What Is Jazz?

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Who’s next in the pantheon?

John Coltrane. Now, Trane is very, very essential. Trane is an example for all musicians because his development came from phenomenally hard work. And Trane’s sound has a special dignity to it, a deep compassion. It’s very earnest. It gives you a whole new idea of how the blues can be played. It’s not low-down, guttural blues, but it’s still deeply soulful. Listen to Coltrane Plays the Blues . Doo weee-ooooh— Trane sounds like he’s playing field hollers sometimes! Trane brought the spirituals back. Once again, his sound is ancient but new, something you’ve never yet heard, with both the sound of field hollers and the psychological complexity Bird brought into the music.

One thing about musicians like Coltrane or Bird or Monk or Miles, when he was serious about playing, is the amount of information they conveyed simply in their sound . Louis Armstrong’s sound—that might have been someone playing outside the walls of Jericho! That’s some ancient information. The musicians who are the most successful are the ones who cause the most eras to resonate.

And once you combine Coltrane with his drummer Elvin Jones—because without Elvin, Coltrane is not the same—that’s two people who pack the same amounts of information into their instruments. Elvin Jones sounds like some ancient African drummer. He’s from Pontiac, Michigan! But the ages resonate when he plays. The way Elvin hits a cymbal, it has the sound of the earth in it.

What did the best drummers contribute?

The drum is the heart of the music. The music has two things, incantation and percussion. It’s like the sound of a train: Ask a group of kids, “How does a train sound?” Some of them will go “Woo-woo-woo,” others will go “Chicka-chicka-chicka.” That’s the blues. Incantation and percussion. We have a tendency to talk only about the incantation side, Ellington or Miles Davis. But without the percussion side, without that rhythm section—no music.

And after Coltrane?

Well, there’s Ornette Coleman. He brought another way of playing the blues, a real country way of playing the blues, the Texas blues. The sound of Charlie Parker, the whole tradition of the saxophone—Parker, Johnny Hodges—really resonates when Omette plays. He plays very short themes, but they’re very melodic. He’s a genius melodic improviser.

Duke Ellington is the greatest intellectual of jazz. He codified the music. He put it down, like Bach did for European music. All the characteristics of jazz that we’ve gone through are in Ellington.…

What about the free-jazz innovations of his that everybody talks about?

That’s just what they talk about. He’s had one conception that was innovative, of playing across the bar. He hears phrases rhythmically a certain way. He doesn’t think, “I have to fit this melody into eight bars.” He’ll play it in seven, or seven and a half, or whatever. He hears across-bar phrases. I love that, and I try to write my own music like that.

Do you understand what he calls his harmolodic theory?

No, I think that’s just some type of theoretical conception he wants to talk about. I don’t think it’s what he’s playing.

What is he playing?

He’s playing country blues. In short phrases. I’ve talked to Omette about his notion of free jazz. I don’t understand it. I think it’s chaos. Maybe it’s not, but that’s what I think it is. Chaos is always out there; it’s something you can get from any fifty kids in a band room. I’m in favor of using that conception when kids first start playing. It helps them explore their instruments and music without restraint.

Are there any great contributors after Coleman?

There are so many I haven’t touched on: Art Tatum, Erroll Garner, Charles Mingus, Max Roach, the Modern Jazz Quartet, Ahmad Jamal. There are so many bad mothers, man. The list of truly great musicians goes on and on. Now we have Marcus Roberts, somebody who’s actually rejoining the tradition to itself. But he’s not recognized.

Isn’t he too young to have a fully developed personality?

No, his personality is very clear. It’s highly developed. Once again, you get that deep blues sound. And then he combines a conception of rhythm that never before existed—playing in two totally different times—with the tradition of stride piano. No one has ever syncopated the way Marcus does. And he gives tremendous attention to thematic material. It’s the same few things we keep seeing in the great players. His solos are beautifully organized.

You would put Marcus Roberts in the same category as Monk?

I don’t know if I could do that, but only because I don’t know how far above an impoverished environment you can rise. Monk comes out of a golden age; Marcus Roberts comes out of a barren desert.

It has been a criticism of you that you’re deaf to a lot of interesting music since the era of Coltrane and Coleman.