Saturday, June 04, 2011

Unpacking "25 NYC Jazz Icons"

Update: Saturday, 6/4/11—This post has been updated with Ted Panken's latest response, and my response to that response (and yet another response from Ted!). Scroll down to read the newer material.

I'm happy that people have been checking out the list of NYC jazz icons that my TONY colleague Steve Smith and I put together. Ted Panken took the time to organize his reactions into a thoughtful blog post, and I thank him for this effort. Since Ted takes issue with the overall tenor of the list, it seemed appropriate to respond. I attempted to post the following as a comment on his blog, but I think it may have been auto-rejected on account of its length. Whether or not it shows up there, I wanted to post it here for the record; I've slightly augmented my initial comment to clarify a few points and to specifically address this remark of Ted's: "In my view — and it’s only my view — a few too many of the choices privilege an aesthetic of recondite hipsterism."


Greetings Ted,

I appreciate your thoughtful response. Leaning too "avant" or "progressive" was a concern of mine, but in the end—and I speak only in terms of my contribution to the project—I had to go with my gut, as well as with what I know. I make no claim to a 360-degree viewpoint. When it comes to jazz in our wonderful city, I keep up with as much as I can, but obviously I have my biases and blind spots.

In a way, I was hoping for exactly this sort of naming-names rebuttal. Some of the artists on your list (Binney, Lovano, Reid, Ribot, Eskelin, Morris, etc.) are very familiar to me and came up during Steve's and my discussion leading up to the final selection. Others (Harrell, Malone, Lynch) are less so, and I look forward to doing some research.

As far as the use of the word "icons," maybe there's some hyperbole there. I guess that, word choice aside, what I personally was aiming for was a kind of representative cross-section. And per my admission above, we may have failed in that. In our defense, though, I think we made strong cases for our inclusions, leaving aside those we may have excluded; maybe that's the best a list-maker can hope to accomplish.

To address one specific point, our inclusion of Marsalis wasn't begrudging at all—we simply ranked him where we felt he belonged. Another point re: the nitty-gritty of the rankings: To me, the most enjoyable aspect of making the list was the fact that Steve and I each independently arrived at Paul Motian as our No. 1 when this project was still in its nascent phase. In a way, that fact should tell any reader of the list where we're coming from. A list on which, say, Wynton placed first would be a list written from a very different perspective, and it's a perspective I totally welcome. (Seriously, if anyone wants to make that list, I'd love to see it!) But going back to that issue of bias—let's just call it taste—as anyone who's stopped by my blog could probably tell you, I make no bones about my deep love for the mystery men of jazz (Andrew Hill, RIP), of which Motian is probably our greatest living example, and certainly our greatest living-in-NYC example.

With regard to some of the younger players on the list, if cheerleading for the likes of Jon Irabagon, Matana Roberts and Fieldwork makes me a proponent or enabler re: an aesthetic of recondite hipsterism, then so be it. I can definitely respect the fact that the essence of great jazz can sometimes get obscured when there's too much focus on the "avant," conceptually rigorous or future-minded, but I nominated these three (and several others on the list) simply because I feel they represent the best kind of progressiveness—one that forges ahead without losing the thread.

Anyway, our chief goal was to incite discussion and—if not ire—at least enough controversy to fuel some impassioned responses. I greatly admire your work, and I'm sincerely honored that you took the time to write up a thoughtful rebuttal to what we put out there. The fact that there's disagreement signifies that we are surveying an extremely broad landscape re: "NYC jazz 2011." On that note, I echo Nate Chinen and Ben Ratliff in saying, more or less, bring on festival season! (I caught one of our TONY "icons," Lee Konitz, kicking off the June jazz rush in high style this very evening at the Blue Note, on the recommendation of Jim Macnie, a writer who I bet could make an essential-NYC-jazz-artists list to put us all to shame.)

Thanks again, Ted, and welcome to the blogosphere. Icons aside, these blindfold tests you've been posting (Konitz, Motian and there's more on the site) are blowing my mind.



Ted Panken's response, posted on his blog:

Thanks, Hank. Had you said “representative critical cross-section” rather than “icon” (and I realize that this is an article for an civilian magazine) I would still have disagreed with but wouldn’t really have had a reason to express high dudgeon. To call someone an “icon” denotes influence, of being an artist with acolytes, who has influenced a stream of musical expression or found a sui generis path from deep R&D on the fundamentals.

Nomenclature aside, your “Time Out” list raises a broader point, the “sore spot” I mentioned towards the end of my post, which is the exclusion from the canons of all too many of my brother and sister journalist-critics of artists who work within groove- and swing-based contexts, who put some blues into their expression, and who endeavor to let their imagination and creativity operate within the idiomatic parameters of jazz and Afro-Caribbean traditions — not to recreate or xerox those traditions, but to deal with them in a present-day context on their own terms. The “mystery men” who fascinate you reached that point through long apprenticeships spent working through these vocabularies (or, as Henry Threadgill discussed with Ethan, the various tributaries of European music and other American and World vernaculars) and allowing their voices to emerge in an organic way.


My response to that response:


Thanks for posting the comment.

I understand what you're saying about the dangers of privileging the outré over the bread-and-butter. And I'm very familiar with the history of, e.g., Motian, and what led him to his more abstract late work. At the same time, I don't feel like anyone that Steve and I championed can be accused of ditching tradition in favor of novelty or lofty conceptualism. Take your description below:

"…artists who work within groove- and swing-based contexts, who put some blues into their expression, and who endeavor to let their imagination and creativity operate within the idiomatic parameters of jazz and Afro-Caribbean traditions — not to recreate or xerox those traditions, but to deal with them in a present-day context on their own terms."

When I read that, the very first artists I think of are players such as Jon Irabagon, who engages in a very direct way with Sonny Rollins in his "Foxy" project and has a record ("The Observer") out with Kenny Barron, one of the elders whom you cited as an omission on our list. Additionally, the Mostly Other People Do the Killing band, of which Irabagon is a member, is one of the most historically minded jazz ensembles in NYC, right down to their parodies of classic cover art and liner notes. Or I think of Matana Roberts, whose "Coin Coin" presentations seem to me like a very conscious engagement with the work of Mingus, Max Roach and John Carter (and maybe even Wynton Marsalis), artists whose work grapples with cultural history and sociopolitical reality. And Jason Moran's ties to Byard, Hill, Abrams and others—not to mention Monk and the stride tradition—are well-documented. To their credit, I think a lot of the younger players who have been captivating the critics are doing so precisely *because* they're demonstrating a very deep awareness of what came before and doing so in very novel, personal ways.

There's definitely such a thing as throwing the baby out with the bathwater when it comes to jazz "innovation," but I'd happily defend all the artists on our list (and again, I'll concede that "icon" may have been too strong a word—in the end, though, the choices and the text are the real content of Steve's and my piece) against such accusations. You'll find tons of groove, swing and blues in the work of the Irabagons, Robertses and Morans of the scene.



Ted Panken's response to the above is here. Apologies for such a convoluted post! Happy to field any questions on the whole exchange.

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