jazzless”. My belief at the time was that the dearth of jazz at the festival resulted in it not meeting the goals if its mission statement, which read as follows:

It is the mission of the Atlanta Jazz Festival to expose and entertain a diverse audience of jazz aficionados, young jazz enthusiasts and musical artists to the rich heritage and variety of jazz as an authentic form of traditional music.

In addition, I found it misleading to a public which, from my personal observations, already had many misconceptions about what jazz is and what its implications are as a true American art form.

After attending last weekend's festival and observing its lineup, I feel compelled to write a follow-up letter, and hereby state that I feel the festival has redeemed itself in a huge way! The festival featured local youth/school jazz bands earlier in the day, which is great exposure for them, as well as a source of motivation for them to further pursue this music.

What I am most impressed with is the selection of jazz artists chosen to headline the festival. As you are aware, these headliners consisted of:

  • Audrey Shakir
  • Warren Wolf Quintet
  • Regina Carter's “Reverse Thread”

  • Sean Jones Quintet
  • Gerald Clayton Trio
  • Ninety Miles (featuring saxophonist David Sanchez, vibraphonist Stefon Harris and trumpeter Christian Scott)
These are all JAZZ musicians of the highest order and an indication to me that the Atlanta Jazz Festival is serious about presenting a festival that is deserving of it's title, as well as fulfilling its new mission statement:

It is the mission of the Atlanta Jazz Festival to expose and entertain a diverse audience of Jazz aficionados, young Jazz enthusiasts and aspiring musicians to the rich heritage and variety of Jazz as an authentic form of traditional music.

Although the wording has slightly changed, the mission remains the same.

So, I write not to criticize, but to praise! I applaud the decision made to actually get back to presenting jazz; for providing important exposure for youth bands as well as established artists; for providing an example and direction for the general public; and for truly fulfilling the tenets of your mission statement.

To you, the organizers of the Atlanta Jazz Festival, I say, THANKS!

David J. Boutté

Sean Jones Quintet

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Horace Silver!

Listening to Horace Silver is simply an amazing aural experience! The man has an incredible feel for 'The Music' as Amiri Baraka calls it. Is there a more complete musician out there? I know there are arguments for cats like Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and Thelonious Monk. In no way do I intend to denigrate those guys or anyone else. They were all great and pivotal in the history of 'The Music'. Horace came after those guys, when the music was more established, so there were less trails to blaze, so to speak. Horace was a master of the post-bop or hard-bop genre. He has written some of the more soulful tunes that jazz has ever known. His piano comping behind soloists is second to none. His playing is always swinging, intelligent and most of all soulful. I know that Horace is a proponent of the holistic-healing aspects of his music. When I first heard this, I was---as my nature dictates—skeptical. However, after delving more into his music, I am a believer! If you submit and allow the music to move you, then you will definitely be better off for it. The music of Horace Silver is definitely music for the mind, body and the soul!

Here is a great example of his composition, arranging and soloing skills—a performance of 'Señor Blues' at the 1959 Newport Jazz Festival:

Monday, May 25, 2009

Atlanta Jazz Festival--A jazz festival in name only? (An open letter to the Atlanta Jazz Festival)

To Atlanta Jazz Festival Staff:

Alonzo Craig, Festival Manager
Manager, Performing Arts Division

David N. Mitchell
Manager, Public Relations & Sponsorship Development

Nnena Nchege
Project Supervisor, Music Festival Programs

Tiffani Bryant
Project Supervisor, Art in Education

Monica Prothro
Project Supervisor, Contracts for Arts Services

I am writing out of concern for the way that the great art form of jazz music is represented by the City of Atlanta.

