The Smithsonian Institute Blues

The Smithsonian Institute Blues

I subscribe to several jazz-related message boards. I scan the subject lines and usually read the first sentence or two, but I don’t read the content of all of the posts since most of the discussions are about topics that aren’t very relevant to my personal research on the inclusion of non-“Afro-European” influences on jazz. For me the imagined parallels between the development of classical and jazz harmony, as if they occurred independently from each other, is more a point of contention than one of interest; although I do believe that the personnel rosters of touring ensembles (a topic fairly popular to several of these boards) might hold valuable information about jazz harmony’s evolution. One recent post grabbed my attention, though, and keeps popping back into my head, raising questions that I think readers of NewMusicBox will find interesting. But first a contextual introduction needs be presented, so let’s gather ‘round the fire

Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz

It has been 40 years since the original Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz was released. Its six LPs featured a total of 86 tracks recorded between 1916 and 1966.

The year 1973 marked the release of The Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz. The twelve sides of its six LPs offered eighty-six selections of what its editor, Martin Williams, believed to epitomize the historical progress of jazz from its beginnings in ragtime to its culmination in free jazz. Familiarity with the selections on this list was enough to allow a layman to be considered “well-versed” in jazz music. Of course, the list was more of a reflection of the tastes of Williams and his research team than its importance to the development of jazz. One troublesome feature was an under-representation of John Coltrane’s music; the sole inclusion of it was “Alabama” from the 1963 album Live at Birdland. The only other examples of his playing are from his time as a sideman with the Miles Davis group from the 1950s. While “Alabama” is important because of its socio-political messaging (it was written as a lament for the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama) and as an example of Coltrane’s “meditative” compositions, Williams’ exclusion of “Giant Steps” and any of its variants (“Countdown,” “Central Park West”) or his treatment of earlier popular songs that incorporate its progression (“But Not For Me,” “Body and Soul,” etc.) is a glaring one, especially considering the inclusion of three tracks by Ornette Coleman, who was far less of an influence on musicians at the time: “Lonely Woman,” “Congeniality,” and an excerpt from “Free Jazz.”

Smithsonian Collection 1987

In the late 1980s, the Smithsonian Collection was re-issued on cassettes and CDs in a revised edition which expanded the offerings to 95 tracks although
some of the recordings that appeared in the original 1973 set were omitted.

A revised edition of the Collection was released in 1987 as a five-cassette tape set and later as a five-CD collection. The number of tracks increased to ninety-five and some of tunes included in the original release were omitted: Robert Johnson’s “Hellhound On My Trail,” Louis Armstrong’s “S.O.L. Blues,” Billie Holiday singing “All Of Me” (replaced with “These Foolish Things”), Jimmie Lunceford’s “Lunceford Special” (replaced by “Organ Grinder’s Swing”), Duke Ellington’s “Creole Rhapsody” and “Harlem Airshaft” (replaced by “Diminuendo in Blue/Crescendo in Blue” and “Cotton Tail”), Charlie Parker’s “Little Benny” (replaced by two versions of “Crazeology”), Bud Powell’s playing “Somebody Loves Me” (replaced with “A Night in Tunisia”), Sarah Vaughan’s versions of “Dancing In the Dark” and “Ain’t No Use” (replaced with “All Alone” and “My Funny Valentine”), Lennie Tristano’s “Crosscurrent” (replaced by his version of “Subconscious Lee”), Thelonious Monk playing “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes,” Charles Mingus’s “Hora Decitibus” (replaced with “Haitian Fight Song”). Some artists not included in the original were now included: Jimmie Noone’s Apex Club Orchestra (“Four or Five Times”), Red Nichols and His Five Pennies (“Dinah”), Django Rheinhardt’s Quintette of the Hot Club of France (“Dinah”), Red Norvo and Stan Getz (“Body and Soul”), Horace Silver (“Moon Rays”), Wes Montgomery (“West Coast Blues”), and Bill Evans (“Blue in Green”). Despite these revisions, the Collection was still flawed from leaning too heavily on Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, and Charlie Parker while under-representing works by artists like Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Benny Goodman. Many important musicians were left out altogether (e.g., Sidney Bechet, Ahmad Jamal, Cannonball Adderley, and Stan Kenton).

