1. Young Lion Jazz of the 1980's
1) Interview with Wynton Marsalis (Part 1): Discussion of Congo Square
2) Interview with Wynton Marsalis (Part 2): Blindfold test, “Knozz-Moe-King,” general discussion
3) The “J" Word introduces side posts:
2. Four Early Wynton Marsalis/Jeff Watts Records
3. Current Perceptions
4. On the AACM
5. Reading the Black Jazz Writers
This encyclopedia article has the conventional wisdom on the 1980's movement spearheaded by Wynton Marsalis.
It’s possible that the term “Young Lions” is controversial with the practitioners. Probably it was more a buzzword for the record industry than anything else. (The poet of the era was Stanley Crouch, and “Young Lion” appears nowhere in Crouch’s writing.) But it was certainly a movement, distinct from other jazz in the 1980’s, and my peers have always informally called it such. Apologies to those who dislike the appellation.
The thrilling aspect about these early Young Lion albums is the youthful pursuit of rhythm as a life-or-death matter. Some critics complained that it was a throwback, but really it sounded just like 1985: there was no previous era in jazz that uniformly celebrated “aggressively swinging” in quite this way, especially when married to an advanced, oblique, post-modal harmonic language in the tradition of Herbie Hancock, McCoy Tyner, John Coltrane, Woody Shaw and Wayne Shorter.
Less thrilling was how little the best musicians of the Young Lion school (all of whom were black) seemed to care about the previous generation of black innovators connected to free or experimental jazz. Henry Threadgill, Julius Hemphill, Roscoe Mitchell, Sam Rivers, Dewey Redman, and Oliver Lake would suddenly have less work due to the attention given the Young Lions. (The Young Lions would give some lip service to Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry, but rarely sounded seriously influenced by them.)
There also seemed to be a chauvinistic, blatant disregard for most older white innovators like Paul Bley, Keith Jarrett, Charlie Haden, Paul Motian, Lee Konitz, and Warne Marsh – let alone those coming of age in the 1980’s like Tim Berne and Joey Baron. There was more generous contact with Steve Coleman, Greg Osby, Geri Allen and other contemporary black musicians – players who could play hard swing but didn’t fetishize it – but by and large, the 80’s Young Lions were a closed circle.
I am painting in very broad strokes here – surely, some of the Young Lions dug Bill Frisell, or had an extensive Bill Evans collection – but the appearance was of a unified disdain for jazz music that wasn’t swinging, virtuosic, and informed only by the great black jazz musicians comfortable with chord changes.
This attitude is easy to understand: these musicians all grew up feeling the sharp end of American racism. It surely felt empowering to declare a stance of “us versus them.” As is so often the case, that feeling of “us versus them,” however distasteful personally, prompted serious work artistically.
In Moving to Higher Ground, Wynton says,
Dizzy Gillespie told me, “Bebop was about integration. He said that his and Charlie Parker’s objective was to be integrated. Dizzy told me this around 1980, when I wasn’t thinking about integration at all. “We’ll get to that time,” I thought. “We don’t need to be integrated.”
No one has paid heavier dues for being an angry young interviewee than Wynton Marsalis. He has since changed his mind about needing to be integrated. The white jazz or jazz-connected musicians Wynton praises (and, in some cases, apologizes to for having dissed in the past) in Moving to Higher Ground include Paul Desmond, Gene Krupa, Bill Evans, Jean Goldkette, Frankie Trumbauer, Bix Beiderbecke, Bill Challis, Mike Pellera, Ricky Sebastian, Alvin Young, Dave Brubeck, Benny Goodman, Jimmy McPartland, Dave Tough, Bud Freeman, Art Hodes, Woody Herman, Gil Evans, Zoot Sims, Gil Evans, George Gershwin, Stan Getz, Gerry Mulligan, and Phil Woods.
(However, it is noticeable that whenever Ornette Coleman is mentioned, the name Charlie Haden is not included. Ornette is Wynton’s token “avant-garde” musician, since Ornette inarguably always sounds like the blues. But it is impossible to assess Ornette without Haden: Indeed, the finest and most innovative interpreters of the Coleman style, Keith Jarrett and Pat Metheny, have never really done Coleman-inspired music without Haden present. The absence of Haden, Jarrett, and Metheny – all white, of course – from the Marsalis world-view is one of Wynton’s greatest weaknesses.
