A Fine, Invisible Line

Depending upon your taste in music, and in jazz, the line might not be so invisible. What line is that, exactly? Why, the line between pretend jazz and real jazz! Have you never heard a recorded song that sounded like jazz, had a swingy rhythm and the instruments played a lot (often too many) of notes? I have, and my question today is, what the hell is that, anyway? Is it simply bad jazz, or is it a jazz pretender, and do we need to define jazz for once and for all, and finally kick these pretenders the hell off our radios and CDs, making them call their music something other than jazz?

For starters, we won’t be trying, and failing, to attempt to define jazz here. If I were to try, it would sound something like this – “the beauty of spontaneity in music through chordal, rhythmic and melodic styling that goes beyond the original musical and emotional intent of the song being played.” Pathetic, right? Of course! And Wikipedia defines it thus: Joachim-Ernst Berendt argues that a “special relationship to time defined as ‘swing'”. Jazz involves “a spontaneity and vitality of musical production in which improvisation plays a role” and contains a “sonority and manner of phrasing which mirror the individuality of the performing jazz musician.”

Not bad, not bad. That gives us the idea. However, I seriously doubt that I can begin to define what is real in jazz and what is wannabe, if I can’t accurately define it in the first place. But what the hell, let’s forge on into the fog and see if we can’t unearth some semblance of an invisible line that really can separate the real from the false.

Before we forge ahead, however, let me make it clear that I’m aware that this couldn’t possibly matter less to many of you. “Who cares if it’s ‘real jazz’ or not? Most of it is background music anyway. No one has time to sit down and ‘really listen’ to music any more.” Well yeah, I get that. But I’m going to toot this horn anyway, if for no other reason than to remind us that the continued pursuit of quality  and advancement in any area has to come from comparison and criticism.

“It has to make you tap your toes.” Nope. Jazz is so much more than that. Plastic jazz can make us tap our toes even when the musical content stinks. And how do we ascertain that the musical content stinks? That’s where this all begins to get very subjective, as we all can have hugely different tastes in that regard. But at least we’re beginning to get somewhere now.

“Real” jazz musicians are far more qualified to distinguish real jazz from lame attempts by recognizing the players’ interpretive skills of any particular piece. A good jazz piece nearly always has way more than “three chords and a cloud of dust.” The harmonic complexity of a piece usually goes a long way in defining it as jazzy. But my particular “line drawn in the sand” is a player’s soloing ability… specifically piano players. There are well-known melodic phrases in jazz that fit nicely to a standard set of chords, melodic phrases that jazz musicians call “licks.” Licks sound jazzy enough to the untrained ear, but musicians hear them right away and know the player is, at the very least, taking a breather from playing creatively, spontaneously.

So when I hear a jazzer play two or more choruses of licks, I draw my line right there. Because in my mind, good jazz has got to be more than some well-thought-out licks and cliches, even if they do fit the piece. As I mentioned earlier, it’s incredibly subjective, but there it is, from my point of view.

Probably I should just let it go and admit there’s good jazz and bad jazz, because that’s the truth of it. But for me, bad jazz nearly always translates to non-jazz or a terrible attempt to copy jazz, or even worse, a pretense that it really is jazz. I’ve heard so many pieces, especially in the area of “smooth jazz” where a song is built on a cool and unique set of chord changes working over a sexy rhythmic scheme, only to have the soloists totally trash it with their empty and emotionless licks thrown at it. I’ve grown to hate that over the years. To me, it’s like a bad attempt to reproduce a good painting… and it’s offensive.

Is my fine, invisible line getting any wider, darker, more recognizable? No. Actually, the more I try to dig into this idea, the fuzzier and more random my defining line of real jazz becomes. Better if I try to make my case by example. Ahmad Jamal, for instance, never played a “lick” in his creative life. Nor did John Lewis of the Modern Jazz Quartet, a musical master of understatement. Keith Jarrett is lickless, as were Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea, as young players. Lyle Mays was a creative genius. There are many others, of course, but here we have enough to compare the differences between the creative and the “lickmeisters.” To my ear, Kenny Barron is the real deal, as is Brad Mehldau. The “Joe’s,” Joe Sample and Joe Zawinul tippy-toed the fine line from time to time, while Ramsey Lewis is a well-known lick banger. Oscar Peterson probably played ten million “Oscar licks” in his lifetime, but he played them so goddamn well that most of us couldn’t wait to hear him play them again, even when he was interpreting himself! Oscar dances beautifully on both sides of my invisible line, combining inspired, spontaneous soloing with flashy, incredibly difficult licks that most of us could never duplicate in our lifetimes.

