The state of jazz Talk­ing with A.B. Spellman


When Dee Dee Bridge­wa­ter was in­stalled as a Na­tional En­dow­ment for the Arts Jazz Mas­ter in 2017, she noted a cer­tain irony. “The year I re­lease an R&B record is the year I be­come a Jazz Mas­ter.” As a Jazz Mas­ter, she’ll dis­cuss her craft with au­thor and arts ad­min­is­tra­tor A.B. Spellman at the Len­sic Per­form­ing Arts Cen­ter on the af­ter­noon of Fri­day, July 27, ahead of her per­for­mance later that evening. Dur­ing their two-hour con­ver­sa­tion, an an­nual fea­ture of the New Mex­ico Jazz Fes­ti­val, the sub­ject of cat­e­gory will no doubt come up.

Be­fore he be­gan a 30-year ten­ure in a va­ri­ety of ad­min­is­tra­tive po­si­tions for the NEA in 1975, Spellman was best known as a mu­sic critic and poet. His 1966 col­lec­tion of bi­ogra­phies of Ce­cil Tay­lor, Or­nette Cole­man, Her­bie Ni­chols, and Jackie McLean, Four Lives in the Be­bop Busi­ness, has be­come a tem­plate for mu­sic bi­og­ra­phy. In the same man­ner as he now con­ducts the Jazz Mas­ter in­ter­views, he gave his sub­jects wide swaths of the text to tell their sto­ries while he pro­vided so­cial, cul­tural, and prac­ti­cal con­text based on each mu­si­cian’s ex­pe­ri­ence.

So what hap­pens when Spellman is on the re­ceiv­ing end of the ques­tions in­stead of the other way around?

Pasatiempo re­cently pinned him down for an email in­ter­view.

Pasatiempo: How strict are the cat­e­gory con­sid­er­a­tions when se­lect­ing a “Jazz” Mas­ter?

A.B .S pell­man: No se­ri­ous mu­sic lover with rea­son­ably big ears should ever care about cat­e­gory. Cat­e­gories are the bane of any ra­tio­nal per­son who se­ri­ously ob­serves cul­ture. Its il­le­git­i­mate child, au­then­tic­ity, is all but dead in a rel­a­tive world of global com­mu­ni­ca­tions. When I was at the NEA, I used to de­fine cat­e­gories for a liv­ing, and I know that they are bull. My late physi­cist brother-in-law used to say that the fail­ure of post-New­to­nian physics is in the im­per­a­tive to put phenom­ena into cat­e­gor­i­cal boxes, only to find out that all the boxes leak. In my heart, I am far past won­der­ing whether Ms. Bridge­wa­ter’s jazz bona fides are com­pro­mised be­cause of an R&B record­ing, any more than I would ques­tion her for record­ing with Malian masters, any more than I would de­mote the mu­si­cians from Mali for record­ing with Dee Dee. Frankly, if Aretha cut a cou­ple more CDs of jazz stan­dards with a jazz quin­tet, I would hap­pily give her a JM award. Haven’t you ever wished for a ra­dio sta­tion that just played good mu­sic with­out be­ing locked into for­mat? It’s some­thing I have rich guy fan­tasies about spon­sor­ing.

Pasa: How about to­day’s jazz singers who are gen­er­a­tions re­moved from the great in­no­va­tors of the 20th cen­tury? Their num­bers seem to be on the rise. Are they in­no­vat­ing, or work­ing in the shad­ows of their fore­run­ners?

Spellman: Cer­tainly, there are many ex­cel­lent jazz singers out there to­day. And yes, there are many more than there were 20 years ago. I do think that we have not had a dom­i­nant pi­o­neer­ing ge­nius vo­cal­ist since Betty Carter, just as we have not had a DPG in­stru­men­tal­ist since John Coltrane, and he died 50 years ago.

But I am grate­ful for what we have. We are no longer bereft of singers whose styles are dis­tin­guish­able from each other. We have sev­eral voices that is­sue nu­ance and power, which was not the case a few years ago. This is par­tic­u­larly true of the women, which is not to say that there are not some ex­cel­lent male vo­cal­ists as well.

I think that the prob­lem, if there is a prob­lem, is with the song. To­day’s pop­u­lar mu­sic is of­ten triv­ial; hip-hop songs don’t con­vert to jazz well, dis­count­ing the prac­tice of mix­ing; and the Broad­way mu­si­cal ain’t putting out any Babes in Arms, Rodgers and Hart’s 1937 pro­duc­tion, which seemed to house half the stan­dards in jazz. Look up the song list in that one and weep. The heart of the prob­lem, if prob­lems have hearts, is that there are so few great lyri­cists, as Broad­way isn’t re­ward­ing them. We keep get­ting pro­duc­tions wherein the sets are more mem­o­rable than the songs. There are ex­cep­tions, of course, but King

Kong the mu­si­cal is on its way. So the singers have to scram­ble to find good songs. Some, like René Marie, are good at mak­ing their own, but it re­ally shouldn’t be that dif­fi­cult.

That’s why I won’t com­pare to­day’s singers with the gen­er­a­tions that pro­duced Bil­lie and Ella and Di­nah and Sarah and Carmen and Nina, et cetera. They came up in a golden age of song. They could chose among an end­less in­ven­tory of lyrics that they could make us be­lieve and melodies that they could trust.

Pasa: Ms. Bridge­wa­ter agrees with the idea that as­pects of her ca­reer have been a search for per­sonal as well as mu­si­cal iden­tity. Are they one and the same?

Spellman: Let me an­swer as a poet: I try to write true. I re­vise for struc­ture and syn­tax, but also for the cleans­ing of BS. That is, if I am go­ing to bother to try for art, or height­ened ex­pres­sion that isn’t re­stricted by rea­son, then I had bet­ter find pur­chase in in­tu­ition, a place to stand in the self, “where mad, lost truth cringes and hides,” to quote my­self. No­body stands there with me.

The re­sult is that when­ever I pre­pare a man­u­script, I am sur­prised to meet the per­son who awaits on the page in his un­der­wear. Iden­tity is re­vealed as much in the voice as in the con­tent. The search is less in the ob­ject (the poem/song) than in the sub­ject (the poet/singer). Fur­ther­more, it is not al­to­gether clear to me that the process is pro­gres­sive. In other words, I don’t know if I will ever truly con­front my­self; the self is tricky, but the search makes for good poetry.

A.B .S pellm ana ttheN EA Jazz Masters Awards Cer­e­mony, 2015; photo Michael G. Ste­wart

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