Wynton does repeatedly credit Don Cherry as an influence, and reportedly can play along with Cherry solos from The Shape of Jazz to Come and Change of the Century. Those earliest Atlantic discs, along with Ornette!, comprise Wynton's recommended list of Coleman in Moving to Higher Ground. I regret not playing Wynton a Don Cherry solo in our blindfold test to discuss this further.)
The best first-generation Young Lion albums seem generally underrated today.
Wynton Marsalis – Black Codes (From the Underground) (1985), J Mood (1985), Marsalis Standard Time Volume One (1986), and Live at Blues Alley (1987) are discussed in detail in the next post.
Branford Marsalis – Royal Garden Blues (1985), Trio Jeepy (1989). The first blues on Trio Jeepy is a fine introduction to the great strength of Branford Marsalis, which is a determination to take the general model of Sonny Rollins and push it into a whole new level of harmonic and rhythmic modernity. Another place to hear this is “Strike Up the Band” from Royal Garden Blues, which features out-of-key pentatonic playing with more of a Rollinsish, searching quality than most Coltrane-styled players. Branford would not peak in the 80’s, but would move on to make more abstract music in the 90’s.
Kenny Garrett – Introducing Kenny Garrett (1984). This is really Woody Shaw’s band under Garrett’s leadership. But – probably due to its historical moment – it is more exciting than most of Shaw’s own albums with a similar line-up. Shaw was an elder, but he fervently embraced the Young Lions.
I'm not familiar with much of Garrett's extensive discography. He burns it up on his first record, although true Garrett-heads might opine that he is still a little green. Mulgrew Miller’s solo on “Have You Met Miss Jones” is classic. Miller's Wingspan (1987), with a similar cast (Garrett and Tony Reedus), is also considered essential in some circles.
Kenny Kirkland – Kenny Kirkland (1990). Kirkland was a greater sideman than a leader. Here, the synthesizer version of Bud Powell’s “Celia” seems pretty corny, and his beautiful composition “Chance” is given a more evocative reading on Billy Hart’s Oshumare. This is still a heated record, though. More on Kirkland in the next two posts.
Marcus Roberts – The Truth Is Spoken Here (1988). Roberts was one of the most distinctive players of the whole era. His first album is a manifesto more stern than any Marsalis disc up until that point. Indeed, I think “J-Master” Roberts was a big influence on Wynton, helping the trumpet player to rethink and retool his presentation of jazz. In Moving to Higher Ground, Wynton discusses how schooled he felt by Charlie Rouse, whose relaxed threading is heard here for the last time (Rouse passed away before the end of the year). Elvin Jones nails the tricky phrases of Roberts’ “Country by Choice.”
Ralph Peterson – Triangular (1988) and Volition (1989). It’s really all about Tain and Ralph Peterson. The rest of the Young Lion drummers could be good, too, but these were the pair who caused awe and consternation. Women wept; children hid; pianists fainted; horn players sweated. (Bass players were seen but not heard.) Tain had the advanced math, but Ralph had the Latino undulation and one of the most swinging ride cymbal beats in history. His piece "Seven of Swords" is a rare example of someone taking on the Max Roach 5 + 5 + 6 clave from Bud Powell’s “Un Poco Loco.”
These Peterson albums also document a marvelous interface with a young black musician who was not a Young Lion: Geri Allen does not tone down her inborn surreality on either disc, and more power to her for it.
In general, while Peterson's drumming was generally like Art Blakey on steroids, his overall musical conception allowed for more breadth than most of the other Young Lions. Both Reid and Dave especially admire Meet the Fo'tet, one I've yet to get to.
Donald Brown – Early Bird (1987). Brown is an intriguing musician whom I would like to learn more about. His piece “Quiet Fire" is written in one of my least favorite styles: “Medium waltz – polychord/lydian harmony – sentimental melody.” Despite my prejudice, I find “Quiet Fire” compelling: naturalness is married to complexity in a way only a serious composer can achieve. “Basically Simple” is a unique version of rhythm changes, and “Dorothy” is a gorgeous ballad. Brown’s piano playing on this album is serious and virtuosic, and it’s interesting to listen to some prime Robert Hurst/Jeff Watts action away from the Marsalises.
