Back when I first started this blog, I kept tossing around the idea of writing a post entitled "Why are The Bad Plus so controversial?" I was going to start by riffing on the very deeply polarized reaction to the band, using it as a jumping-off point to talk about some big picture stuff -- you know: Irony. Authenticity. Historical Continuity. The State of Jazz Today, and Just Who The Hell is Listening to It, Anyway?
For various reasons I never actually got around to writing this post. But I was reminded of it last month when I saw Stanley Crouch at The Bad Plus's Vanguard hit, walking past the long bench along the right side of the club so he could sit right next to Dave King -- he was practically onstage. This was during "Anthem for the Earnest," I think, and Stanley's eyes were fixed on Dave's hihat. Ironically, the next tune on the setlist happened to be a 12-bar blues (Ethan's "Guilty"). Stanley was clearly digging it. I later learned that Crouch had come to the club three times that week, lavishing Stanley-like praise on the band -- upon meeting Dave King his first words were: "Man, you can play! I thought you'd suck!" -- and hung out shooting the shit with the guys until the wee small hours.
So that's it. It's over. If even Stanley Crouch is willing to give the Bad Plus his seal of approval, they are officially Not Controversial anymore. In fact, I hear Wynton has tapped Ethan, Reid and Dave as the rhythm section for his upcoming Blue Note record, Is This Love? A Jazz Tribute to Clap Your Hands Say Yeah.
Meanwhile, over at Do The Math, Ethan has a loooooong interview with Crouch -- but it's definitely worth your time. Some salient excerpts:
SC: The next point is that Betty Carter always complained to me that she always was searching for a pop tune to put in her band. (She believed in the classical jazz tradition of using pop tunes to connect with the audience.) But there wasn't anything in the music of those three guys--or anyone else in big money pop music--that she could use on a gig. There wasn't enough harmony or melody.
EI: Um, there's a certain irony that you are talking to a member of The Bad Plus right now.
SC: Of course. But it's not really that ironic, because you and Reid and Dave go so far from the original tune that you aren't playing on the form of the song.
EI: Well, you're right: we don't play jazz harmony or jazz solos on the tunes the way Betty Carter would have needed.
SC: But you also don't play anything after the head that that anybody would call pop music. Your first phrase, after the melody, is always totally "out." I find it really interesting how your audience is shocked and exhilarated by the conclusions you come to with a melody they already know.
To me, the conception of The Bad Plus is actually derived from the way Coltrane and his band played "My Favorite Things," which is really far from hearing Julie Andrews sing it. What Coltrane--what everybody in his band--was playing on it is like…[shrugs] "What are they playing?" -- "'My Favorite Things.'" --"Where is 'My Favorite Things' here? I don't get it." That's The Bad Plus, too.
EI: You are on the money with this comparison, Stanley. I have actually brought up Coltrane's "My Favorite Things" to interviewers myself.
SC: Well, there you go. Right.
This is interesting, because to me, the striking thing about Trane's first recording of "My Favorite Things" is how literal it is -- listen to how much of the track is taken up by Trane and McCoy just playing the the melody. They even keeps the minor-major contrast from the original, where later it would become a straight minor vamp. It has the reputation of being some kind of radical reimagining of the tune, but it's actually more faithful to the original than, say, the reharmonized and remelodized version of "But Not For Me" from the same recording. In other words, I agree that "My Favorite Things" is a good analogue to how The Bad Plus approach covers like, say, "Everybody Wants To Rule The World," but for exactly the opposite reasons that Stanley does.
SC: I don't write things to shock people, necessarily, but sometimes, when making an argument…
Let me put it this way: Some people go out into a field of wheat and they'll pick something--just one thing that they like. However, other people will drive a thresher through there.
Sometimes, if I have a choice, I'll just drive the thresher through.
SC: Sometimes I think that's what's called for. Style and form are what I'm thinking about, you know. Sentence by sentence and paragraph by paragraph there is an attempt to personalize everything I learned from Ralph Ellison, LeRoi Jones, Martin Williams, and Whitney Balliett. Then, in something like “Body and Soul,” I get to a symphonic version of essay form that I am very proud of. Form is always my concern and is what I am always experimenting with, even when I am driving the wheat thresher.
EI: Well…there are friends of mine that you have driven the thresher through, and I know that it doesn't feel good.
But I understand that there is an argument for being over the top, just putting it out there, and seeing the dust settle. I'm sure we will be still looking at this book long after history has forgotten those who never came down on one side or another.
EI: Should we talk in more detail about the most controversial piece in Considering Genius, which is "Putting the White Man in Charge?"
