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Jazz: Pretension’s Perils

3 minute read

Ever since Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, the Lewis and Clark of modern jazz, returned from their first explorations on Manhattan’s 52nd Street, other musicians have been following the masters’ trails. Their search is more for small refinements than grand departures, and cults of aficionados armed with phonograph records travel in their wake. Thelonious Monk’s cult, whispering of Webern, insists that the silences in his music are even more profound than the sounds. Miles Davis’ cult, transfixed by his trumpet, says nothing, preferring to express its worship in utter silence. But the cultists that follow John Lewis and his Modern Jazz Quartet see themselves as the True Believers.

Milky & Timid. They were there in force when Lewis turned up in white tie and tails at Manhattan’s Philharmonic Hall to introduce his “Orchestra U.S.A.,” a 28-man ensemble complete with strings and reeds. In a foggy program note, Lewis announced he was there to “develop most of the potentials” of jazz, using “an instrumentation which is totally representative of the masterpieces of the instrumental families given to us from past times.” As things worked out, this simply meant, “Add violins.”

The orchestra sawed through three Lewis compositions and one by J. J. Johnson, producing milky overstatements of nice little ideas. Solos by Saxophonist Phil Woods and Vibraharpist Milt Jackson nimbly demonstrated that what would have been fragile, intricate music for a quartet had been made fragmentary, timid music for an orchestra. In his scoring, Lewis seemed barely able to tell his strings from his brass: the violins and cellos were misused in pursuit of inconsequential filigree, while the basses took long and vapid solo runs. Lewis had gone perilously far in the quest to make jazz more respectable without making it more substantive.

Mannered Genius. But the error had been pressed upon him. Convinced that Lewis is Vivaldi’s nephew, his cult has urged him into thinner and thinner air since he appeared with his three fellow ascetics in the first Modern Jazz Quartet performances ten years ago. In pursuit of something that sounded agreeably like jazz from the 16th century, Lewis soon became one of the half-dozen important jazz composers, writing such a mannered form of music that his compositions set a whole new tone.

But his cult was busy making a mystique of him, and he shunned nightclubs in favor of concert halls, brooded in Europe, and began to bless his four-part tunes with such titles as In a Crowd; Valeria; Wintertale, a trip of the tongue that describes only sketchy excerpts from a film score. Whatever he touched turned out so well that he soon found himself a prisoner of his own achievements. “I hate to sound immodest,” he said, “but the quartet has reached a standard so high that I don’t see what anyone else can do with small-ensemble jazz.”

Lewis’ new interest is only in the greater variety of sounds and colors he can achieve with an orchestra; he has no intention of making jazz truly symphonic. “The quartet is like black and white,” he says; “the orchestra is all the colors. I want this orchestra to be a proof to the world that there are other things in this country—things you can’t touch, feel or spend.” The only fault in such high ambitions lies in the notion that to make something bigger or broader is always to make it better.

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