Blues up and Down: Jazz in Our Time

Overview

In these pages Tom Piazza, the award-winning author of The Guide to Classic Recorded Jazz, chronicles two decades of upheaval in the jazz world - and presents a persuasive vision of the music's continuing role in our culture. A tour-de-force mixture of reportage, criticism, and essay, Blues Up and Down confronts the central questions facing the music today: Is there a conflict between innovation and tradition? Is there such a thing as "progress" in the arts? And what are the stakes in the debate - for musicians, ...
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Overview

In these pages Tom Piazza, the award-winning author of The Guide to Classic Recorded Jazz, chronicles two decades of upheaval in the jazz world - and presents a persuasive vision of the music's continuing role in our culture. A tour-de-force mixture of reportage, criticism, and essay, Blues Up and Down confronts the central questions facing the music today: Is there a conflict between innovation and tradition? Is there such a thing as "progress" in the arts? And what are the stakes in the debate - for musicians, for critics, and for listeners? His answers are provocative and original, and his survey of the music, coming at a crucial time in its history, is fresh on every page.
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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
According to some critics, jazz today is in a renaissance. Yet others take the view that jazz is dead, that today's young players are trapped in the past. These two books are on opposite sides of this raging debate. Relating the history of jazz to social forces, Nisenson (Ascension: Coltrane and His Quest, LJ 12/93) concludes that jazz is no longer created in its own time but is instead a dead art form. As a result, he attacks those he refers to as the "neo-classicists": Stanley Crouch, Albert Murray, Wynton Marsalis, and Piazza himself. In his collection of previously published pieces, Piazza (The Guide to Classic Recorded Jazz, LJ 3/1/95) takes the opposite tack, arguing that the concept of "jazz as emotion" is a fallacy and that jazz has regained what it had been missing in the years of jazz-rock fusion: technique, a feeling of swing, and knowledge of and respect for the tradition. (Sadly, another issue raised in both books is racism; there have been accusations that the Jazz at Lincoln Center program, under the auspices of Marsalis, has excluded white musicians.) The truth likely lies somewhere between the two poles presented here, and these two books are recommended jointly for effectively providing both sides of the argument.Michael Colby, Univ. of California, Davis
Kirkus Reviews
Piazza, whose short-story collection Blues and Trouble (1996) won the Michener Prize, looks again at his favorite music in this collection of occasional pieces.

Writing on jazz between 1979 and 1997 (for which he won the 1996 ASCAPDeems Taylor Award for Music Writing), Piazza has had the opportunity to watch this musical phoenix arise once again resplendent from its supposed ashes. In the course of the two decades covered by the pieces in this volume (most of them previously published in the New York Times, the New Republic, Atlantic Monthly, and the Village Voice), Piazza has recounted the arrival of a new generation of young jazz musicians, headed by the controversial Wynton Marsalis. The author has been one of the more forceful advocates for Marsalis and his acolytes and their brand of neoclassical jazz. Briefly, Piazza believes that the critics who decry Marsalis's lack of "emotion" are unwittingly and tacitly racist, reducing all jazz to a sort of primitive expression of raw feeling and undervaluing the role of intellect in the creation of the music. It's an argument that's not without some merit, as his lengthy attacks on James Lincoln Collier (particularly a scathing review of Collier's egregious Duke Ellington biography) show. But too many of the pieces here—the opening reviews of McCoy Tyner and Mary Lou Williams in particular—have little or nothing to do with this thesis. The best essays are reportage from the road, a previously unpublished piece on a jazz festival in Dahomey and a recounting of days and nights on tour with Wynton and his band.

