Before the title acquires additional scrutiny I’ll add, in brief, that it’s coming to a close, the course is run and Ms. “Big Mama” Melisma is just about to take her cue. Of course, I’m taking about the “The Big Band Tradition” class that Professor John Howland has been presenting at the Rutgers University Newark Campus and that I’ve been auditing for the last three months. It’s part of the Jazz History and Research master’s program that Dr. Lewis Porter directs and is not-so-loosely affiliated with the Institute of Jazz Studies that makes its home in the university’s Dana Library. The program’s faculty (which includes Dr. Henry Martin) is involved in fantastic research that, I think, helps connect some of the more obscure dots found in American music and culture. This (the last) week’s study, which Dr. Howland calls “Big Bands Beyond 1960: Cold War Politics, Jazz Internationalism, and Legacy,” involved reading about (1) the life and music of Toshiko Akyoshi, (2) an assessment of the big band as an ubiquitous, if not thriving, phenomenon in America after 1970, and (3) the use of jazz to promote anti-communist sentiment in a nascent post-WWII global community (with optional readings about Duke Ellington’s State Department tours from Music Is My Mistress).
Being more bass player than academician, what I took away from Prof. Howland’s course relates more to the notes played than their place in the past. So much of what performing musicians do involves securing a future by portraying the past as current. (Maybe that’s why improvisation is important to making music; besides reifying an artist’s understanding/mastery of technique and tradition, it’s a practice that turns relics into contemporary work, begging the question: “Was Ponce de Leon really just looking for Lester Young?”) But I did take some notes and would like to share them.
I found the last of the readings particularly fascinating because of the idea of certain musicians (Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Armstrong, and Duke Ellington, for example) who preferred to not call their music jazz being sent to foreign nations to promote “jazz” as a uniquely American art form steeped in the democratic principles espoused by the United States. The narratives gained an added sense of irony because these tours occurred at the same time that Brown vs. the Board of Education and the tragic bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Selma, Alabama, were in the news. The piece about Toshiko Akyoshi, a pianist/composer who, along with her husband, founded the Toshiko Akyoshi/Lew Tabackin Big Band (the title track of their 1974 debut album, Kogun, is about a Japanese soldier lost in the jungle who thinks WWII is still going on), rekindled my interest in exploring jazz as a Native American music, or at least being more inclusive of American Indian influence than the prevailing dogma suggests.
That big bands didn’t die out after the demise of the swing era in 1946 is no news to the thousands of musicians who played in studio orchestras and rehearsal bands around the world throughout the 1960-’80s. I vividly recall my indoctrination into boob-tube culture as sustained by the themes from The Untouchables , Checkmate , Peter Gunn, M Squad, Batman, Get Smart, and the list goes on and on and on. All these themes were performed by big bands. I was christened with my current moniker while playing in a big band at the 1970 International Jazz Band Competition in Reno, Nevada. If anything, big bands became more institutionalized in American culture after the end of the so-called “swing era.” The instrumentation became codified (at least the alto-alto-tenor-tenor-baritone saxophone section and three tenor-one bass trombone section were) and a standardized big-band texture based on Stan Kenton’s ensemble became the sound and feel of American music (small groups, while accepted as the crucible of artistic development, were seen as somewhat elitist and “inaccessible,” although economically more viable).
All in all, “The Big Band Tradition” has been an eye-opening experience for me, one of those courses that I’ll keep referring back to and rethinking. But now I’m back on the streets, rarin’ to explore the nooks and crannies of the American improvised music scene, where clubs die out before ivy can take hold, where music is heard (rather than apprehended) and speaks louder than any words can describe it.