There are surely other Young Lion albums from this era that are equally interesting; I hardly know them all, since it was just one of many styles on offer back when the discs were coming out. For example, I never owned an album by Out of the Blue, Blue Note's answer to the Marsalis/Columbia juggernaut. (They even got the same kind of liner notes; here are Stanley Crouch's for the first of four records.)
Likewise, the powerful Donald Harrison/Terence Blanchard combination is something I was aware of but didn't really absorb. However, this 1987 Harrison/Blanchard video of “Endicott” is a quintessential documentation of the “Young Lion sound.” It is absolutely the sound of an era: again, contrary to what some critics have said, there are no albums from the 70’s, 60’s, or 50’s that sound like “Endicott.” (I can’t find the personnel listing anywhere, but I think it is Cyrus Chestnut, Reginald Veal, and Carl Allen in the band.)
The Young Lions movement was generally portrayed as a reaction against two kinds of 70’s music: free jazz (which rarely swung) and fusion and funk (which rarely was acoustic).
After having lived in New York for over fifteen years and having met a lot of musicians, my impression is that none of the first-generation Lions ever thought about free music one way or the other, with the possible exception of the earliest Ornette Coleman records. I would be astounded if any of them at that time even knew about the AACM, Julius Hemphill or even Old and New Dreams in any kind of serious way. It just wasn’t on their radar.
Fusion/funk they did know: fusion/funk was popular and couldn’t be avoided. But in this case, since almost every first-generation Lion (except Wynton!) has done a fusiony or funky album after 1990, I think the music of the Young Lions was a reaction less against fusion and funk per se than against the influence of fusion and funk on straight-ahead music played during the 1970’s.
Part of the problem was simply the way jazz was recorded in the 1970’s. I don’t know why these are often the worst-sounding records in the music’s history, but they usually are. (It’s ironic that this decade also produced some of the greatest-sounding records ever in pop and rock.)
The instruments themselves were occasionally at fault, especially in the rhythm section, due to an injection of rock and fusion electricity that wasn’t really understood by straight-ahead jazz musicians. Even masters like Hank Jones, Ahmad Jamal, and Cedar Walton played the Rhodes and other keyboards. That would have been great if they had played it in music where that sonority was required. Instead, they used it on their normal gigs for no reason at all except as a half-baked attempt to be “contemporary.” Try Cedar Walton’s Firm Roots, a studio date with Sam Jones and Louis Hayes that has acoustic and electric piano tracks back to back. There is no comparison; only the acoustic pieces make sense.
At the drums, many players added extra toms and cymbals and got a much bigger bass drum. Tony Williams sounded fabulous behind this expanded set, but not everybody else could always pull it off. Roy Haynes, for example, makes no sense behind a big rock and roll kit on Tommy Flanagan's Positive Intensity.
But the offenses of the piano and drums in the 70’s were minor compared to the bass.
When looking for a Woody Shaw solo to play for Wynton in our interview, I decided on “Fenja,” from Dexter Gordon’s 1977 album Homecoming. It’s a beautiful trumpet solo with long lines on a standard chord progression, and Wynton was properly appreciative of Shaw’s genius. What I didn’t anticipate – although I should have – was Marsalis making gentle fun of Stafford James’s bass tone. It was a great reminder of part of Marsalis’s accomplishment.
James is a very good jazz bassist. I have no interest in putting him down. But the simple fact is that at least 80% of the swinging acoustic jazz records made between 1970 and the advent of Wynton Marsalis have a godawful bass sound. In performance, it was all amplified pick-up, and when recording the bass, the engineers usually put that pick-up directly to tape. To compound the problem, often the strings of the bass were far closer to the fingerboard than in the 60’s and 50’s, making for a walking line that was heard but not felt, a state of affairs that was acceptable for some but not for most.
This 70’s bass set-up did enable the player to “liberate the bass” and perform melodies and take long solos more like a guitarist. But the ultimate aesthetic value of this liberation – at least in the context of straight-ahead jazz – was questionable.