Piazza is a writer worth paying attention to, but this book is too slight a framework to support his arguments. In fact, it is too slight a framework to call a book.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780312201326
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Press
  • Publication date: 12/15/1998
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Pages: 194
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.24 (h) x 0.54 (d)

Table of Contents

Introduction

Part One
Chapter 1.
-McCoy Tyner's Present Tense
-Mary Lou Williams Keeps the Faith
-The Stick Carriers

Part Two
Chapter 2.
-Black and Tan Fantasy
-Sing, Sing, Sing

Chapter 3.
-Portrait of Wynton Marsalis

Chapter 4.
-Young, Gifted, and Cool
-Keepers of the Flame

Chapter 5.
-The Little Record Labels That Could
-The Smithsonian/Folkways Legacy
-The Adam, Eve, and Maybelle of Country
-A Creation Myth, or Jelly's Last Laugh
-How Two Pianists Remade a Tradition
-Jazz Piano's Heavyweight Champ

Chapter 6.
-The Shock of the Old
-Lincoln Center and Its Critics Swing Away

Part Three
Chapter 7: Blues Up and Down

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First Chapter

CHAPTER ONE

The first pieces in this book were written in 1979 and 1980. It was an odd time for jazz music; everyone seemed to be looking for ... something. By the end of the disco seventies, jazz had been carved up into a number of weakened principalities, each of which was trying to maintain its aesthetic and commercial vital signs in the shadow of the great superpower that rock had become.

The most widely acknowledged of these principalities--commercially at least--was what was known as fusion, the jazz-rock amalgam exemplified by the mid-seventies work of Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, Miles Davis, Weather Report, John McLaughlin, Stanley Clarke, Jaco Pastorius, Billy Cobham, et al. Although many fusion players--Corea, McLaughlin, Hancock, Joe Zawinul, Wayne Shorter--were great musicians, virtuosi even, the music they made during that period was, I feel, a dead end as far as jazz was concerned. Of course, fusion didn't really deliver the same kinds of satisfactions that rock delivered, either, and what these musicians ended up producing, in my opinion, was either undanceable rock or unswinging jazz, depending on how you looked at it.

The scene around more so-called traditional jazz players was not, for the most part, much better at that time. For a young musician interested in straight-ahead acoustic playing, the New York club scene was uninspiring at best. There was little enticement in the prospect of spending the rest of one's nights in smoky clubs, playing long hours for low pay, grinding out recycled chorus after chorus of"How High the Moon" with a pickup rhythm section--using the same musical tea bag over and over. Record companies handed out few meaningful recording contracts for playing jazz, and the audience for the music was dwindling.

For many reasons, the value of the technical expertise that jazz musicians win for themselves at such cost of time and effort had been called into question. The terms in which jazz musicians saw what they were doing had begun to slip out of focus. Part of the problem was that most young musicians who still thought of themselves as part of the jazz world were thinking of their development in terms of soloing, of developing a solo style. But the potential for the development of an original solo style was exhausted because the context in which soloists were operating had become stagnant.

The avant garde, such as it was, had the right impulse in some ways, which was to try and find a new, invigorating ensemble concept. So bands like the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Air, the World Saxophone Quartet, the Revolutionary Ensemble, David Murray's and Arthur Blythe's bands, Cecil Taylor's and Muhal Richard Abrams's, seemed to many to represent the direction jazz would have to take if it were to remain creatively vital. Even the fusion bands, especially Weather Report, were shooting for something that might be more interesting than endless choruses of "I Got Rhythm."

Many of the avant-garde players had lots of energy and gusto, but the kind of detailing of articulation that one heard in Charlie Parker's playing, in John Coltrane, in Ornette Coleman, the specificity of intent traceable to definite small details of choice, was lacking in many of them--especially the horn players, who seemed to be working with very broad brushes. Hearing them was, to me, like looking at a painting through a blurred screen. They often seemed unable to play a line of notes evenly, in time, and a musician who can't play a scale evenly, in time, is like a painter who can't draw.

There was still a lot of good music around, to be sure; one could still go to clubs and hear Dizzy Gillespie, Sonny Stitt, McCoy Tyner, Art Blakey, Stan Getz, Dexter Gordon, Mary Lou Williams, Earl Hines, Lee Konitz, James Moody, Dick Wellstood--the woods were especially full of good pianists--Barry Harris, Tommy Flanagan, Hank Jones, Cedar Walton, Kenny Barron, Jimmy Rowles, John Hicks. And a new, vital step toward freshening the ensemble concept in the music was being taken by saxophonist John Zorn and many of the musicians around him, as well as by percussionist Warren Smith and his Composer's Workshop Ensemble, which were having great sessions in Smith's loft on Twenty-first Street.

