Top 50 JAzz Blog

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Jazz Mystique; Who Has "It"?

In a Twitter exchange about my last post, Nicholas Peyton wrote that Louis Armstrong and Jabbo Smith achieved vastly different levels of fame and reputation because Louis had "it" and Jabbo didn't. 
That makes sense. Given the playing of Louis and Jabbo, if we simply rediscovered their recordings from the late 1920's, without knowing anything about them, I believe we would hypothesize similar career trajectories for these two great musicians and that's not what happened. Smith had a solid but unexceptional career for about ten years, was rediscovered in the 1960's as a Respected Elder and enjoyed some success until the 1980's. Armstrong achieved international fame. 

Most successful jazz musicians did just fine, thank you, through the meritocracy of musical genius, without having to rely on "it." (Of course, good looks never hurt. Especially in female singers, there has always been a sorting process that moved good lookers to the front of the line. Timing, too plays a part).

So, what is "it"?  To some extent, "it" needs quotations marks because it's hard to define except tautologically: style, charisma, sex appeal, aloofness, cool, "badness" (promiscuity, dope, other breaking of norms). Each time a jazz musician is acknowledged to have "it," the elements shift. Some move to the surface, some are not in play and some, while seemingly contradictory, co-exist in the same person.

To see if a musician has "it," look at the relationship between their real musical contribution and their reputation. Ask if their contributions have created too small a reputation, one that's too large or one that is, like Goldilock's last bowl of porridge, just right. If the reputation is oversized, it may be because of the "It factor@" (Simon Cowell: hands off).

For example, Wayne Shorter's musical contributions have been immense. His reputation among musicians is stellar, his public career is solid. There is equivalence there; balance. Does he have "it"? No. 

On the other hand, I think Bill Evans, a musician whose contributions are congruent to Shorter's, did have "it." His contribution was large; his reputation larger. Why the difference? I think it's a result of his complex presentation as junky/nerd (compared to the more straightforward presentation of Shorter). Evans projected a multi-layered personality and, as far as mystiques go, his"transgressive" behavior (dope) is a part of it.

Chet Baker had "it," for reasons too obvious to mention.

Did Clifford Brown? The non-musical mythology about Clifford is about his sweetness as a person. Such things do not really portend "it." He died too young to be certain, but indications are that his reputation would have paralleled his musical skill and not transcended it. 

Duke Ellington? Yes. His looks, style, vocal presentation and lifestyle reflected a complex man and the audience "read" that.

Bix Beiderbecke? Yes. His ardent admirers won't like this, but his playing was not so far ahead of many of his contemporaries that it would justify the rarified status he enjoys, had he not had "it."

Bessie Smith? Yes. She did stand at least head, if not shoulders above the others, but her continuing stature so far above other blues singer/shouters of her era is due to her charisma and her notable reputation for livin' large.

Dizzy Gillespie? Yes. In many ways, the classic trickster, Diz brought a comfort level to outrageousness that spoke to a charismatic freedom. 

John Coltrane? Of course. 

We'll end up with probably the #1 "it" guy in jazz: Miles Davis. Through the 40's, he was just one in a pack of elite trumpet players. His interest in expanding the jazz palette (Birth of the Cool) in the late 1940's brought him out of the pack and also had the effect of associating him with the idea of coolness. 

The Andover Shop
Jazz musicians, including the young Miles, had always been invested in a solid sartorial presentation, but starting in the mid-50's, the way Miles dressed began to be a specific part of the way he was promoted by his record company, Columbia. George Frazier's liner notes for "Miles Greatest Hits" in 1965 were an ode to Miles as fashionista. Miles' clothing evolved with his music. He moved through Brooks Brothers, the Andover Shop and designer styles as he went from Au Privave, to Sketches of Spain to Tutu.  
The iconography surrounding the man is arguably denser then that of his two closest mythological competitors: Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker. The epigrammatic way in which he spoke and the semi-strangled whisper in which he spoke it; his battles with cops and bores; kicking dope, boxing, wives. All, "it"-worthy.

I always strain against people confusing the art with the artist, but the need for the audience to project personality into the music is powerful. Almost all of us are suckers for "it." However, it's also on the shoulders of those who know the history of this music to try and fill in some of the gaps that have been created by the power of "it;" to push back toward what really needs to be kept at the center. You know what I'm talkin' about.


Dick Vacca said...

This sounds a lot like George Frazier's duende to me.

Steve Provizer said...

It does, but I believe it's not quite the same. Let me know what you think after you read my 11/29/10 piece on it-