Even the greatest bass players like Ron Carter, Buster Williams, Sam Jones, Charles Mingus, and Percy Heath often had really strange sounds in the 70’s and 80’s. Many of those strange sounds went away after Wynton Marsalis led the charge into a new era of recording acoustic jazz well, where the amp was turned down and the strings were raised up. Delfeayo Marsalis produced a lot of those good-sounding records, and is famous for the pronouncement featured on several Young Lion records: "To obtain more wood sound from the bass, this album was recorded without usage of the dreaded bass direct."
One of the few places to hear a well-recorded bass sound in the '70s was on ECM: Gary Peacock, Dave Holland, Malachi Favors, Palle Danielson, and especially Charlie Haden. ECM’s output was the first and most important European coup against American jazz. They have consistently put out some of the best improvised music every year since 1970.
Unsurprisingly, the Young Lions’ relationship to any ECM music was non-existent.
In addition to ignoring ECM and Charlie Haden, the Young Lions also ignored the important musical proposal, put forward by Wilbur Ware, Ron Carter, Jimmy Garrison, Charles Mingus and others, to have the bass be an independent – even contrarian – voice in swinging jazz. (To be fair, most 70’s straight-ahead jazz had ignored Ware, Garrison and Mingus, too.)
Another problem was that no matter how hard the bassists pulled, half the time you could hardly hear what they played next to Jeff Watts or Ralph Peterson live. Even on record, you usually can’t hear the bass at an optimum level. One of the rare exceptions is elder statesman Milt Hinton’s marvelous performance on Branford’s Trio Jeepy. It’s a great example of Hinton’s exposed playing as an improvisor, which, considering his vast output, is relatively hard to find. His bass sound here is fabulous! This is the real jazz bass. (Amusingly, when Young Lion Delbert Felix sits in for Hinton on a couple numbers, he is immediately turned down in the mix. This is a less impressive Delfeayo Marsalis decision.)
Still, what they did do was really important.
Reid just reminded me that they talked about it in print, too: stop “liberating the bass” and play the bass! This was very intriguing information to think about as a youngster.
A fun sentimental listen is Chick Corea’s Three Quartets with Michael Brecker, Eddie Gomez, and Steve Gadd. This record is from 1981: it’s just about the last gasp of the old guard from before the Young Lions exploded on the scene. The three pieces on the record are uniformly all-acoustic, all swing-feel pieces. Still, these quartets sound like electric fusion, not acoustic jazz. It has to do with the tones, the sound, and the attitude. Maybe it’s kind of a good record; these are surely four of the greatest instrumentalists in history, after all, and singly and together they participated in actual electric fusion masterpieces of the 70’s. But the problem with Three Quartets is that fusion’s icy machismo is neither glorified by electric amplification nor tempered by any earthiness. Instead, it lives in some half-life of badly recorded, too-slick instrumental virtuosity exhibiting a false sense of security.
It would be fascinating to hear exactly the same music played exactly the same way but produced by Delfeayo Marsalis. Perhaps it would have much more power. As it stands, how harsh to compare Three Quartets – a famous record in its day – to any Wynton Marsalis record from the 1980’s! The Wynton records have the icy machismo, but also earthiness, and the result is a sound TKO.
"Icy machismo" is one of the reasons 80’s Young Lion music is so distinctive. It also, perhaps paradoxically, shows a seldom-discussed similarity of their music to fusion.
Wynton’s Black Codes (From the Underground) or the Blanchard/Harrison “Endicott” above showcase hard, clean, complex music with composed contrapuntal lines for two horns that – in my opinion! – is closer to the Brecker Brothers than Bird and Diz (or Ornette and Don or Miles and Wayne) in spirit. Indeed, the ostentatious lone bar of 3/4 that interrupts the burning uptempo 4/4 blowing on “Delfeayo’s Dilemma” (on Black Codes and Live at Blues Alley) would not be out of place on a fusiony 70’s record – but certainly would be out of place on any classic jazz record of the 60’s.
Unquestionably, Jeff Watts owes something to the best fusion. This is, just to be clear, a good thing. Watts sounds like his era and his place in history, which all great artists must do. That immortal fill behind the trumpet break on “Black Codes”? That is surely not just post-Elvin Jones, but post-Billy Cobham, too.