But in general the sense of why jazz was important--of what jazz was in the first place--had become diluted; the music needed a revivifying, organizing metaphor. Certainly there was a sense that few young musicians, especially young black musicians, were bothering to learn how to play jazz anymore; few even seemed to ask what was involved in learning to play jazz. Most young musicians who thought they were learning to play jazz were learning from fusion and funk records, along with a handful of Coltrane recordings. The sense that in order to learn how to play jazz, whatever that meant, you might have to go back and study, really dig into some roots that extended back before the 1960s, was all but unheard of, except among a handful of young white players who tried to sound and dress like 1930s swing musicians. These archivist types--Scott Hamilton, Chris Flory, Warren Vache, and a number of others--could play very convincingly in the styles of earlier players, but they were anachronisms, members of a consciously retro movement rather than players bent on reimagining the idiom for themselves.

These first three pieces, then, were written during a time when the music was waiting for a breath of conceptual fresh air. The first two appeared in the Village Voice, and were efforts to work out a couple of personal aesthetic questions. McCoy Tyner was an artist whose work I respected highly but didn't enjoy listening to. That apparent contradiction had always puzzled me, and the first of these pieces was my attempt to come to grips with it.

The work of Mary Lou Williams raised a different question. In all her performances she played in any number of superficially different "styles" of jazz, while always maintaining a personality that was distinctly her own and, moreover, always playing jazz. She was a one-person articulation of a question--what was the common denominator in all these styles?

Sometime after this piece appeared I went to visit Ms. Williams at her apartment in Harlem, and we spent the after noon talking and playing piano. At that time I played in a Bud Powell vein, with right-hand lines over jabbing left-hand accents. At one point she came over to the piano bench and told me to play some bebop in my right hand, on "I Got Rhythm" chords. While I did this she sat down next to me and played a fantastic stride left hand. The two halves of the piano fit together perfectly. "See?" she said. "They work together." It was a striking lesson in the essential unity of jazz.

Beyond that, Williams's work suggested that what might be missing from the traditional players' vision of things at that time was a sense of the wholeness and continuity of jazz music, a sense of what they were doing with all those choruses of "I Got Rhythm." It had become just a gig for so many of them. Williams was suggesting that the unity of jazz bespoke a spiritual force that was of the essence of the music, and that if you lost that spiritual orientation you were truly losing the soul of jazz.

In any case, the Tyner and Williams reviews are offered as glances into the work of two major figures at a time of doldrums for the music.

The third piece in this section was written in 1980. In January of that year the resort conglomerate Club Mediterranee was holding a jazz festival at its "village" outside Dakar, Senegal. It lasted for months; a band from the U.S. would go over, spend two weeks, then come back to make room for the next band. Musicians on the level of Dizzy Gillespie and Stan Getz participated; all they had to do was perform regularly at the tiny upstairs bar at the Club Med and then play a couple of public concerts in Dakar. Club Med was advertising the festival with the catchphrase "Jazz goes back to its roots," and it was easy to be excited by the notion. I got an assignment from a now-defunct magazine called Quest, and went over with the quartet of tenor saxophonist Clifford Jordan, which included pianist Tommy Flanagan, bassist Walter Booker, and drummer Wilbur Campbell.

At the time I was twenty-four--I had started working as a messenger at The New Yorker, in the old offices at 25 West Forty-third Street, with Thurber drawings preserved like frescoes on one editor's wall and the ongoing presence in the halls of legendary figures like Joseph Mitchell, Lillian Ross, and, of course, the editor, William Shawn. After the Senegal trip it was apparent that the article I wanted to write was not going to work for Quest, but with encouragement from Bill Whitworth, at the time a nonfiction editor at The New Yorker, I worked on "The Stick Carriers" for much of the spring and summer of 1980 anyway. Just before Labor Day weekend I took a deep breath and dropped it off in the office of Mr. Shawn (everyone who worked there called him "Mr. Shawn," except for a handful of old-timers], whom I had previously glimpsed only briefly as I made my rounds delivering pencils or proofs in the hallways--a short, slightly stooped man with only a fringe of white hair around his pink head, always dressed in a black suit.

