Saturday, June 26, 2010
All Hail the Jazz Prodigy
Oy. Why do jazz writers love prodigies so? Can this be a deeply-seated musical inferiority complex rearing its ugly head? "We stole one from the classical boyos"? "You see! Our music is so great that even the prodigies dig it!" Shoot. If ever a genre did not have to prove that the genius of its practitioners unfolds early on, it is jazz. Yes, early jazz professors were often weaned in academic environments like Storyville, where the student body tended to dress in negligees rather than mortarboards. Mozart may not have been part of the bordello curriculum, but as teenagers, Joplin, Blake, Bolden, Armstrong, et al made as much music as Bizet, Piatagorsky or Scriabin; probably more, as they lived lives not bounded by the constraints of the music conservatory and the Royal Court. This early blossoming has continued throughout jazz history (go crazy, commentors). Jazz is essentially a meritocracy, but this merit is not measured strictly in virtuosic terms. Craft and emotional expressiveness are constantly in balance. And from where I stand, if you lack either, you can play the music, but in the end, your name will be writ in water. The prodigy thing is a litmus test for the way we listen. It tests the idea that music has deeper resonance for the spirit. So, before you trot out the latest wunderkind who could have been a concert pianist, but chose jazz instead, really listen to what he or she brings to the table. It's not enough to play the right notes. They must have weight. And, as Louis said, you gotta love each one.