Top 50 JAzz Blog

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

"Influence," Prince & Some Jazz Guys

There's been an enormous response to the death of Prince. An internet search leads me to think that he's been eulogized in every major media outlet in the U.S. and many abroad. Consistently, the emphasis is on his musical genius and his influence on popular culture. A common riff is that "pop music will never be the same," but details of what this means are sketchy.

The interplay between persona/projection/charisma and the music itself is always complicated. In the case of Prince, the music is both collaborator and counter-foil to the gender ambiguity of his look and style, the contrast between his stage presence and his reclusiveness and the tension between his Jehovah's Witness-straightness and his sexual explicitness.

These kinds of tensions were present in the work and very public lives of Ray Charles, James Brown and Michael Jackson. However, the cultural impact of these three resides more completely on the bedrock of their music. Prince is reckoned to have done everything supremely well; everything being the key word. Time will tell us if his eclecticism begat something musically new and reproduce-able, or if his influence will ultimately derive from his persona.

In the case of jazz, media saturation has always been quantum levels lower, especially for black musicians, and the paradigms I describe above were unlikely to play out as publicly. Still, there are parallels to be seen in jazz careers. Below are five important figures in jazz and brief descriptions of how I think the personal and the musical interacted to determine the scope and area of their influence.

W.C. Handy: His compositions, chiefly St. Louis Blues and Memphis Blues, were widely performed; he organized an orchestra that hovered between ragtime and jazz and he did have some influence within the world of popular music. However, his organizing and entrepreneurial skills brought him much wider cultural renown, to the point where he is widely known as "Father of the blues;" a phrase that both overstates and misplaces his musical importance.

Jelly Roll Morton: His work in the 1920's as pianist, composer, arranger and synthesizer of influences marks him as musically influential in jazz. However, his "re-discovery" and narration of jazz history through the Library of Congress recordings-inaccurate or not-broadened his influence into the larger cultural sphere. His gold teeth, braggadocio and pimp-style also played a part in keeping his name elevated above other contributors, like James P. Johnson.

King Oliver: A trumpet player who was influential musically in the late 19-teens to mid 1920's. You might liken him to Sidney Bechet in that respect, but unlike Bechet-a strong, sometimes volatile character who carried on for many years-Oliver's health issues, a lack of personal charisma and business naivete greatly shortened his career. Oliver's wider cultural impact has been largely relegated to "the man who brought Louis Armstrong to Chicago."

Duke Ellington: His work remains a perennial influence in jazz (not a word he cared for), but he has achieved wider cultural renown. Aside from songs and jazz compositions for his orchestra, he wrote film, television and sacred music and was compared with America's best "classical" composers. His persona is relevant. Ellington seemed perfectly comfortable performing for the rabble and for royalty and his elegant and somewhat enigmatic personal style had a lot to do with bringing him wider cultural acclaim.

Charlie Parker: The co-creator of Bop presents an interesting case. The jazz community acknowledges him as arguably its most influential musician. During his life, he was acknowledged by members of the wider cultural, non-jazz elite as an artist of the highest calibre. Yet, while his name took on a meme-like character ("Bird lives" graffiti) and many in the non-jazz community may say they have heard his name, the trappings of wide cultural renown aren't there. What do I mean? Streets, schools and scholarships very rarely if ever, carry his name. Chic chefs, fashion trend setters, politicians, advertisers and mainstream media seldom, if ever, refer to him as a cultural touchstone. Had his drug use not been so widely known, his place in the wider culture would probably be very different.


CrocodileChuck said...

MIles Dewey Davis



Rfgs said...

" Chic chefs, fashion trend setters, politicians, advertisers and mainstream media seldom, if ever, refer to him as a cultural touchstone". One word, and you knew it was coming. "Miles".

Lawrence Houghteling said...

I've been startled by the loudness and length of all the Prince-brouhaha. I've heard a few songs I thought were catchy over the years, and the movie "Purple Rain" had what I have always thought was the hottest and dirtiest sex scene ever filmed, but other than that? Influence? Nothing I ever hear from him ever touched me in any way -- unlike Stevie Wonder, George Jones, Nina Simone and any number of other performers in several genres.

Sidelight on your remarks about the cultural significance of Charlie Parker. Everyday I used to take the train to the Harlem/125th St station and walk a mile down Lexington avenue to 106th street, where I taught at a high school. Twice a day, up and down Lex. Sometime during these years a corporation (I'm making this up, but it has to be true) bought two already-existing apartment buildings on Lex. Much the bigger and fancier one was between 122 and 123. Appropriately, it was about 22 or 23 stories tall, and kinda fancy, with a desk etc. The smaller building was at 117th, I think, about seven stories tall -- very modest compared to the other building. The company did some spiffing up and gave the two buildings fancy new names, proclaimed on similar nameplates in identical lettering. The small building they called "The Parker." The huge one they called "The Miles."

Steve Provizer said...

Great story.