At the beginning of the next week, I was summoned to Mr. Shawn's office. He invited me to sit down on the one square foot of pink upholstered love seat that was not covered with neatly arranged stacks of manuscripts, and told me that he wanted to buy my article. He wanted me to know, though, that there was a very good chance the piece would never run. Whitney Balliett did most of the jazz writing, and there was great respect for such territorial claims there, in those days. But if I was willing to take that chance, he thought they should buy the piece. Of course I was willing to take that chance; I will probably never have another professional thrill equal to that one.

Later that week I ran into the poet Larry Neal on the street and told him excitedly about my news. He grinned and said, "That means you're rich for a minute." He had it right; I was rich for a minute. And for half a minute I was famous among my friends because of the sale. My confidence as a writer got a boost beyond compare. And The New Yorker never did run "The Stick Carriers."

MCCOY TYNER'S PRESENT TENSE

The Village Voice, January 1979

Long after literature and painting and so-called serious music abandoned the task of charting linear time, offering instead a vision of the present as a web of simultaneous events with no causal relationships, jazz still fashioned itself after a myth of struggle and resolution. It was the last place where art told a story in the traditional sense.

The tonic/dominant relationship in which jazz was rooted until twenty years ago is always linked to the idea of finding home; a tension is set up by a chord, or a series of chords, and is finally resolved. This metaphor for voyage and return, the succession of events, which was woven into the harmonic fabric of pre-Coltrane jazz, was built also into its structure--the organization into choruses, whether they be the 12-measure chorus of the blues or the standard 32-measure chorus of the American romantic song. Performances were organisms in which each chorus revolved through the seasons of its beginning, middle, and end before giving way to the next. John Coltrane was so obsessed early in his career with the nature of scales and chords that he sometimes sounded as if he were trying to cram every possible harmonic permutation into an impossibly small space. His "Moment's Notice" had a density of harmonic movement virtually unprecedented in jazz, and he took it a step further with "Giant Steps." After that, his music started changing; the microcosmic attention to choruses and tonic/dominant relationships disappears on his later records.

McCoy Tyner was Coltrane's pianist from 1960 to 1965, and his music today is based on the assumptions developed by the later Coltrane groups with which he played, although his music doesn't sound the same. Tyner's album The Greeting features his current band (George Adams and Joe Ford, reeds; Charles Fambrough, bass; Sonship, drums; and Guilherme Franco, percussion) in a live performance in San Francisco. This is the same band that Tyner used in two recent appearances at the Village Gate.

Much of Tyner's music is based on vamps, rhythmic phrases implying little or no harmonic movement. It is not a very melodic music; one isn't so much moved through time as immersed in the present, and when Tyner's melodies are in the foreground they tend to be chantlike. The performance of his "Hand in Hand," which opens the album, consists mainly of a phrase based on the pentatonic scale, which is repeated over and over, while Tyner's unaccompanied version of "Naima," John Coltrane's most enduring ballad, is the basis for a series of meditations that start softly and build in volume and density until the tension breaks and starts again. Tyner's playing is full of suspended chords, chords that make the harmonic destination ambiguous. Here, as in the group performances, tension-and-release is supplied only by changes of texture and dynamics between sections of the performance, rather than the development of melodic or harmonic ideas.

"Fly with the Wind," the longest track on the record, is a good example of the group's approach. What drama there is depends almost entirely on the intensity of the musicians' energy. The sound is densely layered; all the instruments are in the foreground. George Adams's tenor solo seems gouged out of the mass of group sound. Like Tyner's solo later in the track, it is not a line leading from one place to another, but a series of shapes set in relief against other shapes. Rather than being driven down a track, you are placed in the middle of something that is happening all around you. The listener feels less like an audience to brilliance than like a near-participant in some ritual.

Is jazz back to where it was before it became an "art" music? Music for dancing and communal participation? I don't think so; for all its sense of being present at some sacrament, the audience at the Gate never got a chance to participate as it might have at the Savoy. Tyner's music lacks humor and a certain grace. It is urgent music, music reaching out to the realm of action, rather than retreating into a hermetic world with its own laws. Jazz's greatest exponents have always been those who could find the right spontaneous synthesis of the present and the eternal on a moment's notice; with Tyner, and with all the modal improvisers who have come after him, it is hard to know if the scales have been tipped beyond balance.

