DownBeat March 2021

First Take


I VIVIDLY RECALL A CONVERSATION FROM THE EARLY 1980S, AT the end of a recording session at the Nola Studios in Manhattan. Some musicians were talking to the great Mario Bauzá (1911–’93) about the course the entertainment industry was taking in our ever-changing world. The musical director and co-founder of the iconic band Machito &His Afro-Cubans told us how, in the early ’40s, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Kenny Clarke, Thelonious Monk—and other young, enthusias- tic members of the bebop movement—had developed a highly creative, mostly instrumental style. It was totally different from the traditional jazz listened to by most audiences at the time. Bebop players dramatically altered the role of the singer. They virtu- ally replaced the romantic lyrics of their songs with the angular, dis- sonant inflections of scat singing, which evoked the sounds of instru- mentalists. Mario explained very convincingly that by taking away the vocals—and later on, the danceable aspect of the music—the new style became an exquisitely hip and modern art form, but one that was elit- ist and exclusive. The new style was embraced by writers, photographers, poets, painters and intellectuals of the time, moving the music further and further away from the most popular ballrooms, home parties and commercial radio stations. It has been nearly four decades since that enlightening discussion with the legendary Cuban musician, and throughout the years, I have heard so many colleagues complain that jazz seldom is broadcast on radio or TV, nor is it taught widely enough in schools, and that students (and sometimes their teachers) believe that Louis Armstrong was the first man to set foot on the moon. So, we should remember the seeds of elitism that we sowed, how we alienated listeners in a way that led to jazz becoming—and I see nothing wrong with it—a minority-group activity, much like symphonism, avant-garde music, minimalism, opera, ballet, skydiving and swimming with sharks. Jazz is, and always will be, an important part of America’s cultural contributions to the world. Speaking ill of this country has been a fair- ly widespread practice in certain artistic and intellectual circles. But the undeniable reality is that today, the SFJAZZ Collective in San Francisco, the Jazz Masters fellowship program of the National Endowment for the Arts, and, above all, the monumental and unique project that is Jazz at Lincoln Center—driven by the perseverance and persuasive power of the ineffable Wynton Marsalis and his formidable team—completely refute the exaggerated concept that “Jazz is too good for America.” The truth is that jazzmay not be very popular among themasses—it’s true in the Bronx as in Nicaragua, Poland or Kampuchea—but it is nev- ertheless one of the clearest examples of individuality, independence and democracy. Therefore, its appreciation must be strictly voluntary, never imposed or obligatory. DB Too Good for America? Paquito D’Rivera


Powered by