Here I need to apologize to Bob James, whom I never thought of as a real jazzer. My bad, Bob. You always were, and still are, the real deal. The fact that you’re far more into chord progressions and textures than flaming, single-note solos is simply a characteristic of your unique style of jazz, not the detriment I used to think it. And I have to admit, Bob, if only to you, that I’m also of the chordal persuasion. Let’s keep that between us, okay?

Anyway, here’s a video of Bob James and his group. Very good stuff!

Monty Alexander is another “line dancer.” He is technically flawless, and can be wonderfully creative from time to time. And who wouldn’t be, playing with Ray Brown, the bassist? But Monty can lean back on his chops (technical ability) from time to time so heavily that one has to wonder if Monty didn’t play one too many lounges in his early years. In that regard, I have to tip my jazz hat to Bobby Short, who was a lounge performer and hotel player most of his life. The man could play fine jazz, he had simply made his decision on what kind of music to play; what he chose was not jazz, but was what sold, what the people wanted. Another tip of the hat to Marian McPartland, a well-known line-walker who slipped into music education around mid-life.

Speaking of Herbie and Chick in their early years, I want to explain that they were both my heroes back in the late ’60’s, early ’70’s. Both were amazingly creative within their own particular styles of playing. As Herbie got older, I heard much of that blazing creative brilliance gradually dissipate. When you listen to nearly everything a player plays over a period of 40 years, you know if they have continued to grow, or if they began fading. I’m convinced that age has much to do with the dissipation of our creativity, or at least our technical ability to be musically creative. As with everything else, there are exceptions, of course. In this case, Chick Corea never faded, and I heard Hank Jones play a concert in Billings, Montana, at the age of 90. He was creative, brilliant, inspirational, one of the best piano concerts I ever heard, and I’ve heard a few.

My personal experience of being an aging player has taught me that neither my brain nor my fingers work as well as they did as a younger man… regardless of how much I play. These days I can play a ballad better than ever, but when it’s time to swing, my swing has swung. Brain simply doesn’t interpret fast enough, fingers don’t wiggle fast enough, or accurately enough. Worse, from any medium tempo on up, my fingers fall back on well-known, and over-played licks… patterns my old fingers easily slip into now, after years of playing standards with well-known chord changes. I hear that tendency in other older players too, and that makes it much easier to bear.

While it isn’t pleasant, the realization that your best playing days are over, it wasn’t as bad as the day I was fishing my beloved Madison River in Montana. I was 66 at the time, and was still wading the river to get to the really good spots. I was up to my knees when the current started pushing me downstream, and I almost fell in. Finally getting to shore, I realized my legs had weakened to the point where I could no longer wade out there the way I had all my life. I was depressed for three days. Funny, but that was way worse than realizing I wasn’t playing so well any more.

At first I didn’t believe it was happening to me, but one evening I stumbled across some old tracks that we recorded with John Abercrombie shortly after our years at Berklee. Back then I was at the very beginning of finding my way, my voice and my style, in piano jazz. Expecting to hear myself sound green and clumsy, I instead heard my earlier self playing more creatively, with more speed and precision than I can muster today! It was a shock. I became a much better and more sophisticated player over the years, yet those old recordings hold a dramatic insight as to how I played back then compared to how I play now. Am happy to report my potential was always there, and I developed it to the very best of my ability. That in itself constantly reminds me how very difficult it is to play really fine jazz, and why more players can’t actually do it.

Here’s one of those old recorded tracks i mentioned above, done sometime in ’71. John Abercrombie – guitar; Me – Wurlitzer electric;  Paul Miller – bass;  Craig Herndon – drums.


You might well ask, “So, what about you?” Which side of the line were you on? Were you just another line dancer? Or were you a burner? Did you have flashes of brilliance, or were you another lick-runner who simply knew what to play and when to play it?” Well, in my head I was a burner.. the opinion of my overblown and mis-informed ego. But simply and honestly put, I’m another of those line-dancers we’ve been discussing. I hit my high point of playing during the ’70’s and ’80’s, as Atlanta was a good jazz town and I played nearly every jazz club and venue in the city at some point. It was my good fortune to play with some superb players in various groups, and during those fine years I was truly a real jazz player, high on momentary inspiration and excitement in playing with some of the best in the South.

I slowly slipped back over the line into “junk jazz” in the early ’80’s, as I began writing jingles and living in recording studios. We recorded nearly every kind of music imaginable during those years, and my previous intense focus on jazz playing was ending, as was my ability to play from inspiration. Oh, it still happened occasionally, and actually still does, but not like it did in the early years. I have no recordings of my best playing during the really good years, as it was all live, and the only recorded performances would have been in E.J.’s restaurant in Atlanta. The owner recorded nearly everyone who played there, and the only tape I ever got from him was a bootleg tape of an evening of Lyle Mays, which I revered. So as to whether I was ever on the creative side of that fine, invisible line, that will have to be left to my memory and your imagination. Please, be kind…

Steve Hulse

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