Something mildly fusion-esque about Watts’ playing is how his rhythms always fit on a grid, no matter how fast or complicated. This is not like Jack DeJohnette, Elvin Jones, or Tony Williams, all aggressive drummers far less concerned with landing every downbeat in exactly the right place.
Another musician who could hear those subdivisions like Tain is Marcus Roberts. On Roberts’s solo version of “Blue Monk” from The Truth Is Spoken Here, the pianist slices and dices the time in precise little bits. It is very beautiful, and sounds just like a post-fusion 1988. (Another rendition of the same arrangement is on YouTube.) People who think this is a Monk or Jaki Byard imitation are not hearing the rhythms accurately.
On the same album, Roberts sounds great alongside ultra-greasy elder Elvin Jones, but I think he sounds even better when interfacing with fellow post-fusionist Jeff Watts in the Wynton Marsalis quartet. Watts himself may sound more comfortable with Charnett Moffett or Robert Hurst than with Milt Hinton. Peers know the same information, and part of what these peers know is the Brecker Brothers.
It's important to remember that these distinctive musicians were inevitably a product of their environment, not grown in a “jazz-history test tube” somewhere. After all, wholly rejecting your environment seldom produces memorable results.
The great benefit to jazz at large in the Young Lion heyday (with the exception of the avant-garde, which suffered) was the infusion of money and interest from the general populace. Many straight-ahead jazz musicians got their career going again after languishing for a decade or more. If you enjoy well-produced Joe Henderson, Tommy Flanagan, Ron Carter, Cedar Walton, Frank Morgan, George Coleman, Lee Konitz, Roy Haynes, Art Taylor, Hank Jones, Art Farmer, Clifford Jordan, Freddie Hubbard, Art Blakey, and other swinging jazz CD’s made from 1985 to 1995, you probably have the Young Lions to thank, especially Wynton Marsalis.
The elders would hire the Lions, too, and not just their first booster, Art Blakey. Another notable example was the Tony Williams quintet with Wallace Roney, Billy Pierce, Mulgrew Miller, and either Charnett Moffett or Bob Hurst. Live, that group was something else.
Betty Carter's band was another famous "school." For a minute, her gig was almost as desirable as Art Blakey's. (When I arrived in town in 1991, I was soon told that she auditioned piano players by requesting the tricky bridge of "Skylark" in a difficult key. Even though there was no chance that I could be hired Betty Carter, I dutifully learned "Skylark" in all twelve keys, an exercise certainly good for my development.)
In additon to working bands, plenty of records were made by a mix of young and old. Dates like Billy Hart’s Oshumare (with Branford Marsalis and Kenny Kirkland), James Spaulding’s Brilliant Corners (with Wallace Roney, Kenny Washington, and Mulgrew Miller) and Dizzy Gillespie’s New Faces (with Branford, Kenny Kirkland, and Lonnie Plaxico) are all juiced by the hot young black straight-ahead players.
Even the man behind Three Quartets stocked his band with first- and second-generation Young Lions (Wallace Roney, Kenny Garrett, Joshua Redman, Christian McBride) when recording Remembering Bud Powell in 1997. While Christian McBride and Eddie Gomez surely must have vast respect for each other, they also represent precisely opposite poles of expression.
Corea was actually one of the few non-black jazz musicians whom the Young Lions checked out, although I don’t think they thought about Chick’s fusion music as much as his classic album Now He Sings, Now He Sobs. Watch Mulgrew Miller’s storming rhythm changes solo against a supremely ferocious Ralph Peterson in this YouTube video. Wow! To my ears, Miller has never sounded closer to Chick Corea than in a couple of phrases here – but it is Chick with a little more grease and vulnerability. I wish Mulgrew would play like this more often.
Kenny Kirkland must have known Now He Sings, Now He Sobs, too. He was also impressed by Corea’s immediate successor, Richie Beirach. Kirkland’s lovely “Dienda” borrows heavily from Beirach’s quasi-classical, “#5 major chord” bag. (YouTube.)