Jazz - The Smithsonian Anthology

In its latest incarnation, Jazz: The Smithsonian Anthology (released in 2011), the collection now offers a total of 111 tracks on six CDs.

The revised edition went out of print in 1999, but this didn’t keep the Smithsonian from claiming supremacy for the work as a go-to source for jazz studies scholars in 2011, when the release of Jazz: The Smithsonian Anthology was announced. The 111 tracks on its six CDs represent a further revising of the original Collection and include many more names of important jazz artists (although Ahmad Jamal is still notably absent). It also casts a somewhat more democratic profile, but some questionable choices were still at work when deciding what to include. Learning that the solo piano performances of “Maple Leaf Rag” by Scott Joplin and Jelly Roll Morton had been replaced by a single rendition by Dick Hyman actually saddens this writer, even though Hyman’s recording is cleaner than the others and a lively ensemble version by Sidney Bechet and his group was also included. But why replace historically valuable examples of the piece with a modern interpretation? For the sake of high fidelity? And while John Coltrane now has two tracks, with “A Love Supreme” replacing the meditative “Alabama,” the choice of “My Favorite Things” over “Giant Steps” makes little sense from a jazz studies perspective. While the former was, and still is, popular, the latter is a seminal work that added to the harmonic vocabulary of jazz (i.e., linear improvisation, substitute chord change construction, reharmonization of established works) on many levels. Still, after 40 years, the original Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz is widely considered to be the cornerstone of jazz studies, gracefully suffering the possibly well-deserved slings and arrows of jazz musicians, fans, and scholars.

One mild, but well shot, arrow came in the form of a journal article by Professor Scott DeVeaux, “Constructing the Jazz Tradition: Jazz Historiography” (Black American Literature Forum, 25/3, Fall 1991), that identifies and then challenges a “straight-line of development” narrative of jazz history built on a logical procession of works by “great men” who built on the innovations of their predecessors. This narrative describes jazz as evolving from the works of pre-jazz composers of syncopated music (ragtime) and moving through periods where the music was at first novel (Dixieland), then popular (swing), then art (bebop), finally becoming a vital instrument of America’s cultural currency. As for the question, “Where is jazz going?”, DeVeaux agrees with the assessment of Thelonious Monk—“Maybe it’s going to hell”—and suggests that the future of jazz “depends not on what musicians choose to do. They will continue to make music, and whether that music is called jazz is a matter of relative inconsequence” (p. 551). Instead, he says:

The question is rather of the uses to which the jazz tradition is to be put: whether as an alternative conservatory style for the training of young musicians; as an artistic heritage to be held up as an exemplar of American or African-American culture; or as a convenient marketing tool for recording companies and concert promoters, kind of brand name guaranteeing quality and a degree of homogeneity. (ibid.)

It seems that all three options have been rolled into one and now jazz’s greatest struggle might be to retain, or (re)gain, an historical narrative that overcomes an almost tacitly expressed, but not altogether false, claim that the goal of its evolution is to become “an autonomous art, transcending its sometimes squalid social and economic setting … taking its place in American culture as a creative discipline of intrinsic integrity” (p. 544).

A major obstacle to this end will be, and largely has been, the application of improper terminology on the nuts and bolts of the music: its tonality, harmony, and theory. The mere idea of a development that “parallels” Western art music of necessity negates the idea that jazz has integrity as an “art.” According to Deveaux, if “bebop is the juncture at which jazz becomes art music, then earlier styles are … in a precarious position—unless it can be demonstrated that in some important sense they had always been art music, and that this status was simply unacknowledged” (ibid).

So, let’s look at the question I hope the NewMusicBox community will think about and respond to. The post is from a jazz scholar (all names will remain anonymous, of course) that goes:

Rereading Williams’s Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz booklet for a piece on its 40th anniversary, I came across [a statement] about which I’m curious as to his sources. [It] is a comment about Ornette using “microtonality,” a term I don’t recall being used in regards to Coleman in the 1960s or early 1970s.