In my experience, many people that I come across do not know a lot about jazz music. They know some of the names, many of which have long passed--Ellington, Monk, Armstrong, Coltrane, etc., but don't know a lot about their music. Even less are they familiar with the music of modern day masters, some of whom have performed at the Atlanta Jazz Festival, such as Benny Golson, Percy Heath, Roy Hargrove, McCoy Tyner, Geri Allen and Herbie Hancock. Therefore, I believe it is incumbent upon the City of Atlanta to properly represent jazz music at a so-called "jazz festival", which by it's own words, state:

It is the mission of the Atlanta Jazz Festival to expose and entertain a diverse audience of jazz aficionados, young jazz enthusiasts and musical artists to the rich heritage and variety of jazz as an authentic form of traditional music.

Looking at the lineup there is only one act, Atlanta resident, Freddy Cole, that helps to fulfill the goal of the mission statement quoted above. Of course, this is only my opinion, but it is not unshared by others (i.e. The rest of the acts are all non-jazz acts or performers who have performed jazz at some point in their careers, but as presented at the festival only have some peripheral connection to jazz music.

My earlier point that many people do not know a lot about jazz music was made to illustrate that by having a major American city to mischaracterize America's great art form leads to not only to a continuance of the lack of knowledge about the music, but actually advances that ignorance about the essence of the music, its progenitors and the many varied forms that it comprises (i.e., swing, bop, post-bop, cool, avant-garde, etc.).

This letter is written with the hope that, in the future, the City of Atlanta presents a festival that is worthy of being called a "jazz festival". Is there any other form of music that is more disrespected? I doubt that we'd would see country, reggae, hip hop, classical, etc. festivals given the same treatment of not actually presenting the music they purport to represent--so why is this done to the jazz genre?

David J. Boutte

Sunday, March 22, 2009

The Enjoyment of Jazz Music

Dexter Gordon

The key to jazz enjoyment is recognizing the individuality of the muisicians involved. Before really getting into jazz, I, like a lot of others, thought that "all jazz sounds alike". That is the impression that I get from a lot of casual or non-jazz fans. The essence of jazz enjoyment, however, is in the nuances that make each performance unique. The Miles Davis Quintet sounds nothing like the John Coltrane Quartet; nothing like the Art Ensemble of Chicago--and nothing like the Branford Marsalis Quintet.

Right now, I am listening to "The Apartment" by Dexter Gordon. Listening to Dexter Gordon, it is clearly apparent that no one else sounds like Dexter. In fact, no one else sounds like any of the other members of the band either. Albert "Tootie" Heath has his own "bouncing" style on the drums. Not as much going on as Ed Blackwell, Jack Dejohnette or Elvin Jones. Not as forceful as Art Blakey or Ralph Peterson. Just pure swing...pure swing...PURE SWING!

Kenny Drew is another one that swings his ass off. No tricky stuff like Thelonious Monk; no forcefulness of McCoy Tyner...but, you can tell that he plays close attention to the other members of the band and responds accordingly. No extra stuff--just what is necessary, and it's a thing of beauty.

Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen (or NHØP because his name is so damned long!): I won't lie and say that he sounds so distinct, because I don't hear it (maybe others so), but he plays with such a clarity and evokes such a pure sound from his bass that he brings about perfection--literally.

And then...there's...Long Tall Dexter! My belief is that no one---absolutely no one---swung as hard as Dexter did. In fact, has Dexter ever not swung? I doubt it. If he hasn't, I haven't heard it. I think it's safe to say, the brother did not have a non-swinging bone in his body. I'll bet my life on it.

And...listening to the rest of his band members, on this and other recordings, it was obviously infectious.

The point is, to enjoy jazz music--and to eventually love it--requires listening closely. Listen to the nuances of each instrumentalist--they are all important. Listen to their individuality--they are all unique. Four or five unique voices, coming together in a quartet or quintet---or maybe less, or more voices, they all create something special. Jazz is not meant to be 'background music', it is meant to be listened to, so....


Sunday, February 22, 2009

The Great Geri Allen

As you can see, I rarely update this blog. When I do, it's because I get a feeling about a musician that is so overwhelming that I am inspired to write. Well, tonight, that feeling is provided by Geri Allen. Mind you, I just finished listening to the great Andrew Hill, but it is another pianist that is inspiring me to write at the moment.