MARY LOU WILLIAMS KEEPS THE FAITH

The Village Voice, November 1979

Mary Lou Williams's career has spanned more than five decades, which is to say that she has been contemporary with most of the major trends in jazz, yet she has remained adaptable, more adaptable than any other musician of her era. At the beginning of the 1970s she began performing regularly after nearly a decade of relative obscurity and has since been all over, performing in clubs and concerts, touring, teaching at Duke University, and acting as a kind of mother superior for many younger musicians, teaching them the grammar of older styles and, doubtless, learning from them in return. She is playing better now than she ever has.

Her conviction is that certain key elements, syntactical and spiritual, are to be found throughout jazz--characteristic rhythmic patterns and turns of melody as well as canons of deployment. Williams makes different use of these possibilities depending on her mood. In one humor she will alight at different chronological, even geographical, points in jazz--say, Kansas City 1936, or Harlem 1929--and play as if she were sitting in the Reno Club or Connie's Inn, before jumping ahead or back, narrowing, as she goes, the distance between styles usually thought to be incompatible. In another mood, styles that she might treat separately come together like pictures seen on a stereoscope, taking on a new dimension as they are overlaid. This latter approach usually brings forth her most moving work.

Solo Recital, an album recorded live at the 1978 Montreux Jazz Festival, is a somewhat dizzying survey of jazz styles. The main event is an eleven-minute medley, a regular feature of her concerts, in which she moves from a spiritual to ragtime to the blues to stride to boogie-woogie with an authority that would be impossible for just about anyone else. The record also offers three stride showpieces ("Tea for Two," "The Man I Love," and "Honeysuckle Rose"), two Williams classics of the 1930s ("Little Joe from Chicago" and "What's Your Story, Morning Glory?"), a hazy, reflective "Over the Rainbow" laced with echoes of Bud Powell, an "Offertory Meditation" that is a near-double to Miles Davis's "All Blues," and a very free improvisation entitled "Concerto Alone at Montreux."

All in all, this is a stunning and startling album, a tour de force, remarkable for the way certain phrases and harmonies echo each other from performance to performance, era to era. Yet one senses that Williams, in these pieces, is putting styles on display rather than playing from down deep; it sounds as if she is having trouble concentrating. On "Offertory Meditation," rapid-fire licks and stabbing, repeated chords are introjected without an appropriate buildup of tension, while in the "Concerto," quick treble phrases skitter along on top of a dark, somber left hand, as if she can't quite settle down. Still, much of the playing is exuberant and engaging, and as evidence for her contention that "all eras in the history of jazz were modern' it is hard to beat.

My Mama Pinned a Rose on Me is a more satisfying illustration of the essential unity of jazz, for in it Williams plays from the heart without consciously trying to make a point. So a boogie-woogie tune is studded with bop licks or an old, deep blues is suffused with Tyneresque open fourths--seamlessly, because it is all her. The record is, in effect, a suite; from the first notes a mood settles. The first side, except for an opening recitative by vocalist Cynthia Tyson, is Mary Lou Williams by herself, playing the blues in seven varieties: a waltz, a boogie woogie, a 16-bar, and various slow versions. The differences be-tween them are differences of mood, rather than period; at no point would one say, "Oh, this is a Bud Powell groove," or "She's doing Fats Waller now." Her playing here transcends style, contains all styles.

Except for an introductory piano solo of dark, intense beauty, side two is a collaboration with the great bassist Buster Williams. It continues and expands upon the mood set on side one with more blues, a more languid and meditative version of "What's Your Story, Morning Glory?" than the one on Solo Recital, an "I Got Rhythm" derivative, another waltz, and swinging medium-tempo blues that ends in a producer's fade out, one of the few times that device has sounded right to me. My Mama Pinned a Rose on Me is a record full of exquisite moments, fragile and strong at the same time. You can't make a rose bloom by yelling at it; here Williams has given a mood the space and time to grow, moment to moment, and has made one of her most enduring statements.

(CHAPTER ONE CONTINUES ...)

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