Categorically Undefined: Gary Bartz

“The word ‘jazz’ was created as a slang word as a gesture for sex in whore houses located in New Orleans.” – Saxophonist, Gary Bartz

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Last year, trumpeter and New Orleans native Nicholas Payton started a heated and confrontational debate about the word “jazz” and its place in the cultural and historical lexicon of music.  He argued vehemently that his music was not “jazz” but “Black American Music”.  This debate pitted artists on two proverbial sides of the coin; one side was in favor of Payton’s thoughts, which denounced the earliest origins of the word, while the other side celebrated the popularity of its base meaning, which by many accounts does little to diminish the value of the art form.  Saxophonist and composer, Gary Bartz has seen the evolution of jazz.  He is part of the very history that the accepted definition seems to devalue.  In a short interview, Gary Bartz said, “Most of the great musicians I’ve been around believe it also.  The term “jazz” is really a negative term to most musicians I know, but it happens to be a popular word in the public’s eye.”  Bartz is far more interested in playing music and celebrating its merits as a composition.  As this topic continues to swirl and resonate, Gary Bartz makes his message clear: No matter how the critics would like to slice it, musicians play music.

Early into his stewardship, Gary Bartz left his native Baltimore, to study jazz at the prestigious Julliard Conservatory School of music.  When Bartz arrived there, he found himself feeling musically isolated.  By his account, many of his instructors were invariably “trapped in the box” of classical music. Oftentimes, they could not relate to the syntax, variations or “feel” of jazz music.  Julliard’s European curriculum was a lesson in music theory, forcing him to hone his craft with an open mind.  He was simply a musician who played music.  He rejected the notion that he was confined to a single musical category.  As a visiting professor at Oberlin College and Conservatory in Ohio, Gary Bartz speaks openly about fighting the urge to singularly conform.  He once stated that, “If I’m locked into a category, that means I can’t grow.  I’m in a corral; I’m in a room with walls around me….But to me, music is the universe.  And so that’s what I want to do.  I want to play music.”

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At the age of 6, Gary Bartz was drawn to the saxophone.  He would visit his grandmother’s house where she would allow him to listen to his uncle’s record collection featuring Charlie Parker.  He describes the experience as one “that continues to fascinate him today.”  At the age of 16, Bartz began to perform professionally. At about age 23, he joined Max Roach and the Abbey Lincoln band.  He quickly developed a reputation for stylistic playing.   In 1965, he would join Art Blakey and Jazz Messengers with Lee Morgan, filling in for a saxophonist who left the group at his father’s night club.   He was hired after the gig and would make his recording debut on Blakey’s Soulfinger album.  He would also work closely with McCoy Tyner; a relationship that he credits for deepening his appreciation for John Coltrane.  His career would take him beyond jazz; eventually working with the likes of the late Donald Byrd, Phyllis Hyman and Chaka Khan.  He has won two Grammys and recorded over 40 solo albums. 

Since his earliest recordings, Gary Bartz has worked with some of the best musicians in the world.  He credits artists like Max Roach, Charles Mingus, Miles Davis, and Duke Ellington for showing him how great musicians addressed social problems through their music.    To him, the “world didn’t need just another musician. What the world needed was a music activist.” He has vowed to “create music the world could relate to and not segregate his way of delivering music.”  He is truly dedicated to creating music for everyone to hear.   Humble and motivated, Gary Bartz continues to inspire and be inspired by his craft.  

But he doesn’t play jazz.  Gary Bartz plays music.

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If It Ain’t Got That Swing….

By:  Mark A. Moore Senior Executive, Smooth Jazz Entertainment LLC.

For the past few months there has been a raging debate surrounding esteemed jazz artist Nicholas Payton and his declaration of the death of jazz. On his blog,   (http://nicholaspayton.wordpress.com/2011/11/27/on-why-jazz-isnt-cool-anymore/) he wrote what amounted to be a manifesto about how jazz was not longer relevant in the context it has been placed in.  He contended that since 1959, the word “jazz” was no longer representative of the cultural and spiritual breadth of this art form. According to Payton, he plays Black American Music (BAM), not the commonly accepted genre.  His words triggered a deep and somewhat divided conversation about the state of jazz and what it really represents.

When I first heard about Mr. Payton’s concepts I wasn’t sure what to make of his arguments.  At first glance it seemed argumentative and rather self-serving.  Here is this talented musician who has experienced the highest levels of success playing jazz, denouncing the very thing that he’d achieved so much in.  Why do that?  What was I missing? For the record, there have been several musicians that fought vehemently against the characterization of the term “jazz”.  Perhaps Miles Davis was the most well known detractor, whose sentiments most resemble those of Payton’s.  As I read more of his comments and opinions, I began to realize that his argument went much deeper.

There are important elements of his argument that have gone relatively unnoticed.  For one, Payton contends that the spiritual and communal elements of this art form are beginning to be ignored.  The historical significance of slavery, black culture and heritage has a direct connection to jazz music.  It is a legacy that must be preserved in order to maintain its cultural and artistic significance.  As a native of New Orleans, the birthplace of jazz it is not hard to understand why this issue hits close to home.   Payton argues that there are music scholars, historians and even some musicians who are beginning to reject this connection; seemingly attempting to rewrite the history books, while making jazz less Afrocentric.

Second, Payton talks about how the music industry has marginalized jazz by creating sub-genres that force artists into “boxes”, thereby compartmentalizing the art form and stifling creativity.  Most artists, who play, don’t summarily refer to it as “jazz”. Conversely, I doubt that the likes of Charlie Parker or Thelonious Monk sat around practicing “jazz” either.  In his most recent interview with Willard Jenkins, Nicholas Payton speaks about how as an artist, his music must evolve.  At times, his audience has had a difficult time accepting this.  They always expect him to “play the trumpet” while ignoring his other musical talents and expressions. (For the record, Nicholas Payton plays several instruments, aside from the trumpet.)

And finally, Nicholas Payton speaks passionately about how the essence of Black American Music cannot be captured fully in the confines of the classroom.  There is an innate spirituality that is largely connected to the musical interpretations of this art form.  He contends that ALL people can channel this understanding, but he feels that academia has reduced several artistic representations into tools that are merely musical overtures.  For example, jazz greats like Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie have been reduced to musical “segments” which are formatted and taught as one specific construct. (He discusses this in greater detail in his interview with Jenkins.)  The complexity and emotional connotations of their works are omitted by design. This is particularly damaging because students cannot learn true improvisation, without learning the value of challenging conventions. It cannot be taught with such rigidity and structure.  This is a hindrance to the creative process.  Payton and Jenkins feel that artists today are seemingly “playing for themselves” and have not learned the professional nuances that are passed down generationally.  They believe that most scholars who teach jazz have not developed these skills in their own right.  There are too many “academics” that are teaching jazz, that haven’t played music for a living.

Since this debate was first initiated, Nicholas Payton has been the target of hate mail and other racial epithets.   These notions are misguided and misplaced.  In my opinion, he is trying to address an issue that stems deeper than its base argument.  He has eloquently challenged ideas that most people have standardized.  Jazz is one of the great contributions in American culture.  Instead of lashing out at his ideas, perhaps we should challenge ourselves to pay more attention to their merits.  Whether you agree or disagree with him, Nicholas Payton has critically questioned commonly accepted conventions in jazz music, which has brought the argument to the forefront.  To say the least, his courage should be applauded.