Still On the Moon

Patrick Jarenwattananon offered an ABS think piece about the Monk competition, bouncing off my own posts here and here. The comments section includes some spicy bits.

I remain surprised that my posts have been this controversial. “Artistic competitions have a dark side” is a supremely obvious truth from where I sit.

PJ seems to think the list of winners and finishers offers hope. Pianist Eric Lewis, a winner, says flatly in the comments, “Competition stimulates economic growth.”

That’s not what I see. I look at the list and marvel how many names I haven’t heard of. Did any of these bright talents get discouraged and out of the game thanks to the post-competition blues? Of the names I do know, some virtuosos got pushed forward in the industry thanks to the win. Would they -- and by extension, the overall charisma, economic growth, and audience development of this music -- have been better served by being a late bloomer, not a competition winner? 

Update: Just to be extra clear, I admire most of the winners and the finalists that I have heard. Some of them are friends of mine -- I hope we are still friends after all my ranting!  I'm not asking if any one player isn't really great, I'm asking if the whole system is rigged to keep jazz in the margins. I began all this with the main point:

It's no secret that the jazz economy is in a slump. In particular, if you play straight-ahead acoustic jazz, there are far fewer gigs than ever.

In recent years I've spoken to many great professional musicians who have needed to leave New York and begin teaching elsewhere in order to survive. The ratio of jazz college progams to jazz clubs is now absurdly inbalanced. 

From what I know of jazz education, the issue of audience development is seldom addressed. A few times a year I see a "How do we develop the jazz audience?" essay on the internet. Usually the system is held up to blame in some way. Rarely is it suggested that the musicians themselves are on the hook to create engaging art that an audience demands to hear again and again. 

(End of update) Those are the kind of questions I was trying to ask -- and will keep asking! How many of the Monk finalists can regularly fill 200-seat theaters across America? Do any of them sell more than a few thousand records these days? In Eric Lewis’s case, I believe he became obvious to the general public only after becoming ELEW and branding himself as the inventor of “Rockjazz.” I’d like to hear more from him on navigating a successful postmodern career.

Another good question remains, “Who is judging and what are the criteria?” The drummers are up again in 2012. The last time there were drummers, 20 years ago, Harold Summey beat Jorge Rossy. At the time, I heard a lot about how the committee refused to give it to Jorge because he was from Spain. (Not from the modest Jorge himself, but from others.) Certainly the photo-op with Bill Cosby on the Monk site looks better with Summey than with some Spanish guy.

Nothing against Summey, of course. I don’t know his playing (he’s been on hardly any records) but I applaud those D.C. vets who stay close to home and keep an authentic scene alive. Of course, the fact that I even am having to weigh the artistic output of Summey vs. Rossy (the latter is on many important records and just off a summer tour with Wayne Shorter) is ridiculous! This futile task argues against competitions.

I admit that my contention that Monk couldn’t win his own competition was over the top; certainly, transposed into the headline of PJ’s piece, it looks rather sensationalist. I understand why Eric Lewis and another professional pianist, Ben Waltzer, leapt to Monk’s defense. I had a similar reaction when I heard Martial Solal publicly declare, “Obviously Monk wasn’t a serious pianist.  A composer, sure, but not someone who could make it in the Conservatoire.”

[Read my defense of Monk]

I mistakenly took it for granted that my own extensive celebration of Monk’s excellence as a pianist would be known by everyone else. I’m bummed that Lewis and Waltzer think I have propagated (in Lewis’s words), “The popular and woefully ignorant notion that Monk had technique problems.”

I maintain that there is a dichotomy, though. Perhaps I should have written, “The fact that our biggest competition is named for someone that Miles Davis claimed couldn’t comp and Lennie Tristano said was the worst pianist he had ever heard is deeply ironic.”

Still too strong? How about this: “The man who said, ‘I’m not commercial. I say, play your own way. Don’t play what the public wants -- you play what you want and let the public pick up on what you are doing -- even if it does take them fifteen, twenty twenty years’ might be surprised to find his name attached to star-studded galas sponsored by luxury vehicles celebrating youthful virtuosity.”

Sure, as Waltzer points out, Monk won teen talent competitions. Even more impressively, he was accepted by the Harlem stride masters as one of their own, and then became the tireless engine behind horn players of every description at Minton’s. But he turned against conventional expression to find his inner self. Eventually, he was outside of normal jazz.

A rare example of mature Monk playing normal jazz is on Clark Terry’s In Orbit. Monk sounds wonderful, of course, but to my ears the diverse styles hang him up a little bit. There is tension in the slow blues, the uptempo chase, and the light latin number as Monk struggles to remake them in his own image. Finally, on the one Monk composition, “Let’s Cool One,” a masterpiece emerges, not least because it shows that Philly Joe Jones and Monk should have made at least a dozen more records together.

After the days of teen competitions, rent parties, and jamming at Minton’s were over, Monk only played Monk. Everyone he played with had to go to him. As the Robin D.G. Kelley biography shows over and over again, Monk paid very heavy dues to achieve those personal results.  Even Bird and Diz wouldn’t feature him on the one record they all made together.

Today, I know of a prominent American jazz pianist who queries how great Monk really was, just like Oscar Peterson, who said, “Thelonious Monk is limited technically...I don’t think Monk is a linear player. Usually someone who’s not a linear player is hamstrung.”  

The modern gentleman (and very fine player) has been invited to judge competitions. I may have stated my case in an over-top-fashion but I’m not crazy. For Monk to win his own competition he’d need a soulful jury uniformly willing to give up grading linear fireworks in favor of deep content.


One last thing about the Monk competition: It would be nice if the composers got a little more juice. They are the ones that sit in the dark, working on pitches over and over again, frequently to no applause. (Just like Monk himself before he broke at the Five Spot.) I can get behind a gala for young composers in a way I can't for young players. But on the Monk competition site, I see a list of names that I don’t know...and that’s it. As far as I can tell, none of the winning compositions have been archived online or released on CD.

I informally studied under the winner of the very first composer competition, Patrick Zimmerli, so I know the piece he won with, “The Paw.” He had to pay his band (Kevin Hays, Larry Grenadier, and Tom Rainey) out of pocket to play the work at the finals:  he knew there was no way it could be read on-site by any professionals anywhere. One reason I’m not so interested in most of the current crop of intellectual jazz is because Pat nailed it way back then. There were Elliott Carter rhythms, Milton Babbitt harmonies, fierce post-Coltrane solos. Everyone who has ever heard “The Paw” has never forgotten it. It was insane.

Pat won the contest, but “The Paw” has never been commercially available anywhere. You can’t argue that the Monk competition did anything for “The Paw.” I wonder how many other winning composers in the last 19 years have written music that might change the world if it could only be heard? The least the competition could do is archive the scores and performances online. Hell, I’d even pay a subscription fee to get a taste.


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