EI: I don't know too much about Tom Piazza or Francis Davis, which are your topics in the first two pages, but I do know something about Dave Douglas, who you get to at the end. Here's the paragraph:There is nothing wrong with Douglas, who can play what he can play and should continue to do whatever he wants to do, but there is something pernicious about [Francis} Davis and all of those other white guys who want so badly to put white men--American and European--in charge and put Negroes in the background. Douglas…is far from being a bad musician, but he also knows that he should keep as much distance as possible between himself and trumpet players like Wallace Roney, Terence Blanchard, and Nicholas Payton, to name but three, any one of whom on any kind of material--chordal, nonchordal, modal, free, whatever--would turn him into a puddle on the bandstand. Unlike the great white players of the past, such as Jack Teagarden, Bobby Hackett, Benny Goodman, Stan Getz, Lee Konitz--or now, Joe Lovano--Douglas will never be seen standing up next to the black masters of the idiom. The white critical establishment couldn't help him then.
Well, all I can say is, if Roney, Payton, or Blanchard tried to play Dave's harder music, they would not find it easy--and they could never play it as well as he can. They would have trouble playing even a few bars of it unless they studied it in detail. There are authentic systems in Douglas' music that contribute to his unique voice.
SC: Whether or not there are authentic systems in Douglas’s music is not even close to the point. To me, the question is: What is jazz music? What I really don't like is how the avant-garde, which is more like contemporary European music, is treated as the solution to jazz to the exclusion of real jazz. I realized the problem years ago when Roland Kirk complained to Cecil Taylor in Downbeat that Cecil wouldn't let him sit in with his band. Cecil said they had arrangements, and that's why he didn't let Kirk sit it, but that's not a good reason. That's what holds the music back. It is a real problem that there is no agreed-upon place for avant-garde musicians and the musicians who play real jazz to play together. Because if the avant-garde musicians stay away from the jazz musicians, their music gets to the point where it has less and less to do with jazz. I don't like that. Some people do; I really don't!
I do know this: if Douglas got up on to the bandstand with Wallace, Payton, or Blanchard to play some blues, he would be in trouble.
EI: I'm not so sure, Stanley..but here, let me put this on me, not Dave. We are going downstairs to hear Eric Reed play in a little bit, and I wouldn't dare get up and play a straight-ahead blues solo after he did. He (or Cyrus Chestnut or Marcus Roberts) could cut me into little pieces. But I don't think any of them could play in The Bad Plus. You have got to make music based out of your life experience.
SC: Yeah, well, I think if you are playing jazz, you really need to be able to play some blues. Ornette is the perfect example: he always sounds like a blues musician, no matter how far out he gets. And this is why Duke Ellington could make a record--a supremely great record--with John Coltrane, with both men just playing their individual personalities but making music together. In fact, Elvin Jones told me how nervous he, Jimmy Garrison, and Coltrane were until Ellington got to the studio and cooled everyone out. Listen to the solo Ellington plays on Coltrane’s tune called "Big Nick." It's two perfect uncliched choruses that could be transcribed and made into a song.
It's a bit weird to hear Terrence Blanchard trotted out as some kind of blues-drenched hyper-authentic arch-traditionalist in this context, since his latest record (Flow) makes me think he's been listening to a lot of Dave Douglas lately. This is Stanley at his most infuriating.
Finally, Stanley and Ethan talk about Stanley's early days as a player:
EI: Julius Hemphill is someone I would have loved to gotten to know.
SC: Did he ever die too young! He's another cat who really had the blues in his playing, no matter how far out he got.
EI: You must have known Phillip Wilson.
SC: He was rough, man, a great drummer. But of those cats, it was Don Moye who impressed me the most. I heard the Art Ensemble almost every night at the Five Spot in 1976. They were playing! Wow!
EI: Back then you were playing the drums yourself.
SC: Not well, but not that bad, either, in that free-form style. Check it out:
[Stanley plays a tune recorded live in Amsterdam with David Murray, Butch Morris, Don Pullen, and Fred Hopkins. It's a long waltz with extended solos by each member--Pullen sounds the best on it. The drumming for the swinging waltz is a sloppy slow groove, quite behind the beat, and broken up by free fusillades.]
EI: I dig it! Why did you quit?
SC: Well, when I was in California, I thought I was really good. But then I moved to New York and kept hearing Elvin Jones, Roy Haynes, Billy Higgins, and all the other truly great drummers. That was a level I had no hope of achieving. In my own style, Don Moye was the guy who closed the door.
EI: I guess you had a different destiny anyway.
SC: Yeah…that's certainly true.