For those unfamiliar with Geri Allen, she has been on the scene for quite a few years now. When I was a student at the University of New Orleans, before the widespread use of the Internet, I spent many hours in the library, looking at the periodical indices and reading on microfiche various articles, mostly from the Village Voice, about this new Brooklyn-based jazz movement called M-Base. It's leader, from what I could gather, was Steve Coleman; but prominent among these members was a pianist by the name of Geri Allen. Based upon these readings, I was inspired to purchase Steve Coleman's "Motherland Pulse" album and this led to my introduction of the great Geri Allen. She has the first solo on this recording, on the tune "Irate Blues", and immediately, it was apparent that this was a special musician. Here was a piano player that sounded different than anyone else, who played "in the tradition" but was also forward looking. Some compared her to Don Pullen and although I understand the basis of the comparison, in no way does she sound like or imitate him. She does, however, belong in his class as far as her unique sound is concerned. She is one of those piano players, like Pullen, McCoy Tyner, Thelonious Monk, Duke Ellington or Cecil Taylor, that when you hear them, you immediately know who it is.

(As a side note, I'll never forget the day that I was jogging in New York City's Upper West Side, along Broadway, and who do I see standing in front of Birdland? You guessed it--Ms. Allen! I stopped and spoke with her a few minutes. She was surprised and pleased to be recognized and was gracious enough to invite me as a guest to her show that night.)

Geri Allen was born in Pontiac, Michigan, which was fortunate for her as a musician because it placed her at one of the great jazz cities in the world--Detroit. Along with New Orleans, I can't imagine a better city to be in for a developing jazz musician. From Detroit, she attended Howard University in Washington, DC and then moved to New York City before earning a masters in ethnomusicology at the University of Pittsburgh. She eventually moved back to New York to begin her association with M-Base and from there has moved on to become, in my opinion, the leading pianist of her generation.

In that time period, Ms. Allen has performed in various formats. Her "In The Middle/On The Left Side" recording is probably her most M-Based-influenced recording, featuring Steve Coleman on some of the cuts. This is an out of print recording that is highlighted by what I consider to be a classic performance "I Sang a Bright Green Tear for All of Us This Year". It is not a standard and probably never will be one (not that it's not deserving), but it is an absolute gem. It is uniquely "Geri Allen-ish" and features some great vocals by another Detroit-based musician, Shahida Nurallah. Do yourself a favor and give it a listen.

Geri Allen has performed other strong work as a side`artist, most notably with Oliver Lake, Ralph Peterson and Ornette Coleman, but she seems to have hit her stride in various trio settings where she either led or was the co-leader, consisting of her with Andrew Cyrille/Anthony Cox; Allen/Ralph Peterson/Phil Bowler or Essiet Essiet; Allen/Paul Motian/Charlie Haden and Allen/Jack DeJohnette/Dave Holland. These recordings easily rival the celebrated Keith Jarrett recordings as some of the finest trio recordings of the past couple of decades.

Some of her accomplishments include winning the African American Classical Music Award from Spelman College, the Danish JAZZPAR prize and the Benny Golson Award, given out by Howard University and she has been awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, for which she is composing a solo piano project that she will be performing from 2009 to 2011 in major museums and concert halls around the world.

She is currently a Professor of Jazz and Contemporary Improvisation at the University of Michigan and she is married to jazz trumpeter, Wallace Roney.'s biography of Geri Allen sums it up best when it says:

"Geri Allen is the quintessence of what a late-'90s mainstream jazz musician should be. Well versed in a variety of modern jazz styles, from bop to free, Allen steers a middle course in her own music, speaking in a cultivated and moderately distinctive voice, respectful of, but not overly impressed with the doctrine of conservatism that rules the scene at the end of jazz's first century."

If you want to hear just about the finest piano playing today, pick up a recording of hers, or better yet, go see her live in person. You won't be disappointed. Plus, I have a feeling that the best is yet to come.