One of the responses, from a well-respected scholar went:

Microtonality is a term sometimes used for characterizing pitches by a horn man who is playing out of tune. It is a nice way of saying that the instrumentalist was not producing the pitches ordinarily expected when performing in a given key. As an aside, some listeners noticed that when Ornette got a better instrument than his original Grafton white plastic alto sax, he played more in tune. But this perception has been controversial, especially since so few commentators wish to risk maligning such a huge talent as Ornette. His “unison” passages with trumpeter Don Cherry are clearly out of tune, and to attribute intentional “microtonality” to them is a stretch. That Ornette’s slippery pitches are exceedingly expressive may be the intended point, but for some listeners, Ornette just played out of tune.

This line immediately reminded me of a heated discussion in one of my jazz history courses where one of my fellow students described the singing of Betty Carter as out-of-tune, implying that she really meant to sing certain notes in near-perfect equal temperament instead of in the manner that she actually performed them. As some readers know, I worked with Ms. Carter during the year 1979 and we once had a very serious discussion about intonation. The pertinent part of that discussion included her explaining the difference between notes that were intended to sound out of tune and those that were not. It took me a long time to apprehend what she was talking about and it included a lot of hanging out on the road, listening to and talking about a lot of music together. Her message was couched in language from a world I was trying to learn, spoken with an intensity and immediacy that I couldn’t see the need for at the time. Now I know that her notes, like Coleman’s, might be perceived as out of tune by the listener who is unable to free him- or herself from a preconceived vision of artistic purity based on Eurocentric harmony, but she meant them to sound the way they did. She was a bit of a perfectionist and thought long and hard about what she did. Unfortunately, it was the mood of the class that day to label her singing as out of tune and so I learned some more jazz history.

The way this relates to Ornette Coleman’s music is in the intent. I’ve seen and heard analyses of his music that utilize Forte numbered pitch-class sets, modal theory, and traditional bebop harmony. I’m sure someone has applied Schenkerian analysis to his work as well. But every formal approach has to be bent a little to accommodate the “quirks” that pop up in his and his group’s playing. Coleman describes a vaguely defined, and possibly formulated, system called “harmolodics” as the philosophical and theoretical root of his music. Often this term is pooh-poohed by jazz academics because there’s not enough codified material to access in a discussion of it. My experience has been not to discuss the music as much as to play it. That isn’t to say that it’s a rule to not discuss the music, but that the discussion of it is fairly irrelevant to its performance. What I notice from my limited time playing music with Ornette Coleman is that, as long as you’re listening and respecting what’s going on, very little of the techniques that can be described as terminologically “correct,” including microtonalism, matter. In-tune notes aren’t necessarily tempered according to a European musical modality and unisons can be thickened by not being perfectly in tune, which very rarely happens in human performance, anyway. So it really comes down to what one accepts as an honest and viable performance of a piece. If this is the case, can the term “microtonal” be applied to jazz or its related forms at all?

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.

3 thoughts on “The Smithsonian Institute Blues

  1. Dennis Bathory-Kitsz

    Wow. “Lonely Woman” was such an important piece to my growing up as a composer (along with Coltrane’s “Ascension”, Stockhausen’s “Gesang”, Oliveros’s “Bye Bye Butterfly”, Brown’s “Afternoon of a Georgia Faun”, and other music on the edge from Cage to Braxton) that I never gave a thought to it being either microtonal or out of tune — it was to me a deeply expressive interplay that pushed away from the ordinary and opened up a sound world between tiny places of pitch. I don’t even know why I’m writing this, other than the very idea of labeling it seems useless and almost destructive.

  2. Michael Robinson

    Having to select one or two recordings to represent the music of John Coltrane is, in a sense, a fool’s errand. That said, I would insist upon at least three selections from a jazz artist whose influence transformed not only jazz, but classical and rock as well. If one divides the brief time span, yet voluminous output of the great saxophonist into early, middle and late periods, I would personally select the first recording of Lush Life (title piece) with Donald Byrd and Red Garland, or Invitation (Stardust Session) for the first period; My Favorite Things (title piece) or Africa (from Africa Brass) for the second period; and Mars (from Interstellar Space) for the third period.

  3. Dave Roberts

    Anything called “The Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz” is by definition going to be an ossified museum of dead musicians with little interest or relevance for today’s music listeners not already interested or well versed in jazz.

    And that’s a shame because there’s a lot of great lively music on these disks. My suggestion is to do away with these types of “authoritative” but leaden anthologies, which are of interest mostly to people who already know about and have much of the music on them alredy.

    A new approach must be devised if new generations are to be introduced to old jazz.


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