Branford Marsalis is surely thorough enough to have studied Beirach’s long-term associate Dave Liebman, too. Indeed, I suspect that the Young Lions were (almost secretly) indebted to the 70’s Liebman-Beirach partnership, especially when they did their favored style “Burn out”: fast, aggressive, modal, and dominated by a lot of piano and drum interaction (like “Chambers of Tain” on Black Codes). A lot of post-Coltrane 70’s jazz is also aggressive and modal, but the Wynton or Branford Marsalis “burn out” music pushed modality to the point of atonality. Arguably, the clearest predecessor to that “atonal modal” fast swing is Liebman and Beirach, first with Frank Tusa and Jeff Williams in Lookout Farm (see “Napanoch” from Sweet Hands), then with Al Foster and Randy Brecker (see “Pendulum” live from the Village Vanguard), and finally, with Ron McClure and Billy Hart in Quest (see any of their albums).
Probably, Wynton never knew any of these records, but I bet Kirkland did. Then Wynton’s own version of “burn out” innovated how the soloist could interact with complex rhythms in the band. (I was riveted hearing Wynton describe the improvising on “Knozz-Moe-King” in our interview; I didn’t realize it was quite that complicated.)
Wynton gave up on “burn out” music in the 90’s, but Branford has kept that flame alive and even gotten better at it.
However, I don’t know whether to be appalled or thrilled that the “burn out” style is applied to Paul Motian’s “Trieste” on Branford’s Requiem. This 1997 disc with Eric Revis and Tain is Kenny Kirkland’s last album before his tragic early death. It’s also a rare tribute to Keith Jarrett by one of the Marsalises: in addition to the Motian piece (originally recorded by Jarrett), there is Branford’s own rubato piece, “Lykeif,” which is a conscious emulation of Jarrett-Redman-Haden-Motian procedures. Not only that, a bold-faced Jarrett quote about improvisation frames Delfeayo’s liner notes!
I can’t really give it up for “Lykeif” or their version of “Trieste” – rubato music is just not these musicians’ thing – but am certainly glad they are acknowledging the masterful Jarrett “American” quartet, a move probably controversial in their immediate circle.
In the 90's, Wynton’s own music changed dramatically, getting far more large-ensemble and pre-bop oriented. Any harmonic colors which Wynton previously took from the Wayne Shorter tradition – the kind of harmony featured extensively on Black Codes – seemed abruptly eliminated, and Herlin Riley was far less aggressive than Jeff Watts.
Branford and Kenny Garrett were the real keepers of the flame in the 1990's, sharing Kirkland and Watts the way Keith Jarrett and Ornette Coleman had to share Dewey Redman and Charlie Haden in the early 70’s.
Both Branford and Garrett had played with Miles Davis, and both recorded funky music with electric instruments that interfaced with pop culture. What was even more interesting was how in their 90’s acoustic music they embraced a lot of previously unacknowledged jazz genres.
In addition to exploring the Keith Jarrett "American" quartet, Branford checked out Warne Marsh. Branford never really sounds like Marsh, of course, but his solos on II/V material like “Cheek to Cheek” or “Schott Happens” (based on “Cherokee”) feature long lines with a kind of volleying rhythmic elasticity that could be related to Marsh. Branford even inadvertently inspired Safford Chamberlain to title his biography of Marsh An Unsung Cat while in conversation with Chamberlain during a research interview! And in 1989, Branford told Peter Watrous:
"He [Wayne Shorter] did an exercise on the saxophone, playing over rhythm changes, and he showed me a whole series of styles. He said, “This is how Lester Young played it, and how Bird” – Charlie Parker – “did it, how Warne Marsh did it, how Coltrane did it, and this is how Wayne does it.”
On Kenny Garrett’s 1997 Songbook with Kenny Kirkland and Jeff Watts, many of the pieces are straight-up “vamps with pretty melodies,” a far cry from 80’s Young Lion practice. Garrett also hired Pat Metheny for a Coltrane tribute record, a move surely just as controversial in some circles as Branford paying tribute to Keith Jarrett.
Various new Lions appeared in the 1990’s, but I just don't know that decade's music nearly as well. However, it is safe to say that, overall, the style became more polite and integrated than it was back in the 1980’s, when it was a ferocious, unfriendly, thoroughly charismatic beast.