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